A SCEPTIC’S VIEW OF MEDITATION

Posted: July 26, 2015 in Chat
Tags: , ,

I have had the opportunity of observing through practice how meditation works on a number of occasions. I have used the TM method: transcendental meditation, and the methods used by another group.

I am aware of the changes to mood and sense of self such practices bring. I have, though, over time and with reflection become dubious of the practices that go under this description.

This questioning was partly prompted by an exchange with an academic. We discussed various items and also meditation. The person signed-off by saying they had that summer attended a guided meditation, and through it had achieved one of the four meditation states of the Buddha. The exchange was around a text I had sent.
The person had not properly read the text, and so made many errors in their comments. I have had opportunities to observe the person in discussion before and after their guided meditation experience. Personality-wise there was no difference. The person may feel they have had a worthwhile and life-changing experience – but there were no indications to the objective observer that anything was different. The person was no more tolerant, open-minded, astute, observant or understanding.

We cannot know, of course, how the person would have been otherwise. My structure of argument here suggests the person could have been worse off.

So much how structuring.

To be aware of the short-comings of one’s structures is a workable way round this. What the structure also suggests is that the expected outcome would be one of incontrovertible change in behaviour and cognitive abilities.

So much for expectations.

There was an objective study of meditation published by Oxford University Press. The conclusion was to the effect that on the question of relaxation, and deep rest, meditation appeared no more beneficial than normal relaxation methods.

There have been times I have wondered whether meditation aids the absorption of the problems we are taught it helps dispel: they become us and so no longer appear as outside and disruptive. Meditation usually is part of a bigger learning package – does the practice help us absorb what we learn, and so become what we study, which is usually an identity, whether of a holy person, enlightened  being, or whatever the aspirational image put forward?

My overall conclusions about these practices are that on the whole their aim is to get the follower to lead an exemplary life.

It employs a form of Pascal’s Wager. Pascal wrote addressing gamblers and atheists that it  was much the better gamble to follow God and Christ’s teachings, on the basis that if it turned out there was nothing in it, then they would have lived an exemplary life to the benefit of all. If it turned out that the belief (part of the old faith vs revelation basis of religiousness) then they would be ‘rewarded in heaven.’

What are experienced as the ‘states of being’ the system has the follower experience are foregrounded normal peripheral states, usually encountered  on the edge of sleep or in trance/daydreaming.

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Comments
  1. Daedalus Lex says:

    You don’t seem overly skeptical to me. If meditation yields the same physical and psychological benefits as “normal relaxation methods,” then it presumably accomplishes much. (This depends on how you define the very broad “normal relaxation methods,” of course; e.g., if one normally relaxes with two pints of Guinness in front of the TV, the results may be different than 30 minutes of deep, slow breathing in a stationary posture that facilitates tranquility.) Meditation’s advantage, as you point out, is that it usually accompanies a holistic lifestyle adjustment toward tranquility and good will. However “incontrovertible change in behaviour and cognitive abilities” may set expectations too high. Over a long period, one would hope for this, but many people may be able to find some level of internal stability without those incontrovertible differences being obvious. My sense is that meditation fosters inner growth and a reflective aspect of identity that has been largely lost in the bustle of modernity. Works for some people and does no harm in others, anyway. As far as the transcendental claims, it’s interesting to compare meditative states to what Timothy Leary said about LSD.

  2. Thanks enomously for your comments! I always LSD hard work. I suppose I was really writing about transcendental states, which as you point out cannot be quantified. Thanks once again. Good man!

  3. saijanai says:

    TM is what results when you go through the official 4-day long TM course. You may have actually done this, but your wording, “I use the TM method,” suggests that you have not done so, or perhaps you did, but brought a lot of misconceptions to the table when you went through the class, and the class wasn’t sufficient to enable you to get rid of them.

    TM isn’t really a method, period.

    • Thanks, and I appreciate your response.
      I did complete the TM 4-day course. It was way back in early 1970s.
      How do you classify a misconception, other than by saying there are such as a clear-cut meanings? My difficulty rests partly on the doubt that such things can exist, that are not simplifications. The mind is so devious – how do we know that practicing does not enable us to create what we think should be there ie clarity, emptiness, peace etc.

      • saijanai says:

        “The mind is so devious – how do we know that practicing does not enable us to create what we think should be there ie clarity, emptiness, peace etc.”

        .

        Well, research on long, long, long term TMers (average 15,000 hours of TM and related practices) asked them to “describe yourself” and these were some of the responses:

        * We ordinarily think my self as this age; this color of hair; these hobbies . . . my experience is that my Self is a lot larger than that. It’s immeasurably vast. . . on a physical level. It is not just restricted to this physical environment

        * It’s the ‘‘I am-ness.’’ It’s my Being. There’s just a channel underneath that’s just underlying everything. It’s my essence there and it just doesn’t stop where I stop. . . by ‘‘I,’’ I mean this 5 ft. 2 person that moves around here and there

        * I look out and see this beautiful divine Intelligence. . . you could say in the sky, in the tree, but really being expressed through these things. . . and these are my Self

        * I experience myself as being without edges or content. . . beyond the universe. . . all-pervading, and being absolutely thrilled, absolutely delighted with every motion that my body makes. With everything that my eyes see, my ears hear, my nose smells. There’s a delight in the sense that I am able to penetrate that. My consciousness, my intelligence pervades everything I see, feel and think

        * When I say ’’I’’ that’s the Self. There’s a quality that is so pervasive about the Self that I’m quite sure that the ‘‘I’’ is the same ‘‘I’’ as everyone else’s ‘‘I.’’ Not in terms of what follows right after. I am tall, I am short, I am fat, I am this, I am that. But the ‘‘I’’ part. The ‘‘I am’’ part is the same ‘‘I am’’ for you and me

        .

        The researchers also compared the responses of people who had not learned TM or who had been practicing it for only a few years, and received an entirely different set of responses. To make sure that the long-term TMers weren’t just playing mental games with themselves, the researchers also study the EEG and other physical behavior of all groups that they interviewed, and found consistent physical differences in the brains of each group.

        The research is summarized in this review paper:

        https://www.researchgate.net/publication/261181813_Transcendental_experiences_during_meditation_practice

  4. Hi, and thank you for your comments – all very welcome. The aims of all my blogs are to stimulate thought and provoke questions.
    On that basis let me tell a little story: I was deep in emails with someone, discussing Out of the Body Experiences (OBEs). The person signed off my saying that summer they had successfully achieved a guided meditation based on one of the Buddha’s main ones (?). It had little to nothing to do with the subjects discussed – why tell me? Did they want my applause? Accreditation? This tied in with their not really taking on what I had said earlier. I could only conclude that Meditation is wonderful for the practitioner, but does it change anything in the person, and more importantly, in society?
    TM UK once stated that by setting up groups throughout cities that the character and nature of society would improve. They did, and it has not, of course.
    It had not made the person I emailed more acute, more considerate/ empathetic.

    To use a rhetorical device I deplore, reduction ad adsurdum, you could venture to say meditation, like drugs, are another of self-pleasuring.
    I reiterate, I am here to question and provoke thought.
    I hope for some means of betterment; I suspect it is all a matter of perception.

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