Why and How to Start Meditation
Sceptics boldly claim to always approach everything with an attitude of doubt: they are proud to declare that they never pretend to know stuff they don’t. Well I emphatically dispute the universal character of their doubting: in my experience there isn’t one sceptic in a hundred who applies that doubting to his or her own subjectivity.
It’s easy to demonstrate that sceptics really do pretend to know stuff they don’t. Take anger, for example. Everybody “knows” that anger is wrong (harmful, self-defeating, etc.), and yet you are still sometimes angry. If you really knew that anger is wrong, you would simply drop it. Indeed, once the knowledge exists, anger would drop by itself, instantaneously: no time is required.
I’ve been talking about subjective knowledge, but let’s see how it works with objective knowledge: an erupting volcano is not a indication of divine wrath, and the set of people who truly know this has a zero overlap with the set of people who think that sacrificing a virgin might help the situation. Acquiring the knowledge is sufficient, it itself, to immediately transform both beliefs and the resultant behaviour.
So why don’t we apply the same approach to subjective knowledge? Actually, the very fact that you continue to get angry is enough to demonstrate that your “knowledge” is false:
- You believe that anger is wrong.
- You’d like to know that anger is wrong.
- You’d like others to believe that you know it.
- But you don’t know it – you’re just pretending. 1
So How Come I Never Noticed This Before?
There are many other examples I could have chosen to make the point: scepticism is generally reserved for objective matters, or at best is applied to thinking processes, but never to any deeper aspect of the subjective self. A sceptic who wants to understand something in the external world sets about investigating it by empirical enquiry, through observation and experiment. An exactly similar approach can be used to find out about the internal world, where your own self is the subject to be investigated: this type of enquiry is called meditation. 2,3
So why aren’t the so-called sceptics getting busy with this research? Precisely because they’re pretending to know stuff which they actually don’t. Believing that you already know something really gets in the way of finding out about it – just look at the millions of young-Earth creationists, who could easily disabuse themselves of their preposterous ignorance, but somehow don’t.
You believe that you already know anger to be wrong, so you’re not doing anything about it. In fact, you’re riddled with such false beliefs: and a true sceptic would be ready to provisionally accede to this possibility, pending further study. 4 Isn’t it at least conceivable that the flaws in your subjective knowledge, as indicated by your pretence about anger, have corrupted some or all of your objective knowledge?
So how does one go about investigating one’s own subjectivity? What about anger, then? Well, there are some useful techniques directly bearing on anger, which anyone might try: deliberate catharsis is helpful – just take it out on a pillow, perhaps as part of a specific meditation designed for the purpose. Beyond this, some further steps in the investigation can be identified: watch anger arising and dissipating, without repressing or expressing, and without judging. But already I am describing practices which most will find impossible, and many will consider unintelligible.
It turns out that understanding anger is not the best place to begin. In just the same way that before you can comprehend quantum chromodynamics there’s lots of other stuff you need to get a handle on, the inner enquiry tends to be more successful if you follow a progressive course of study. Start by observing your experience of the body, move on to the thoughts, then the emotions, and then to the deeper layers which may become apparent.
What am I talking about? How can you begin your bodily observations? Actually it’s very simple (though arduous). When you eat, give your attention to the tasting, to the chewing and swallowing, instead of just shovelling it in; don’t indulge in unnecessary talking, and don’t watch TV! When you shower, stay with the sensations of your skin: even though you’re repeating the same actions you’ve done thousands of times before, notice how it feels this time. Whenever you remember, try to de-automatize the way you go about all of your mundane daily activities by attending closely to what you’re doing: if you’re listening, just listen; if you’re cleaning, just clean; if you’re driving, just drive.
In addition to these observations, it’s very helpful to conduct some experiments. Just as for any scientific experiment, the context is circumscribed in order to limit the variables involved and so provide more definite results. These inwardly directed experiments are the “meditations” that most people have heard about. A great many different techniques exist, and I recommend trying out a few that appeal to you, before settling on one or two that you find functional. 5 There are two traditional methods, however, which seem to work for almost everyone, so these can usefully be described here: 6
- Sit in a relaxed
and comfortable position – this can be in a chair, or on the floor – but
don’t lie down. It’s best to keep your spine erect, so rest your back
against something if you need to. Close your eyes, and turn your attention
to your breathing, watching the rise and fall of the abdomen. You will notice
a variety of sensations, thoughts and feelings; but whenever you realise
that your attention has wandered, just return to the rise and fall of the
abdomen. Don’t interfere with the breath as it moves in and out, just let
it be. (15 minutes, increasing in stages to 60 minutes.)
- Wearing loose and comfortable clothing, but with bare feet, walk very slowly, moving in a circle, or just back and forth. Watch the motions of your body as it balances against the pull of gravity, and pay close attention to the contact of your feet with the floor. Have your eyes open, but don’t get lost in the seeing. Whatever arises, keep returning to the soles of the feet. (10 minutes, increasing in stages to 30 minutes.)
Try to set aside a period for meditation every day, if possible at about the same time, and in the same place. Use a timer to mark the completion of the period.
These ancient methods are wonderfully simple and effective, but modern people have been conditioned by the modern world, and many get on better with newer techniques. Osho has devised a variety of meditations and interactive “group” methods, which work on all the layers of your being at once. If you believe that insight is just a kind of thinking, I recommend his Dynamic Meditation and Mystic Rose.
You Won’t Know Unless You Try It!
“Religious” people claim to have a perfect list of moral rules that god wrote; yet the rules are transparently facile, and only obeyed out of fear and greed. Secular humanists find it perverse and tedious to be accused of immorality by such ignorant dullards. “Rational” people claim to adopt a stance of universal scepticism; yet only apply their doubts selectively, entirely neglecting half of the world which they perceive. Meditators find it perverse and tedious to be accused of delusion by such ignorant dullards. 7
If you haven’t studied physics, ideas like the equivalence of mass and energy, or wave-particle duality seem distinctly fishy. When you have, then the wonderful elegance of external reality becomes awesomely obvious. If you haven’t practiced meditation, the very notion that useful results can be obtained purely from introspection seems distinctly dodgy. When you have, then you will want to structure your life around a process of subjective enquiry, so that meditation becomes the context within which everything you know and do and are coheres.
Nothing limits your access to knowledge as much as the belief that there is nothing worth knowing. Ultimately the quest to comprehend reality, both external and internal, is understood to be a play about identity. Without answering the question Who am I? all other knowledge is suspect.
True sceptics place no limits on their scepticism: they doubt the outer world using science, and they doubt the inner world using meditation. They’re ready to do whatever it takes to become acquainted with the true nature of reality.
1 I’m not claiming to be free of anger myself; quite the contrary.
2 This term is often used for specific techniques; but here I am using it in a more general sense, to describe an empirical approach to inward enquiry: Meditator (or Mystic) is to meditation as scientist is to scientific method.
3 The empirical character of meditation directly parallels the scientific method; though science, to be credible and convincing, must also be communicable, reproducible and falsifiable. These qualities are less easily demonstrated for meditation, so that the epithet “subjective” is often used to deprecate meditators who try to explain their experience. Such condescension is unwarranted, however, and I shall address these issues in a subsequent post.
4 A more constructive approach, useful to established meditators, is to invert the burden of proof by proceeding “as if” certain hypotheses are true even though they seem implausible. For example: My consciousness is not localized.
5 Avoid overcomplicated or proprietary techniques: just as science is blighted by pseudoscience, meditation is under attack from pseudo-meditators. If you need further guidance, try this.
6 Interestingly, both of these techniques involve bodily processes, breathing and walking, which rely on neural networks known as central pattern generators.
7 Meditation is the process of becoming more conscious by turning the attention inward. This turning-in is often interpreted as a withdrawal into unconsciousness by people who only ever look outward. When I lived with my parents, I used to practice a meditation which involved staring unblinking at a mirror lit only by a small candle: my mother was constantly afraid I would burn the house down.