Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Andy SmithAndrew P. Smith, who has a background in molecular biology, neuroscience and pharmacology, is author of e-books Worlds within Worlds and the novel Noosphere II, which are both available online. He has recently self-published "The Dimensions of Experience: A Natural History of Consciousness" (Xlibris, 2008).



There Is No Hack

A Reply to David Lane

Andy Smith

From a purely scientific point of view, meditation can be defined as a process of diverting energy that would normally be used in mental activity into some kind of storage.

For once, I agree with Brad Reynolds. He says, in reply to David Lane's "The Netflix of Consciousness", “I think this essay shows the limitations of reducing transpersonal endeavors down to biological evolutionary factors and therefore misses the main point of meditation.” Well said—and this is not the last time in this discussion I will agree with Brad (not to say we don't have major differences, however).

David begins with an explanation of why our mind is constantly wandering, ceaselessly creating thoughts, images, feelings, and so on:

Our brain has given rise to an extraordinarily complex simulator which continually creates models by which to navigate the ever-changing worlds it finds itself. Our sophisticated form of consciousness is constructed (even if without conscious intent) to insure our survival in a literal eat or be eaten landscape. Thus, it is constantly providing feedback information about the local environment, conferring short-hand cues about whether to avoid danger, attract mates, secure food, get shelter, engage with friends, fight enemies, or become inactive, and so on. This is the reality we find ourselves in and, lest there be any doubt, it is a neurological construction dependent on a variety of incoming data streams. To the degree that our brains accurately predict and correlate such information is elemental for us to live long enough to pass on our genetic code, thus perpetuating our species' lineal descent.

While I question whether this is a certain explanation for our overactive brains, it seems to me to be a reasonable one. It's pretty well established that the brains of our ancestors began to grow in size along with growth in social interactions, with an increase in processing power required to keep up with demand provided by the increase in complexity of relationships with other members of the species. It may be that excessive activity necessarily followed from the larger brain—that when you have trillions of messages between neurons needed to meet ordinary needs, a lot of spillover inevitably occurs--and that some (but by no means all nor even most) of this activity helped us constantly plan the future, providing an additional survival benefit for that brain.

So I'm willing to go along with David's premise. Where I, and Brad, disagree, is with David's belief that knowing this evolutionary background will help anyone meditating:

understanding why the mind operates as it does versus believing outdated and dualistic models (usually religiously oriented and far too often dogmatic in their retelling) can be of tremendous help in stilling the mind.

It really is of no help at all. That's like saying that if a man understands that evolution selected for males that could copulate with as many females as possible (as opposed to, for example, the Biblical notion that God made men superior to women), thus maximizing the spread of their genes, this will help him with his problem with philandering or promiscuity. Or that knowing that fat rich foods were vital to our ancestors as a quick source of energy (rather than, God gave us the ability to enjoy taste) will help people stick to a diet. These are important facts to know, and one can argue that any educated person should be cognizant of them, but they won't help with the process of overcoming our built-in drives.

Why, then, does David think that understanding the evolutionary origin of the wandering mind can help one meditate?

By knowing that the mind is supposed to release a torrent of continual ideas and plans we can realize that trying to suppress or stop such is a sucker's bet. It is a game of attention and concentrating on blocking thoughts doesn't mitigate them, as much as produce new variations. It is for this reason that meditational disciplines around the world have looked for a hack, a way to circumvent the continual stream of ongoing distractions.

David's argument is that since stopping thought is nigh impossible, we need another way to approach the problem. Here are some of his suggestions:

One technique that has gained increasing popularity is mindfulness where one stays as a witness (not a participant) to the marching parade. Let whatever is happening arise of its own accord without resisting its appearance.

in certain Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, and Sikh teachings, the disciple is given a mantra by his or her guru and is enjoined to repeat such as many times as possible (usually silently).

The best hack that I have discovered after meditating for nearly fifty years is inquiring into the source of one's consciousnessáwithout any expectations.

Harris suggests that one surefire way to loosen our tenacious addiction to more and more thought forms (and the vacation-like excursions they offer) is to simply look at the self we believe drives our desires and literally witness its vacuity.

As noted above, David regards these techniques as hacks—a term I think would be more appropriately applied to people who think that they make meditating easier. What David—and he is in very good company here—is missing (or at least not acknowledging) is that all of these approaches (to the extent that they are valid) represent one and the same process. Observing one's thoughts is exactly the same as stopping them, transcending them, having no expectations, experiencing emptiness, relaxing the body, and many other processes that occur during meditation. The same with a mantra, which is simply an alternative way of trying to stop thoughts. All of these experiences are simply different manifestations of awakening, and to be blunt, only in a very early stage do people make these distinctions. As Brad says, these are beginner meditation exercises. With practice, it should become obvious that they all refer to the same thing.

It's sort of like seeing an object, such as a table, in the ordinary state of consciousness. One is aware of color, size, shape, texture, and any number of other qualities, and can name them individually, if requested. But most of the time, we don't break it down that way. We just see the table, in which all of these characteristics are unified. We can't see and recognize the table without being aware simultaneously of its color, size, shape, and so on.

There may be certain disorders of the brain in which one doesn't see the table in this unified fashion, and might need to be helped by focusing on some particular characteristic, such as four legs—but we would instantly recognize that person as not having access to normal awareness. In somewhat the same way, any meditator who makes a distinction between stopping thought, observing thought, and so on, is missing the unified experience. Any so-called hack is just a way of trying to reach that experience. There's nothing wrong with that, but the idea is to get past this elementary stage, and since all these approaches are really the same thing, I don't see how any one in particular is going to accomplish anything that none of the others can. For example, if Sam Harris believes that trying to experience the emptiness of self is different from trying to stop thoughts (I don't know that he does, but David seems to imply this), he is operating under an illusion (of course, all meditators are operating under an illusion, but this is a relatively elementary one).

It's more than sitting

Why? Why are so many meditators stuck at this blind men and the elephant point? The short answer is that meditation is brutally difficult—and when confronted with something exceedingly difficult, human beings naturally search for an easier way. It's sometimes possible to find an easy way to get rich, an easy way to become famous, even a (relatively) easy way to make a lasting contribution in science, art, literature, sports, entertainment, and so on. But there is no easy way to meditate. There are no short-cuts; there are no hacks.

Why do I insist on that? In principle, meditation is the simplest thing in the world. Any adult can understand the concept. But in practice, it's far and away the most difficult thing that a human being can do. It isn't just the effort and suffering involved, though that is greater than for any other type of life, but also that the entire concept of “doing” is vague. Meditation is as much about not-doing as doing, which makes it difficult not simply in terms of effort and discipline, but even in knowing how to apply that effort and discipline. We all know how to act in certain ways, how to think and perform various mental activities, but the notion of not-thinking is totally foreign to our ordinary selves. David complains that stopping thought is basically impossible—and he's right! It is impossible, because “I” can't do it. Meditation is the one human activity that really does demand Alice's dictum of accomplishing seven impossible things before breakfast.

Another obstacle, which David notes, is that meditation does not seem to be an activity in which linear progress is possible. In fact, ups and downs are part of the process in developing most human skills, but there is a general belief, or faith, on the part of most people, that if you try to learn how to, say, do calculus, play the piano, write a book, run a business, and so on, you will get better over time. You might hit a plateau at some point, but at the very least, you will not get worse over time. Meditation can seem to get worse from day to day, prompting David, he tells us, long ago to drop the goal of progress as meaningful at all. (Actually, it very definitely is possible to measure one's progress, quite precisely, but in the begining this is very difficult, and I certainly agree with David that getting hung up on progress is an obstacle. I will return to this point later.)

In addition, though, a great many people are under the illusion that meditation is simply about sitting quietly for a few hours a day. The term is used in this sense virtually universally in our culture. Here again, I will cite Brad as someone who knows better:

advanced far more than sitting still because it involves serious lifestyle changes, renunciation of unhealthy habit patterns, including everything from exercise, diet, sexuality, what is studiedů

Many people, I have the impression, imagine that they can continue to live more or less as they always have, and just sit in meditation for some period of time every day. As Brad notes, meditation must go on all the time, and this means that your entire life has to change. A major reason meditation is so difficult, for anyone beginning, is because our lives unfold in ways that keep us in sleep. This goes back to what David said about evolution. We have evolved in a way that guarantees that our mind will be in constant motion, but mind is intimately connected to body. The kinds of thoughts we experience are related to the activity that we are doing at that time. So any attempt to challenge our thinking patterns inevitably means we must also confront what we are doing from day to day. Not to do so would be sort of like trying to divorce a partner while still not only living together and having sex together, but maintaining the outward relationship in exactly the same way as it was. How we act and what we experience are mutually reinforcing.

This goes far beyond the “unhealthy habit patterns” that Brad emphasizes, though. In fact, a certain kind of diet is not essential for successful meditation, though some diets are obviously healthier for us than others (here Brad may be falling into the same kind of fallacy that David is, assuming that what science tells us about our minds and bodies can help us meditate). The same is true with regard to exercise and sexuality. Society, through science, tends to claim that some approaches to exercise or to sexuality may be healthier than others, and I certainly wouldn't advise anyone to ignore the data underlying these claims. But my point remains that what science or society says about healthy lifestyles is pretty much irrelevant to meditation. Other than keeping you in the game for as long as possible, healthy living will not have much effect on meditation. It's something that you need to do—like having enough income to pay for food, shelter and clothing--but it will not increase your awareness.

The clash of energies

What do I mean about changing lifestyle, then? Let me start with a very simple example. Suppose, like David, you begin every day by sitting quietly in meditation. What happens when you finish? You presumably get up and do something, maybe have breakfast, go to work (at least before the pandemic), whatever. If you listen to Brad—and I think David accepts this, too, though he hasn't emphasized it in his article—you must continue to meditate even while you engage in your daily routine. But what happens when you do this?

If you are rigorous and honest in your practice, you will eventually notice that your awareness decreases when you get up from sitting and start doing something. Indeed, this is why meditation is so often discussed as though it were the same thing as sitting, because greater awareness is possible during this time. But why? At first, you might believe it's because you're distracted, by tasks you have to do, by people you must interact with, and so on. And certainly these are, or can be, factors. But suppose you make a concerted effort to get rid of external distractions—no noise, no other people around, no task to perform other than, say, a relatively mindless one of getting up and moving somewhere (think, for example, of the process of Zen walking, attempting to meditate exactly as when sitting, but while walking)—you will still lose awareness. Why?

Understanding the answer to this question is one of the most profound lessons of meditation. If you grasp this one principle, it will definitely guide you for the rest of your life. The reason you lose awareness is because your body moves. To do this requires energy and--herein lies the lesson—this is exactly the same energy that raises one's awareness. There is competition, which is to say conflict, between your body's needs for energy to do anything (even to maintain a default state in stillness or sleep), and that which fuels increasing awareness.

Let's step back a moment. What exactly happens in the brain during meditation? As I pointed out earlier, it's a process of stopping thought, though it can be described in many other ways. Every thought that passes through your mind requires energy, and when that thought is stopped, that energy becomes available for increasing awareness. From a purely scientific point of view, meditation can be defined as a process of diverting energy that would normally be used in mental activity into some kind of storage. An obvious metaphor that comes to mind is damming a river. To the extent that one stops the flow of the water, that water can be stored—in a lake, for example—where it is available as potential energy. In the brain, that storage, that potential energy, manifests to us as enhanced awareness—the more energy stored, the higher the awareness.

But this stored energy can also be tapped into by the body for its ongoing needs. Hence, there is a never-ending contest, or tug-of-war, between storing energy as higher awareness, and using it for physiological processes. When you sit, you reduce your body's needs for energy to a minimum, which means your awareness can rise, relatively unhindered, at a maximum rate. And conversely, when you stop sitting—that is, when you get up and start to move--you lose awareness, because your body needs energy to move, and it will take some of that energy from your increased awareness.

I want to repeat this, because it's extremely important, and I believe very few people realize it. It doesn't matter how hard you try to meditate when you are walking, for example, you will not increase your level of awareness as fast as when you are sitting. And if you have been sitting for a while before walking, you will lose some of your awareness when you then start walking. This process has nothing to do with being distracted, with not trying hard enough, with losing your interest, or any other explanation or excuse you might come up with. It's simply an observable fact that this always happens. And again, I will be blunt here: anyone who doesn't experience this simply has not achieved a high enough level of awareness to realize it. You have to have some enhanced awareness to appreciate that you can lose it, and because measuring your level of awareness is a very difficult art (I will discuss this point later), you generally must undergo this process many, many times before what is going on fully dawns on you.

Why does the body in effect steal that hard-earned energy? I don't have a detailed answer to that question, but it surely has to do with the fact that we didn't evolve as meditating creatures, and when we stumbled upon a process that could harvest energy from stopped thoughts, there was no process to keep this energy, from in effect, leaking out to other processes that use energy. Energy is precious to all living things, and just as nature abhors a vacuum, so does it never leave some concentration of energy alone without efforts to distribute it elsewhere. Indeed, life itself—beginning with the earliest cells—could only evolve when it not only had developed ways of extracting energy from substances in the environment, but of jealously hoarding and guarding that energy (for example, by enclosing itself in a membrane, complete with molecular gate keepers strictly enforcing traffic in either direction across it) from leaking back into the environment. From this perspective, we might say that meditators—who are trying to create a higher form of life, beyond the human animal—have not yet developed a way of preventing this energy from leaking back to where it came from.

Now we are in a position to understand why meditation must go on all the time—not just a few hours a day, let alone as something one does only when one has time or finds convenient. The energy that we accumulate through meditation is very unstable. If we stop meditating, not only will no more energy accumulate, but what little we have acquired will gradually be commandered by the body for other purposes. Even if we were to sit quietly indefinitely, if we were to stop meditating at some point, that stored energy would eventually be used by the body for self-maintenance.[1] And as soon as we get up and start behaving in any manner physically—or indeed, just thinking in a highly focused manner—the loss is accelerated. Meditation is a Sisyphean task, like rolling a stone up a hill. If we pause for even a moment, the stone starts to roll back down. This in fact is not just a metaphor, as it accurately depicts the concepts of energy maxima and minima.

When the meditator crashes

As I noted earlier, and as David pointed out, a constant problem for meditators is that awareness seems to come and go; there is no linear progress. Part of this is the result of natural, intrinsic rhythms in our body. Even during sitting meditation, awareness will rise and fall constantly, in a regular pattern, though over time it will rise by a net amount, basically proportional to the time of sitting. If one wanted to graph level of awareness over time during sitting, it would look like a rising jagged line.

But very large changes in awareness can result from changes in our behavior. For example, if you sit one morning, then engage in an unusual amount of physical activity that day, your level of awareness the next morning is likely to be lower than it was the previous morning. In the early stages, when one is not aware of the effect of activity, this can be very frustrating. It seems that despite all your efforts, you not only are not experiencing increasing awareness, but actually decreased awareness. While there are multiple factors affecting the awareness, a major reason why its level fluctuates from day to day in ways that seem to have no rhyme nor reason is because it's being siphoned off by daily activities in ways that the beginning meditator is probably at best only dimly aware of. As soon as one starts paying very strict attention to what one is doing from moment to moment, this relationship should become clear.

In advanced meditators, the effect of activity on awareness can be very dramatic. Suppose you have been sitting—or even just engaging in a relatively low energy activity, such as working at a computer, or in a confined area, such as a kitchen or workbench, for an extended period of time. At some point you finish doing that, and decide to go for a walk, or perhaps have to walk some distance to get to your next task or whatever you're supposed to be doing. As a result, you can actually experience a crash, in which the level of your awareness drops precipitously and dramatically in a very short time.

This experience is like nothing that one in the ordinary state of consciousness can comprehend. This might seem frightening, as one has the experience of falling through multiple levels of decreasing awareness, of in a sense going backward in time, reliving levels that one was at before. Yet the experience is often exhilarating, and some of the most important lessons of meditation are gifted in these circumstances. Time, even while objectively only passing for a few minutes, seems to move with incredible speed; everything in one's surroundings seems to jump out at one, saying Look at me! Listen to me! Smell me! The world literally explodes with sensations.

Again, taking the scientific point of view, what is happening is that much of that energy accumulated through meditation earlier is released in a torrent, like a dam that has suddenly been breached. This energy is not only used to refill bodily stores drawn on by the muscles and their innervating processes, but also flows into many other areas of the brain, such as those that are responsible for sensations, greatly enhancing them. At such times, one feels incredibly alive, far more so than in the ordinary state. Meditation seems easy, effortless; everything is being handed to one.

It's only later, as the experience wears off, and one realizes how much awareness has been lost, and the brutally hard work that will be required to regain it, that the negative aspects of crashing become apparent. One has been given what would seem to be a priceless experience—except that one soon learns that there is always a price, which is suffering. Every experience of the meditator—no matter how sublime, how profound, how life-altering--comes with this price attached. Energy is the currency which we tender for these experiences, and suffering is the price we pay to acquire this currency.

Lost and found

Understanding the relationship between energy and awareness not only enables one to accept and account for changes in awareness, but to plan one's life strategically. One can know in advance what one's level of awareness will be at some time in the future, if, and only if, one knows in some detail what one will be doing during that intervening time period. This knowledge does not make meditation any easier, though. After all, we have to think, feel and move in order to survive. This means that your life becomes filled with conflicts, some of them frightening and with the potential to derail either your practice or your life entirely. For example, what happens when someone—at your job or in your family—asks you to do something, and you know that this will result in a great loss of awareness?

At advanced levels, this is not simply an enormous inconvenience, because in certain circumstances, losing awareness can literally mean being unable to function normally, to carry out that request. In the ordinary state of consciousness, where almost every experience is one of sleep, the massive amount of unconscious thinking that we do acts in sort of the same way that a flywheel does in some kinds of machines. It stores programs that we use in most routine tasks, so that we can perform tasks automatically. While consciousness is essential for some of our behavior, particularly for doing things we are unfamiliar with, have not had experience with, the vast amount of our day to day behavior doesn't require it at all. We are virtually sleep-walkers.

As one's awareness increases, however, this situation begins to change. While some unconscious processes continue to operate, some of them are taken over by the increased awareness. This is how we become aware of what we are doing, rather than going through life almost constantly asleep. The downside of this, though, is that we become increasingly dependent on this higher awareness--and when we lose some of it, all hell can break lose. We literally may no longer be able to function. At such times, one is not only asleep, but experiences that sleep. While there are unconscious programs in the brain that even the most advanced meditator is unlikely to touch, the ones that constantly tell us that we are awake and conscious in the moment have been revealed as lies, and are no longer part of the meditator's behavior. Consequently, following a drop of awareness in some circumstances, one may literally not know who one is, where one is, or what one is doing. It's not that you could not, in this situation, give your name or describe where you are; unconscious processes remain to do this much. It's that this information is no longer meaningful to you; you don't identify with it. It's just words coming out of your mouth that do nothing at all to reinforce your actual experience.

So while knowledge brings power, it also brings new challenges. The root of all these challenges is the fundamental conflict between the energy needed to raise awareness, and the use of that energy for bodily needs. The conflict goes on unceasingly as long as the meditator is alive.

Validating meditation empirically

Critics of meditation, and of the concept of spirituality in general, often argue that there is no way to validate the experiences by science. There have, of course, been a large number of studies of meditators using well-known neurophysiological procedures such as EEG, brain scans, and so forth. But these studies presuppose what they are trying to prove: that there are in fact people who meditate, who can be distinguished from people who don't.

In other words, there are always two unknown variables. Even if significant differences, such as activity in certain brain regions, can be ascribed to different groups, there always remains the question, what exactly did the so-called meditators do to result in these differences? Are they really in a higher state of awareness, or have the differences just resulted from living a certain kind of life that may in fact not have any effect on awareness? The fact that one spends several or more hours a day sitting quietly does not guarantee the former. It very likely will lead to certain changes in the brain that would not occur in control subjects, but no experimenter can get into the subject's brain and verify that s/he has significantly stopped/transcended thoughts or is in a higher state of awareness.

The relationship between awareness and physical activity I have just discussed provides an alternative way of scientifically validating meditative experiences. While it can't provide proof of a higher state of awareness—or that anything experienced in this state is real in the sense that science defines reality--it does offer an important claim that can be empirically tested. If, as I maintain, enhanced awareness is lost through activity, particularly gross physical activity, it should be possible to estimate the energetic needs of various human activities by their effect on awareness. That is, by how much awareness is lost when engaging in this activity following sitting, or by how much more slowly awareness rises, relatively to when sitting, when engaging in the activity. With a few exceptions, which I won't discuss here, I have found this to be the case. For example, far more awareness is lost walking than by standing and working in some way in a confined space; the latter in turn results in more awareness loss than sitting quietly at say, a computer, or working on a craft project. Talking or thinking has more of an effect on awareness than sitting quietly. And so on. I could provide many detailed examples. Almost all of them were experienced long before the internet made it possible to verify this relationship, by comparing the loss of awareness with actual studies of the amount of energy consumed in various human activities.

To be able to establish this relationship at all, of course, presupposes that one can accurately measure one's level of awareness. There are several ways to do this, but I want to discuss here just one, that makes specific use of the phenomenon of awareness loss itself. As I discussed earlier, when one crashes, one experiences a very large loss in awareness in a relatively short period of time. It becomes particularly easy to measure awareness at this time, because it's changing. The awareness at one moment can be compared with that a previous moment.

As a very crude analogy, imagine being on an elevator, and having no idea of what floor you're on. Say, there are no buttons or lights, or they aren't working. Suddenly, the elevator begins to descend. The simple experience of descent tells you immediately that you have been “up” somewhere, and the longer you descend, the further up you judge your starting point must have been. Moreover, since you are passing floors that you previously passed on the way up, you know that these floors themselves have to be above still lower floors. And so on.

So—and I am purposely simplifying this discussion, not bringing in other relevant information—the process of crashing can tell us a great deal about our level of awareness. This is not only the case when awareness is falling, however, but also when its recovering. I said earlier that after a crash, the meditator is faced with having to make up that lost awareness through a long and difficult period of meditation in relative stillness. What I will add here is that while the period is indeed long and difficult, it is not as long as difficult as it was the first time, that is, when that former level of awareness was reached the first time. When a previously attained level is lost abruptly through crashing—or even from a somewhat slower, more drawn-out process—that energy rebounds. The process is basically one of hysteresis, in which the previous state of a system has an effect on its current state.

The effect is as if the previous level of awareness draws, or attracts the current level up to itself. Think, for example, of a rubber band being stretched, then snapping back to its original position. To be more specific, the rate at which awareness level rises during this time is inversely proportional to the distance between it and the original level. That is, the further awareness drops from a previous level, the faster it will initially rebound, with the rate of rise decreasing asymptotically as the original level is approached. This relationship can actually be captured in a simple equation, and it provides still more information about our level of awareness.

In simple terms, raising awareness immediately after a crash is experienced as being easy—in fact, is experienced as being automatic, effortless. Meditation at such times is a piece of cake. It just happens, without any trying at all. Only as awareness rises further and approaches the original level does its rise become slower, and is perceived increasingly as requiring effort, and eventually, great effort. To go beyond that original level requires more time and effort still.

So periods of crashing and recovery afford the meditator an especially clear insight into level of awareness, and now it changes. If one had any doubt previously as to what exactly one's level of awareness was, the crash and recovery illuminates it brilliantly. While it is possible to gauge awareness level when it is not changing, this is often very difficult, and one can easily fall prey to illusions. One could say—in a rough analogy to Heisenberg—that the level of awareness has to change for us to measure it.

A perspective on meditation

In concluding, I want to emphasize that I'm not claiming that meditation can be entirely understood in terms of energy flows in the brain/mind—that awareness just is energy, in some form. This is only one perspective on the process, and has little to say in the way of explanation for some of the profound experiences possible through meditation. But I find this perspective very useful, not only because it teaches one about when, where, how and why our awareness changes, thus providing a way to plan our lives strategically, but also because it opens up the possibility of understanding meditation is scientific terms.

I began this discussion by arguing that David Lane's claim that knowing the evolutionary origin of our wandering mind can help us meditate is overstated. The difficulties of meditation aren't alleviated by such an understanding. Yet I think David does make an important point, namely, that we should try to understand meditation, to the extent possible, in the universal language of science, rather than through outdated religious concepts.

Even more recent spiritual notions, it seems to me, have little use. In his comments to David's article, Brad Reynolds argues for the importance of understanding higher stages of meditation, such as savikalpa and nirvakalpa. He throws out these terms as though they should be obvious to any advanced meditator, when in fact that's not the case at all. They may have some meaning to him, in the context of a specific school or teacher he's associated with, but they have no significance for me. Indeed, in my experience, there are no discrete stages in meditation at all. There are certainly lessons, discoveries to be made, but these usually come gradually, and are not associated with any particular level of awareness.

Let's consider this further, using one of the simplest, yet commonest metaphors for meditation: climbing a mountain. The beginner, from this point of view, faces an endless vertical wall, stretching as far above as one can see, with no apparent place on it affording any kind of purchase. Every time s/he attempts to grasp the wall, the meditator finds one's grip immediately loosening and sliding away. The wall appears sheer, smooth, and exceedingly slippery. There are no secret crevices nor hidden handles to help one here. The only advice, that even advanced meditators can offer, is, keep trying.

That advanced meditator, now somewhat up the wall, has no problem in grasping it any more. This problem was solved some time ago. Meditation is now difficult because of the sheer effort required to overcome gravity, inch by inch, and because various obstacles may appear, blocking the path upward. Sometimes, the meditator, without losing his grip entirely, will start sliding down, and will have to regain everything that was lost.

In the context of this metaphor, terms like savikalpa or nirvakalpa—and many other terms used by others, such as Wilber—are like unique rock formations that the meditator is supposed to encounter along the way. Except that no information is provided, as far as I can tell, that would clearly and unambiguously enable someone who has not previously experienced them how to recognize them, or even where to look for them.

In contrast, understanding awareness in terms of energy allows us to specify any experience or event in terms of its location.[2] That is, one can say that some experience occurred at a specific distance up the mountain. In scientific terms, level of awareness can in theory be specified precisely in terms of a certain quantity of energy. This allows anyone, even someone who has never meditated, to have some understanding of the claim.

Science can't now, and perhaps never will be able to, get into one person's head and validate his or her experiences. This is simply another facet of the fundamental dilemma of how consciousness can be compatible with a material understanding of the universe. And I'm doubtful that science will ever be able to help someone meditate, in the sense of reducing the effort and suffering involved. But a scientific approach can be used to make sense of our experiences, specifically, by illuminating exactly when, where, how and why they occur. Science says everything has a cause (at least beyond the quantum world), and we should apply this premise to everything that meditation presents us with.


[1] An example of this is provided by when we go to sleep at night. Meditation stops, and when we awaken in the morning, we discover that our level of awareness is a little lower than it was the night before. It's not much lower, because other than some tossing and turning, we don't move physically much, and other than dreaming, mental activity is shut down. But even in deep sleep, we require energy constantly to stay alive, and as long as we are in a higher state of awareness, this readily available energy will be tapped into.

[2] Another relevant distinction between my approach and Brad's is discussed by Joseph Dilliard, in his comment to David Lane's article. He contrasts "an ideologically-based world view and practice and a purely phenomenologically-based one”. I would describe my approach as more phenomenological, though perhaps not exactly or completely in the sense that Joseph lays out.

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