Neuroscience. Buddhism. Meaning. Consciousness. Brain. Body. Culture.
There's a lot of threads woven into a pretty persuasive view of things in a Tricycle interview with Evan Thompson:
Thoroughly grounded in Western and Buddhist philosophy and learned in science, Thompson has been dedicated to cross-cultural and interdisciplinary dialogue between Buddhism and cognitive science for over two decades.
Give it a read. The piece is just the right length. Not too long. Not too short. Readable in a single spiritual philosophical sitting. The only reader comment (at the moment) also is perceptive.
I liked how Thompson is skeptical about the whole Buddhist "as it is" thing, the mistaken notion that somehow it is possible to look upon our own mind as if we were peering through a microscope at something outside of ourselves.
It was early in your career—you were a doctoral student—when you cowrote The Embodied Mind. Looking back, do you have any regrets—things you would have changed, knowing now what you didn’t know then? There was a certain way we talked about mindfulness that I now think is wrong. Sometimes we described it as a special kind of inner observation that lets you see the way your mind really is apart from being mindful—as if your mind were a box and your looking into it revealed what was there all along.
...I object when people reduce practice in this rich sense to a tool or instrument. Some people use the analogy that meditation is like an inner telescope: Outer science uses physical telescopes for looking at the stars, and inner science uses meditation for looking at the mind. I don’t like that analogy. It makes you think of your relationship to your own mind in an instrumental way.
Your relationship to yourself is precisely not an instrumental one. A telescope is a tool for looking at something separate and distant. Meditation isn’t like that. If you think that awareness is an instrument that enables you to look within, on that analogy you’re thinking of the inner realm as one of objectivity—except it’s not, because it’s subjectivity.
If you think of meditation that way, you can’t help turning your mind into an object, which is precisely what the mind is not. So here I think there is an important difference between meditation and scientific observation, despite the importance of concepts for making sense of both. Meditation can be very powerful and transformative: it can be very generative of insight, deep understanding, and connectedness. But not because it’s an instrument or tool that enables you to see a hidden inner realm.
Thompson also scoffs at the possibility of always, or maybe ever, experiencing reality without concepts or mental frameworks. That idea, of course, itself is a concept, a mental framework. There's no getting outside culture, upbringing, prior experiences, habits, learning.
Is the problem you are getting at the widespread assumption that mindfulness meditation is not mediated by concepts? Experience and concepts are interdependent. Whether there are nonconceptual modes of experience is a complicated matter that both Buddhist and Western philosophers have argued about a lot. But in most cases of human experience you can’t have one without the other.
Take science. Here you observe things, of course, but you can’t see them properly unless you have the right concepts. If you just look through a microscope with no guidance on how to look at what you see, you have no clue what you’re looking at. Even if you’re doing high school biology, you need to have concepts like “cell wall” or “organelle”—to say nothing of what’s happening at the edge of scientific discovery, where you’re using new imaging technologies and learning to see things. So observation is happening there, of course. But also a lot of conceptualizing.
Similarly, if you go on a Vipassana retreat, you may spend the first day or so watching your breath, but then you’re given a system of concepts for practicing mindfulness—concepts like “moment-to-moment arising,” “pleasant versus unpleasant,” “sensation,” “intention,” “attention,” and maybe some categories from the list of elements, or dhammas, in Theravada Buddhist philosophy.
It’s a silent retreat, so this is the only thing you hear, and everyone else around you is doing the same thing, so this shapes how and what you experience. You get a powerful and socially reinforced conceptual system for making sense of what you experience. That system in that context may help to bring about certain nonconceptual experiences, but the minute you start thinking about them—which there’s no way to avoid doing—you’re back in the land of concepts.