Part I – Chapter 4
Theory and practice.
It is well to distinguish meditation practice from the theory of meditation.
The present text is a ‘discourse on meditation’, for which a term ending in ‘–logy’ ought to be coined if one does not already exist. This text is not itself ‘meditation’, although to be honest it is intended to record insights obtained during meditation sessions, to develop a theoretical understanding of the nature and function of meditation, and thus to serve as a practical guide and inspiration, and help the author and others find ways and means to improve meditation. Such a text might thus, in the limit, be viewed as itself a meditation, in the sense that it is intended to intensify one’s awareness – but, nevertheless, reflecting on meditation should not be regarded as a substitute for actual practice of meditation.
There is on the one hand the activity of meditation per se, which involves some technique like for instance ceasing to think discursively; and on the other hand, we may be thinking about or teaching meditation, even while trying to meditate. The latter is in a sense also a sort of meditation, but it is less directly, less purely so. The latter is a means, whereas the former is its end. Theory is no substitute for practice, and may even in many circumstances constitute a formidable hindrance. Discourse is often helpful, and maybe even necessary; but at some stage, it must be stopped to allow meditation proper to proceed.
Meditation is something that ought to be done, rather than something to be talked or written about, or heard or read about. To forever only think about and/or discuss it – is to engage in a sort of sterile mental masturbation. The popular injunction “Just do it!” applies here, as it does in sports. One has to be pragmatic about it and get on with it, practicing regularly, and learning and advancing by doing.
Moreover, although meditation may be broadly defined as a de facto “pursuit” of increased awareness, in practice it is not lived as a goal-orientated activity. It is most successful to the extent that one succeeds at eliminating such other-direction from one’s mind, and one acts in a “goal-less” manner. The reason for this is that, at least with regard to meditation, focusing on a goal, however ethically justified, distracts one from the means, and therefore reduces its effectiveness.
For this reason, it is necessary to behave in a paradoxical way, and having decided once and for all to meditate, one forgets all about the goal and concentrates on the means. Such “squaring of the circle” is admittedly not always easy. But no one said meditation is always easy. It requires willpower, effort, perseverance, and much ingenuity and skill. To get anywhere worthwhile, a price has to be paid.
However, although efforts must be made, and sustained, and sustained – at some stage, meditation gets to seem effortless. This is not so surprising, if we consider that the means and end of meditation are essentially one and the same – more consciousness.
Once meditation is understood to be at its best when freed of ulterior motives, one sees that there is no “bad” meditation session. Every session should be viewed as successful and beneficial – even if one did not have a noticeable positive experience, even if one only experienced difficulty throughout. The benefits are often subterranean and incremental – as becomes clear after months or years, when one suddenly realizes one’s situation has considerably improved over time. All time spent meditating is valuable; the effect is cumulative. The mere act of meditating is “like money in the bank”!
The meditator should not attach to any particular scenario of meditation. Usually, the session starts with difficulties, and ends on a higher note. Sometimes, on the contrary, a session starts “well”, and then seems to degenerate. At other times, the best experience (if any) seems to occur in the middle of the session. But it does not matter how it goes, because it is not the purpose of meditation to give us impressive or pleasant experiences. When encountering turbulences, one should rejoice at having gotten the chance to discover them. Such encounters are the real value of meditation, without which the underlying difficulties would remain unseen and untreated. One cannot clean up the house without raising dust.
Concerning theories, I do not see why a synthetic (or more pejoratively put, eclectic or syncretic) approach is to be excluded at the outset. Many teachers recommend a single spiritual tradition be chosen and adhered to, rather than trying to construct a patchwork from various sources. One problem with such picking and choosing is that one tends to select what seems personally easiest, which does not necessarily make up an effective pathway, and may even in some cases be very misleading. Nonconformity is often just hedging one’s bets – and often a risky, razor-edge path; some would call it spiritual brinkmanship.
On the other hand, an advantage of spiritual individualism is that one is more able to avoid getting bogged down in ideas and rituals that have no real bearing on meditation, but are the accretions of centuries of popular superstition and clerical religion. Also, one can tailor one’s means more precisely to one’s specific needs. Moreover, the different traditions undoubtedly have things to teach each other. A jack-of-all-trades is a master of none – but special qualifications can sometimes take you out of a bind that others were never trained to handle.
In any case, in the course of meditation, it is certainly wise to keep all interpretative doctrines at bay, or in dynamic equilibrium, and concentrate single-mindedly on here and now experiential factors. For meditation is not the taking up of a particular point of view, but an attempt to integrate or transcend them all.
Doctrines are worth studying as helpful guides; they often protect one from errors or preempt foolishness. Nevertheless, they should not be allowed to control one’s spiritual life to such an extent that one gets to lose touch with obvious realities. They are useful tools, but one must remain critical (in a healthy-minded way), and conscious that they sometimes overly inhibit spontaneous research and discovery. To my mind, there is a human element in all doctrines, and we should never surrender personal intelligence and accept them blindly. We should be prepared to distill the essentials from the non-essentials in them.
Meditation is a natural and universal practice, common to all people and peoples (and perhaps even all higher animal species). Nevertheless, different cultures have emphasized different techniques, experiences and interpretations of meditation. However, such divergences ought not be excessively stressed in our study of meditation: what is amazing is how much disparate cultures converge in their purposes, methods and results.
Whatever their doctrinal variations, these different traditions have in common a very human yearning for “spirituality” and efforts to improve in that direction. The realization of spirituality is the identification of oneself with something beyond, or over and above, the physical, and to some extent mental, concerns of everyday life. It is the initial realization that there is more to life than these materialist concerns. A “spiritual person” is someone on his or her way to, or who has come to, this initial realization – as evidenced by interests in thought and commitments in action.
Meditation practice is one common expression of such realization. It is a pursuit of redemption or salvation (in some sense of these terms) – a personal, and eventually collective, soteriological endeavor. But it is ultimately religiously neutral – its power and value is biological and neurological, independent of any religious preference.
However variously they interpret it, all those who discover the practice of meditation consider they have found a precious treasure. It is, over time, a powerful aid to self-improvement, helping us unravel knots deeply buried in our psyche, gradually clearing it of all cognitive, attitudinal or behavioral difficulties. Just as a seed one plants in one’s garden takes time to become a seedling and a mature plant, then to flower and bear fruit, the results of meditation unfold over some time.
 I do not know the classical Greek term for ‘meditation’, which could be used as prefix here. Perhaps the Aristotelian term for practical wisdom, phronēsis (Gk. φρόνησις), can be used in a modified sense; whence, “phronetology” or maybe “phronetics”. Or perhaps we should prefer the Epicurean term for lucid tranquility, ataraxia (Gk. ἀταραξία); whence, “ataraxiology”. These are just amateur suggestions.
 As the Talmud puts it: “Who is wise? He who learns from all men… ‘From all my teachers I have gained wisdom’” (Sayings of the Fathers, 4:1).