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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Meditation and the turn outward

Some speak of meditation as being a practice that brings us into awareness with our "true self." The idea of a true self seems tricky to me. Tricky I say, because the notion of a true self seems to be the self that is buried deep beneath the rubble of all of the external influences that have shaped us. The true self is the self that is deeper that the part of us that has been molded by our culture, society, and environment.

While I do not deny the existence of a “true self,” in some form or fashion, I find it problematic to draw a hard and fast line between “true self” and “conditioned self.” Whatever the true self is, it isn’t what it is without the conditioning of our lives. Nor do I think a self is less true if it is conditioned. Living a contemplative life, engaging in a deeper spiritual and psychological awareness, should not be a practice of seeking to bypass the concrete realities around us or to despise the part of us that has been conditioned by the experiences of life. In short, meditation should not simply be an escape. If it becomes mostly about escape, then it differs little from other methods that people use to hide or themselves to the world.

Meditation seems to me to be as much about connecting to the external world as it does to go deeper into one’s self. I do believe that meditation should be an experience of going deeper into one’s self. Yet it is simultaneously a way in which a person develops a deeper awareness of what is going on around them.

In the hectic ebb and flow of life in our highly connected Western society, many people appear rather checked out, disengaged from life. They be unable to really be present to someone else’s thoughts and emotions, or, conversely, they may be unaware of the thoughts and emotions that they have, becoming lost in the world of others. Ironically, losing one’s self in the world also tends to miss a vital connection with others, since others in the world are serving as an escape route.

Meditation seeks to develop a greater sense of awareness. To become aware of one’s own thoughts and feelings as well as the thoughts and feelings of those around them. As such, it is not merely a practice that allows one to become lost in one’s self. It is a way of practicing an acute sense of ourselves, carrying over into an ability to tune in to others in a meaningful way.

Personally, my method of dealing with the world is to seek to escape it, to withdraw and distance myself from it. Sitting in meditation comes easy for me, but not necessarily for all of the right reasons. It can become merely an avenue for escape. However, what I have certainly noticed since I began practicing regular meditation (almost a year or so ago?) is that I have very gradually developed a better awareness of what is going on in and through others. I can be in groups or in one-on-one conversations and drop out of sight, disconnect.

For me, meditation has been a way that I have been able to concentrate on my awareness of the present moment, and to become aware of the times when I am disconnecting or want to withdraw from what is going on around. So, for me the benefits of meditation have had as much to do with going outside of myself as it has for going within myself. The experience of growing in awareness, I believe, is different for various people and personality types. For all, though, awareness is both of self and of the external world outside of one's self; and, there is a very real sense in which there is no difference.


amy frances said...

Thanks for the thought-food, man.

Asheya said...

Could I also suggest that meditation creates a greater awareness of the body, as well as thoughts and feelings? And that it is in fact our bodies that create the bridge between our inner selves (thoughts and feelings) and the outer world, and our bodies are how we engage with ourselves and with the world. While I am not currently involved in any specific meditative practice (as in I don't set aside time), I do try to become aware during the day of how my body feels, and to consciously relax my shoulders or open my heart or lengthen my back or ground my feet on the floor. And I find these subtle shifts create an awareness of my self in myself that help me to find a small calm in the daily whirlwind of my life with three small children and a husband.

I liked what you have to say about the true self/conditioned self, and it's definitely something to think about. There is a certain psychological theory (I can't remember what it's called, sorry) that says, more or less, that our basic need is not to survive but to connect, to be in relationship. And that any problems we have really are lived in relationship and so healing is in the context of relationships.

Jonathan Erdman said...


Great thoughts. Because of your comments on being conscious of our bodies, I caught myself in a slouch and now I am sitting up straight!

I especially appreciate your comment about our bodies being the bridge between inner and outer selves. This makes me ponder a bit. If our "inner self" is really closely connected to our bodies (such that we cannot really separate them), and if our bodies are the bridge to the outside world, and if our bodies are connected to the outside world (such that we cannot really separate them), then it follows that maybe there isn't the disconnect between our inner self and the outer world that we tend to think there is.

In terms of relationships and healing....yes....I definitely agree with what you are saying about finding healing in the context of relationships. I have not heard of the psychological theory that says that our basic need is to connect, but I'm definitely sympathetic to such a view.

tamie said...

I found this post quite insightful, both in terms of meditation in general and in terms of insight into YOU. In the time that you've been meditating, I've noticed a remarkable change in you, and I think you really hit the ol' nail on the head when you said that for you meditation actually results in going outwards. Good, good stuff.

And Asheya: yes, yes, and yes! Exactly. The longer I live, and the more aware of my body I become, the more of a monist I become. Enough said.