Monday 3 September 2018

Is Meditation a Good Thing?

This post might seem to represent a turnaround from ideas I have previously put forth both in my book and here. But I hope to make clear that it is not really so.

The question was prompted by an article I read about the writer Sam Harris who is a regular meditator, and apparently also goes on long retreats, but still manages to be an atheist and a denier of free will. He is not alone. I would guess there are many Westerners who do the same and are the same. Some of them would qualify their attitude as non-theistic rather than atheistic but, whereas in the past I might have been more tolerant of that distinction, I am increasingly feeling it's just, to use an unattractive phrase which is nonetheless descriptive, a cop-out. Not acknowledging the reality of God is not that much different to denying him. In both cases, you are deifying the human self. In the one, from a spiritual perspective. In the other, from a material one. But in both you are failing to acknowledge reality, the reality of the Creator. It seems to me that here is a clear case of human arrogance. Or, if not that, then, at the very least, a failure of insight. God is not an optional extra in spiritual terms. He is the very basis of everything, and his personal nature is indispensable to an understanding of meaning and love. In fact, it's indispensable to the very existence of these things.

It recently occurred to me that I meditated for approximately an hour and a half a day (two lots of 45 minutes) for 22 years. I was 22 when I started on that path. In the last 18 years I have rarely meditated. Perhaps I will start again in 4 years' time! What did I gain from meditation? It's hard to define with any precision. I certainly acquired a detachment from the things of this world but that is not necessarily desirable. Of course, one should not be attached to this world or anything in it but one should not be too removed from it and them either. Meditation does tend to have this effect. Unless you are a well-balanced, psychologically well-adjusted person, meditation can make you too focused on yourself and your own 'spirituality'. It can make you too inward and too orientated to the impersonal, immanent God, usually identified, when it comes down to it, with yourself. Even if it is the deepest level of your being, it is still part of you.

So meditation, or focus on the immanent God, always needs to be balanced by an equal awareness of the transcendent God, and the latter actually has to come first just as the Creator comes before creation. There would be no real you if there wasn't a real God to bestow this on you. This is why the Masters told me from the beginning when I was very enthused for the mystical path that I did not pray enough, and that, while meditation was necessary, I also needed the humbling experience of prayer. In my naivety and pride I thought I had gone beyond the need for prayer which is exactly why I feel myself able to criticise others who have the same attitude. Nonetheless I have to say that even then I did pray. I just didn't pray enough or with a sufficiently humble attitude. Of course, that is probably still the case but at least I do now recognise the importance of prayer.

The critical difference between meditation and prayer is that the former is a technique practised in order to get something, peace, understanding, enlightenment, whatever it might be. Prayer, on the other hand, is the offering up of oneself. You are not trying to get anything but seeking to put yourself right with God. Naturally many people do pray trying to get something and if that something is spiritual and asked for in humility, that is fine. It is one of the purposes of prayer. But real prayer is more than this. It is expressing love and gratitude to your Maker. It is remembrance of God. Meditation does not have this aspect of love and gratitude unless it is mixed with prayer.

I have found that twenty years of meditation has made me over-sensitive to the world. I always was a bit like that but meditation has exacerbated the condition, rendering me particularly sensitive to noise. Therefore I would say to anyone drawn in this direction that if you live in the modern world, in the sense that you are often with people who have no interest in spiritual matters or who are coarse, worldly, loud and so on, it is wisest to restrict any meditative practice. It depends on the sort of person you are but anyone who is more than surface-level spiritual might suffer from the contrast between inner and outer if they meditate too much while living in the world. Don't forget that traditionally meditation was practised only by monks, whether in the East or the West. It was not normally deemed suitable for those who had not renounced the world. I am not saying that you should not meditate unless you have retired from worldly life. Only that you should regulate it carefully and be aware of the possible complications.

There is no problem like this with prayer. or, at least, it is not so pronounced. Prayer is attuning your mind to God as the transcendent Creator, though also present within your heart as your very being. But it does not detach you so much from the hurly burly of the world, and therefore is less likely to lead to reactions caused by the friction between inner peace and outer disturbance. It is also less intense in that you normally remain aware of the outer world and are not completely withdrawn inside yourself.

Motive is all as I frequently say. If you meditate why do you meditate? Do you acknowledge God or are you seeking some spiritual or psychological benefit? Is meditation bringing you closer to God or is it actually distancing you from him by giving you the illusion of spiritual self-sufficiency? By itself it is spiritually neutral. Without a heart inclined towards God and a desire to serve him (rather than yourself) it could be leading you into a state of self-satisfied isolation.

Note: I didn't define meditation here So perhaps, to avoid confusion, I should say that I am referring to the sort in which the mind is stilled, by whatever means, and one sits in silence, attentive to a kind of pure awareness in which there is no trace of the conventional thinking self.


ted said...

Interesting post! As a decade long meditator, I agreed with much that was said - both from personal experience and my interactions with other practitioners. But in truth, meditation is always a means to an end, and in that end the outer world and inner world become seamless. I think more of what you're describing William are the stages we go through with our practice. And in some ways, our orientation to the world (and God) can become worse before it becomes better. I do agree that prayer should be augmented with any practice, but much like you said about meditation can be about getting something, so can "petitionary" prayer. The problem with western meditation techniques is that people don't go deep enough with them. Most mindfulness practices just skim the surface, and in the end, inflate the self. The Tibetans who are in the Dzogchen school have an advance practice that translates into non-meditation. It is about being in the world but not of it. Most people never get this far.

William Wildblood said...

This is not meant to be an anti-meditation post, ted. Just to point out its potential problems if not practised with the proper attitude which it often isn't. The trigger for it was reading about Sam Harris who meditates but has no understanding of God. There are many Western meditators like that. They probably think they are following a spiritual practice but I would say that unless they incorporate a real sense of God they are just exploring their own minds and that is not the same thing at all.

ted said...

Yes, and to your point, meditation even if taken all the way, won't make you a theist. Therefore proper attitude (and metaphysics) will always be at play.

It always amazes me how many people can have spiritual breakthroughs, and not even know what it means to be spiritual.

William Wildblood said...

"It always amazes me how many people can have spiritual breakthroughs, and not even know what it means to be spiritual.".

Perfect summing up!

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - Very interesting post.

Zen Buddhism is one of the most popular serious meditative schools in the West; and it is non-religious - a kind of psychotherapy, in fact. One of Britain's most known public atheists - Susan Blackmore - is a serious and long-term Zen meditation practitioner; so that's another example.

The way I currently look at such things is that because everybody is different, with different strengths and weaknesses, even sensible general recommendations may need to be ignored/ limited/ abandoned, if/ when self-evaluation shows them to be doing more harm than good.

I'd suggest that this caution applies even to prayer - or more specifically applies to any particular form or practice of prayer with a particular person.

Adil said...

I agree that meditation might not be a universal remedy at all times. I was always sensitive to the world, and my motive for meditation became to retreat into myself. In such cases, it is better to work with oneself out in the world, in a steadfast manner. So it all really depends on context. I believe many people are in need of serious meditation, in the sense of becoming more tolerant towards stillness and attuned with nature. I think we often know in what way we ought to work with ourselves, since it's often as simple as facing that which causes most aversion. I find that God always rewards courage. Creation is real and acting in it matters. Perhaps the key is attaining balance between solidity and spirit, since there is no dichotomy in the end. The trinity and the cross seems to symbolise hierarchical and horisontal attunement of the person.

William Wildblood said...

Bruce and Eric, I agree that what it amounts to is balance. That's why i think meditation and prayer can be mutually supportive, each catering for different aspects of the whole. Now I mostly just pray but perhaps one day I shall retire to the forest and meditate in preparation for death!

edwin said...

It seems that a distinction needs to be made between Western and Eastern meditation. In all forms of Buddhist and Hindu meditation, the goal is to empty the mind of its contents, or at least to detach oneself from whatever thought arises. Moksha - freedom- is defined as freedom from identifying with thoughts, no matter how sublime, and releasing oneself into the pure, undifferentiated, attributeless awareness that is all, the nondual reality. Western meditation, if such it can be called without confusion, focuses on Christ - His words and example. It might better be called contemplation, for it has a content and its aim is not formless awareness but action based on what it noblest in a human personality turned toward its Creator. In the novels of George MacDonald, we are given many examples of various personalities who express God's will in particular ways and always as a result of having contemplated God in nature and in the New Testament presentation of Jesus. Contentless awareness, if there is such a thing, cannot issue in any kind of genuine charity but only in indifference to the ephemeral and ultimately illusory manifestations of being, which has no distinct character. For the Christian contemplative, the ephemeral nature of the world is recognized, but the world is also the Creator's will, given us for the perfection of our being. That which we know will not last has a lasting effect on our individual being. The world is not meaningless or illusory but a means consecrated to a holy end. What most Westerners understand as meditation is some way to relieve the stress of frustrated desire for worldly objects. This is not what Christ taught us to aspire to, nor is it possible or desirable to live in the world and not interact with people and things in a consequential way. Nothing is more illusory than the goal of contentless meditation or the attainment of complete detachment, which is why so many "spiritual" seekers in the West tramp from one guru to another, from one school to another, looking for peace where it can never be found.

William Wildblood said...

Yes, you make a very important distinction, edwin. The typical Eastern meditation can be practised without any religious attitude and many Western adepts think it superior on that account. But I would argue the opposite. In leaving the manifested world behind it isolates its practitioners in their own oneness which is certainly not what Christ taught or what God truly wants for his children.

ajb said...

I've been thinking a bit about Jesus' internal spiritual life. I wonder if there was a meditative aspect of it - various parts of the Gospels lend circumstantial support to the idea (he seems to go off on his own to pray often, for example). William, have you read any Yogananda (such as The Yoga of Jesus), or similar attempts to synthesize yogic traditions with Christianity?

Bruce Charlton said...

Another distinction is whether Christian meditation aims at the loss of personhood, or by contrast an intestification of a relationship with the divine. And that - partly - depends on whether the divine is seen as a person or impersonal.

The most mystical mainstream Christian denomination is the Eastern Orthodox, who have retained the ancient practices of formal meditation ('Hesychast' tradition) - this is contemplative rather than relational, based on a very impersonal concept of God ('divine energies'), and a kind of union with/ into God.

But to meditate with the aim of developing a closer *relationship* with Jesus Christ might be a very different matter from this; more like a conversation, perhaps.

So, this aspect of personal-impersonal differs between Christian denominations, and individual people.

William Wildblood said...

ajb, I read The Autobiography of a Yogi years ago but didn't much like it. There's something about Yoganandya that doesn't ring quite true to me and I don't go along with his reduction of Jesus to an avatar in the Hindu sense.

Whenever we hear about Jesus going off on his own it does seem it's to pray. His relationship with God was as Father/Son as in the Garden of Gethsemane, for instance. He may well have meditated too but that isn't mentioned in the Gospels while prayer definitely is.

Bruce, I do think the ideal is to include both aspects of spiritual practice. In that way both transcendence and immanence, which are the two ways God presents himself to us, are taken care of and we become aware of the whole of reality not just part of it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - I was just reading from a book supposedly instructing in Steiner's spirutal exercises, and it struck me yet again that there is So Much Bad Advice about meditating! Even a single error could mislead and waste a lot of time for someone. For example this advice said (or seemed to say) that if the fruits of meditation were not communicated it was worthless. Another example of what seems bad advice is that which emphasises the need for initiation by another (human) Master/ Expert - and suggests that someone suitable will turn-up. My impressions are the opposite - that (nowadays, at least) the best is to conduce meditation essentially privately (to avoid ego inflation etc) in a spirit of humble trial and (expected) error, with self-monitoring (including through prayer).

Seijio Arakawa said...

As with lucid dreaming, visionary practice, art, and even prayer, the key question is: 'what is my motivation in doing this?'

If the goal of meditation is to produce a state of mind that happens to be detached from day-to-day concerns because it's fundamentally self-satisfied, well.................. (And since secular meditation doesn't recognise higher spiritual goals, it seems to default to this.)

If the goal of meditation is to clear the mind in preparation for something else, then it matters a lot what the something else is.

William Wildblood said...

I think you're right, Bruce. There is a lot of bad advice/ignorance on this subject. My experience leads me to agree with your approach. A spirit of humble trial is a good way to describe the right attitude.

Absolutely, Seijio, motivation is key. At the least, there needs to be some sense of a transcendent reality that is beyond the meditator's own mind. That's at the very least.

Unknown said...

The Islamic prayer calls the human to raise his awareness to the realm of the lord of the globe, the merciful the compassionate the owner of the day of judgement,lest they get submerged in the mundane life forgetting the other,it runs thus, we praise you and worship you and seek your help to pursue the prophets path of knowledge, the vertical path and not to loose ourselves in the horizontal path. It is a self education process
that gets strengthened by the the tools of concentration contemplation and meditation. It is a blessing bestowed on the pure heart and true seeker who learned how to serve god through serving others.