Do materialists meditate?

18 Jan

I don’t believe an intelligent force is guiding evolution. I do believe, pace  Marx, that the ways humans organise themselves to produce and reproduce the material conditions of existence – rather than ideas of any kind, let alone metaphysical ones – are the ultimate drivers of human history. That makes me a mat­er­ialist. As it happens I also meditate.

After years of abstin­en­ce I now spend fifteen minutes a day in stillness. That’s less than the two hours a day and upwards I used to commit but, after some six thousand hours of doing that, I saw – call me a slow learner – little evidence that so huge a slice of one’s waking hours spent doing nothing at all brought observable and commensurate benefit: to me or anyone else. A few minutes once or twice a day on the other hand …

My interest in meditation was sparked by the hatha yoga I’d begun in the early nineties, the most effic­acious of various responses to a bout of unprecedented depression. Occasions of unusual and blissful ‘centredness’, while holding an asana, instilled a sense of wellbeing that tempted me to take things further. Formal meditation looked promising and I read widely on the subject. Then a friend lent me a cassette tape, Medit­a­t­ion is a metaphor for enlightenment. It and others by the same ‘spiritual teacher’ – let’s call him Andrew – led me to a cult but that’s another subject, too big to subsume under this one. Whatever else his tape did or had me do it set out, in terms refreshingly simple after the obscurantism I’d hitherto encountered, both the case for and a method of meditating.

That method involved neither mantras nor funny business with thumb and forefinger. It did not insist on cross-legged or lotus posture, and emphatically did not have as its goal the stilling of the mind, blissful though that can be. Andrew did advocate bodily stillness, on the ground that the true goal – independence from the mind – is more easily achieved that way. He never made a big deal of stillness though. Better to make the occasional adjustment of position, he’d say, than be distracted by pain for the hour or more he called for. And while he had much to say on transcendance and non-dual experience, these were never for him the main event.

The idea was to sit still and allow thoughts and feelings to rise and fall, like a conversation in the next room we choose not to engage with. That’s it: the alpha and omega of the approach. It takes a little practise, especially when the mind runs wild and we’re tempted to think we’re fucking up. We’re not. We can’t in any lasting sense control our restless internal experience but the good news is we don’t have to. Indeed, the very idea that unwelcome thoughts or turbulent emotions mean Something is Wrong reflects the superstitious relationship to mind this way of meditating seeks to change. Andrew put it this way. Walking down the street we experience a fine and uplifting thought and conclude, consciously or not, that we are noble and generous souls. Later, assailed by a mean-spirited thought, we conclude we are horrible. But for anyone observing, nothing has happened. Inner experience is a frequently unreliable guide to outer reality, and useless as an indicator of anything I’d recognise as moral worth. We are defined not by the content of our thoughts but by what we do; the choices we make. Believing otherwise – again, consciously or not – and acting on that basis is what Andrew called a superstitious or wrong relationship to our minds, and by extension to life itself. I have considerable sympathy with that view.

Meditation in Andrew’s book was neither a goal in itself nor a path to peace; at least, not in the sense of the blissed out states widely depicted as the objective. Rather, it takes as its starting point the fact we cannot simply will a shift from wrong  to right  relationship with mind; that’s too big an ask. We must first take the less challenging step of cultivating no  relationship to mind, in a situation where it is safe to do so. From this perspective the purpose of temporarily withdrawing from the world and its demands – a world of causality in which engagement with thought cannot be avoided – is to discover that we are not our minds, and to rest deeply in that awareness. But here’s the thing. In every ‘spiritual’ discipline I’ve heard of, that awareness is linked explicitly, though the form of words may vary, to two existential questions: who am I? and why am I here?

The second question implies teleology and an intelligence-driven cosmos – implications I as a materialist don’t buy. The first, I hear, is one to which neuroscientists Sam Harris and Vilayanur Ramachandran, and linguist Stephen Pinker, anticipate empirical answers where we once assumed them irresolvably matters of religious faith or philosophical axiom. I should read those people, and I will, but meanwhile have little to say on the ability or otherwise of meditation to advance such inquiries, other than that the literature out there, with teachers ten a penny, could keep you occupied for a hundred reincarnations. Mind how you go though. It’s a bit of a jungle.

I’ve no rigorously gathered evidence for what I’m about to say next. What I came to conclude is that we may spend half our waking hours meditating, with no discernible lessening in the other half of that superstitious relationship to mind. Indeed, there may be evidence for the opposite. I saw the possessors of inquiring and admirably capable minds surrendering both independence and authenticity in ways truly dismaying. I saw Andrew – and read of others like him – deified as a Living Buddha*, a misconception I attribute in large part to the extraordinary charisma lack of doubt can confer. This would be the Andrew whose tantrums, paranoias and outrageous narcissism bore eloquent witness to his own lack of independ­en­ce from the play of his mind. But that too is a tale for another day.

So why meditate, especially when your worldview is materialist? Because for all he got wrong, I think Andrew and others like him are onto something with their insistence that we are not our minds; that our minds are better as unruly allies than arbitrarily tyrannical masters. Ten minutes or so, at start and/or end of the day, sitting quietly as we allow thought and emotion to move as they will – neither embracing nor pushing them away –  is a worthy discipline in its own right. Sometimes you’ll want to spend more than that; on rare occasions much more. There have been times when I’ve meditated hour after hour without break; troubled times, when I craved detachment for its own sake and nothing more. Don’t expect miracles is my advice, and don’t believe all it says on the tin. Chances are you’ll still be doing the crazy stuff you’ve been doing all your life, but with a marginally bigger perspective on the craziness. No big deal, you say, but then ten to twenty minutes a day is no big ask either.

* We may wonder: what’s the point of a Living Buddha? Buddha, Christ and all the other superdudes of history are far more use to us dead, where we can say what we like about them and justify all manner of behaviour – from torture to land grabs – in their name, without fear of contradiction: “where the fuck did I say that, let alone claim divine infallibility … ?!?!”

6 Replies to “Do materialists meditate?

  1. Terrific piece Phil – telling it like it is. It takes a long time before that sinks in. You may earn the soubriquet “B******” Master and can fill in the dots as you like.

  2. In my opinion, most people who meditate nowadays are materialists and meditate to achieve some mundane goal or cure some disorder. Mindfulness to reduce stress, to lose weight, to be more successful…

    • I don’t have evidence either way on that, Charley, but agree that “mindfulness” is now a buzz word. I’d agree too that meditation is often touted as cure or tactic in the ways you suggest, though your use of ‘materialism’ differs from mine. It’s not a better or worse use; just different. I mean materialism in the sense of believing all phenomena to have material explanation and that there is a real world “out there”, about which our senses can in principle deliver accurate information. I think you mean behaviour motivated by material reward. It’s likely that many of those who meditate for worldly success are, epistemologically, idealists not materialists: believing in Intelligent Design, say, or that the drivers of history are ideas rather than the human imperative of engaging collectively with nature to meet material needs.

      My use is narrowly technical and morally neutral: we can have greedy materialists and altruistic idealists. Equally though, we can have altruistic materialists and greedy idealists.

  3. we are not our minds that is key – have you read The Master and his Emissary? Tough read, but fundamentally about how logic and language and rational thought are the rather ill-equipped emissaries that can never really convey the fullness of who we really are. I see meditation as not an escape from material reality but a much more firm connection to how things really are, when you strip away the rationalisations and magical thinking that steer us generally through life

    • Hi Sue. I bought Master & Em a few years ago on the rec of a friend. Never got on with it, alas, and last saw it on an Oxfam counter with a bunch of ties I no longer needed. I agree with you on meditation – and absolutely on your first five words – though I have on occasion used it, if not as escape, certainly as respite.

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