I've reached a point in my churchless evolution where most religious, spiritual, mystical, and metaphysical writings now irritate me more than they inspire.
Even my big collection of Rumi books sit dustily on a shelf -- though I went through a period not long ago when I couldn't stop immersing myself in Rumi's enticing prose and poetry.
Buddhism is a sometimes exception.
Sometimes, because my attraction to Buddhist literature depends on how non-Buddhist it is. I like "Kill the Buddha" stuff, where the author urges us to throw away Buddhist dogma in favor of our own personal experience, even if it conflicts with venerated scriptures and traditions.
And I enjoy the practical side of Buddhist meditative practices. There's pretty solid scientific evidence that meditation can change habitual brain patterns, leading us to a higher "set point" of happiness and compassion.
This is why I bought the latest issue (September 2010) of Shambhala Sun when I shopped at the natural food store yesterday. The cover enticement sucked me in:
How to Meditate. Our annual all-teachings issue answers your questions about Buddhist meditation practices for mind, body & heart.
I was attuned to this subject because of a brief email that I'd received that very morning from a regular Church of the Churchless visitor, Catherine. She said:
Thanks for the ongoing thought-provoking posts. I have always held vipassana meditation in fairly high regard, but was very interested to read ' A critique of vipassana meditation as taught by Mr Goenka.' accessible through Google Search. He questions all that is admired and held as fact by practitioners and I found myself clapping.
This shows the highly positive side of Buddhism: most people who are involved with Buddhist practices, in the West, at least, are very much open to challenges of the sort Harmanjit Singh made in his above-mentioned critique of vipassana meditation.
Download Critique of Vipassana meditation (this also can be read on the web)
It's a lengthy critique which I've only skimmed through. And it focuses on a particular variety of vipassana training involving a lengthy retreat/workshop.
This passage caught my eye as a valid overall criticism of some Buddhist meditation approaches, as well as other practices that encourage detaching one's awareness from things of this world.
Two thousand years of dissociative spiritual practices in India have changed the psyche of its people so deeply that they genuinely consider this earth and the universe as a subjective creation with their only loyalty or faith (howsoever half-baked) in some God or in some other non-physical realm.
Hence, they regard any occurrence in the outside world only with as much importance as it interferes with their own life. The awareness that there are other subjective entities, and the civic responsibility and order this awareness implies, is understandably absent in Indian society. The Indian psyche is already dissociated from the world to some extent.
Dissociative practices, which claim to make one the pure observer, are very attractive to the Indian mind, which finds suffering all around and wants an individual, solipsistic and non-material way to find happiness, howsoever illusory.
Which claim to make one the pure observer.
Mr. Singh precisely describes my main gripe with many Buddhist writings, along with the teachings of other faiths that proclaim the possibility of human consciousness detaching from the human brain into some sort of ethereal realm of perfection.
In a couple of other posts, here and here, I've questioned the possibility of "pure awareness."
This notion simply doesn't fit with what neuroscience knows about how the brain works. We all possess a hidden brain, where much (or most) of our experience is filtered and processed without our knowledge before it pops into conscious awareness.
So when I sat down with my copy of Shambhala Sun this morning, highlighter in hand, it wasn't long before I started putting yellow question marks into the page margins next to passages like these (italicized emphasis is mine):
If you have an itch, for example, mindfulness feels the sensation of itching with no agenda to get rid of it. It is the bare knowing of experience. When you're mindful, the mind is fully present for what's actually happening.
...We see our thoughts and feelings just as they are, without any positive or negative spin. We see our longing and vulnerability. Through soft awareness on breath, mind, and physical presence, our concentration strengthens and we being to accept this view of our inner life naked before us.
...Insight meditation turns the mind away from delusion, our confused notions about ourselves, others, and our world. It turns the mind toward the reality of things as they truly are.
Wow. There's so much unjustified grandiosity in these claims, which are opposed to modern scientific understanding about how the hidden brain/mind works.
Bare knowing. Actually happening. Just as they are. Inner life naked. As they truly are.
Many Buddhists actually believe this stuff, that through their many hours of meditation they're able to enter into an experience of suchness and thus so'ness -- which supposedly is an awareness of things as they are, not as they seem to be to deluded minds like you and I have (I'm assuming you aren't an enlightened Buddhist practitioner; if you think you are, congratulations).
Every human being, without exception, knows reality through his or her own idiosyncratic brain filters. Experience leads us to see things in a certain way, then our seeing feeds back into our experience in a never-ending cycle.
I do believe that meditation and other forms of mental training can help us become more aware of what's going on in both our inner and outer world. However, these awarenesses are of reality as we know it, not reality as it is nakedly, purely, actually.
This is why we need science and reason: to balance our all-too-human tendency to believe that how we see the world is how it really is. Here's how Shankar Vedantam puts it at the end of his excellent book, "The Hidden Brain."
Making the unconscious conscious is difficult because the central obstacle lies within ourselves. But putting reason ahead of instinct and intuition is also what sets us apart from every other species that has ever lived. Understanding the hidden brain and building safeguards to protect us against its vagaries can help us be more successful in our everyday lives.
It can aid us in our battle against threats and help us spend our money more wisely. But it can also do something more important than any of those things: It can make us better people.
For all the ways this book has shown how the rational mind is unequal to the machinations of the hidden brain, this is also a book that argues that reason is our only bulwark against bias.
Our hidden brain will always make some criminals seem more dangerous, and some presidential candidates seem less trustworthy, because of the color of their skin. Terrorism, psychopaths, and homicide will always seem scarier to us than obesity, smoking, and suicide.
The heartbreaking story about the single puppy lost at sea will make us cry more quickly than a dry account of a million children killed by malaria. In every one of these cases, reason is our only rock against the tides of unconscious bias.
It is our lighthouse and our life jacket. It is -- or should be -- our voice of conscience.
Oh, I sooo agree with you on this one! It probably explains why I stopped at philosophical Taoism and tread no further into Eastern mysticism. The very idea that we humans can somehow detach ourselves from the worldly world -- including ourselves -- borders on delusion.
This is not to say, as you stated, that practices like meditation cannot help each of us find inner calm and a measure of peace of mind. But it just gets too utopianistic for me if someone suggests we can reach nirvana by sitting cross-legged on the floor and chanting OMMMMMMMM...
Posted by: The Rambling Taoist | August 03, 2010 at 01:24 AM
"...Insight meditation turns the mind away from delusion, our confused notions about ourselves, others, and our world. It turns the mind toward the reality of things as they truly are."
--Has anyone, engaged in this 'insight' meditation, and actually experienced(using a turned mind) a particular reality of a particular thing as it truely is? The non-conceptual, nonknowable of this particular thing? Take a particular thing and tell me what it truely is. I need to know this.
Posted by: Roger | August 03, 2010 at 10:33 AM
Roger, I'd like to know also. Excellent question. If you asked my wife, she might say that her "suchness" experience of our stainless steel kitchen sink informs her that it needs to be wiped down after any use that gets water drips on certain visible surfaces.
However, my "suchness" of a sink is that the damn thing is supposed to have water put in it, so it should be able to handle water drops and drips. Two different suchness'es. To me, that's the way life is -- though my wife would prefer that I see the sink "just so" as she does.
(Lest I appear less than the aspiring compassionate Buddha nature that lies somewhere under the surface of my lazy egotistical sink-unwiping self, I am doing much better with the sink where I brush my teeth at night.
It looks pretty good to me after I wipe it down, though as I lie in bed reading I can hear my wife touching up the spots that didn't meet her "suchness" standard of how a sink should look after it's been used.)
Posted by: Brian Hines | August 03, 2010 at 10:44 AM
Yes, there are a variety of non-meditated "suchness" regarding a stainless steel sink. Could there be a non-suchness? If so, I too would like to experience.
I think someone could reach nirvana by sitting cross-legged on the floor and chanting OMMMMMMMM. The "reach" conceptualized nirvana could be interpreted as an "inner' calm, as well as a "measure" of peace of mind. I can reach "this" nirvana mowing my lawn, so no big deal.
Posted by: Roger | August 03, 2010 at 12:07 PM
One problem I see here is the human propensity for exaggeration and absolutism, another is the vagueness of abstract language and the nature of subjective experience. Language is already vague enough without concrete referents and proper context before it gets stretched into a different creature altogether by human imagination and desire.
To be more precise, "Seeing things as they truly are" has a specific meaning in Buddhist practice as described in the early texts, namely anicca, dukha and anatta, or impermanence, dissatisfaction and impersonality, the three marks of existence, not of the universe and its contents, but specifically of living things.
To say more is to exaggerate and a great many do. The Buddha's intent was not to expound on the nature of the universe, which he refused to do on numerous occasions, but to encourage a way of life that reliably led to happiness. For that he points the practitioner to the practice of moral restraint and generosity and an inspection of our subjectivity.
So this 'seeing' is to involve the full realization of these 3 processes, the fact of death which makes us selfish and selfishness which brings us misery,( to grossly simplify.)
Furthermore, with continued insight practice (vipassana) the commentaries of the Pali canon specify a sequence of twelve specific insights one gains as one's faculties of observation increase. What's important here is that the technical language employed, while being as specific as philosophical language can get about the mind, is essentially a map of human cognitive and perceptual processes. Not at all the airy New Age vacuity of the spiritually inclined and which even some seasoned practitioners get into. There is some innate inclination to gloss over inconsistencies of logic and to paint language with broad colorful strokes. I don't know, maybe it's psychologically reassuring.
When it comes to understanding meaningless phrases like "seeing things as they truly are," context is everything. Most people make up their own context rather than seek out clarification. It seems to be a common human failure (or what we do naturally to interpret unclear information) and I'm as guilty of it as anyone.
Now, it is my understanding, in the context of early Buddhism and especially in light of the anatta doctrine (no-self, impersonality,) that "seeing things as they truly are" is the process of observing that MY thoughts didn't come from ME nor are they MINE but can be observed to simply arise and fade (anicca, impermanence) without MY involvement.
While this is a subjective view of the objective reality of the processes of identity and mind, that is, subjectivity, I think it is a rather amazing parallel to the modern ideas of conscious and unconscious processing. While the Buddhist realization is not about the 'hidden brain', it is indirectly descriptive of the workings of the same physiology. Now a metaphysically minded practitioner might be tempted to conclude that there is an independently detached awareness observing the mental activity, but that is an inference based on supposition, not a direct observation.
These days we would call it meta-cognition, the brain's capacity to monitor some of its own activity. Much of Buddhist practice is just that, metacognition particularly the proper application of 'mindfulness' (satipatthana) and 'right effort' as indicated in the suttas. "Seeing things as they truly are" employs metacognition or self-awareness.
Posted by: Ric | August 05, 2010 at 10:30 PM
Ric, thanks for the perceptive comment. I agree with most (if not all) of what you said. Your view of "as it is" Buddhism is akin to what I've read in some non-religious'y Buddhist writings -- where the notion of seeing things as they are is taken to mean recognizing the "emptiness" of awareness.
In other words, knowing that everything and everyone is interconnected.
We aren't isolated blobs of pure awareness, as some non-dual writers seem to suggest. How we see things is a product of all sorts of causes and conditions, which are processed and reflected in the human brain/mind -- and increasingly well understood by neuroscience.
Posted by: Brian Hines | August 05, 2010 at 10:38 PM
Like Mr. Singh, I think that human consciousness is such that it can question the ancient teachings, the method of going about increasing or refining consciousness, the preconceptions that Buddhists hold about the nature of the mind and thought, fundamentals of belief particularly after lengthy efforts on the meditation cushion. His critique is mainly to do with a style of teaching Vippassana, not so much with Buddhism.
Posted by: Catherine | August 06, 2010 at 01:13 AM
Again, a wonderful post with some details lost on my because of my lack of experience with meditation of this sort.
I'm curious. The last section where you quote the Hidden Brain implies to me that reason is untrustworthy because of our innate biases. BUT that reason is still needed because without it we'd be even more lost. Hence your interest in science and reason to balance the excesses of ...other claims?
Have I read that right?
Posted by: Jonathan Elliot | August 07, 2010 at 04:25 AM
Apart from Ric I think you all missed the point in cluding the otriginal blogger. You need to understand terms such as "bare knowing. Actually happening. Just as they are. Inner life naked. As they truly are" to come with the underlying assumption (not directly spelled out but assumed in all good Buddhist teaching) as meaning you are seeing the itch or your feelings about the world or your mental processes as they really are which is precisly that they are products of what is being reffered to here as the hidden mind. Meditation and the understanding that flows from it are exactly this process of coming to understand that this known, conscious world is a product of a deeper process. Meditation is watching the unfolding of that process of construction of consciousness from "hidden brain" in real time. We do this to be able to take that understanding into the daily world and hopefully no longer be fooled that what we percieve as reality is anything more or less than a construction.
If the teachers quoted in the magazine assume us to have that underlying interpretation (and I will bet they do) then you are criticising a group of people who are in almost 100% agreement with you.
Posted by: Gerard | August 28, 2010 at 01:34 PM
Gerard, you might well be right that when Buddhists speak of "pure awareness," they really mean "awareness of how biased, subjective, individualistic, and clueless of unconscious influences the human brain/mind is."
If so, I stand corrected. And reassured that Buddhist meditation practice is in harmony with modern neuroscience.
I just get a quite different impression from most Buddhist writings -- where the notion seems to be that meditation leads the practitioner to see things more clearly, as opposed to being more aware of how unclear the human brain/mind sees.
Posted by: Brian Hines | August 28, 2010 at 02:13 PM
Hopefully, for the sake of Buddhists, their paractice leads to "seeing things more clearly" rather than "being more aware of how unclear the human brain/mind sees." In which case they would not know if they were seeing more clearly or not which would mean that their practice has not resulted in clearing anything up at all. Clearly this would make it unclear why Buddhists would practice at all.
Posted by: tucson | August 28, 2010 at 04:26 PM
I can within duality, one "seeing things more clearly." Bringing clarity into a dualistic unknown.
Likewise, with non-duality, one could do some sort of activity to, "being more aware of how unclear the human brain/mind sees" such non-ness. The no-seeing of no thing.
Am I missing or obtaining the point?
Posted by: Roger | August 29, 2010 at 11:28 AM
Wow !! Heavy shit !!!😯
Posted by: Andrew | September 17, 2015 at 09:33 AM