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.
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.
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.