Heidi Oran at The Conscious Perspective has kindly asked me to write a guest post about meditation for her Monthly Mentor series. Please visit her site, have a read, and let me know what you think. Follow us both on Twitter @conscious_blog @EricRSchiller.
It’s annoying to me when politicos criticize their opponents for “flip-flopping” on issues. Anyone actively seeking enlightenment will tell you that changing one’s mind and opinions is part of the process. It would be nice if politicians were actively seeking cultural enlightenment. Partisanship and one-sided thinking leads to a lack of adaptability.
In the early stages of successful meditation it’s common to have the realization that we are more than just our bodies. We are minds that think and feel, process information, and create new ideas. Except in reproduction and the physical activities of arts and crafts, creativity happens in the mind. Soon the meditator might feel like they are a Mind, first and foremost, that uses the body like a tool.
The belief that “I am a Mind” might lead to metaphysics, belief in God or gods and ‘upper realms’, questions of ontology, spiritism, eschatology, and all sorts of non-physical contemplations. Suddenly one might feel one is more than a mind and settle on the conclusion that “I am a spirit”. Mind and body seem like lower realms caught up in maya, the world of form and matter (in other words, the transitory illusions of everyday life).
As one’s observational powers improve, the mind-blowing successes of early meditation don’t come as often. This could easily lead the practitioner to believe that their experiences of God or higher spiritual dimensions were neurological aberrations brought on by physiological exercises. It’s common for meditators (particularly in Zen) to come back to the firm realization that “I am my body”.
Flip-flopping is part of the game of life, as all life is subject to change. The ability to change one’s mind on big-ticket ideas is actually a good thing, and I would sooner trust a politician who changes his or her mind than one who stubbornly sticks to idiotic beliefs.
A changing world needs a changing brain. Part of changing our brains is contemplating different points of view. The following points of view helped flip-flop me closer to my goal.
Raj Yoga by Swami Vivekananda
As far as I’ve read this is the essential book on the mental side of yoga (of which the physical yogas form only the preliminary). Vivekananda guides you right into theory and practice with direct examples and a sense of playfulness that can carry you through the various humps and dry-spells that are inevitable in this kind of activity. Compared to many of the other, older Indian books on yoga, (like the Shiva Samhita) this one has only a moderate amount of culturally-specific symbolism to decipher. It uses the analogy of the conscious mind as a monkey, jumping about from branch to branch on the tree of knowledge, squawking and eating whatever it can, but resting only in sleep. The techniques in this book can help calm that monkey down, but it goes far beyond that. This is enlightenment training. I recommend this text for anyone who wants to get serious about meditation.
Collected Fictions by Jorges Luis Borges
While all his work seems great, I’m mostly thinking of the two short story collections called The Garden of Forking Paths and The Aleph, both of which are contained in this one handy unit. This is fiction at its most potent. When I used to read Philip K. Dick I would see a blurb on the jacket claiming that Dick was the “homegrown Borges”, and when I finally got around to reading the Argentinian-grown Borges, I found the analogy to be a good one. Reading Borges is a lesson on narrative economy and big ideas. His stories range from historical realism to mystical fable to flat-out fantasy, and his ability to condense huge ideas into short stories is unparalleled in anything I’ve read. Many feel that Borges reinvented the short story and I can see why. Because of the power and brevity, Borges offers the most bang for your buck. I recommend Borges for writers, mystics and intellectuals.
“A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that that patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.” – Jorge Luis Borges, from the Afterword to The Maker
Magick by Aleister Crowley
Aleister Crowley was a mountaineer, chess master, poet, writer, yogi, black magician, white magician, philosopher, heroin-addict, bisexual sex-addict, “wickedest man in the world”, and all around great guy. His corpus of writing is immense, and Magick might be his most comprehensive masterwork. Detailing necessary training, tools of the trade, philosophical grounding, practical techniques and mystical symbolism, this massive work gives the reader just about everything they need to start practicing real magick. So what is magick? It is the art of causing a change in conformity with the Will. Ceremonial magic has been around for thousands of years and it’s still practiced today. Even with the modern advancements of neuroscience, psychoanalysis and depth psychology, the techniques in this book remain effective. Get to know the strange agencies that live in your subconscious and affect real change in your behaviors and thoughts. The best part of this work is that Crowley tells the reader to avoid imposing any objective validity on the spirits, sephiroth, symbols and so-forth, and simply pay attention to this fact: when certain actions are performed, certain things happen. Things can get weird with this one, so I don’t recommend it for anyone who isn’t mentally and physically healthy. It is for serious students of the occult.
I frequently see signs for something called the School of Philosophy. Usually the ads ask vague questions like, “Can philosophy make me happy?” or, “What is the meaning of life?”, and they’ll show a little person staring off into a bright white expanse. Though I never seriously studied philosophy in school I did take a class about reasoning skills. But philosophy has always interested me, so the advertisements usually catch my eye, though I always felt there might be something fishy going on here.
“Yes they are.” – Eric R. Schiller.
If I said, “The best doctors aren’t doctors,” someone should quickly respond, “then don’t call them doctors, idiot.” Using a word twice in the same sentence with two different meanings is very confusing. Maybe this doesn’t bother people, but it does bother people.
Language is our most fundamental tool for externalizing ideas. When language is used improperly it creates misunderstanding. This might be because language, improperly used, is a symptom of muddled thinking. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that there is value in a snappy slogan. Corporations like McDonald’s use them all the time. But McDonald’s wants you to give them money and eat cow. I expect more from a “school of philosophy”.
If you read any of the big philosophers, the first part of their major works generally define the terms they will be working with. The language must be unequivocal. Even where there might be confusion, differences in meaning must be strictly delineated. Otherwise ambiguities build up as you read, compounding the confusion until you’re left with a bunch of ineffective ideas and a headache (but a really toned brow).
This seemed like the worst kind of ad for any School of Philosophy, assuming the school aims to promote clear thinking. So I looked at the website, which is very vague. There is no hint of any real lesson plan. I did see pithy quotes from philosophers on the site, then read that “Writings and sayings of great philosophers such as Plato, Ficino, Shakespeare and others, set the stage for enlivened discussions based on personal experience.”
I then read that the school was founded in 1976 and later, in the 60s, was influenced by Eastern philosophy. This is not the only mistake on the site. They inspire no confidence in their ability to teach me clarity and wisdom. Besides, in my opinion, real knowledge comes from self analysis, not slogans.
But lo and behold, they do teach meditation. I soon discovered a strong undercurrent of Hinduism on the site. It seems like a secularized, modernized, and disguised school of Hindu philosophy and I doubt it takes any serious look at philosophy at large, but grabs pieces that fit and ignores piece that don’t. I’m not terribly surprised.
This isn’t all bad necessarily. There’s value in learning the language of philosophy so we can think about these things fluently. But I wonder if $185 per course is worthwhile. Anyone interested in philosophy can go to the library and discover at their own pace for free. So what does that $185 tuition buy me?
The School of Philosophy is not for profit. And according to their website, all their instructors volunteer their time. So where does the money go? With no diploma and no course text, it seems that the money goes into the pocket of the person hired to collect it. After paying, the registrant is allowed to sit in on discussions between other students and instructors. So what are the qualifications of the instructors? It appears they are all former students.
Curious, I clicked “Registration” button. The message I received was “Fatal Error”.
Touché. The site seemed to have collapsed under my piercing scrutiny.
I definitely agree with meditation and yoga as a road to knowledge and wisdom. You might point out that yoga came from the ancient Hindus. But that doesn’t make Hindu philosophy right. To believe that would be to make the philosophical error known as a syllogistic fallacy. “I believe yoga works (A). Yoga comes from the Hindu tradition (B). Therefore I believe the Hindu tradition (C).” This is false logic. Reasoning skills!
So if you’re interested in learning about philosophy, go to the library before you shell out $185. The internet is such a repository of knowledge we can learn almost anything on our own, even meditation techniques. Or better yet, just send me $100 and we’ll talk over coffee.
If you’re interested in “living in the now” so the universe can rain gifts of bliss down on you, sit still and take notice. Last night was possibly the best meditation of my life. Today gifts of free music rained down all day. So full-screen these beauties, sit back, and open up to the mystical transmissions of Yo La Tengo, David Bowie and Roy Montgomery.
YO LA TENGO
The different types of music I’ve listened to throughout my life seem very clearly to be a reflection of how I saw myself at the time. I’ve played a lot of different types of music in my life and these too seem like outward expressions of my inward states. This seems like straightforward logic, and it should have been fairly obvious, but it’s impossible to say with certainty whether I was drawn to those types of music because of my state of mind, or if I found the music and it then affected my state of mind.
In high school I didn’t meditate. I listened to a lot of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath instead. I had an interest in drums and my parents were masochistic enough to get me a kit. I made a ton of noise in the basement of Mike Beauchamp until we decided the world needed a new band, so we formed The Moon Patrol, after the Atari game. In those days, mentally, I was going a hundred ways like most high school kids and the music showed it. It was loud, influenced by rock, blues, punk, funk, dub, metal, and we had fun and burned off a lot of steam.
By University I began to think meditation might be for me. I read somewhere that David Lynch used Transcendental Meditation, and since I wanted to make films like his, I looked into it. I never went through with the TM course, but reading books about meditation (The Science of Being and the Art of Living, by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Raj Yoga by Swami Vivikenanda) did start me towards understanding and having the language to speak about states of mind. It was obvious to me that toning down the level of noise inside my mind would be a good thing. A few frustrating attempts at meditation didn’t lead anywhere because I think I was more excited to read about meditation than actually do it. But finally a few techniques got me over the hump and I began toning down that chaos.
Coming out of The Moon Patrol I started playing guitar. Banging around on drums was great, but there was something missing. Naturally I sucked at guitar pretty well, but I knew I needed a bit of melody. Friends in another band were having differences of opinion on – what else? – the “direction” of the band. I settled in jamming with these guys. The music didn’t have any definite direction at all. It just built and flowed and didn’t change much, and we all loved it.
Bloemfontein (with friends Brian, Matt, and Mike) was more like cinema score than anything you’d hear on the radio. (A little while after we started playing regularly, a similar band Explosions In the Sky got quite big scoring the movie Friday Night Lights.) There were almost no scripted changes in the music. We’d just start playing. Sometimes the music would build or shift or get quiet and it would just flow along until it broke apart or petered out. It was so simple we were almost embarrassed at how much we liked the way it sounded. We actually listened to this stuff. We played a ton of shows around Windsor and people actually came out and got into it too.
None of the music was abrasive. Some was cheery, some was sad, but it was almost all mellow. The music would just settle in and become almost background to your own thoughts. That’s how I remember it, anyway. And at the time I was getting very used to analyzing or simply observing the flow of thought during meditation.
But then I hit a wall in meditation. I could quiet my mind, but only to a point, and that point shifted around seemingly at random. I now think of this barrier as the intersection of three factors: 1) my will to master my mind and quiet things down in there; 2) my mental inertia (a pattern of scattered thoughts, loosely controlled for twenty years and change); and 3) my fluctuating frustration with meditation based on my successes and failures, how I slept, what I ate, and a host of different typical anxieties.
So despite some early successes quieting my mind, I could no longer reach that point where the mind lets go. When the rational mind lets go you can sometimes feel a surge of bliss and a feeling of unity with everything. I’m pretty sure that this feeling is something we can all feel. I think it’s what they mean when they say “religious ecstasy”. That feeling is what I was after.
Right around 2001 Bardo Pond put out their album Dilate and I saw their live show. Now, this music is distorted, druggy, and full of noise, so it might have turned me off. But it definitely turned me on. I realized that you can get back to that bliss feeling, that feeling of dilation, by soaking your mind in noise. That was a total revelation for me and I became a devotee immediately. And I mean devotee – the music had a the feeling of gnosis to me. I’ve had two out-of-body experiences at their concerts. Actually.
So of course Bloemfontein’s music became a playground for noise. I had a Line 6 Delay Modeler that, to this day, is one of my best purchases. I’d layer guitars with different levels of delay and distortion until it was just a droning wall that would slowly build up under the melody. So before you realized what was happening you’d be just buried in sound. I couldn’t get enough. I stayed up for hours just playing, looping, layering things by myself in a dark basement until it was time to go to school the next day.
I also read all sorts of far-out stuff at this time, from the Tibetan Book of the Dead to David Icke. I loved alternate histories, disinformation, postmodernism, and anything that blended truth and fiction. And the stuff I read led me to other art forms, artists, ways of thinking. Once again, I cannot trace the causality of my own mental influence perfectly. I can only point out signposts. I know that Pavement came before Guided By Voices came before The For Carnation, but can’t define the why of it all.
It’s been a long time since Bloemfontein played together, and I’ve since developed new techniques for meditation. But lately I’ve been feeling like I need something more. In meditation I’m adding about five minutes of mental exercise to my regular routine. The urge to make this addition just came recently, but with it was the urge to play more music. I’ve been banging around on an acoustic guitar for years and I’ve worked out a lot of new material that’s a far cry from anything I’ve done before. At the end of the day I don’t care if one causes the other. Because whether it’s music or meditation, I just want something that gives me that feeling of ecstatic union.
I’ve recorded a scant few tunes since I’ve lived in Toronto. This one, called “Homecoming”, is only a demo so the quality isn’t great. But it’s probably as close as I’ve come to blending quiet and noise in one track. I recorded it under the name Dwale, an archaic term for a delirium-causing potion. Beware…it’s very, very mellow.
The first steps on the road to enlightenment are fairly simple. Here’s what you do: 1) Sit still; 2) Stop thinking. If you can cover those two, you’re way ahead of the game. But most people don’t master either of those in their lifetimes. Those two little instructions can take years even to understand.
Talking and writing about meditation is tricky. Sitting down to meditate for the first time is a little like trying to paint a timeless masterpiece without practice; it’s pretty much impossible to have a game plan, or even know what you’re doing. One of the best arguments for reading books on meditation is that they provide us with a vocabulary. The vocabulary helps give intelligible form to nebulous concepts.
I notice while I’m reading religious or so-called spiritual books my meditations tend to be better, even though my meditations aren’t religious and I don’t consider myself a religious person. I just find that the concepts in such literature have an almost gravitational effect on the other thoughts in my mind. It’s similar to learning about a new car, or a new word, and then noticing it all over the place as though it just appeared into the world. When ideas about meditation or philosophy or spirituality are fresh in my mind, it focuses both my conscious and unconscious tendencies towards a positive use of attention. In other words, those books help me keep it real.
Over the years the lexicon I use to describe my meditations (in my journal entries, two per day) has developed into an idiosyncratic jargon with a few symbols and neologisms thrown in for fun. I doubt anyone who read it would understand it. That’s perfect, because the journal is only for me, and just like meditation, develops with me, and is something that nobody outside can comprehend. The fact is, if I wanted to explain what happens inside me while I’m meditating, I would have to adopt some kind of familiar language to use, and that’s where so-called spiritual literature comes in handy.
(Obviously I don’t like the term spiritual. Like the word God, it is spoken about often but rarely defined. I only use the term spiritual because of its relation to the Greek word pneuma, which I define as the action of Mind. Mind, of course, includes thinking, but also all conscious and subconscious content. See the problem with words?)
There are a lot of different definitions of meditation. The Buddhists have their stages of jnana, Catholics have contemplation, there are shamanic trances and Transcendental Meditation, and The Secret of the Golden Flower, then there’s Samadhi, dharana, zazen, prayer, petition, and on and on. Swami Vivekananda doesn’t define “meditation” the same way as Dr. Michael de Molinos. But it’s fair to assume that any meditation practice that survives hundreds of years or more must have some legitimate value to the people who use it.
When taking advice on interior matters, I prefer someone to speak in concise, concrete terms. Skip the flowery language about opening like a lotus above the surface of the water (flowery, get it?). The style of advice that motivates me most is practical. “Try A. What happened? Okay, now do X, Y, and Z.” I think clear language is a symptom of clear thinking, and clear thinking is something I want. Though to be fair, I think it’s good to balance things out with the occasional lotus vacation.
I don’t like hearing advice from someone less qualified than me. You are fit to speak authoritatively about those things in which you have breadth and depth of experience. You are not fit to speak authoritatively about those things in which you have little or no experience. A child looking up from the sandbox adorably, saying “We all go to heaven when we die,” is no excuse for believing.
You can have faith, but faith is belief without proof. Also, you can have faith in something without really believing in it. However belief is like pretended knowledge. You can believe something and still be wrong about it. It happens all the time. The real goods is the knowledge.
Real knowledge comes from experience. I’m going forward with a try-everything-and-see-what-works approach. If it works, it’s fair game. It doesn’t matter if your guru is charismatic, or brilliant, or ancient, or Hindu, it matters that the message resonates with you and the advice makes a practical positive change in your psychological welfare.
Now I would like to sign off with a sample of Bardo Pond lyrics for your collective consideration.
“I have to say
It’s opening up
It smiles at you
All the way to the door
And the hole in it’s middle
We push our way
There’s a place
For those who came
All this way
With the clouds in your eyes”
Inside, from the album “Dilate”
I grew up Roman Catholic but never felt anything “holy” when I went to church. It was something like school – something that had to be done. Maybe this is my own personality, or maybe it’s the religion itself. It was the Romans who killed Jesus, after all.
Watching Twin Peaks in high school I realized something mysterious existed just below the surface. That feeling of mystery eventually spread from the television to all parts of my life, but it wasn’t until late university that I took an interest in other religions and philosophies and became preoccupied with getting to know the unknown.
Middle Eastern and Asian religions appealed to me aesthetically. Spires and colourful mosaics, sitars and multi-armed deities seemed more appropriate to worship, but this is likely because those schema were culturally alien to me and therefore had a stronger connection to the unknown.
Discovering yoga, meditation, shamanism and other techniques in my spare time helped me augment my nervous system and take an active role in the development of my consciousness. Those self-disciplines used to seem socially unacceptable somehow, probably a result of the anhedonic attitude of Roman Catholicism. Oddly enough, now I can find that “holy” feeling just about anywhere quiet.
When I read The Varieties of Religious Experience by the American philosopher William James, I was impressed with how clearly he laid out my some of my convictions. Why should anyone be able to call into question the authenticity of my interior reality? Experience shows me what is true and false, especially in those tricky interior realms where language breaks down. The value of those experiences is personal, but it infuses everything I do.
At one point in my life I would have called myself an atheist. Fortunately, having had my mind blown by interior experiences, I realized that “God” was just a word, a tool used to describe the unification of everything, and I didn’t have to worry about believing or not believing because the name is not the thing named. What matters is cause and effect. If I can sit still and see the universe as a unified whole, it doesn’t matter to me what path brought me there. The personal sacred experience is what matters. I’ve been meditating twice every day without fail for many years because it’s worth it.
One of my favorite words is psychedelic, from the Greek psyche, as in “mind”, and delos, “manifesting”. Psychedelic = Mind Manifesting. Unfortunately the word psychedelic is all caught up with drugs, hippies, trippy colours, and other bullshit that take away from what the word could mean. I find the definition of this word in dictionaries to be lazy.
Psychedelia should be synonymous with art. I believe all art to be psychedelic. What you are reading right now is a written manifestation of my mind. I had an idea, I thought about it, and made it manifest. Tattoos are psychedelic too; a person finds meaning in a symbol and they alter their physical body to represent that idea. Music works similarly.
Art is a sensory creation that adds something unique, meaningful, and valuable to the mental landscape. That’s what real art is to me, anyway. The rest is just filler. Industries apply the word “artist” to anybody who writes a book, acts in a movie, plays a song, without questioning the value of what is made. An unfortunate amount of movies, music, and books are either meaningless, or their meaning has no value. Fortunately for the world some people take art seriously and give out in love what is taken in by contemplation.
Literature is telepathy. Music is empathy. Film is orchestrated hallucination. These are powerful tools we’ve developed. If you can find transcendent meaning in a piece of art, let that be an acceptable road to the sacred. Incidentally, Catholic and Jewish religions are already based on a book, aren’t they? Sometimes I get a kick imagining that the authors of the Bible were intentionally trying to write the weirdest novel ever.
What I’m trying to say is that you should all pay close attention to “In Your Mind” by Built to Spill.