Meditation: The Path to Wisdom?

Meditation: the Path to Wisdom?

Meditation and altered-state consciousness are certainly not the usual topics one brings up at a cocktail party. But I decided to ask Mr. Lim why he would rather spend so much time alone meditating in his room when all his colleagues are out at the karaoke bar having a great time. He answered in a matter-of-fact tone, “Meditation has not only given me special insight into present reality but it has also enabled me to look into my past incarnation.” His remark about having achieved special insight and peace did not come as a surprise, but I must admit that I was taken aback by his claim to know about his past incarnation. Another thing that puzzled me was that this Buddhist meditator was enjoying a mouthful of prawns at the same time. He assured me that this was quite all right, since he would tickle his throat and vomit them out later at home.

On another occasion a friend of mine, who is an engineer by profession, described how ‘heavenly’ teachers would visit him during his meditation sessions to impart to him power that would enable him to resist dark spiritual forces. He displayed an unshakeable assurance that he would eventually achieve special enlightenment through meditation.

What was I to make of my friends’ experiences? I had raised these topics confident that I would be able to handle any tough apologetic questions that might arise, having read tons of books on the subject and being sufficiently experienced at witnessing. But—logical acumen aside—it was clear that any discussion would come to a standstill if my friends insisted that I was in no position to understand their sublime experiences, not having undergone the same meditative processes myself. As the famous lines in Tao Te Ching says,

The way that can be told

Is not the constant way;

The name that can be named

Is not the constant name.

I found myself in a dilemma. I could defer to the claims of my friends by subscribing to the common insight that ‘words cannot equal experience’. Or, I could counter my friends’ claims and argue for the superiority of my own spiritual experience. But this would only lead to a spiritual stalemate since each individual could defend his own position on the simple ground that no one should deny the validity and reality of his own subjective experience.

These encounters—which occurred some twenty years ago—made me determined to dig into the roots of Oriental meditation and the altered-state consciousness of contemporary New Age spirituality. It is understandable that researchers find their task a daunting one when meditators insist that their sublime experiences are too ineffable to be analysed. Nevertheless, the literature pertaining to meditative experiences is voluminous. For example, the classic and arguably unsurpassable text on Buddhist experience, the Visuddhi Magga (The Path of Purification) written by Buddhaghosa, runs into 838 pages in fine print. Readers overwhelmed by this formidable text may opt for a modern appetiser entitled The Meditative Mind by Daniel Goleman.

These texts suggest that there are different levels of meditative consciousness. Goleman suggests a progression that moves along the following continuum: loathing of food—loving kindness—equanimity—infinite space—infinite consciousness—no-thing-ness—kasinas (i.e. neither perception nor nonperception). Progress along this path requires special exercises which enable the meditator to develop an increasingly receptive, that is, non-reactive mind. The meditator will experience spontaneous mental states arising. The spontaneity of the flux of experience convinces the meditator that mental states or awareness flow according to their own nature, regardless of “one’s will”. He realises that “I am” is a misconception. Goleman concludes, “As the meditator realises his private reality to be devoid of self and ever changing, he is led to a state of detachment from the world of experience.”

The immediacy of these experiences—which are described in great detail—naturally assume a compelling quality. They are, after all, related by people of integrity who have trodden the path themselves. Goleman claims that for the enlightened meditator “Feelings of dread, despair, and misery cease. Body pains are absent entirely.” The meditator no longer engages in lying, stealing, sexual misconduct, physically harming others or earning his livelihood at the expense of others. The meditator’s “equanimity prevails towards all external objects . . . . having no feelings for the ‘self’, his acts are purely functional, either for maintenance of his body or for the good of others. For the arahant (an awakened being or saint) “the least tendency toward an unvirtuous thought or deed is literally inconceivable.”

Unfortunately, I must consider it an exaggeration on Goleman’s part to claim that the meditative path is a serene upward journey ending in bliss, or that insight arising from spiritual experiences automatically leads to moral virtue. In doing so, Goleman ignores reports that reveal that a good proportion of meditation gurus have had sexual relationships with their disciples. I can think of the sad episodes narrated in Anthony Storr’s book, Feet of Clay. Jack Kornfield, a well-known Buddhist writer, reported that 70% of the gurus covered in his research were sexually active and close to 90% of the sexually active gurus had “at least occasional sexual relations with one or more students.” Furthermore, of the married gurus, many were adulterous while “some are homosexual and some bisexual in preference” (“Sexual Lives of Gurus,” Yoga Journal, July/August 1985).

Goleman also ignores many instances of psychotic disorder and emotional distress that have been reported among meditators. As early as 1971, a survey involving 40,000 meditators showed that half of them suffered negative effects like anxiety, depression, agitation, frustration, muscle spasms and shaking episodes, disturbing visions and inexplicable outbursts of antisocial behaviour. These troubling disorders led meditation instructors to set up the Spiritual Emergency Network (SEN) to deal with the crisis of “spiritual opening”—i.e. to help people whose lives are thus shaken and incline them to Oriental spiritual paths.

The powerful manner in which experiences of altered-state consciousness disrupt both the physical and psychic equilibrium of meditators demands fuller explanation. We can achieve a satisfactory answer only if we can determine how these experiences originate and situate them within a coherent philosophical and religious framework.

Pondering over the ambiguities of these experiences reminds me of the experience of a close relative of mine during a time of serious illness. I was puzzled by her insistence that she had had visits from out-of-town relatives and that she had had some unpleasant conversations with them. Obviously, she was having hallucinations, although she was not delirious. The doctors recognised that her experiences were the result of the absorption of excess calcium into her bloodstream. The resulting imbalance of electrolytes in her bloodstream caused the ‘visions’ and hallucinations.

This incident provides me with a clue in determining the origin of altered-state consciousness. I refer to the laboratory experiments carried out in the 1960s to investigate the effects of sensory deprivation on humans. In these experiments scientists drastically reduced the normal flow of sensory information to the brain by placing subjects in a very monotonous and uniform environment. For example, student volunteers were kept in a soundproof room, wearing translucent goggles to reduce vision so that they would see only diffused white light. They also wore earphones which delivered a monotonous humming and donned soft cotton gloves to minimise their sense of touch. After two days, many of the volunteers reported mood swings and hallucinations. Flashes of geometric patterns akin to symptoms of classic migraines soon developed into cartoon figures, which in turn morphed into bizarre architectures and other life-like people and images. Later experiments that involved suspending volunteers in dark, soundproof tanks filled with water heated to body temperature created dramatic mental visions within hours. These experiments demonstrated that experiences of altered-state consciousness could be achieved even in a non-religious setting.

Psychologist Arthur Deikman notes that the human brain processes sensory and perceptual input automatically and subconsciously. Our nervous system includes a built-in highly developed tactile sense of the boundaries of our bodies and our visual system is “wired” to exaggerate boundaries of objects we see and touch. As a result, we perceive these objects as well defined, real and separate from us. Deikman suggests that meditation techniques de-automatize our perceptual processes and this gives rise to extraordinary experiences.

Another psychologist, Elizabeth Hillstrom in her book Testing the Spirits, explains that what meditators are observing in the meditative state is not the activity of the conscious mind but rather the operations of automatic memory and perceptual processes that have been artificially disconnected from the control of the conscious mind by the dynamics of meditation.

Hillstrom concludes, “If experiencers’ awareness of the flow is significantly reduced, as it is during sensory deprivation and other altered states, they could easily conclude that their body boundaries were suddenly dissolving or that they were expanding or merging with other objects, even with God or the entire universe.” People who interpret such experiences as achieving spiritual enlightenment or union with ultimate reality are naturally blissful and ecstatic.

A cursory survey of standard anthologies on mysticism shows strikingly similar mystical experiences occurring among adherents of different religions. Indeed, one may even detect similarities between traditional mystical experiences and the altered states of consciousness commonly experienced by drug users. One may, in this regard, admire the ancient meditators for taking the edge over modern-day drug-induced ecstasy merely by deploying meditative techniques of sensory deprivation. On the other hand, we would never take seriously a drug user who claims to have attained access to a higher and truer reality. We would send him to a rehabilitation centre, make every effort to help him cease from indulging in delusions or hallucinations and restore his interests in everyday reality. But then should we not, by the same token, caution meditators not to claim that their ecstatic experiences give them access to a higher reality?

Obviously, each religion attributes a different interpretation to the experience of oneness in meditative consciousness. A Hindu may believe he has become reunited with Brahman while a Buddhist may conclude from his experience of free floating mental states that there is no unchanging soul. A Christian mystic may feel enraptured in his communion with God, but unlike the Oriental meditator, he would likely shrink from any talk about union with God. It is therefore naïve to suggest that we can settle religious differences by appealing to common experiences. Indeed, religious experience remains profoundly ambiguous and the diversity of interpretations suggests that the final evaluation of meditative experiences must be sought elsewhere.

This conclusion comes as a relief to me as I have always wondered whether the Bible lacks mystical depth. The Bible can appear rather earth-bound with its stories of dysfunctional families and moral faults of its heroes of faith. The Psalms are replete with expressions of intense emotions. The prophets preach with great passion but they do not appear impressive when compared with Oriental literature that catalogue levels of altered-state consciousness in great detail.

Perhaps the lack of interest which the Bible displays in matters pertaining to altered-state consciousness stems from the ambiguity of such experiences and the inherent danger of idolatry. In other words, the esoteric experience may become an end in itself. It is common knowledge among practitioners that spiritual beings do appear to them during meditation. Furthermore, the promise of attaining enhanced spiritual power tempts practitioners to consort with these spirits who effectively distract them from their initial quest for God. Eventually, the meditator will rely on his own sense of spiritual achievement rather than on God. It is arguable that mental idolatry is even more damaging than physical idolatry.

I am appreciative of some Oriental meditators who warn against obsession with spiritual power. Instead, they commend meditation as the discipline needed to ensure perseverance on the path towards wisdom. That is to say, whatever the experience, one should act on new insights and reorder one’s life so that it becomes ethically harmonious with one’s neighbour and with nature. I agree with this approach. It is true that religion, and that includes Christianity, should be an avenue for higher experience. But Christian spiritual experience should not be an end in itself. It should also be a path (or pilgrimage) of wisdom.

In this regard, the Bible takes a distinctive approach towards the meditative experience. The Oriental meditator—exemplified in many statues of the Buddha—always has his eyes closed. He must detach himself from the concrete world in order to take flight into higher spiritual realities to gain wisdom. In contrast, Biblical meditation focuses on how God has revealed himself in history. Christian meditation becomes the activity of recalling the revealed words and mighty deeds of God and contemplating on them so that one understands better the higher purposes of God and appropriate for oneself the promises of God. From this, it follows that Christian wisdom is the ability to perceive things the way God sees them and to take ethical action that is congruent with the will and purposes of God.

Achieving discernment and wisdom demands that Christian meditation be deliberately conducted in the presence of God. Its goal is concretely spelled out as the imitation of the goodness of God as embodied in Jesus Christ. Such an approach is nicely captured by Paul in his exhortation to the Philippians: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus…. whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is lovely, whatever is pure, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put into practice. And the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 2: 6 & 4:8-9).