April 05, 2004

Meditation for beginners

If truth be known I meditate very little. This article is neither an account of my experience nor a recommendation to meditate, but merely an explanation of my understanding of what meditation is. Having made it clear that follows is merely my own understanding of meditation, so I will try and leave out clauses of the form "in my opinion," or "I think." Please take them as read.

There are all sorts of techniques for meditation. Using the term broadly one might include: the orthordox sitting meditation of zen and perhaps even TM, which may include counting of breaths, attempts to silence the mind or to seek the self, then there is chanting meditation of various kinds, meditation staring at a mandala, meditation staring at a statue of the buddha often accompanied by chanting, thinking about Zen koans (riddles), meditation with meaningful content such as thinking about the extent to which one is indebted to everyone and about ones death or illness, mediation involving physical contortion or movement such as Yoga and various dances or prostrations, Shinto meditation involving sitting under waterfalls, pretending that one is rowing on dry land.

The point of all these techniques is to experience "enlightenment:" to understand what the world is really like. The significant point about this "understanding" is however a negative one. That is not to say that it is a bad understanding, but one in which one understands the limits of ones understanding.

Meditation attempts to achieve that which Socrates claimed to be aiming for. He said that that the wise man is the man that knows how little he knows. And in this, Socrates hit the bullseye. Unfortunately the Socrates in Plato's books is a guy that ends up claiming that he knows a lot of things. Should you succeed in meditation, however, you will understand just how limited your understanding is.

Furthermore, and perhaps this is where meditation parts company with Socrates, "enlightenment," is not just realising that you don't know, it is also realising that what you thought you knew is incorrect. If you are successful at meditation then you will realise that all the things that you thought were true, were in fact a big lie, a fiction or illusion.  

Finally, as far as preamble goes, the "understanding" that one might achieve from meditation is not an intellectual one. It is an experience. In everyday life we are aware of the distinction between levels of understanding. For example, if you read a lot of books about golf and you really understand golf you will still not understand it experimentially. Or you might read theories of love (such as Eric Fromm's "The art of loving") but until you do it and have the experience then you won't understand what love is. Similarly reading this explanation of meditation, and even if I were in some sense right, and even if you, dear reader, agree then you will not have experienced the "understanding" that meditation gives. It is definately an experience and not something that you get from a book or blog.

Okay so what is the point of meditation?

The idea is that humans are all the time creating models of their world. We understand our world in human terms that is to say "relatively," relative to our human perspective. 

There are some examples of this relative thinking in the book "The little prince." The Little Prince meets an accountant that wants to know how much everything costs. The accountant only understand the world in terms of the bottom line. The Little Prince meets a king and the King only understand people in terms of whether they are his subject or not. To the King, people are either subjects or not subjects. The king is unable to see people in their massive variety, but only using his own measure "my subject or not."

Another way at getting towards an understanding of relative thinking is to consider the world as understood by a "simpler" form of life. This is only a thought experiment, because the situation in humans is perhaps even more deluded but we can wonder how does an earthworm undertstand the world? Perhaps in less dimensions? Perhaps in terms of things that can be suqiggled through and things that can not. How about a bat? Perhaps a bat understand the world in terms of things that bounce back sound and is ignorant of things (like the color of the setting sun) that do not. There is not way that we can enter the mind of a bat, cat or earthworm but perhaps we can appreciate that the world they understand is limited by their sense organs and their objectives. They probably ignore things that they are not interested in. They probably don't think that things that they cannot sense exist.

Another way of understanding "relative thinking" is to consider simplified languages. The philosopher "Wittenstien" brought this up in his later work. One of the main ways that we understand language is in terms of our language. And we are aware that some languages are highly simplified. For instance there are sign languages used by people in the army, or codes used by people at work, or playing sport. Taking the example of the soldiers' sign language, we might imagine that a soldier can say with movements of his fingers and fist, "flank from the right," "three enemy soldiers ahead," or "I am wounded." But lets say that on the battlefield he met his girlfriend and he wants to say "Sorry but I can't advance any further because I have just met someone I love and I need to protect them." Of course he would not be able to say that in soldier sign language. Or imagine a catcher in baseball trying to sign to a pitcher "Your zipper is undone." They will not be able to say what they want to say because the circumstances, the truth of the situation, is beyond the limits of their language. These examples are problems of communication. But if we understand the world by communicating to ourselves, by saying things to ourselves, then if our language is limited our ablity to understand is going to prevent us from saying, and understanding, how things really are.

One of the main things that meditation is trying to acheive is to make us overcome the limits of language. There are theories that meditation is only about overcoming the limits of language. I do not agree. But it seems clear that overcoming the limits of language is a main activity in meditation.

We do not normally feel that natural language, the type of language that I am writing now, is limited. We tend to feel that it can explain how things are. But what if our language is limited in really basic ways? For example in both of the languages that I speak there is a distinction between things that do things (subjects or objects) and verbs. What if this distinction is merely a limitation of my language? Of course I cannot think in other terms.

So a lot of meditation is aimed towards...destroying language. People who meditatie often chant, that is to say they repeat the same words over and over again. There was an English poet that said that he had an enlightening experience as a result of repeating his name over and over again. Many Buddhist in Japan repeat the name of their Buddha (rather like a god) over and over again. Others are given a phrase or a word, or a poem and they repeat it over and over again. By doing this meditation attempts to make us aware of the meaninglessness of what we are saying.

If the Little Prince asked the accountant to say his "bottom line" over and over again, "So I am worth ten dollars?" "Yes, you are worth ten dollars." "I am worth ten dollars?" "Yes, you are worth ten dollars." And so on, just by making him repeat it, enough times, the accountant might realise that he is being ridiculous, he is not seeing the wood from the trees. Or maybe the soldier on the battle field, trying to get his commander to realise that he has met his girlfriend might try using soldier sign language to say "There is someone here" to his commander. The commander signs back "Understood. Advance" and the soldier just keeps on repeating "There is someone here." Eventually someone clicks, that the language they are using does not measure up to the situation. They may realise that the language they are using is corrupted, broken, cannot capture the situation they are facing and then become aware of the truth beyond their language.

Thinking about riddles that have not answer (koans), repeating phrases that should mean a lot (like ones own name, or the name of the entity that one respects the most - the god or buddha) until one realises that the language that one is using is limited, meaningless or until that language breaks is one way that meditation attempts to make us aware of our "relative thinking."

"Silencing the mind," by counting ones breaths, or directly by thinking about what one is thinking and then trying to stop is a more direct method of turning off language and attempting to see the world beyond its bounds.

I don't think that meditation is only about stopping language. For the Westerner, preventing linguistic thought is probably very important. However there are other ways that we process the world that also might be "turned off." For example Buddhist claim that space is an illusion. We tend to think of the world as a three dimensional space. It may be because I think in language that I understand the world as a three dimensional space. But it may also be due to other frameworks that I foist upon the world.

My two eyes each provide me with a disk of tone and color, a picture. I presume that these two pictures are pictures of something "three dimensional" that is extended out before me. But I have never seen space. Space is my interpretation. The experience I am presented with is pressed right up against my nose. The space before the disks of light that are my visual field cannot, of course, be seen. Herein lies perhaps a hint to the meaning of staring at a mandala (please search for an image of one on the Internet): a mandala is a picture of the world without any perspective. It might give us a hint to that which is really in front of our eyes.

The Shinto method of meditation, of sitting underneath a waterfall, is perhaps in part an attempt to shut down our interpretative mechanism by a more direct means. If you sit with your head underneath a cold waterfall then there is a chance that your brain will stop organising the world into space and things and just see it as the disk of light and chaos of sounds and smells that it is.

The Shinto method of meditation that involves "rowing on dry land" is an attempt to break down the imaginary representation of the world that I have.  We do not only simulate the world in language, but in image too. As a look at this one sided disk of swirling light that is my visual field, that disc is all that I ever see. But I imagine that, from the point of view of someone sitting behind my monitor, they could see me. Even though I only ever see on disc (my visual field is a disc), I imagine that there is a visual world of form seen from all angles. I model the world from other viewpoints and imagine that there is somethign on this side of the disc. There is of course nothing that could be seen "looking at the disc." The conciousness that sees the disc is, in its most observable, the disc itself. In a sense, I am this disc that I am seeing. I can shut my eyes, or dream, or hallucinate and still see the same, or very similar visual field.  In these "illusory" cases, that of the dream, afterimage or hallucination, it is clear that I am only seeing a part of myself. But when I look at the world, I presume that I am seeing something "out there."

A common method of Shinto "meditation" or spiritual practice requires that I imagine myself in another situation, seated on a boat.The rowing action found in some shinto "misogi" (purification) is a bit like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time. It is very difficult to row without an oar in ones hand. It is only by imagining myself sitting on a boat that I am able to "row." Thus by performing this excercise, by seeing in my minds eye an oar, a boat, the water, I am able to realise how it is an illusion that enables me to perform the task that I want to achieve: a rowing action. I am lead, by analogy of sorts, to realise that the imagination I have of their being a "me" in front of the disc that I am always looking at, is also a method of achieving a objective and not the truth of the situation. I am not on a boat rowing, likewise there is no "me" in front of this disc of light. Both are merely a means to achieve control of my body.

The "meaningful" methods of meditation, such as imagining ones death, are attempting to break down the motive for believing in the illusion that we have of the world, and to call that world view into question. The primal motive for believing in a "me," some entity that I imagine or speak of, is out of self love. I never see me. The word that I have for myself is but a word. I am however very attached to these images and words, for they are to me a way to love myself. By imagining my death, something that I would never really be able to experience, I can help myself to realise that the puppet that I love so much is both not a pleasant thing, and also an impossible thing.

Impossible because I can never die for myself. How can a consciousness be conscious of that which is after it is no longer conscious? The consciousness that I am can never become a corpse. Assuming I ever become a corpse, at that point I will be a consciousness no longer.  My death can never be a reality for the "true" self or consciousness. This sword cuts both ways. Meditation tells us that we will never die, and also that we were never alive, as we understand it, in the first place.

Did that make things any clearer?!

Posted by timtak at April 5, 2004 12:48 AM

Someone asked me for the words to

Tori Fune
(bird boat!)

Yea Ei, Yea Ei etc.

First Verse (the purification)
At morning and evening
Kami no mimae ni
Before the spirits (kami)
Misogi shite
(I) purify myself
Sumera ga miyo ni
To the Emperial reign
Tsukae matsuran (or matsuramu)
I dedicate my services.

Yea Ei, Yea Ei etc.

Then when he shakes his hands in a clasping movement infront of his body
he is calling the spirit of the place into his body. We used to say
"Mae do no kami" which means something like "the spirit of this place"
repeatedly as we shook our hands.

Hou Ei

The American shrine priest does not think that the words are all that important.

I wrote about it here.

It seems to me that the important thing about rowing is that it is difficult. It is a little
a bit like rubbing your stomach with one hand and patting your head with the other.
The only way to do it, like the guy in the video, is to imagine the oar (and even the
boat, and or even the water). So even though you are in your dojo, you are imagining
you have an oar in your hand and you are on a boat. This means that your imagination
and your reality are mismatched. The power of the excercise may come from mismatching
realtiy and imagination, while chanting, while performing a bodily motion that requires
concentration, producing a sort of out of body, or out-of-mind-in-body experience.

Posted by: Timothy at November 16, 2010 09:11 AM

I did :)
Thank u for your help. And maybe u could find a while to transcript the rest of the rowing exercise?


Posted by: Ger at November 16, 2010 02:02 PM