Why I Meditate
Meditation and Rilke’s Unsayable Spaces
Meditating 30 minutes a day, from age 21 until the American male average of 79 yields 10,585 hours, or 441 full days in meditation. Why spend 1.21 years sitting with eyes closed, legs crossed, doing nothing? What kind of anticlimactically meek response to philosophy’s old question — how to live — is plopping down on a cushion and breathing?
Just as Albert Camus asked what he called philosophy’s first question — why should I keep living? — we might ask, why keep sitting? In Why I Meditate, Allen Ginsberg sits for revolution:
“…I sit inside the shell of the old Me
I sit for world revolution.”
But what radical change is brought about through meditation, seated or otherwise? What revolution springs from the zafu cushion? I turn to Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who, in the sublime Letters to a Young Poet, writes:
“Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered…”
I sit to combat the amputation of my consciousness. I sit, quiet inside and out, to expand the registry of my awareness beyond the pale of language; to push perception into the dark, pre-linguistic woods of consciousness.
The stream of consciousness is not a ceaseless flow of words. Words are just imperfect nets with which we fish experience from that tangled stream of internal sensations. Words, like nets, are porous. The substance they carry leaks out the bottom, and by the time they reach someone else’s ear, much of their initial haul is missing, left at the source.
Conflating the stream of narration in our heads with the entire stream of consciousness reduces consciousness to nothing but our linguistic representations. We lose all that exists in the spaces words cannot enter. We live in but a sliver of consciousness, despite Rilke’s warnings.
David Foster Wallace, who suffered — fatally — from the opaque wall between language and its underlying sensations, the underlying substance words seek to communicate, writes:
“What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant…Words and chronological time create all these total misunderstandings of what’s really going on at the most basic level. And yet at the same time English is all we have to try to understand it and try to form anything larger or more meaningful and true with anybody else…”
To carry the inquiry further, we can ask why spend time pushing perception into unsayable spaces? Even if language does only reproduce an impoverished expression of consciousness, why engage with experiences in the deep terrain beyond linguistic reach? That can only be vaguely, allegorically alluded to, just as Zen calls itself nothing but a ‘finger pointing towards the moon’? Wittgenstein believed this lunar terra incognita was to be passed over:
“…what can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence…The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for.”
It’s precisely this ‘passing over’ meditation combats. This is the amputation of consciousness against which meditation revolts. It rejects the hegemony of intellect. It postulates our capacity for perception beyond language, for cognition informed through untranslated subjective experience. Meditation is, in other words, what Alan Watts calls a ‘discipline in nonverbal perception’:
“…to comprehend mysticism you must also follow some type of sadhana, or discipline in nonverbal perception…This requires that you stop, look, listen, abandon thoughts and theories, and feel directly whatever it is that is going on without asking questions — i.e., for translations into words of what is going on.”
When Wittgenstein writes that what lies on the other side of language is simply nonsense, he’s right. But what he misses is the ecstasy, even utility of nonsense. Poets like Emily Dickinson revel in non-sense; a primary function of art is leading us beyond the trail markers of sense, into the dark wood below language that we spend much of our lives imperfectly expressing, grasping at with punctured nets of language:
“And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing — then — ”
Attention as Artform
Still, the question remains unanswered. Why comprehend mysticism? Why cultivate awareness beyond language? Why take issue with expressing only a particular locale of consciousness, if it happens to be the locale enabling us to communicate with others, and navigate a world of social dynamics and intersubjective realities? Why meditate?
At bottom, I guess I meditate because attention is my art form. I’d even wager that much of what we call art — paintings, novels, poetry — are secondary, byproducts of rarefied attention. Attention, then is the primary art form.
Yes, this is a particularly self-serving contortion of the meaning of art to suit, and uphold, my own life. But I suspect everything we say and think, the entirety of our left-brain analytic and rational functions, are doing just this at all times — selfishly seeking to story ourselves into significance.
So I sit, alongside Ginsberg, for a right-brain revolution. I do not believe I can story myself into any kind of significance. Narratives fall short, I fear. I suspect significance is a sensation endemic to the present, a varietal of perception cultivated in contemplative practice — various disciplines, like meditation, in nonverbal perception.
Meditation is how I both create and explore awareness, the attentional landscape in which ‘I’ exist. It pursues a peek beneath the floorboards of reason. I want to explore these unseen neighborhoods, for the same reasons Annie Dillard wandered Tinker Creek: “…to explore…the landscape, to discover at least where it is that we have been so startlingly set down, if we can’t learn why.”
Consciousness is a vast, unexplored landscape. It’s here that ‘I’ am set down, or perhaps arise — in consciousness. Where words fail, silence may carry the torch.