Do we meditate on the world or the mind?

Meditation, of course, refers to a wide variety of contemplative techniques. Let's center on the style of focusing one's attention on an object, like the breath or other sensations.

When meditating this way, one notices how each breath feels precisely and watches sensations come and go. One labels sensations, counts breaths, and catches exactly where an inhalation begins and ends.

This kind of meditation leads to increased concentration. The meditator experiences nothing but the breath. This kind of attention is narrow and stable. Alternatively, this practice leads to mindfulness. Here the meditator is aware of every new sensation and thought. This kind of experience feels broad, expansive, and open.

What exactly is going on here? What is the meditator perceiving?

The object is physical and mental

Here's one picture of perception: there's a physical world and then there's our experience. When we perceive the world, the initial object of our perceptions is some mental representation - a thought or a feeling. It's with this representation that we perceive whatever we're attending to.

Our experience is a mental field. Images, thoughts, feelings, sensations, and the like make up the field.

This mental space is a map for the physical one. It's through our perception of it that we encounter the physical world.

So, when we meditate we're involved in a mental and physical affair – at once.

By paying attention to our sensations and thoughts, we perceive mental objects, like thoughts and sensations. And through them, we reach the physical items in the world, like our breath and body.

Meditation, on this framing, is an embodied affair, involving both mind and body.

The object is mental alone

Here is another picture: when one meditates, one focuses on objects within the mental field and those objects alone.

The objects of one's practice are experiential, conscious, and mental. They are not the inhabitants of the external world.

Our experience could be occurring in a simulation, a universe of ideas, an ordinary world of physical stuff, or something else entirely. We do not know. Every time we try to reach out of our minds, we find ourselves still within the mental realm.

Viewed from this perspective, meditation is an exploration of consciousness. What one is attending to is thought and sensation, not physical and objective reality. By resting one's attention on the breath, one perceives the mental representation of the breath, not the breath itself.

Initially, it seems like behind the experience of the tension in my shoulder, lies ordinary physical objects like a shoulder. But stare long enough at the concepts and referents involved and all one sees are mental entities. The idea of a shoulder. Images. The sensation of space. One cannot get out the head.

This view of meditation is like Idealism. On this view, the world is fundamentally made up of ideas. According to George Berkeley, everything is an idea in the mind of God.

When we meditate, everything is an idea in the mind of the meditator.

Meditation, from this point of view, is a cerebral affair.

The object is the world

The idea that one is attending to our experience of the breath and not the breath itself is a strange one.

When we leave the meditative context, it's natural to think that we perceive the world, not our representation of the world. After all, we see physical objects. But mental objects don't see. Sight is a matter of physical objects: light, eyes, and brains. It's not the idea or representation of an eye that is involved in sight, but an ordinary physical eye.

This suggests the following: when we meditate we aren't exploring consciousness at all. We're exploring our bodies and world.

We're attending to the physical properties of the breath - its temperature, force, and speed. We're noticing what's going on in ourselves as organisms – not as ideas.

This idea is at once common sense, but also bizarre.

Wherever you are, there are images and sounds – there's something going on and something it's like to be wherever you are. On the initial framing, all of this requires the light of consciousness. Without consciousness, there are still physical objects, but there'd be nothing it's like to perceive them. On this framing, nothing that's going on now requires the light of consciousness. All consciousness is, is something that allows us to access what's going on.

This entails experiential and phenomenological qualities, like the fact that there's something it's like to be wherever you are now, do not require a mind. They will be there when you close your eyes and still be there when you open them. You are not needed.

Meditation, on this framing, is a worldly affair.

There is no object, there is no subject

So there are three different conceptualizations of  the object of meditation. While meditating one can move between them.

Most forms of guided meditation initially describe meditation in a way that is a combination of the first two.

The third is the most attractive to me.

However, the ultimate purpose of many enlightenment-styled programs is nondualism. Nondualism is the simple idea that there is no deep distinction between the subject and the object.

Meditation, on this framing, is.


Notes on Meditation

Against the Ontological Relevance of Meditation

You See The Territory Or Nothing At All