Phenomenology, The Unconscious, And Meditation
Amongst western society, a change has happened regarding our perspective and outlook for science and philosophy. Now, more than ever before, we see considerable consideration of eastern philosophy, and its practices. Be it, scientists who are sprouting an interest about the effects of meditation regarding both mind and body; an individual seeking relief from stress by practicing some form of meditation; or, perhaps more profoundly, an academic noticing parallels between mysticism and quantum mechanics. It is evident, in western society, eastern principles have a prominence, of sorts, throughout.
Meditation, an eastern practice, was the most intriguing of all eastern ideas. Many spoke of meditation as a way of learning; for instance, Sam Harris, Alan Watts, and Frank Yang. And, they were certainly right. Meditation can teach one about their mind and its nature; or, indirectly, shape a new outlook on life; as well, meditation can demonstrate, through experience, that there is no “self”. Overall, meditations heavy focus on the mind by self-reflection is quite a profound way of learning.
Of course, before ever attempting meditation, I had some skepticism about it, as it is an introspective method. Firstly, I recalled that experience and reality differ; we may think a puppy be inherently cute because of our experiences relating to it, but it is not cute. Which is to say, there is not a physical property called cute that constitutes the puppy; thus, experience and reality do not correspond at all times. Secondly, I am reminded that our mind, in many ways, evolved to trick “us”; that is, have automatic responses that are not subject to conscious influence(1). However, there are qualities of subjective experience that are subjectively objective; meaning, some aspects of human experience: thought, sound, emotion, happen for us all. And, with that said, we can thereby conclude some knowledge can be acquired by introspection, so long as one is cognizant of the split between experience and reality.
In a meditative state, a recognition of fine detail, of which existed beforehand, is noticed. We experience, in full, our experiences of sound; of thought; of physical sensation; and arrive at new understandings of them, formally known as insight. That is, when in a non-meditative state, attention is disbursed, spread-out, and not focused. Whereas, in a meditative state, attention is directed towards a single quality of subjective experience. It is the case that meditation allows for us to experience the richness of our experiences; meaning, meditation guides us to have perceptions about our perceptions. And, in doing so, we explicate new insight.
When we reflect inwards, we can then ask who is hearing, thinking or feeling? Immediately, many are tempted to say I, me, or myself. However, such a response only leads to a repetition of the original question; that is, who am “I”? The question is inherently unanswerable, which is why it will not be satisfied with any notion of an ego; there is no self, there is only a concept and sensation of self. To clarify, we have an impression of someone sitting in the center of our experiences, formally known as “I”, and it comes with many associative memories. These memories then allow for a sense of character, social role, and identity; that meaning, we rely on memory to understand the concept of our self. Consider the following: memories of studying Psychology, Physics, or healing the sick. We use those memories to say we’re Psychologists, Physicists, or Medical Doctors; however, the impression of being a Psychologist, or a Frank Yang for that matter, is a fabrication from directing our memories inward, and then applying them to the sensation of self. Thus, the concept of self is a fabrication created by us. Whereas the sensation of self is a subjective illusion propagated by the brain; I hold this to be self-evident. Not only do we fail to come forth with any meaningful response to an inquiry on the existence of self, but the self has no physical property; that is to say, in mind-independent reality, we have only bundles of cells forming a brain, not the experience of self. Certainly, the subjective experience of selfhood exists; but, like the property of cute not being attributable to the puppy; the property of self is not attributable to a reality that can exist independently from the mind.
Another profundity from introspective learning was the finding of an unconscious wall. When we sit silently, not just with our bodies but with our minds, we notice the things which appear before the mind to a degree much greater than before, such as sound, thought, and sensation. Though oddly enough, we witness no creator of these things, and nor do we recall any steps that were undergone to understand them; that being the unconscious wall. But, applying the split between experience and reality, we know sensory organs are capable of handling raw information: particles, sound waves, and pressure on the skin; thus, the unconscious brain injects our understanding of sound, sensation, and light; and thereby emphasizing the split between experience and reality. The unconscious is not only responsible for our witnessing of sensory information but so too our comprehension of it, though that is not always the case.
Hopefully, after having read all of the above, you come away with a new appreciation for any phenomenalistic insights. Undoubtedly, there are risky areas of inquiry when taking this approach, but as we have just read, some knowledge can be acquired.
(1). Jonathan Haidt. (2001), The emotional dog and its rational tail: a social intuitionist approach to moral judgment. Psychological Review, 108, 814–834.