28 January 2011

Theory and practice of meditation IV

This is an appendix to what was intended as a triplet of posts on the Theory and Practice of Meditation: I, II, III. The first was my own theory of what meditation is, how to do it in general, and why it might work; the second was a recipe of my primary meditation technique; the third was a recipe of my alternate regular meditation technique. I have tried many others, and I will describe in this post some of the features of these alternate techniques to illustrate the spectrum of available possibilities. None of these techniques is revolutionary, but some are quite far from the mainstream available from practitioners in most American zip codes.

1. A tarot tree of life meditation.

This is very similar to the style described in III, where I visualize pool ball size numbered spheres in a Kabbalah tree of life configuration. For spheres, I substitute tarot trumps. This was my most common meditation for a couple of years. I used (for nodes 1-10): Hermit, Judgment, Temperance, Strength, Magician, Fool, High Priestess, Chariot, Star, and Devil. I still have a poster board in my den with the tree and these ten images on it, but I have not used this meditation in almost a year.

2. My rock 'em sock 'em tree of life meditation.

This one also is very similar to the style described in III, and I believe it is my own invention. The objects of visualization are National Football League jerseys in the color of the sephiroth with the number of the breath on the jersey, exactly as a professional football player would wear. For example, sephiroth five is traditionally red, so for breath 5, 15, 25, 35, etc, I visualize a red San Francisco 49'ers jersey with this number. When I was a child I was a devoted fan of televised NFL games so it is very easy for me to close my eyes and see these images. This is a principle which may have many other applications. If you have difficulty visualizing, it may be helpful to visualize something that you imagined often as a child, when your powers of imagination had not yet been dulled by participating in the demanding and often cruel realities of life.

3. Zen.

I was a member of a Zen temple for almost a year. Zen meditation the way we did it also was breath based, with a priority on postural rigor and staring at nothing but a blank wall and thinking about nothing but breath. Sessions were long and supervised. The supervisor came around and whacked everybody two times on the top of their trapezius muscles, left and right, with a stick. (The last part was technically optional but very few people opted out.)

4. My golf course meditation and memory theater.

When I first moved to New Orleans I played golf all the time, on one course, 18 holes and par of 72. This is another breath based meditation. For each breath I visualize one of the 72 regulation strokes on that golf course. The first breath is the first tee shot on the first hole, and I then just move sequentially through 72 imagined regulation shots, ending with a final putt on the 18th hole for the 72nd breath. I have also done a number of experiments using this as a memory theater for a method of loci memorization regimen. This is a technique of memorization which is older than history--some of the oldest recorded feats of memorization are based upon this technique, where one associates each unique item in a list of memory targets to a unique physical location in space. I can get up to 72 items linked to unique locations on this golf course in my memory. This is how I memorized the 72 word name of God in Hebrew, the Shemhamphorasch.

5. Shemhamphorasch meditation.

This is another breath based meditation. Each of the 72 breaths corresponds to one of the 72 word names of God. According to modern Kabbalah researchers such as Gershem Scholem and Aryeh Kaplan, meditation upon the Shemhamphorasch was one of the most valued meditation techniques of the medieval Kabbalists by which they attained their deepest and most ecstatic states. I haven't found it of any such special value, but I was quite gratified when I had succeeded in memorizing the 72 triplets of Hebrew letters.

6. Transcendental meditation.

This was the first technique I learned. I learned it long ago when I was a freshman in college after paying $60 to the local Maharishi Yogi franchise. It was the only meditation technique I knew for many years when I would meditate for a few months, quit meditating for a couple years, meditate again for a few months, quit again over and over. It involves concentrating on an inner spoken mantra. They did not teach me anything about breath control for $60, although they might have gotten to that quickly if I had bought one of the following courses they were eager to sell me. I still occasionally do Transcendental meditation, but when I do it now I make an inner spoken mantra one time for one breath; this works much better than not anchoring it to the breath for me.

7. Time regression meditation.

This one can be a little bit bizarre. It is described in Aleister Crowley's Magick Without Tears, and he explains it in the context of accessing our previous incarnations. I do not go that far. What you do is start in the present, that would be 2011. Then you breathe slow and, for each breath, you visualize something in your past--a home, a job, a lover, whatever--that you can get a decent internal visual representation on, one breath and one image for each year. I never go back before my birth year, and I usually stop around puberty.

One thing which can be accessed by this method is feelings toward faith or family or country, which may have been pure and innocent long ago. For example, if you once had a very strong faith in God which has since waned, you can do this meditation and anchor your psyche back to that time and say an old prayer that you have not said in many years. I find this can have very interesting effects. That girl who broke your heart when you were 22? This is a way that you can again experience those feelings you had for her before that happened if you are so inclined.

None of these are techniques which I regularly do or which I consider important, but I thought I would put them down here just to give a little more variety and to provide suggestions for others to invent and explore for themselves.

One last thing. There was a buzz this week (at Hacker News and at the New York Times) about recent lab results showing neurological changes in meditators eight weeks after starting from scratch. I am very skeptical about this work. Brain maps are as confusing as anything; sometimes I think our current map of human brain function is about as accurate as those 17th century maps of North America that had a large river running from Lake Michigan to San Francisco Bay. The latest reported result directly contradicts my own experience, which is that the first twelve weeks or so of a new meditation regimen produces little to no effect. I do not think a person can dabble in meditating, as one can dabble in wine-tasting or table tennis or horseback riding. The canonical brain imaging studies of meditators at the University of Wisconsin used subjects who had already logged 10 000 hours of practice. My own results from meditation at week thirteen or week fourteen were nothing like the results that I obtained last week.

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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.