THE MYTHS OF MEDITATION
Arthur Chappell’s two part article for The Skeptic, March/April and
OM is not where the heart is
"My son has taken up meditation. At least it’s better than sitting doing nothing."
Comedian Kaufman is wrong of course, though he is not alone in assuming that meditation is a total non-activity. Meditation may' not be much to took at, but a great deal is happening on the inside.
The other great myth is that there is just one technique, when in fact there are hundreds, not all of which are used in New Age cults; and many of which have a very ancient tradition within the major religions of the world.
The word `meditation' itself means literally to ‘centre’ and relates to the focusing of mental energy. This is not strictly the same as concentrating on a good book. The aim of meditation is to stifle the questioning, rational mind. Meditation is the opposite of cogitation: It is anti-reason. Meditation cults drawn from the Hindu faith, (Divine Light Mission, TM, ISKCON, and so on) have a great dislike, and mistrust, of the human mind. Animals don't have minds, and seem content with their lot. People think, and are dissatisfied, and so the mind is looked upon as a curse on mankind for some offence against the gods. Contentment means silencing the mind; and if it proves difficult to do that, then we are to fear the mind which is looked upon as a perpetual questioning machine, distracting' us from finding the one supposedly true mystical truth we need:
Guru Maharaji has said "Man, I have to smarten up sooner or later. Because I know that yes, there's a little machine that generates all my questions. And then maybe there comes a time when all my questions have been satisfied and yet I have nothing. I have gained nothing · whatsoever.'
`The thing about meditation', two members of the TM movement explain, `is not to concentrate, but to take the reins off your mind and let it run anywhere it wants.' Meditators must avoid concentrating on anything in particular Concentration holds the mind at one level and will not allow it to submerge into a deeper level of consciousness.
The cult member who questions and doubts must be shown to the group to be giving in to his evil, Satanic mind, and not meditating enough, so he or she and the group as a whole will feel the desire to meditate more, and will become increasingly unhappy with their own completely natural, and unharmful thinking processes. In some meditation cults the meditation itself has to fragment. If you start to see a pattern emerging, you have to look away from it so that the images, thoughts, and reflections lose any rational coherence, putting you in harmony with the flux state of the cosmos. This is peddled as `Enlightenment'.
The methods used in the various meditations are surprisingly uniform. The main techniques involve visualisations, Yantras, Mantras and regulated breathing exercises. Visualisation involves creating a mental picture, such as a candle flame, or of a more complex idea like Heaven. Having created this entirely imaginary image, you go into it, make it real, maintain it, sustain it, and flesh it out in detail. This all goes on in the head, and involves creating a picture there that is as clear as if it is seen with the eyes, and which is audible, touchable, and accessible to all the senses. The visualisation has to be metaphysical and imaginary. The idea is to conjure up a world that seems more real and coherent than the material world around you. The real world can then be made, through cult indoctrination, to appear less real, and more intangible. The imaginary demons of the meditated world can be said to threaten to come and punish the cultist in this reality. Pleasant visualisation imagery may be held up as the reality and Heaven awaiting the conforming, obedient cultist.
Visualisation creates a dissatisfaction with material reality and can lead to hallucinations delusions, and nightmares, as the visualised world may come back to mind when you don't want it to. The effect may well be compared to that of the blow back experienced by many people taking hallucinogenic drugs, and some cults may encourage their followers to use drugs as an aid to their visualisations, and/ or give them drugs in food and drinks, without the recruit realising it.
Many occult groups also encourage visualisation exercises, as these are said to open up the psychic powers, which are often no more than intense visualisation reactions. Visions and portents come to those who have their minds locked for so much of the time on the metaphysical realm of the imagination. We effectively create our own Twilight Zone through meditation. It is the intensity of the experience that makes the visions seem all the more real.
Many visualisations involve sitting in the dark, with your eyes closed, but others involve visual aids in the form of Yantras and Mandalas. These are complex geometrical designs incorporating circles, triangles and squares in various intricate patterns. Meditators will he encouraged to look at a focal point in the design, and go with the images it conjures up. As the design oscillates on the eye, the mental pictures conjured up can be very elaborate indeed.
The often torturous postures of Yoga are little more than an aid to meditation, but the most common Hindu meditations practised in the Western World involves the use of Mantras (One or more repetitive words or phrases used in order to prevent the mind focusing on anything else. The Mantras you are most likely to have heard of are `Aum' (Om) and the Krishna Mantra; `Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare'. It has been argued that mantras might involve any old words, such as `Ere we go, ere we go', or 'Coca-Cola, Coca-Cola', but practitioners recognise that the Mantra involves words of some occult or religious significance. Krishna/Rama, for example, are the names of major Hindu deities. Chanting these names is effectively an invocation of pagan gods, as evangelical fundamentalists often insist on reminding us, believing arcane meditation practices to make us vulnerable to demon possession.
Repeating a phrase over and over tends to numb our minds to the real significant meaning of the words invoked, and the more we use our minds for one thing only, the harder it becomes to use them for anything else. Minds can atrophy just like limbs do, if they are not used for a wide range of purposes. Many meditation cultists have complained of difficulty doing simple arithmetic, and remembering names of close friends, after prolonged use of the kinds of meditation described here. The effect is rather like that of Newspeak’s obliteration of the English language in Orwell’s 1984. The less there is to think about, the less chance there is of revolutionary discontent, and religious doubt setting in. Stifling the mind like this makes us very open to so-called hypnotic suggestion and subliminal commends from the cult leaders.
Mantras, like visualisation exercises, can be used privately, by the independent practitioner, or in group exercises. Krishna followers in ISKCON make their chanting a public demonstration, hoping to affect others with the enchantment, and for all the monotony of it, they often succeed. Chanting Mantras is a kind of prayer. Many cultists are led to believe that a mantra can be used to gain them money, or material goods, for donation to the cult, or for themselves. An example is the Nicheren Shosho cult's Mantra `Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo' , which is taught on the basis that once we have had enough of receiving cars, cash and more cash, we will finally start chanting for religious enlightenment. The problem with this philosophy is the obvious fact that most people can’t get enough of a bad thing.
The most famous meditation group is TM (Transcendental Meditation) and many assume that all meditation is 'Transcendental' It is, with a lower case `t’ in that all meditation aims to induce an altered state of consciousness. This should not be .taken as e higher plane of consciousness but merely as a different way of seeing this one - rather like wearing rose-tinted glasses.
TM, as promoted by the Maharishi Maheshi Yogi, is a mantra meditation. Each practitioner believes he or she has a unique secret mantra which is to be shared with no one else at all. In fact, TM has only twelve mantras, ,and which one you get depends on your age. Mine would be `SHIRM' Other aspects of TM are more bizarre. They practice yogic hopping by sitting cross-legged and jumping in the air to land with the legs still crossed (ouch) This is not strictly meditation at all, and neither is it a sport, although TM'ers aim to have it promoted as an Olympic event TM also teaches that if enough people chant mantras together the crime/death/suicide rates will go down statistically as a direct result. This was a major element of the TM Natural Law Party political manifesto at the last general election. Of course, this theory is simply ludicrous. If crime goes down on the basis of that logic, it might just as well be said to go down because such and such a percentage of pig farmers ate porridge on Thursdays, or something equally unprovable.
Meditation helps or hinders the meditator alone, and no one else.
Breath control can also be employed as a meditation, and also in conjunction with the other meditations. Breathing deeply and hyperventively floods the brain with oxygen. Shallower breathing may lower the heart rate and make us more relaxed, mentally and physically. The medical effects of this can vary. TM in particular makes a great deal of presenting medical reports that are favourable towards meditation 'The problem with the tests, when they are conducted by objective observers, is that they often study the physical effects (the effects of Kaufman's `doing nothing') and ignore the social and psychological contexts in which the meditation is practised, as an attempt to achieve an altered state of consciousness and see God. Sadly, many presenters of test results are far from objective. Cults attract their fair share of doctors and scientists, just as they attract members from all professions. TM books are full of personal statements by doctors singing their praises, but if you look at the small print, you'll sec that these champions are not only carrying B.A’s and PhDs, earned in Universities but also the titles bestowed on them by the meditation cults they endorse. Recently, it was reported that two doctors who championed 'I'M were struck off the medical register for their claims that it not only lowers blood pressure, but also cures AIDS.
To meditate is to put your mind on a diet. Make sure you don't starve it or overfeed it. On the whole, you'll find life is satisfying enough without it. You've breathed well enough on your own for this much of your life without having to have lessons now. Meditation involves artificial, contrived breathing, posture and mental exercises. It makes you unhappy with this world by making a different one inside you. Meditation for you also usually means money and power over you for someone else in the world outside your head. I shall leave the final word with India's finest poet, Radrinth Tagore, and his poem `Against Meditative Knowledge' 'Those who wish to sit, shut their eyes, And meditate to know it the world is true or lies, may do so, it's their choice, but I meanwhile, With hungry eyes that can't he satisfied Shall take a look at the world in broad daylight".
The Skeptic issue following that which presented the above article, was dominated by angry replies by people involved in meditation practices, and arguments against my claims that meditation can be dangerous (at least some of the time) I followed up the replies with a second article, looking even more closely at the subject of meditation, and this time, moving from modern cult references used in the previous presentation. .
IT’S ALL IN THE MIND - A FURTHER CRITICAL ATTACK ON MEDITATION.
My last article on this thorny subject provoked an angry article in reply and several letters. John Clarke's letter (The Skeptic, 7.2) simply tells us that meditation works for him, and I say the best of luck to him. Interestingly he compares it to Librium, `reducing obsessive connectivity' in the brain, and talks of comparisons with expensive sensory deprivation tanks. In other works, his chosen meditation promises to isolate and change his thinking, reducing obsessional thoughts-defined as obsessional by whom? where? in a meditation handbook? Cutting off the meditator from sensory stimuli which might interrupt the process. Letting the mind go blank is a standard visualisation technique. Mr Clarke did in fact still experience a sense of himself as `consciousness', and some people would actually regard that experience as `mystical'. He says he had no guru, but maybe he was reliant on the authority of the author of the book cited (one of many such works). And no money changed hands, eh? What about royalties on the book sales?
Dr Dace (Letters, The Skeptic, 7.2) argues that temporary quieting of the mind isn't necessarily going so far as to attack the mind in its proper functioning. He adds that `the usual state of the mind' is the mind `malfunctioning'. Says who? Why do pro-meditation supporters see the mind as fundamentally flawed in this way? It is this mistrust of our apparatus for the recording and analysing of sensory data (the mind) that I question. Sincere and insincere meditation teachers share this extremely negative view. Here are some sincere quotations:
"The human mind, in its never-ending changes is like the flowing water of a river or the burning flame of a candle, like an ape, it is forever jumping about, not ceasing even for a moment."
"An undisciplined mind expresses evil thoughts by evil actions, and these actions leave evil after-effects on the mind: and as soon as external stimulation occur, the mind suffers the consequences of its past actions. Thus, if we suffer miseries, they have their remote cause: in the past. All pleasures and pains have their mental origins; and religions are required because without them, the mind cannot be controlled."
"It is the very energy of thought which keeps thee from thy God. "
"The mind is labelled restless, Arjuna: it is indeed hard to train but by constant practice, and by freedom from passions the mind in truth can be trained."
Meditation starves the mind of stimulus (sensory deprivation) and cuts like a knife through any consciously apparent thinking with the aid of mantras, visualisations, and so on. Some secular meditations may not go so far as the more religious ones in combining mantras with strict dietary control, ascetic retreat, celibacy and so on. Some western practices are occasionally mistaken for meditation: activities such as prayer, and reflection of theological passages are more akin to contemplation and cognition than meditation in its strictest sense. Yoga, the primary source for much mediation is defined as: `attempts to transform consciousness by mental control, to go beyond thought to absence of thought'
The same author defines Buddhist meditational practices: 'The student begins with purification, followed by u strict ascetic code, and learning mindfulness (sati), a minimal awareness of sensory perception without allowing them to stimulate thought. Mindfulness then leads to `seeing things as they are`.
Not surprisingly, the author tells of how the adept experiences `tremendous physical pain' as 'he or she seeks a cessation of all mental processes'.
The mind is basically seen in Eastern belief systems as a barrier between us and the absolute:
Generally speaking, the senses and the mind are: regarded as appetitive, as desiring, grasping and relishing their objects, in the very act of sensing or knowing them. In the unenlightened this rapaciousness is wayward and uncontrolled; enlightenment requires the imposition of control on it, either to stop ordinary experience entirely, or to let it proceed seen in its true Light, seen as it really is.
Many secular works on meditation simply present a cookbook-like recipe for the mechanical act of meditating. They fail to set it out in a historical or anti-cognitive philosophical context.
Birds should be alarmed if their cages are disturbed, Dr Dace, and so should the mind if it faces some data of which it is (at least temporarily) uncertain. Desensitising the mind to stimuli may actually affect human ability to react properly with the level of fear, love and other emotions required in any given social situation. Dr Dace argues that we ought to hear from people who have practised meditation techniques before making up our minds. I practised four visualisation meditations solidly between 1981 and 1985 see THE BRAINWASHED SKEPTIC article for the full story of my cult involvement)
Mike Rutter’s letter argues correctly that traffic accident statistics don't make us call for a ban on cars; nor have I called for a meditation ban. I merely ask possible meditation recruits to recognise the possible hazards as well as the potential benefits. I do think the car analogy goes a little too far in saying that the responsibility for accidents lies entirely with their handlers. Not so: mechanical failures often lead to cars being withdrawn for safety checks; drivers can't always be responsible for the brakes, and what of passengers? Meditation is often a group promotion. I agree with Mr Rutter in that it isn't necessary to join a cult to meditate, and there are always the books. In Divine Light Mission I was often asked why, once I had the meditation techniques, I still followed the Guru, instead of just meditating on my own. The answer is that, for me, and many meditators, the discipline required to practice in depth, with full committal to getting up early (especially after long nights on the pop) is difficult. Practice can become occasional and half-hearted. Many guru-less meditators find it at first, unfulfilling as John Clarke (Letters, The Skeptic, 7.2) seems to have experienced at first hand may join yoga groups, and make long term commitments to gurus to maintain and hopefully improve the necessary discipline. Meditation is not as easy as it is often made out to be.
Like Mr Rutter, Adrian West cites the example of the Dalai Lama (`Meditation: Skepticism of Cynicism', The Skeptic, 7.2). As I have every respect for his Gandhi-like non-violent stance on the political rights of the Tibetan people, and feel he fully deserves the Nobel Peace Prize, I am careful not to invoke his name alongside that of Maharaj Ji and the (TM) Maharishi. There is however no doubt that mainstream (non-cultic) Buddhist and Hindu beliefs involve taking on board ideas such as reincarnation (so vital to ideas on Karma) that have been subject to skeptical inquiry, and articles in this very publication have touched on matters that are important to these religions, even though skeptics need not be anti-religious or atheistic.
Dr West aims to present a case for the ‘positive aspects of meditation'. I do not deny that such benefits may be possible. My article attempts to put forward a counterbalance to the mass of pro-meditation literature available. Interestingly, Dr West, while accusing me of cynicism and popular journalism, agrees that many of the possible abuses and dangers I highlight may well apply in certain circumstances.
In his article, Dr West begins with the undisputed observation that mental preoccupation on a few unkind words will upset us, and while few would try that systematically, we often find ourselves doing it, unintentionally. As he asks, why not actively groom positive states of mind? The problem starts when we try to' think of this ‘positive mindfulness processing' as having to be through meditation, when it can be through education and basic psychology. Pop-psychologists have encouraged clients/ patients to use near-meditative mantras like, `Every day in every way, I'm getting better and better', `Youth, health, vigour', and so on. The problem with this was what William James called its tendency to be `moonstruck with optimism' No doubt there could be a more pessimistic branch shouting 'Nolite te bastardes Carborundurem' each day. Sadly, the problem with this artificial optimism and meditation is that people start telling themselves they need `improving' even when they don't. To sell meditation, or pop psychology `healthy mindedness' you have to convince the buyer that she/he is in dire need of such self improvement.
Minds are resilient and often straighten themselves out. We find our mislaid objects and stay in control even in difficult situations. We get ourselves to the dentist's despite our abject terror. Suddenly, a book comes out telling us we need some technique to achieve better self-control, we buy it and in effect to some extent, risk loss of that control and have to regain it through some mental landscaping process, be it pseudo-psychological or meditative. The problem with such techniques is that we often find ourselves unable not to use them. I have seen meditators in states of confusion, distress and indecision because circumstances, time or laziness have prevented them having their daily chant. We end up like the caterpillar in the fable: asked how he co-ordinates his countless legs to walk with ease, he thinks about it, and starts tripping himself up.
Meditation books and gurus first tell the customer why he needs to meditate, and in effect the mind is targeted before the first mantra is ever given. To say `You'll feel better after doing this' is in effect to tell someone that he isn't entirely up to his full potential so far. This is of course nothing that any advertiser worth his salt wouldn't do with any product.
The Lama is quoted in support of Dr West's argument that focusing the mind isn't necessarily stifling thought. Here, the Lama seems to be talking of reasoning and cogitation rather than meditation, arguing the need for reason to counter ‘anger, hatred and attachment'. I say that even non-violent people get angry. The Lama is arguably angered by the Chinese intrusion into his homeland. Meditation shouldn't eradicate anger, but reasoning should question its justification and what positive and hopefully harmless course of action should be taken in expressing anger.
Attachments are a favourite target in Hindu/Buddhist meditation. Attachment, or desire for worldly goods, and people you love, are seen as counterproductive to the inner states of tranquillity (Nirvana). Why attach yourself to the fleeting, insubstantial, illusion-like objects that your death takes away from you anyway? Meditation philosophy is one of detachment from thought about these externals, and refocusing on the inner reality, the visualised meditated-up world. Dr West starts by showing how meditation can help us feel better after unkind words at work, but then brings in a quotation on attachments to the world where work takes place, a world (Maya) dismissed as a mental illusion.
He argues that many meditation teachers are more open to receiving questions. True: it is answers that are difficult for them. Buddhist koans (most commonly used in Zen Buddhism, but in other Buddhist groups too) are designed to confound the questioner and to make him reflect on the futility of the question itself. Many koans, the most . famous one being about the sound of one hand clapping, are used as meditation exercises. Dr West misses the whole point of my farmers/porridge analogy by saying that logically crime would go down if everyone meditated. The point is that TM claims that a percentage of people meditating affects the behaviour of the non-meditating community at large, not just those who are meditating rather than stealing cars. (But I'm not accusing TM recruits of being criminals here!). This is precisely why I add that meditation helps only the meditator and no-one else. Clearly, if the meditator resurfaces behaving better/ worse then his actions will have an influence on the world itself. In that sense it does indirectly help or hinder us all.