I believe meditation is essential for living a human life because our experience of consciousness is so subtle and so easily misinterpreted. In particular one distinction comes to mind when thinking about why meditative practice is so important. That is the distinction between ‘awareness’ and ‘that of which we are aware.
Human beings have created a distinction between mind and body at least since the great Rene Descartes declared, “I think therefore I am.” Although it was not his intention, he inadvertently paved the way for generations of human beings to experience consciousness with a deep sense of division between mind and matter, thought and thing, subject and object. This is problematic because distinguishing between mind and matter, thought and thing, subject and object, is not as clear as it appears.
Let’s start with what seems like a perfectly obvious example. I am sitting here looking at a plant on the other side of the room. Clearly I am here – the subject – and I am looking at the plant over there – the object. Simple. But when I am looking at the plant over there, what am I actually seeing? Am I seeing the plant over there, or am I seeing a mental image of the plant generated in my mind? What I see is a pattern of color and shape and I interpret that particular pattern as a plant over there. If I had never seen a plant, or didn’t know what one was, would I be able to identify it? How much of the plant that I see is a construction in my head and how much is a plant over there.
We could argue this point for a long time – and philosophers have been. To most of us the argument of whether or not the plant that I see is truly a plant over there or just an image in my head seems somewhat pointless. This inquiry takes on much greater significance, however, when the object in question is not merely a plant, or a tree, or a car or any other object over there, but instead the object in question is me.
Our self-image, our sense of self, is to each of us one of the most important objects of which we are the subject. As human beings we both exist and are aware of our existence at the same time. We are all objects to ourselves. We are the object of our subject and the subject of our object at the same time.
The practice of meditation as I described in my last post is the practice of not manipulating your experience. It is the conscious practice of allowing everything to be as it is, giving up control, taking your hands off the wheel and seeing what happens.
As we observe our experience without manipulating it we slowly being to see the way things really are. We see the way they are, when we are not avoiding anything, adjusting anything, moving toward anything, or moving away from anything. We do nothing and we discover the way things really are before we manipulate them into whatever it is we want them to be.
In this practice of non-manipulation amazing things begin to reveal themselves to us. The first thing we encounter is how strong the habit of manipulating our experience is. Then we begin to see how much of what we think is ‘real’ is actually a constructed interpretation of reality accomplished through the subtle, and often unconscious, filtering of our experience. By only allowing ourselves to be conscious with a small part of what is actually present we can construct almost any picture we want of reality. We simply block whatever we don’t want to see from awareness and allow the rest to be there. What we end up with is an image of reality of our own creation.
And then we begin to see that all of this applies to our experience of our self. We don’t see ourselves as we really are. The same habits of filtering are also constructing our picture of ourselves. We don’t see ourselves clearly, or accurately. We see ourselves the way we want to see ourselves. And that includes seeing ourselves as more than we are, more competent, more pure, more intelligent, etc. And it also includes seeing ourselves as less than we are, less free, less strong, less responsible, etc.
In this recognition we may begin to feel suffocated in a box of unquestioned ideas about ourselves. We feel unable to move beyond the boundaries that we have established and a spiritual yearning for liberation awakens in us. And we begin to see that it is not only our ideas that constrain us – everyone else has ideas do as well. We live in a ‘community of minds’ as the American philosopher George Herbert Meade described it – our actions and our thoughts are largely governed by the ideas and actions of others.
The practice of meditation can bring us in touch with the truth of who we are and in that light a whole new reality opens up to us. We see the mechanisms through which our experience of reality is constantly being constructed. It begins to dawn on us that we have no idea how much of what we experience as real actually is, and we don’t even know how to find out. We are swimming in a world of our own – and everyone else’s – construction and we want to be free to discover the real truth about the way things are. This is the start of the spiritual path.
Neither philosophy or meditation is a luxury – both are essential if we want to live an authentically free human life. Philosophical inquiry is a profound engagement with the thought process. Meditation is a profound disengagement with the thought process. Philosophy alone may not be able to liberate us from being embedded in a world of ideas. Meditation alone may not be able to help us understand the way things are. By using philosophical inquiry and meditative practice in tandem we can liberate ourselves from the ideas that condition us and replace them with a better understanding of the way things are.
This is a great post Jeff. No one will every accuse you of treating your subject matter to superficially. I particularly like the point you made about the self being the most problematic or important object that consciousness holds. I agree the boundaries are largely arbitrary and that many things we take for reality are mere constructions.
Jeff – thanks for this post – you have the gift of putting things into perspective – that both philosophical inquiry and meditation practice are essential if we want to live an authentically free life – both the profound engagement with and disengagement from the thought process – working in tandem – putting aside separation and division between the two.