Meditation, mindfulness, spirituality are terms that we encounter a lot these days. All of them can mean different things to different people. In this article I discuss them in relation to two alleged paths to enlightenment, Transcendental Meditation (TM). an Indian system of meditation brought to the West by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (1918–2008) and Buddhism.
I chose these for several reasons. One is that they are both familiar to Westerners, with large followings. Another is that I have personal experience of both of them. A third, and perhaps the most important, is that both attract some who think that they are supported by modern scientific research and are therefore suitable for people with a secular outlook.
Both TM and Buddhist meditation have been studied by neuroscientists, who have concluded that there is evidence for the existence of specific brain states in meditators; there is usually the implication that their findings support at least some of the claims made for the effects of meditation. Partly as a result of this, the typical Buddhist meditation known as insight meditation has been detached from its roots and is being advocated as "mindfulness", in which form it is supposed to have all kinds of benefits for mental and physical health.
All this can seem impressive, although the scientific credibility of some of the research has been questioned. In any case, that isn't what concerns me here. I am interested in the concept of enlightenment and whether, if it exists, meditation—of any kind—can bring it about.
Most Indian sources give the impression that reaching enlightenment is a slow process requiring many lifetimes. One of the startling innovations introduced by Maharishi was the claim that it could happen in a single lifetime, and quite quickly at that; when pressed he suggested seven years. This was thanks to the remarkable effectiveness of TM, which he had received from his guru and was making available to the world. I first encountered it in the 1960s.
The meditation process worked as follows. You meditated twice a day for about twenty minutes each time, using a mantra—a special syllable or sound which you repeated mentally. This allowed you to experience progressively "finer" or "subtler" states of awareness, culminating in a fourth state of consciousness additional to the three 'ordinary' states: waking, dreaming, and deep sleep. Maharishi described it as pure awareness, meaning you were awake but not conscious of anything in particular. It was supposed to be blissful, hence it was also called bliss consciousness.
Repeatedly reaching pure awareness was expected to cause it to begin to spill over into waking, dreaming, and deep sleep. Eventually this would become permanent, giving what Maharishi called Cosmic Consciousness.
This wasn't the final goal, however. Cosmic Consciousness would in turn provide the foundation for a further two higher states, which Maharishi called God Consciousness and Unity Consciousness. So Maharishi's scheme comprised a total of seven states of consciousness, three 'ordinary' and four 'higher' states.
It wasn't essential to know all this or to believe it in order to meditate—the meditation was supposed to work automatically, independently of one's expectations—but practically everyone who became seriously involved with TM accepted it, because it made sense of what one was doing and because many, although not all, had been 'seekers' for spiritual enlightenment for a long time before coming to TM.
But did it actually work?
It was a TM axiom that it was impossible to know how far along the path anyone else was. (At least, perhaps Maharishi could tell but we couldn't.) All you had to go on, therefore, was your own experience. Clearly this allowed for a huge amount of self-suggestion.
In almost all cases when I meditated, either nothing happened or I fell into a deep sleep. This was not supposed to be a bad thing; Maharishi said that if it happened it was because you needed the sleep. I have always had a tendency to drop off at inopportune moments, so it isn't surprising that it happened when I meditated, but still it was disappointing.
On a couple of occasions, quite early on in my TM career, something happened that may have been what meditation was supposed to bring about. Both times I "came to" (not from sleep) to find myself looking at a blank expanse. As I watched, the surface began to ripple and break up, until it turned into my normal consciousness. I found this interesting but also puzzling.
Was it pure awareness? Perhaps, although there didn't seem to have been any awareness at all before the rippling beganfootnote. It also lacked the blissful quality that pure awareness is supposed have; it was quite neutral, neither pleasant nor unpleasant, though certainly intriguing. Anyhow, whatever it was, it never occurred again in all the years I meditated.
The other event happened after I received one of the "advanced techniques" that we were given after we had been meditating for some years. This one replaced the mental repetition of the mantra with a more lengthy repetition of a Sanskrit text. Doing this was supposed to allow one to stay longer in the "subtle" states of consciousness without reaching pure awareness (which I didn't reach anyway).
I didn't expect anything to happen but to my surprise it did. For a couple of weeks, each time I meditated it was genuinely blissful. I could remain for forty minutes or more, conscious and aware of my surroundings but in a happy tranquil state which I had no inclination to leave. However, it didn't last; it stopped happening and never came back.
In any case, even if my experiences in meditation had been more dramatic (as some people's were), what would it mean? Such subjective phenomena are not self-validating. They are what they are; one may interpret them in line with what is supposed to happen, but they don't really confirm the metaphysical scheme on which TM is based. They don't come with subtitles; many other explanations are equally possible.
In a way, this didn't matter. We were supposed to meditate for the beneficial effects on our lives, not for what happened during meditation.
But what were these effects?
While practising TM we were not supposed to modify our behaviour or attempt to live a more virtuous life; the meditation was meant to produce these changes itself. But I was not sure that it made you a wiser or a better person. At least, I don't think it did for me, and my impression of the people in Maharishi's entourage was that they exhibited the same competitiveness and self-importance as you would expect to find in any secular organisation. It's true that I knew many people in the TM movement whom I liked and admired, but I'm not convinced that they had become like that because of TM; it was simply how they were.
This may correspond with something reported by John Horgan.2 Kenneth Wilber is a philosopher with a large following who has written extensively (and to me impenetrably) about enlightenment. When Horgan interviewed him he claimed to have attained a considerable level of enlightenment on a more or less permanent basis. Not even the Dalai Lama, Wilber said, could maintain self-awareness during sleep as he, Wilber, could. This sounds like Cosmic Consciousness. Horgan found him impressive but was disturbed by his apparent pride in his own spiritual attainment.
There is also a disquieting possibility that Cosmic Consciousness, or something that sounds like it, may sometimes be pathological. Horgan says that John Wren-Lewis also reported permanent self-awareness even in sleep. In his case it followed recovery from poisoning. If this was Cosmic Consciousness it was apparently caused by brain damage, which is difficult to reconcile with Maharishi's view of it as normal "evolution".
Of course, Wilber's and Wren-Lewis's states of mind may not be identical with Cosmic Consciousness, even though they sound similar. But that is just the point. It's the problem that confronts all descriptions of "mystical" states. They are subjective and we can never know if the descriptions all refer to the same thing or, indeed, to anything real at all.
Hick believed that all the world's religions are "masks" or "faces" interposed between us and what he called the "Real", which can never be known directly. He also said that the universe is "ambiguous", meaning that it is equally reasonable to believe that the Real doesn't exist as that it does.3
I can go along with this. It's what I've come to believe about metaphysical systems founded on, or supposedly supported by, the experience of altered states of consciousness. The Advaita Vedanta is an astonishing and impressive intellectual edifice, in which one could easily lose oneself for a lifetime—people do. Perhaps it is, as claimed, based on what we could call mystical experience. But does that make it true, or is it rather a superb example of what the psychologist William James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, calls an over-belief? Like Hick's 'Real', the Vedantic vision of identity between atman and Brahman is at best ambiguous.
In my early TM years I was fascinated by ancient Indian ideas and believed that they held the key to how we should understand ourselves and the nature of reality. But as TM began to change its character in the 1970s and 1980s, with the introduction of yogic flying, ayurvedic medicine, and other to me unwelcome innovations, I started increasintly to question both the practice and the theory, until finally_I let go of both —not with regret but with a sense of relief, similar to what I had felt when, much earlier, I had let go of Catholicism.
Looking back, I see that I have always had a leaning towards naturalism, but this was partly held in check while I was involved in TM.
By this time there were several Theravada Buddhist monasteries in Britain and I got in touch with one of these, where I learnt the method of insight meditation (now familiar in a secular context as mindfulness) and also did a couple of meditation retreats. Nothing much happened when I meditated, but then it wasn't supposed to, so I wasn't disappointed. More to the point, I found the general tone of the place mostly congenial.
On one longer retreat I become quite depressed, which is unusual for me. In fact, I was on the point of leaving, but I went to see the monk who was leading the retreat, an American of my own age who had spent many years in a forest monastery in Thailand. I told him what had happened and that I thought I should leave. In response to a question I said that the hardest thing for me was not reading (we had been told not do this). He advised me to read and not to leave; I followed his advice and the depression lifted at once.
There you find an abundance of gods and demons as well as rebirth, heaven and hell realms, and numerous other things which are excluded on even the most basic and tolerant version of naturalism. Some say that these beliefs are later accretions on the original 'pure' system taught by the Buddha, but this is difficult to prove; we know little about very early Buddhism.
Anyway, is it right to strip all this non-naturalistic stuff out? It can be objected that you are then left with a bowdlerised version of the real thing, and that what would remain is hardly Buddhism at all. But Flanagan, who is not himself a Buddhist, is unrepentant.
My answer [to the question of what remains] is that what would remain would be an interesting and defensible philosophical theory with a metaphysics, a theory about what there is and how it is, an epistemology, a theory about how we come to know and what we can know, and an ethics, a theory about virtue and vice and how best to live. 4Flanagan's version of Buddhism is intended to appeal to those who, like himself, are analytic philosophers. But most Westerners interested in Buddhism are not professional philosophers, and their reasons for studying and practising it will usually be different from Flanagan's. In at least some cases they are looking for enlightenment.
Buddhism differs from Advaita Vedanta in that it denies atman (no permanent self) and has nothing to say about Brahman. Theravada Buddhism is intellectually austere compared with Tibetan Buddhism, which may make it easier to accommodate in a naturalistic setting.
Even so, one can't study Buddhism of any kind without encountering nirvana, which is the Buddhist term for enlightenment. Westerners interested in secular Buddhism, such as Owen Flanagan, often find difficulty in knowing what to say about it.
Part of the problem is that in standard Buddhism nirvana is closely bound up with rebirth, which is clearly out of court for naturalists. Nirvana is supposed to be where you arrive after a long series of rebirths. When John Horgan interviewed Flanagan he asked him if he believed in enlightenment. This elicited a grimace. "I might as well have asked him if he believed in Bigfoot."5
Still, in his book on Buddhism4 Flanagan does say something about nirvana. He finds three different conceptions of the state in the Buddhist scriptures, the Pali canon, which he calls N1, N2, and N3.
N1 is equivalent to the secularists' idea of death—simple extinction. N2 is a state of freedom while you are alive, in which you are no longer controlled by egoism, anger, avarice and other undesirable emotions that result from ignorance. You feel extreme tranquillity and, perhaps, are happy. N3 is the same as N1 (extinction) but it happens after you achieved N2 while you were alive.
On the naturalistic view, all three versions end at the same point, but N2 may be better for you while you are are alive. "From the naturalist's perspective this is a good result; for the traditional Buddhist it may seem disenchanting."
1. I know many people who have found great benefit from TM and I don't want to dispute that, even though my experience was different. But I am not persuaded that any altered state of consciousness (which is what TM is supposed to produce) can be taken as proof of the validity of a metaphysical system such as Advaita Vedanta, and I no longer look to the possibility of reaching a state of enlightenmentspiritual, with TM or any other system.
2. I have no difficulty in believing that some of the Theravada monks I have met have achieved at least a degree of enlightenmentsecular (Flanagan's N2). But there is more to Buddhism than meditation; how you live your life is at least equally important. Few people, including monks, meditate in predominantly Buddhist countries—something that apparently astonishes almost all Americans when they hear of it.4 I've heard a respected Theravada monk end a retreat by saying that unless you observe the Buddhist ethical precepts you may as well forget about meditating. (A difference from TM.)
3. Should everyone meditate? Once I would have said so, but on the basis of my own experience I now think differently. Probably some people, of whom I'm one, are constitutionally unsuited to it. That doesn't mean I regret having tried; as they say in the military, negative information can be as valuable as positive.
The philosopher Galen Strawson is sympathetic to Buddhism and has tried to meditate, without much success. He finds that, as a means of altering his consciousness, doing philosophy is more effective.6I think philosophy really does change one over time. It keeps one's mind large, in some peculiar manner. It seems to me that the professional practice of philosophy by itself is a kind of spiritual discipline, in some totally secular sense of "spiritual"; or at least that it can be and has been for me.
Flanagan has found much that is valuable and wise in Buddhist philosophy and ethics, as do I. The Buddhist precepts are not divinely ordained; they are quite compatible with rationalism, and are broadly comparable to those we find in many secular forms of Western philosophy as far back as Stoicism. That may be as much as some of us need or want.