This continues the thread begun in Questions About Meditation. Vlastimil writes,
I want to ask, which meditation techniques do you practice? Or rather, do they include some specifically Buddhist ones? Even vipassana/insight practice?
Some Buddhists told me that doing vipassana seriously always tends one towards Buddhist beliefs. I wonder if you agree. Or if you think that vipassana practice as such is not exerting that tendency and that the tendency is rather exerted by the combination of the practice with certain doctrines brought into the practice.
E.g., yesterday I read (in a Buddhist manual by Daniel Ingram) that when practising vipassana -- in a way that increases the speed, precision, consistency and inclusiveness of our experience of all the quick little sensations that make up our sensory experience -- "it just happens to be much more useful to assume that things are only there when you experience them and not there when you don’t. Thus, the gold standard for reality when doing insight practices is the sensations that make up your reality in that instant. ... Knowing this directly leads to freedom."
Will the vipassana practice tend me to believe that "useful" assumption, so useful for becoming to believe the Buddhist doctrines? Also, can I make any serious progress in that practice without making that assumption?
A. One Way to Meditate
Let me tell you about a fairly typical recent morning's meditation. It lasted from about 3:10 to 4 AM.
After settling onto the meditation cushions, I turned my attention to my deep, relaxed, and rhythmic breathing, focusing on the sensation of air passing in and out through the nostrils. If distracting thoughts or images arose I would expel them on the 'out' breath so that the expulsion of air coincided with the 'expulsion' of extraneous thoughts. If you have already learned how to control your mind, this is not that difficult and can be very pleasant and worth doing for its own sake even if you don't go any deeper.
(If you find this elementary thought control difficult or impossible, then you ought to be alarmed, just as you ought to be alarmed if you find your arms and legs flying off in different directions on their own. It means that you have no control over your own mind. Then who or what is controlling it?)
I then visualized my lungs' filling and emptying. I visualized my body as from outside perched on the cushions. And then I posed a question about the awareness of breathing.
There is this present breathing, and there is this present awareness of breathing. Even if the breathing could be identified with, or reduced to, an objective, merely physical process in nature, this won't work for the awareness of breathing.
What then is this awareness? It is not nothing. If it were nothing, then nothing would appear, contrary to fact. Fact is, the breathing appears; it is an object of awareness. So the awareness is not nothing. But the awareness is not something either: it it not some item that can be singled out. There is at least an apparent contradiction here: the awareness-of is both something and nothing. A Zen meditator could take this as a koan and work on it as such.
Or, in an attempt at avoiding logical contradiction, one might propose that the awareness-of is something that cannot be objectified. It is, but it cannot be objectified.
I am aware of my breathing, but also of my breathing's being an object of awareness, which implies that in some way I am aware of my awareness, though not as a separable object.
Who is aware of these things? I am aware of them. But who am I? And who is asking this question? I am asking it. But who am I who is asking this question and asking who is asking it?
At this point I am beyond simple mind control to what could be self-inquiry. (Cf. Ramana Maharshi) The idea is to penetrate into the source of this awareness. One circles around it discursively with the idea of collapsing the circle into a non-discursive point, as it were. (I just now came up with this comparison.)
B. Does doing vipassana seriously always tends one towards Buddhist beliefs?
I don't think so. The Vipassana meditator's experiences are interpreted in the light of the characteristic Buddhist beliefs (anicca, anatta, dukkha). They are read in to the experiences rather than read off from them. A Christian meditator could easily do the same thing. I reported an unforgettable experience deep in meditation in which I felt myself to be the object of a powerful, unearthly love. If I take myself to have experienced the love of Christ, then clearly I go beyond the phenomenology of the experience. Still, the experience fits with Christian beliefs and could be taken in some loose sense to corroborate it. The same goes for the Vipassana meditator.
For example, does one learn from meditation that all is impermanent?
First of all, that
T. All is impermanent
Can be argued to be self-refuting.
Here goes. (T) applies to itself: if all is impermanent, then (T), or rather the propositional content thereof, is impermanent. That could mean one of two things. Either the truth-value of the proposition expressed by (T) is subject to change, or the proposition itself is subject to change, perhaps by becoming a different proposition with a different sense, or by passing out of existence altogether. (There is also a stronger reading of 'impermanent' according to which the impermanent is not merely subject to change, but changing, and indeed continuously changing.)
Note also that if (T) is true, then every part of (T)'s propositional content is impermanent. Thus the property (concept) of impermanence is impermanent, and so is the copulative tie and the universal quantifier. If the property of impermanence is impermanent, then so is the property of permanence along with the distinction between permanence and impermanence.
In short, (T), if true, undermines the very contrast that gives it a determinate sense. If true, (T) undermines the permanence/impermanence contrast. For if all is impermanent, then so is this contrast and this distinction. This leaves us wondering what sense (T) might have and whether in the end it is not nonsense.
What I am arguing is not just that (2) refutes itself in the sense that it proves itself false, but refutes itself in the much stronger sense of proving itself meaningless or else proving itself on the brink of collapsing into meaninglessness.
No doubt (2) is meaningful 'at first blush.' But all it takes is a few preliminary pokes and its starts collapsing in upon itself.
Now perhaps the Vippassana meditator gets himself into a state in which he is aware of only momentary, impermanent dharmas. How can he take that to show that ALL is impermanent?
There is also a question about what a belief would be for a Buddhist. On my understanding, beliefs are "necessary makeshifts" (a phrase from F. H. Bradley) useful in the samsaric realm, but not of ultimate validity. They are like the raft that gets one across the river but is then abandoned on the far shore. The Dharma (teaching) is the raft that transports us across the river of Samsara to the land of Nirvana where there is no need for any rafts -- or for the distinction between Samsara and Nirvana.
D. How Much Metaphysics Does One Need to Meditate?
Assuming that meditation is pursued as a spiritual practice and not merely as a relaxation technique, I would say that the serious meditator must assume that there is a 'depth dimension' of spiritual/religious significance at the base of ordinary awareness and that our ultimate felicity demands that we get in touch with this depth dimension.
"Man is a stream whose source is hidden." (Emerson) I would add that meditation is the difficult task of swimming upstream to the Source of one's out-bound consciousness where one will draw close to the Divine Principle.
As St. Augustine says, Noli foras ire, in te ipsum reddi; in interiore homine habitat veritas. The truth dwells in the inner man; don't go outside yourself: return within.