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Meditation and Self

Michael R Finch

The title of this essay describes its content. It sets out my stall, as it were, and sets the scene for the following essays. It also has an unorthodox interpretation of the Buddhist Four Noble Truths.

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I started meditating seriously in 1968. I have been meditating consistently and committedly since then, sitting to meditate almost every day since then. Thirty one of those years (1970 to 2001) were spent as a dedicated follower of an Indian guru, Guru Maharaji Ji (aka Maharaji, aka Prem Rawat, who I write about extensively on this site).

The word 'meditation' can mean different things to different people, and it has meant different things to me over the course of those years.

While it is important to ask what meditation is, I think it is equally, or even more, important to look at the reasons for doing it, the context in which one practises it. I believe that meditation must be purposeful, and the exploration of that purpose is an important adjunct to actually doing it; in fact, I find that such exploration can be a meditation in itself.

I will thus defer a definition of meditation, and begin by looking at a viewpoint of the human condition that I believe meditation to be an apt response to.


The Context Of Meditation

I will structure my view around the Buddha's Four Noble Truths. My interpretation of them is different from the traditional view, and I am much indebted to David Brazier[1] who provides the framework for my analysis.

I take the Four Noble Truths to be invitations to view the human condition as a set of statements about dukkha, a Sanskrit and Pali concept often translated as 'suffering'. While it is interesting to try to find a one word translation of dukkha that fits, what the word dukkha actually means is provided in the first Noble Truth, which can be regarded as a definition of dukkha:

1) The noble truth of dukkha is this: birth, old age, sickness, death, grief, lamentation, pain, depression, and agitation are dukkha. Dukkha is being associated with what you do not like, being separated from what you do like, and not being able to get what you want. In short, the five aggregates of grasping are dukkha.

To me, this is much more than 'suffering'; it defines the human condition. It attempts to capture our most basic embodied fact. Lakoff and Johnson[2] claim that the most basic embodied fact is our awareness of the spatial grid we live in; Eugene Gendlin[3] claims that it is our environmental situation. A third possibility I propose is dukkha:

Intellectually, dukkha is the mental distillation of millions of years of evolution, of striving for the competitive edge, of never being satisfied with second place, of perpetual restlessness. Evolution is a game that the individual cannot win; genes drive us to compete and propagate, but we are not propagating ourself as an individual, but our species as driven by the selfish genes. The sociobiological roots of greed and attachment to possessions go deep into our evolutionary past.[4]

So I think of dukkha as our most basic embodied fact that drives the activity in our everyday lives. How we typically deal with it is provided by the second Noble Truth:

2) The noble truth of dukkha samudaya is this: it is thirst for self re-creation which is associated with greed. It lights upon whatever pleasures are to be found here and there. It is thirst for sense pleasure, for being and not being.

Samudaya is usually translated as 'the cause of', and this second Noble Truth is usually taken to mean that the basic cause of our suffering is our desires and passions (literally 'thirsts'). I think this is a pale ghost of a more profound meaning.

Samudaya can be taken to originate from two Sanskrit roots sam- meaning 'with', and -udaya which is cognate with our English 'up'. Brazier therefore translates dukkha samudaya as 'coming up or arising with dukkha', which I believe is the correct understanding.

Therefore the 'thirst' in the second Noble Truth refers to our response to the fact of dukkha, as well as how we perpetuate dukkha. Dukkha propels our actions; it is the source of our passion, our energy, our human desire to do things, whether trivial such as brushing away an irritating fly, to basic human functions such as obtaining food to satisfy our growling stomach, to sublime and life-long projects such as investigating existence itself.

Later Buddhism has built whole psychological systems on this second Noble Truth. I will discuss one interpretation of this 'arising energy' as 'thirst for sense-pleasure, for being and not being' later. For now, I wish to point out that these first two Noble Truths are things that happen to us, things that we have no control over. We live embodied lives, and we are thereby compelled to act. In the Buddhist view, these two Truths are the whole story for most people, describing the ongoing cycle we live through since our driven actions are usually unskillful, and simply the breeding ground for more dukkha, which drives more unskillful actions and directions for our energy or passion.

With the third Noble Truth, we come to a statement of what we can skillfully do about the fact of the first two Noble Truths:

3) The noble truth of dukkha nirodha is this: it is the complete capturing of that thirst. It is to let go of, be liberated from and refuse to dwell in the object of that thirst. Nirodha is usually taken to mean 'cessation', and in the traditional interpretation of these Four Nobles Truths, this is a statement that it is possible to end suffering, and the fourth Noble Truth (the Eightfold Path) is the way to actually accomplish that.

Brazier makes a case that nirodha can be derived from early Sanskrit ni- meaning 'down', and rodha meaning a bank of earth, and he translates the word as 'containment'. This third Noble Truth is thus a statement that we can contain, or I prefer 'transform', our passion and energy in a skillful way. I regard the traditional Buddhist view that our goal is the cessation of dukkha as impossible, or even meaningless, for embodied beings; and the traditional view that the way to this goal is to train oneself to be passionless, I find cold and abhorrent.

The Buddha used several images or metaphors of fire to illustrate his teachings. Brazier takes such an image, and fits it to his interpretation of the Noble Truths. Our passion, our impulse to act, is like fire. The cause of the fire is the sparks of dukkha, which catch the tinder of our being. Unskillful dealing with the fire leads to it burning out of control, and consuming us. However, it is possible to contain and transform the fire, so that it can be used in a skillful and useful manner. Uncontrolled fire is dangerous and harmful; controlled fire is useful and beneficial. If a fire is contained closely on all sides, we call this an oven, which focuses the heat and which can be used for many useful transformations, such as baking food or pottery.

I take as 'meditation' the daily act of consciously controlling this fire. It is my practical observation that when I fail to do this effectively, I live inefficiently. I live on the surface of life; I allow negative and harmful emotions to drive me. When I meditate on a daily basis, I am both more in control, and can let myself go, and know which is appropriate in the situation I am in. Negative and harmful emotions drive me less, I can see through them, in a sense. I live with humor, relaxation and emotional intelligence; that is what I call living efficiently.


Meditation As An Interaction

Meditation is often seen as an attempt to discover or find within oneself a 'oneness', a unity, the 'true Self', upon finding which the problems of life will be solved. I think this is naive and impractical. And if there is a oneness that is discovered, it could not be experienced, let alone talked about or described.

I thus prefer to think of meditation as an interaction, which entails at least two things that interact. Based on my Viewing the Viewpoints essay, I take these to be my subjective view and my objective view of my immediate experience.

I think of the analogy of a potter's wheel. To transform the spinning lump of clay into a pot, the potter needs one hand inside the not-yet-formed pot, supporting it and allowing it to have form. She also needs the other hand outside the pot, shaping it and actually giving it the form that the inside hand allows to be.

Both hands are essential. Without the inner hand, the outer hand would just collapse the half-formed pot back to a lump of clay. Without the outer hand, the inner hand would spin the clay off the wheel and scatter it over the pottery. I take my subjective view to be the inner hand, not forming, but allowing form to happen; and the human drive to pattern as the outer hand. The pot will only be created through the use of both hands.

I can take the analogy further. Both hands must belong to the same potter. Two potters making a pot, one with his hand inside the spinning clay, and the other providing the outer hand to form it, would not work. There needs to be an interaction of the two hands that is rooted in the same awareness or consciousness.

When I sit to meditate, I am both the clay and the potter. My meditation is a creative act creating from the interaction of my sense of immediate experience with my urge to form and pattern. It is this creation, both the act of it, and the result of it, that transforms my fire.

I am tempted to write about placing my created pot in the oven of my contained fire, but that is mixing my metaphors too much.


To Be Enlightened By All Things

This quote of Dogen[5] is more fully: 'to forget the self is to be enlightened by all things'. The commentaries on what this actually means are many.

Definitions of 'self' are also many, and tricky. I borrow some terminology from cognitive science, and define 'subject' as the locus or source of my awareness. Lakoff and Johnson[2] show that the relationship between subject and self (or selves) can be explicated in any detail only using metaphor.

What follows is my metaphor for using 'subject'; whether cognitive science agrees with this or not, I don't know. I believe it does, but even if it does not, this is still how I am going to use the term:

'Subject' is the source of my consciousness. It is not only what looks out, but also what looks in - in short, it is what 'looks'. I can definine it negatively by saying that if I can hold anything at arm's length (metaphorically) and examine it, or even be aware of it, then it is not 'subject', it is 'other'.

Clearly everything that I regard as outside myself, whether physical objects or cultural concepts, is thus other, and not subject. But when I examine my inner life, and my mental concepts, everything I can conceive of I can metaphorically hold at arm's length also, thus they are not subject.

Our everyday use of language supports this view. I talk about 'my thought', 'my anger', 'my neural system'; I have this impulse or that complex. I thus designate the 'subject' by the personal pronoun 'I' or 'my' or 'me', and put any mental object I can conceive of in relation to it as other. I can also of course talk about and conceive of this 'I', but then what I am holding out at metaphorical arm's length is only a concept of subject, and that is other; subject itself cannot be held at arm's length, by my definition of the term. It makes no sense to say 'my me'.

But it does make sense to say 'my self'. So I picture a tripartite structure consisting of, first, a subject, which is itself structureless, or if it has any structure I can never know it, since I can never objectively conceive of it. What is not subject is then either 'self' or 'other'. But since I am calling everything that is not subject 'other', I find on this analysis that what I commonly call my 'self' is in the realm of 'other', only it is the 'other' that I regard as close to me, as defining me in a psychological sense, as my 'inner world'.

I believe this to be the correct interpretation of the Buddhist stance called anatta, usually translated as 'not-self'. We infer a subject, and divide what the subject is aware of into two parts: self and other. The exact boundary between self and other is variable. In some contexts, my self is my body and mind, as when I am thinking of myself as a human being, a unit. In other contexts, I might not include my body, or at least the external limbs, as self. In other contexts, I may well include my immediate environment or situation as my 'self', defining myself by my car, house, family, tribe or even country.

I interpret the Buddhist endeavor of anatta to be to shrink that boundary so that 'self' as a separate perceived entity ceases to exist, there is only an observing subject and other - the 'all things' of Dogen's quote. Of course, I am not suggesting that in conventional social usage we do not use terms such as 'my self'. I am suggesting that thinking in this way is a practical, precise, useful, and skillful way of approaching meditation. The actual use of this schema in a meditation sitting I come to in a moment.

As a practical point in Buddhist psychology, the 'self', roughly as I have described it, is considered a defense against dukkha. In the second Noble Truth described above, dukkha samudaya, the energy arising from living an embodied existence, is 'thirst for sense pleasure, for being and not being'. The thirst for sense-pleasure is the first line of defense, whereby we typically react to the unpleasantness of living by distracting ourselves with pleasure. The thirst 'for being' can be thought of as creating a self, defining ourselves in such a way as to create a separation from 'other'. On this view, 'self' is like a fortress we construct from which we can safely view the world. The final defense is 'not being' - oblivion, destruction, and ultimately suicide.

This is a view that I have some sympathy with, and it resonates with me. However, it can be viewed negatively, and Buddhism is often thought of as negative, self-denying, and seeking extinction. I maintain that if you consider 'self' to be what I have described as self plus subject, then the outlook of the Buddhist view is indeed bleak. However, by making the distinction between subject and self in the way I have done, I consider the message extremely optimistic, allowing for a fruitful interaction between subject and 'all things'.

I have one further point to make on Buddhist psychology. The early Buddhist scriptures often talk about the 'six senses', which reads oddly to the westerner, who thinks in terms of five senses. The first thought is that they divide the senses up differently, but no - five of the six senses match exactly the western view (sight, hearing etc), but the sixth is the 'mind' (mano-vijnana in Sanskrit). And it is treated qualitatively just the same as the other five senses. To a westerner, the mind, with its contents and rich structure, is quite different from the senses, which are viewed as the portals through with the mind interacts with the world.

I believe the key to this puzzle is provided by Caroline Brazier[6]. If one shrinks the boundary of 'self', so that there is only the structureless primitive subject, and all else is other, then what we think of as inner mental contents become other, and viewing our mental contents is similar to viewing external objects with the sense of sight. The 'sense' that is responsible for this is mano-vijnana, often translated as mind or intellect, but probably more accurately as 'imagination', or even 'the mind's eye'. It is what we see with when we have a vivid dream, for instance.


A Program For Meditation

Elsewhere on my website, I write that I put my faith in my awareness. I agree with Lakoff and Johnson[2] that to discuss awareness in any richness involves using metaphor. Two common metaphors for awareness are that it is a container, containing what it is aware of; secondly, that it is like a mirror, reflecting what is (the Zen Buddhist approach). A third metaphor is used in the early Buddhist scriptures, that of a man sitting up looking at himself lying down, and it is this metaphor that I believe provides a workable and sustainable meditation program.

The Buddha talks of a sitting person looking at a person lying down. In fact, from the Pali you can translate the people as being the same person. So I read the Buddha as saying you are lying down, but you can at the same time sit up and be aware of yourself lying down.

But the analogy continues. Having objectified your awareness (the lying down part of you) and become aware of it (the sitting up part of you), you can then 'bootstrap' that, and objectify again your awareness, and then become aware of that. The Buddha says that the sitting man can then stand up, and from the standing position observe himself sitting (and presumably still lying down as well).

This recursive process is what I maintain lies at the heart of the meditative process, as I understand it. It is the attempt to objectify the experiencing subject, and see that what was previously thought of as subject is lessened by what you have objectified, and can now see as other. And in so doing the subject is reduced further in experience to the structureless primitive that it is - and somewhat paradoxically, as a result becomes wider, more expansive and more embracing.

Thus, by saying I put my faith in my awareness, I am not saying my awareness is infallible. Nor am I saying it is the only agent that benefits me, nor the only agent with which I make optimum decisions.

However, I think I allow the universe to do its best for me when my awareness of it is right. By that I mean, that when I can observe from the subject (no self) all things as 'other' (no self) then I allow all the 'other' - my body, cognitive unconscious, other people, the world, the universe - to work their best for me. I am 'enlightened by all things' as Dogen says.

So to have 'faith in my awareness' does not mean I have to be aware of everything, noting everything and consciously keeping everything going. On the contrary, if I put my faith in my awareness, then I can allow it to cradle my universe and all things in it, to contain all things as 'other' (switching to the awareness-as-container metaphor), and that I believe is the best I can do. That is how to transform my fire.



I have suggested that effective meditation is the interaction of my witnessing subject with the other, and the recursive process of reducing the boundary between the two so that the subject, as the structureless source of my awareness, becomes, in a spatial metaphor, a point - vanishing boundary, no dimensions, structureless - and the 'other' becomes 'all things', the space of which the point is part.

Certainly in a typical meditation sitting, I am very conscious of my body and its presence, and of my thoughts and their presence. By viewing a bodily sensation, for example, as other, I am not rejecting it or pushing it away. On the contrary, by allowing it to be as other, I allow it space to be, to express itself freely, the intricacy of it to bring forth what it will. And I allow a relationship to develop between it and the observing subject.

I also believe that meditation must be born out of a context, a coherent world view. I outline a context that I feel deeply and strongly makes sense: my embodied existence impelling me to act, to feel, and to think; the fire of passion. Reacting to this fire of passion in a typical unskillful manner leads to more pain and affliction than I really want.

Meditation is creating a specific situation in which I can contain or transform my fire in a skillful way. I do this by reducing my common-sense tripartite division of subject, self and other to only two: subject and other. The process by which this is accomplished is by recursively self-reflecting, being aware of my awareness, in such a way that self shrinks to the single point of subject.

One final point: the value of medition must be how it alters behavior. I am not after some enlightment on the meditation cushion, but how my life can be changed for the better, both on and off the meditation cushion.

So faith in my awareness does not mean to have faith in it as the ultimate doer. In fact, just the opposite: my faith in my awareness is that by shrinking the boundary of self that normally surrounds me, so that there is only the one point of subject (source of my awareness) and all else is other, then and only then can I allow myself to freely be - my body and its wisdom to care for me unhindered, my love for others to be full and unconditional, and the world to teach me whatever it will.



[1] David Brazier 'The Feeling Buddha' (Palgrave, 1997)

[2] Lakoff and Johnson 'Philosophy In The Flesh' and other writings

[3] 'Language Beyond Postmodernism', ed David Levin; Gendlin's reponse to Johnson. Most of my use of Gendlin's words comes from his responses to the various articles in this book.

[4] Sean Robsville, in an article I obtained from the web, and can no longer find.

[5] Eihei Dogen, 1200-1253, Soto Zen founder. This quote is from his 'Shobogenzo', which he himself revised, so there are different versions, as well as hundreds of translations.

[6] Caroline Brazier 'Buddhist Psychology' (Robinson 2003)

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