As I sit writing this I have just finished a three day retreat at a Buddhist monastary nested in the moutains outside of Gyeongju, South Korea. While there I woke up at 4 a.m., chanted, spent several hours a day in meditation, engaged in light martial arts training, and ate no meat.
The primary reason I went was for the meditation experience, which unfortunately was not emphasized in this trip. I’ve been a practicing meditator for several years now and I was looking forward to pushing my exploration of the mind. Luckily I was able to accomplish this in a small way by simply not attending the obvious tourist fluff and meditating on my own. I stopped going to the martial arts demonstrations and training, skipped tea time, didn’t go to the extra chanting services. Instead, I meditated in my room or in a newly-constructed building designed for that purpose. I snuck up to the temple once and meditated in front of a statue of Buddha, bathed in candlelight and silence, with only the eerie and mysterious artwork on the walls to watch me and keep me company.
On the last full day I was there, I climbed a mountain in a light drizzle as night was falling. When I got to the top I looked out at the valley and the hills, the same ones I had watched the sun rise over in the dawn hours, and saw the rain falling in sheets and clouds shrouding the peaks in mist.
I didn’t know what to do but be still beneath the towering Buddha carved into the rock and smile at the enormity of it all. Sometimes there just aren’t words.
Though it wasn’t what I expected, I don’t regret spending the money. At $50 a night it was less than some hotels charge, and the food was unexpectedly good, to say nothing of the amazing setting. I also learned a few things. Primarily, I don’t need to do a templestay to meditate well. To this day the most powerful experience I’ve ever had meditating came in my living room, after an hour of alternating sitting and walking meditation. My attention stabilized in a way it never had before, and I was able to watch the erratic flow of my own consciousness as it went past me. I felt more inside my own body than I ever had before, like it wasn’t something that I owned but something I was. I got just enough of a hint of what is possible to convince me that it’s worth pursuing. Sometime in the near future I may do a silent retreat of my own, and I’m currently mulling over ways I can effectively do that in my apartment.
I do think setting is important. The most popular essay I’ve ever written, over at Rogue Priest, presented the view that rituals like chanting in the candlelight can foster mystical states. I base this on my own past experience as a born-again christian and on the testimonies of various secular pagans whom I know personally and whose work I’ve read. If I meditate intensely for the next few months, the point may come where doing a genuine monastic silent retreat is exactly what I need.
At my current level, however, it takes more than art and statues to still my mind at 4 a.m. It takes lots of coffee, and there wasn’t any to be found. So, I regret to report, these meditation sessions were not particularly fruitful. By the final day I had enough stored tension in my back and joints that even 30 seconds of sitting was difficult, to say nothing of 30 minutes. I was ready to go home.
Now as you read these opening statements you may be wondering what use an atheist could have for meditation.
Quite a bit, as it turns out. It’s true that I think the sinister intersection of fundamentalist religious thinking and 21st century technology might be the greatest threat the modern world faces. And I also believe that there are elements of religious practice — like genital mutiliation and and belief in transubstantion — which are patently absurd and wrong and cannot be rejected forcefully or quickly enough by thinking people. If we are ever to pull ourselves by the bootstraps from the swamps of ignorance and into a better existence, vast swaths of what now goes by the name ‘religion’ will have to be dispensed with.
But religion is ancient and complex. To reject God is not to say that there aren’t threads of great value woven into the tapestry of the world’s faith traditions. There are questions of tremendous importance to human beings, like what consitutes the good life, which have mostly been addressed by religion and philosophy. Though I understand the haste to move people away from religious dogma, I worry that we risk losing something in the process.
Meditation counts among the handful of useful techniques which are embedded in a religion and are worth salvaging. I’m drawn to it in part by two things:
1) it is pursuable in a completely secular context and requires no faith whatsoever.
2) even brief periods of meditative introspection can shed light on the workings of the mind.
We’ve all likely had the experience of having a very full head, where our thoughts prevent us from going to sleep at night or make it difficult to focus on whatever task we’re performing. But the extent to which I am perpetually lost in my own internal monologue is truly astounding. If you don’t think this applies to you, spend the next thirty seconds trying to control and direct this mental flurry. Hell, spend the next thirty seconds just trying to observe it without getting caught up in it.
Difficult? Yes, yes it is.
In this situation your attention is like a hiker and your conscious mind is like a roiling avalanche perpetually bearing down on him. The previous sentence was composed while I was trying to meditate. First came the metaphor of the hiker and the avalanche. Then I returned to focusing on my breath. I smiled internally, because the metaphor seemed clever. Back to breathing. Within ten seconds I was casting around different drafts of the sentence, trying out various phrases. Back to breathing.
Over the span of an hour I waged and lost this war for what seemed like a thousand years. Needless to say, I didn’t check “become enlightened” off my bucket list that day.
What I’ve studied of buddhist philosophy suggests that Buddhism (and to some extent Hinduism as well) begins from a radically different point of departure than Western science and the enlightenment. Buddhism starts with an empirical exploration of the mind. In the millenia since this project began, numerous traditions and mental technologies have been developed to foster insights into consciousness, along with much in the way of religious baggage.
In the West, by contrast, the role of the observer is minimized as much as possible and there are thinkers who believe that the notion of introspection is flawed and incoherent. I can sympathize with this. Psychology has revealed that introspection is susceptible to profound error, and we must be careful in drawing conclusions about the universe based upon what we find when we turn inward. But none of this suggests to me that practices like meditation are useless. On the contrary, reports from experienced meditators and a growing body of neuroscientific evidence point to the opposite conclusion. Meditation, stripped of pretension and bullshit, can be pursued to great reward by secularists and atheists.
What’s more, It may turn out that we simply cannot explain how it is that matter gives rise to consciousness. If this is true, then a sophisticated science of first-person exploration will be the only way of getting to certain truths about human consciousness.
Regardless, it seems that meditation can present a way for a person to more fully be a participant in their own experience. It’s possible to notice and modulate mood more effectively, to better steer oneself towards happiness, and to notice the intricacy and beauty that the world presents us in each waking moment. Though I have yet to find them myself, I also believe meditation to be a compass for navigating to the most expansive continents of well-being and happiness that can be found within the landscape of the human mind.
Such as this I’ve learned while sitting.
I didn’t do any “research” for this essay in the conventional sense. But there are several essays which I’ve read and re-read and re-read that have shaped my thinking on this subject profoundly. I feel they should be mentioned here at the end of the essay.
1) “Dancing with the Gods”, Eric Raymond
2) “Drugs and the meaning of life”, Sam Harris
3) “What’s the point of transcendance” Sam Harris
4) “On spiritual truths”, Sam Harris
5) “Killing the Buddha”, Sam Harris
6) The writings of B. Allan Wallace should be mentioned as well. His books include “Mind in the balance”, “contemplative science”, and “embracing mind”. I don’t endorse his metaphysics, but I’ve found him useful nonetheless.
7) These thoughts have appeared elsewhere before:
-“What atheists believe too”