‘Meditation’ is a word thrown around a lot and most people think it is something you do. You can sit in ‘the lotus’, like a latter-day buddha with batted lids, and strike some cool ‘mudras’ with your fingers or hands. Or you can sit in a chair if you have dicky knees, with palms on your thighs. Then comes the real doing - you “om” your way to enlightenment; or “shema” to the rhythm of your ruach; or “maranatha” till the spirit arrives.
Or you may visualise someone divine and hope some of the picture rubs off on you. Or you may download an audio of a seductively relaxing voice, guiding you onto an emerald green golf course or into the sapphire blue waters of your own private sanctuary, there to connect you to the deepest wellsprings of your being - or show you how to make a million bucks.
But do these pleasant activities - good and useful in themselves - go to the heart of meditation?
What if :
Meditation is the art of non-doing.
If true, guess what? Can’t do the thing, let alone teach it. That is, can’t teach a method to meditate. Yes, claims abound on teaching meditation methods; yet don’t discount that what is being taught is not meditation per se but some related thing like the overcoming of distractions or the management of anxiety.
It makes sense to ask “how” where method is possible. Step by step one can reach the goal. All this appeals to our modern, westernised, tech-touting, target-obsessed mentality. Goal-setting, planning and sequential doing is the domain of activity; meditation is alert passivity. Goal-setting preps activity, and is fuelled by desire. Meditation is receptivity, and therefore is not about the gratification of desires and wants.
Concentration is a tensioning power of the conscious mind that can sweep all distractions off the table and adopt a single focus. It is much prized in our competitive society, because it underpins goal-setting, productivity and achievement. The counterbalancing disposition is meditation, which allows everything onto the table, as it were, without the editing, judging, culling and discrimination. This relaxing of awareness lowers anxiety and promotes recreation, artistic inspiration, multi-tasking, genuine religious sensibility - and a host of other benefits.
Take the optical analogy. Anyone with specs appreciates seeing something in focus versus seeing it in fuzzy outline, where borders can blur and objects intermingle. But this can be uncomfortable. An Impressionist painting shows us a slice of the world where boundaries dissolve and objects enter into the mystery of each other - and this can be pleasant. An example of such a painting is shown above - Monet's "Venice at Dusk".
Concentration keeps the content of consciousness in focus. Meditation is more like an Impressionist’s painting. The one excludes content judged insignificant. The other includes content to represent wholeness. Concentration exhibits a haughty manner, as though to say, “Chuck it out of court - it’s irrelevant!” Meditation says, “Bring the poor little thing inside; let’s hear what it’s got to say”! Both dispositions of consciousness feed cognition. Concentration feeds through logic - which is actually a method, ensuring some part of the perceptual landscape is not confused with a different part. Meditation, as we’ve stressed, is no method. Yet it feeds cognition through intuition. Intuition offers immediate insight into the structure of a whole situation. It reveals how the observer is one with the observed, and how each observed thing is contextualised by every other.
Take a deep breath and a sip of something.
Don’t zone out unless you’re cultivating a “multi-tasking” perspective.
Because there’s never been a more exciting time to get excited about epistemology and its relationship to metaphysics and ontology!
Getting the difference between concentration and meditation helps you understand the beautiful perfection of the relationship between existence, consciousness and identity. Mind and matter are recognised as old mates, and you stop losing sleep over the creation-evolution controversy. You also 'get' interfaith dialogue, because meditators can identify with the funny little people over there who dress differently from themselves.
To sum up : at ICR we do not attempt to teach meditation per se, but we do attempt to teach the recognition of barriers, tensions and impediments to meditation, both in theory and practice. More on this next time.