09 November 2010

Theory and practice of meditation I

On the third of October Luke Grecki posted a writeup of his experience with vipassana meditation on LessWrong which received a large amount of interest and comments. I posted some spontaneous comments myself, but after giving it some thought I have decided to write a little more systematically on the topic.

There will be three parts: one theory and one each on descriptions of the two techniques in my current practice.

I have been meditating daily for over thirteen years and did it sporadically for fifteen years or so prior to that. My menu of tried protocols is wide: vipassana, zen, transcendental, Gurdjieff self-remembering, Jung active-imagination, Erickson self-hypnosis, Loyola spiritual exercises, and probably a couple others I have totally forgotten about. The common thread through all of these techniques is mental health benefit, or spiritual benefit, or stress relief through calming mental processes. It is a purging of obsession and compulsion and anxiety and worry. Don Juan advises Carlos Castaneda the way to become a sorcerer is to learn to make one's mind perfectly still. (Castaneda's regimen may be the only one that I have heard about that I have not tried--I have seen people under the influence of deliriants and that is definitely not for me.)

There is modern scientific research in support of this, most notably in the work of the psychologist Albert Ellis and the psychiatrist Aaron Beck. Their therapy techniques are based upon the idea that our problems of mental life are twofold: first there are the human stressors which plague all of us to one extent or another--family problems, relationship problems, money problems, diseases--what Zorba called the full catastrophe; second there is the stuff which we tell ourselves on top of these typical and normal human stressors.

"This always happens to me."

"Nobody loves me."

"I am a freak; I am a loser; &c."

We could make a very long list. Ellis and Beck say you may be unable to eliminate the family problems and whatnot at the source of your grief, but you surely can quit telling yourself the exaggerated and goofy crap you pile up on top of it. Their experience (and a large amount of subsequent clinical experience) is that modifying the self-descriptions will benefit mental health. This can involve work, and sometimes a lot of it. This is the scientific research behind the psychobabble in the self-help books regarding being a friend to your self.

Meditation provides the ancient path towards quieting these activities of our minds which can be such a burden. There are two basic techniques: a technique of concentration and a technique of emptying. In the technique of concentration you focus your awareness as completely as possible on one stimulus. It can be listening to a mantra as in the example of the hare krishnas or the transcendental meditation. It can be staring at a mandala or a crystal ball or a blue vase or a saucer of ink. It can be saying a rosary. In the technique of emptying you focus your awareness as completely as possible on the minimum possible field of concentration; this is usually the breath. You simply follow only your breathing as purely as possible for a period of a few minutes. A hybrid of the two is use of the minimum possible sense stimulus, the mantra Aum.

In this attention to nothing, or attention to as little as possible, time and space is provided for the mental burdens of anxiety and such to run their course and escape from our attention center. This is the process by which meditation leads to better mental health. This apparently is not the intent the innovators who developed these procedures were going for, however. They were aiming at something much more profound.

If you participate in meditation practice for a very long time (like, thousands and thousands of hours), you may have an opportunity to attain a state of being where you are connected link-pow-one-with-the-universe. Samadhi. You attain Samadhi, and presumably you never again need care about all the girls thinking you are too short.

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About Craig

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Houston, Texas, United States
I have been living in the lovely neighborhood of Spring Branch in the great city of Houston since late in 2005. I started out with the idea of making this blog about my life in this neighborhood. That did not last long. Right now I am posting every five days on the alternating topics of literature, philosophy, psychology, and metaphysics. This project has been ongoing since July 27, 2010 and I believe it will continue for at least a few more months.