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When Did Meditation Become a Vehicle for Controversy?

May 14, 2013, 4:48 PM

Last week two articles were published stating that meditation is not necessarily a component of living a spiritual life, as well as that we generally don’t recognize what real meditation entails. While I agree with the first part, the second struck me as odd, especially given that one article listed a series of ‘meditations’ that had nothing to do with the term, while the other offered a succinct view of what it isn’t without attempting to explore what it can be.

Meditation has long been described in numerous and often conflicting terms. For some, meditation involves a complete absence of thought; others believe this impossible, and so apply terms such as ‘uniting with the cosmos’ or some other such remark that sounds pretty but makes no actual sense.

That’s partly what’s included in this controversy-seeking post, ‘Why Meditation is Overrated,’ in which the author inevitably defaults to meaningless jargon:

At its essence, meditation is uniting with the universe. It’s about finding the universal self within and feeling and becoming it. Our soul radiates out and ignites our heart, mind and body. Our cells are nourished by grace.

The author then redefines meditation again, quoting Jivamukti Yoga co-founder Sharon Gannon:

Actual bona fide meditation happens spontaneously.

I’m not sure how a supposed tool of spontaneity that unites one with the universe and 'nourishes' one’s cells is overrated, but then again I’m further lost when the techniques for ‘true’ meditation include jogging, writing, swimming and kicking around a soccer ball.

What she’s actually describing is Hungarian psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of ‘flow,’ which involves entering a state of mind intensely focused on the present moment, merging action and awareness, and a sense of losing personal control. This is a state I value from a lifetime of sports. While it seems to have meditative qualities, this is entirely different from the meditation usually referred to in Buddhist practice and yoga. 

This sort of comparative attempt of relating one experience to another is not uncommon—Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander’s new book posits that our brains are ‘analogy machines’—and yet in cases like this it points to an intellectual laziness. It reminds me of instructors who claim that ‘yoga can be whatever you want it to be.’ Yoga can indeed have a wide range of applications in one’s life, but if we say it’s everything, we’re really saying it’s nothing. It cheapens the discipline.

J. Brown tackles the topic in another awfully titled post, ‘You Don’t Need to Meditate.’ Outside of survival necessities—shelter, sex and food, all having an evolutionary function—we don’t need anything, so an otherwise solid piece gets off to a bad start. Brown invokes the ideology of J. Krishnamurti, offering insight into the grasping mind seeking a little space. 

When we say we are seeking truth or we are seeking God or we are seeking a perfect life and so on, we must already have in our mind a pattern or an image or an idea of what it is. So in seeking, is there not implied in that word, that we have lost something and we are going to find it? The first thing to realize is not to seek.

Joseph Campbell remarked that Buddhists don’t dream of Jesus. Our minds are naturally going to gravitate towards habitual patterns. If we engage in a practice designed to eradicate (or at least soften the intensity of) thinking, we can’t enter that practice biased towards what will arise. We define the outcome before even beginning.

Brown believes most of what is labeled meditation are really ‘mindfulness exercises,’ which can indeed be done jogging, writing, swimming and kicking that soccer ball around. Being able to focus on one thing at one time is one of the great challenges in our multi-tasking age. Anything that helps bring more thoughtfulness and awareness into the duty at hand is a valuable tool.

Brown is making a similar argument as Alan Watts in his short book on meditation, Still the Mind:

You cannot meditate. You, your ego image, can only chatter, because when it stops, it isn’t there. 

Watts goes on to state that

Your ego can’t possibly improve you because it is what’s in need of improvement.

The striving and seeking to be better is being done by the thing that needs betterment, the paradox being that it’s a form of clinging onto what it’s attempting to let go of. Watts doesn't state that one cannot meditate, however, only that it comes when ‘you have come to your wit’s end.’

Where I diverge from Brown is when he writes that ‘observing breath’ and ‘sitting still’ are not forms of meditation. Engaging in a game of semantics is one thing. While I’m all for criticism, at some point you have to recognize that although there cannot be a million things that is one thing, there has to be something.

At the conclusion of his article, I’m not sure what that is. Instead of offering what meditation can be, he paraphrases Pattabhi Jois’s ambiguous statement, ‘Practice and all is coming.’ What we know is coming is one thing: death. What we do with the spaces that occupy our lives until then is decided upon by our actions, how we live our lives.

I’ve seen people helped tremendously by a regular seated meditation practice that’s focused either on breathing or a mantra. It has shown positive results for veterans suffering from PTSD, for one. As a longtime sufferer of anxiety disorder, breathwork and meditation are the two tools that got me off meds and helped me deal with panic attacks whenever they arise. 

We can call a seated meditation practice overrated and inauthentic, but that’s not doing anybody any good. Both authors believe one should stop attempting mediation and live a life in which it occurs naturally. This co-opts the very real benefits the practice offers. There needs to be training before such a coveted goal can be achieved; our brains are not ‘naturally’ inclined towards silence or stillness. Otherwise you’re defining the result before even setting out on the path, this contradiction being one of the unhealthier I can imagine. 

Image: Yellowj/shutterstock.com


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