Alan Watts and the art of meditation
Forget everything you think you know about meditation.
- Alan Watts cuts to the root of what meditation really is all about.
- Meditative practice has no motive, except to experience the present moment.
- Practice a guided meditation by focusing on the now.
Meditation has left the ashrams and become a fixture in the boardroom and livings rooms everywhere. The corporate analysts and Silicon Valley-types scramble for their next hit of improvement. Spiritual posturing and enlightened one-uppers fill our social feeds and make it seem like meditative bliss is just a hashtag away. Unfortunately as spiritual practices enter into the wide marketplace of ideas, there is a tendency for them to be degraded and repackaged into self-improvement drivel and self-serving nonsense.
It's best to avoid the commercialization of contemplation if you want an authentic experience of meditation. It's a really simple thing to do.
The increased cultural awareness of meditation is still cause for joy, but more importantly a cause for education. So let's clap one hand together and see what the sage Alan Watts has to say on how to meditate.
"Meditation is the discovery that the point of life is always arrived at in the immediate moment. And therefore, if you meditate for an ulterior motive — that is to say, to improve your mind, to improve your character, to be more efficient in life — you've got your eye on the future and you are not meditating!"
What is the purpose of meditation?
The goal of meditation is quite simple. To be within the here and now. To divorce yourself from symbolic language, hangups of time and experience the immediacy of the present moment. Meditation practiced for this reason transcends everything else. Once this fundamental point is grasped, you can meditate in anyway you see fit. Twisted criss cross in a yoga pose or sitting on a park bench in a busy city street.
The problem is, this straightforward idea is complicated by our categorical mind that won't stop chattering. Always in the process of labeling an experience or forcing logic and reason when there is no need for it. It's almost comical, but a lot of people get stressed by the idea of just sitting still and doing nothing. Emptying the mind becomes another thing to think about. According to Watts:
"The art of meditation is a way of getting into touch with reality. And the reason for it is that most civilized people are out of touch with reality because they confuse the world as it is with the world as they think about it, and talk about it, and describe it. For — on the one hand — there is the real world and — on the other — a whole system of symbols about that world which we have in our minds."
He understood that being human and being part of a civilization are tied to symbolic thinking and of course this fundamental aspect of humanity — language — which is a useful thing. Yet it does have its disadvantages, chiefly one of those being confusing the symbol for the actual thing. An example of this is when Watts touches how we confuse money for actual wealth.
"Meditation is the way in which we come to feel our basic inseparability from the whole universe, and what that requires is that we shut up. That is to say, that we become interiorally silent and cease from the interminable chatter that goes on inside our skulls. Because you see, most of us think compulsively all the time."
Tomorrow never comes. This is more than mere metaphysical pronouncement or sophomoric existential wailing. It's an adage we can take to heart. For the future is and always will be just a concept. Meditation puts us back into our place of the now.
It's a kind of digging the present, it's a kind of grooving with the eternal now, and brings us into a state of peace where we can understand that the point of life — the place where it's at — is simply here and now.
So should you have a reason for meditating? At most, we can say that the purpose for meditating is for a kind of enjoyment and gateway into the present moment.
How to meditate
There is no one way to meditate. There are a countless number of Eastern texts regarding the practice and many different methods and techniques. There are a few central tenants that serve as a foundation for meditation, though. Alan Watts describes the following as:
"You can sit any way you want. You can sit in a chair, or you can sit like I'm sitting — which is the Japanese way of sitting — or you can sit in the lotus posture… the easier you'll find it to do — or you can just sit cross-legged on a raised cushion above the floor. Now, the point of this is that if you keep your back erect… you are centered and easily balanced, and you have a feeling of being thoroughly rooted to the ground."
Now there's not much more to be said, once this is figured out. You can complicate the game a bit and have some more fun with it in an authentic yogic practice. There are all sorts of mantras and breathing techniques you can throw in there as well. But the point still stands, to meditate is to be in the now.
You can practice this now with a guided meditation by Alan Watts (see below).
Guided meditation with Alan Watts
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Physics without time<p>In his book "The Order of Time," Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli suggests that our perception of time — our sense that time is forever flowing forward — could be a highly subjective projection. After all, when you look at reality on the smallest scale (using equations of quantum gravity, at least), time vanishes.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If I observe the microscopic state of things," writes Rovelli, "then the difference between past and future vanishes … in the elementary grammar of things, there is no distinction between 'cause' and 'effect.'"</p><p>So, why do we perceive time as flowing <em>forward</em>? Rovelli notes that, although time disappears on extremely small scales, we still obviously perceive events occur sequentially in reality. In other words, we observe entropy: Order changing into disorder; an egg cracking and getting scrambled.</p><p>Rovelli says key aspects of time are described by the second law of thermodynamics, which states that heat always passes from hot to cold. This is a one-way street. For example, an ice cube melts into a hot cup of tea, never the reverse. Rovelli suggests a similar phenomenon might explain why we're only able to perceive the past and not the future.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Any time the future is definitely distinguishable from the past, there is something like heat involved," Rovelli wrote for the <a href="https://www.ft.com/content/ce6ef7b8-429a-11e8-93cf-67ac3a6482fd" target="_blank"><em>Financial Times</em></a>. "Thermodynamics traces the direction of time to something called the 'low entropy of the past', a still mysterious phenomenon on which discussions rage."</p>
The strange subjectivity of time<p>Time moves differently atop a mountain than it does on a beach. But you don't need to travel any distance at all to experience strange distortions in your perception of time. In moments of life-or-death fear, for example, your brain would release large amounts of adrenaline, which would speed up your internal clock, causing you to perceive the outside world as moving slowly.<br></p><p>Another common distortion occurs when we focus our attention in particular ways.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If you're thinking about how time is <em>currently</em> passing by, the biggest factor influencing your time perception is attention," Aaron Sackett, associate professor of marketing at the University of St. Thomas, told <em><a href="https://gizmodo.com/why-does-time-slow-down-and-speed-up-1840133782" target="_blank">Gizmodo</a></em>.<em> "</em>The more attention you give to the passage of time, the slower it tends to go. As you become distracted from time's passing—perhaps by something interesting happening nearby, or a good daydreaming session—you're more likely to lose track of time, giving you the feeling that it's slipping by more quickly than before. "Time flies when you're having fun," they say, but really, it's more like "time flies when you're thinking about other things." That's why time will also often fly by when you're definitely <em>not</em> having fun—like when you're having a heated argument or are terrified about an upcoming presentation."</p><p>One of the most mysterious ways people experience time-perception distortions is through psychedelic drugs. In an interview with <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/14/carlo-rovelli-exploding-commonsense-notions-order-of-time-interview" target="_blank"><em>The Guardian</em></a>, Rovelli described a time he experimented with LSD.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It was an extraordinarily strong experience that touched me also intellectually," he said. "Among the strange phenomena was the sense of time stopping. Things were happening in my mind but the clock was not going ahead; the flow of time was not passing any more. It was a total subversion of the structure of reality."<br></p><p>It seems few scientists or philosophers believe time is completely an illusion.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"What we call <em>time</em> is a rich, stratified concept; it has many layers," Rovelli told <em><a href="https://physicstoday.scitation.org/do/10.1063/PT.6.4.20190219a/full/" target="_blank">Physics Today</a>.</em> "Some of time's layers apply only at limited scales within limited domains. This does not make them illusions."</p>What <em>is</em> an illusion is the idea that time flows at an absolute rate. The river of time might be flowing forever forward, but it moves at different speeds, between people, and even within your own mind.
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