Caleb Ontiveros

Against the Ontological Relevance of Meditation

You can’t learn about deep truths about the world from mindfulness meditation.

More precisely, you can’t come to learn any propositional knowledge about the world. This isn’t to say that mindfulness meditation isn’t valuable, it is. It’s a tool for increasing focus and discipline. And a way to practice reducing cognitive fusion.

Yet several claim that you can learn deep truths about the world from meditation. The fancy way to put this is that meditation is ontologically relevant.

We have a sense of being a subject located somewhere behind our heads, occupying the center of consciousness. We have bodies, but are not identical to them. Likewise, we have experiences, but are not identical to those experiences. This subject persists through time, has thoughts, and makes decisions.

Modern Buddhists, and those influenced by Buddhism, suggest that this sense of self is an illusion. On this view, there is no subject that:

  • Persists through time
  • Has a body and experiences
  • Has thoughts and makes decisions

Robert Wright calls this self, the CEO self in Why Buddhism Is True:

Buddhist thought and modern psychology converge on this point: in human life as it’s ordinarily lived, there is no one self, no conscious CEO, that runs the show.

Leaving aside the issue about whether this is true, I’m skeptical that you can learn this from meditation alone.

Here’s what you’re doing when you sit down to meditate:

  • Focusing on a single type of raw sensations like the breath or tingling in the body
  • Receiving all types of sensations

This dichotomy corresponds to training attention, the ability to focus on a specific thing, and training awareness, being conscious in general. To get a better handle on this distinction consider the visual field: there’s a point where you focus, this is attention, and there’s the entire visual field, including your peripheral vision, this is awareness. Think of attention as the focal point of the mental field, awareness as everything that falls within the mental field. Both practices can be combined as you train both.

As an aside, people often talk about flow as if it were one state. Flow is the wonderful feeling of ‘being in the zone.’ Really, there are two states here, there’s a focused flow, when you’ve zoomed into a single task, ignoring everything else. You’re completely absorbed in the activity. But then there’s also panoramic flow, in this state you’re in the zone, but the zone is much larger. Both of these states have their uses and risks. One can move into both states while meditating.

When you’re training your attention and awareness, you’re doing so in a nonconceptual way. Discursive thought, verbal chatter, these are at first distractions. One notes them and returns to the meditation object. Later thought becomes a meditation object itself.

This nonconceptual nature is easier to understand in the visual case. Suppose you’re meditating on what is front of you. You take in your visual field, not as a space full of chairs, tables, a water bottle, windows or whatever else you happen to be looking at, but as a constellation of light and shadow. While meditating, space is not carved up things that occupy reality. Rather you’re paying attention to raw sensation, raw visual data. Concepts like ‘chair’, ‘table’, ‘window’, and such fall away.

If concepts like chair and table fall away, it’s easy to see that selves fall away as well. If there aren’t chairs, then there likely aren’t people. But how could one come to know that there are no chairs through meditation?

Meditation does show that our notion of things depends on having concepts. But this doesn’t show that there are no such things. An infant doesn’t have concepts like a table, but this is because it’s stupid not because its closer to reality.

A more suggestive way that meditation can come to show that you have no self, is that we learn that our sense of being a self is merely a sensation. This self feels like something that has thoughts. But, through training attention, we notice that our sense of self can’t have thoughts. It is in the mental field, it cannot contain it. But this argument confuses the sense of self, with the self. These are distinct. Suppose that what I am is a human organism. Animals can have thoughts and host a mental field! This argument makes a similar mistake to indirect realists, confusing how we experience something with the thing itself.

So much for two arguments for the ontological relevance of meditation.

Ultimately, we cannot learn about the world from meditation because of cognitive penetration. The idea is that our experience is shaped by our beliefs and desires. The philosopher Evan Thompson describes going to a retreat, in Why I Am Not A Buddhist:

Nevertheless, I couldn’t help thinking throughout the retreat that what was happening didn’t match the rhetoric of “learning to see things as they are.” We were given a system of concepts to apply to our experience as we practiced meditation. Some of the concepts were seemingly everyday ones like “sensation,” “feeling,” “attention,” and “intention,” but they were tied to Buddhist concepts like “moment-to-moment arising,” “impermanence,” “mindfulness,” “not-self,” and “karma.”

Though the meditation practice was ostensibly nonconceptual, it happened in an ecosystem that was already populated by concepts. This shaped the experience of the “nonconceptual” practice.

Consider the variety of things people say you can come to learn through meditation. Though the traditional Buddhist view is the no-self one, there are others who say that you may come to extend the self through meditation. You could come to learn that everything is in the mind, but you could also come to learn that there is no mind and everything is out in the world. What you learn is contingent on how meditation is framed and the environment one meditates in.

In this way, meditative experiences are similar to religious experiences. What the experience is depends on how it is conceptualized. A Christian experiences the love of God, a Buddhist Nirvana, an atheist nature.

This isn’t to deny that meditation is valuable. However, you should invest in how you and the people around frame it. What meditation is useful for, is for training particular skills and generating experiential, perspectival knowledge. It’s one thing to know something abstractly, another thing to experience it.

But it’s not ontologically relevant.