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John Holbo - Editor
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Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
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Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Thursday, February 04, 2010

On Meditation As A Western Practice

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 02/04/10 at 05:07 PM

(x-posted to The Kugelmass Episodes)

Many of the people I know, myself included, have tried meditating at some point in their lives. I know some people who have gone to meditation retreats for days or weeks. I don’t currently meditate, but I have been considering starting up again. I’m finding it hard to begin again, though, because I fundamentally don’t know what meditating means.

Now, of course, it may not be necessary to know what meditating means. It is relaxing, it is supposed to clear the mind, and that is perhaps sufficient. Yet I am uneasy about the fact that Westerners who meditate do so in a widely divergent manner, and that there is no consensus on how one should meditate or about its nature as a discipline. Furthermore, meditating is almost universally considered a healthy practice, in the same way as “getting exercise.” If I told you that I sat in a warm bath for fifteen minutes a day, you might not have much reaction at all, or you might consider me a bit self-indulgent. However, if I announce that I meditate for fifteen minutes every day, most people will act as though I’ve admitted to great willpower and good sense. 

Meditation is valuable to us because of the way we moralize about thought. If I can hold one focus for fifteen minutes, I feel not only as though I’ve eliminated distracting thoughts—I feel as though I’ve achieved a victory over modern life, with its constant stream of things competing for my attention. To surrender to a flood of stimuli tends, upon reflection, to make us anxious, as though we are becoming less self-directed and more passive. We see ourselves as protagonists in a story in which we must overcome the Internet, cellphones, advertising, and the rest, in order to achieve prosperity and selfhood.

In reality, there are many situations in which we have to respond to a lot of simultaneous information, and where a “short attention span” is a necessity. A variety of professionals, including investors, sports players, press agents, and teachers, have to thrive amidst sensory overload. If “mindfulness” has any meaning for these vocations, it means adapting to the flow of information in order to act quickly and correctly. Still, this is quite different in practice from sitting down with a book, or carrying on a single conversation for hours.

We should be suspicious of a practice that has supposed benefits, but no possible downside. Even exercising, done incorrectly, can cause injury or exhaustion, a fact of which we are all aware. In truth, there are some studies of meditation that suggest it can be a negative experience for people repressing severe traumas (if they are not prepared to face repressed material), as well as for people with a weak sense of self. But these findings are rarely discussed, and they are probably just the tip of the iceberg. If meditation is really as important to our psychic lives as philosophy, shouldn’t we view it in an equally critical, questioning light? Great debates ought to arise between people who favor a mantra, and those for whom “focusing on your breathing” is the correct way to practice. The definition of mindfulness should be studied and debated. There should be substantive comparisons between Indian yoga, Transcendental Meditation, Zen meditation, and other Buddhist and non-Buddhist forms. All of us should wrestle with the relationship between meditation and everyday life. Does it reveal the emptiness of all material things, and the absurdity of attachment? Is it concentration or meta-cognition?

One can say, easily and with great shows of serenity, that it is all these things, or that it is ineffable. Neither is really an answer. For many secular people, and even for people with loose religious ties, meditation is really replacing prayer. The risk is that it becomes a stagnant practice, its victory over modern “noise” a surrender to forces driving us away from life. We ought to try to learn, from each other, where each of us goes when we enter into that stillness.


Comments

I’m always interested to see meditation discussed, and I thank you for opening this door. I’d argue, however, that meditation is rarely the stagnant process that you describe, and that in fact if done honestly it raises exactly the questions that you list here. When I was meditating for 8 hours a day in Japan, at no point did I achieve focus for a period as long as 15 minutes, which is the accomplishment that you seem to toss aside as not very interesting or useful. Meditation faces you with the fact that real focus is extremely, mind-bogglingly difficult. I’m sure you’re aware that there are temples & institutions where the questions you list are in fact debated on a daily basis; I guess what you’re trying to do here is criticize the bland Western adoption of the practice as “calming.”

Personally, I’ve always thought of meditation as “practice” for my life, in the way that running sprints are “practice” for soccer-- it’s a more intense and stripped-down situation than you ever face in a real game, but it hones your skills and makes you realize that you have a long way to go.

However, this statement seemed particularly bizarre to me: “We should be suspicious of a practice that has supposed benefits, but no possible downside.” What about eating vegetables? What about hugging your mom? Clearly some things are just plain good ideas.

By Erin McNellis on 02/04/10 at 07:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I find your desire for a kind of comparative-effectiveness study to be utterly baffling and I think your mistaken characterization of meditation as a “discipline” may be at the root of your unease. Meditation isn’t a discipline - there is no formalized set of rules, it’s not a branch of knowledge (which is not to say it doesn’t arise from a very particular cultural context). Like yoga, it’s a practice. Also like yoga – which has an equally large number of types and styles – you do what feels best for you. If you feel good at the end of it, then you’re doing it right. It’s precisely not philosophy. The debate between a mantra and focusing on one’s breathing seems entirely pointless to me (not to mention entirely irresolvable) insofar as there’s nothing magical about either one: the point is that both are repetitive acts that help your mind and body enter into a heightened state of relaxation (Your comparison to prayer is interesting: I imagine you could get the same effect from repeating enough Hail Marys. However, just because it may have the same effect as prayer doesn’t mean it fulfills the same social or cultural role)

You characterize meditation as a kind of existential/moral act, a way of declaring victory over the “noise” of modern life and over “distracting thoughts.” Well, sure, but I would caution you against generalizing your response; just because the narrative you describe of the “mindful” protagonist resisting the siren song of the Internet is available doesn’t mean it’s inevitable. (As a side note, I also think it’s curious that you describe meditation in purely intellectualized terms, as an exclusively mental practice while leaving out meditation’s bodily aspects; it’s as much a physical practice as a mental one – or at least it can be). Mostly, I fail to see why a rigorous attention to the question of whether meditation is concentration or meta-cognition is critical to prevent it from becoming stagnant. Again, you shouldn’t generalize your own response.

Finally, we’re not always immediately conscious of the benefits of meditation. It works on the autonomic nervous system – the parts of our body we can’t control like heart beat etc. - which is also very susceptible to stress. Put another way, meditation is good not because it makes you a better person than the guy who can’t turn his blackberry off, but because it can rewire your brain to better manage stress (which teachers, sports players and press agents certainly suffer from) and improve cognitive functioning. Think of it less as religion and more as a low-tech form of cognitive behavioral therapy.

By on 02/04/10 at 10:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m finding it hard to begin again, though, because I fundamentally don’t know what meditating means.

Do you know what ‘criticism’ means? I didn’t think so. But I bet you think it’s worth doing.

There should be substantive comparisons between Indian yoga, Transcendental Meditation, Zen meditation, and other Buddhist and non-Buddhist forms.

Such substantive comparisons exist, as do very very detailed discussions of the neurology of alternate consciousness, psychedelic experience, etc. Google helps.

In truth, there are some studies of meditation that suggest it can be a negative experience for people repressing severe traumas (if they are not prepared to face repressed material), as well as for people with a weak sense of self.

The phrase ‘weak sense of self’ misses the point, as the ultimate goal of many meditative practices is a dissolution/transformation of the ‘self’ as commonly (poorly, egotistically) understood. As for negative experiences: going to the gym can be a bad experience if you run into your asshole ex-husband and he punches you in the brain, but that is not a reflection on the gym - rather on your relationship with your ex-husband. If you want to be fit, you still go to the gym. If you just want to have the ‘correct’ opinion about gyms, on the other hand…

We should be suspicious of a practice that has supposed benefits, but no possible downside.

We should be suspicious of people who insist they can know the outcome of an event in advance, and more specifically that devotion must be reducible to prescription.

By Wax Banks on 02/04/10 at 11:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Erin,

...as not very interesting or useful.

I think meditation is immensely interesting; whether or not it is useful is, it seems to me, an open question. While I grant some value to subjective protestations, that’s not enough on its own to prove usefulness.

Personally, I’ve always thought of meditation as “practice” for my life, in the way that running sprints are “practice” for soccer-- it’s a more intense and stripped-down situation than you ever face in a real game, but it hones your skills and makes you realize that you have a long way to go.

This strikes me as one of the core issues worthy of debate. Everyone understands that practicing for a soccer match wouldn’t enable you to sit down and play Beethoven on the piano, but here meditation counts as practice for literally everything, all of life. What is the nature of life, if its fundamental property is that it is applied meditation? Is this in conflict with any number of other beliefs and practices we hold/live?

However, this statement seemed particularly bizarre to me: “We should be suspicious of a practice that has supposed benefits, but no possible downside.” What about eating vegetables? What about hugging your mom? Clearly some things are just plain good ideas.

I don’t think these are really comparable, especially “hugging your mom,” which would trivialize meditation—hugging obviously not able here to stand for the extremely complicated, and not always functional, relationships between parents and children.

“Eating your vegetables” is closer to the mark. Still, it’s a culturally conditioned statement from the 1950s, when Americans were constantly eating too much meat, starch, sugar, and fat (as they still do today). Such a statement would hardly be useful to a Thai person who eats their vegetables as a matter of course. Our attitude towards meditation strikes me as fairly culture-deaf, as though we could explain the basics to anyone, anywhere, and she would immediately benefit.

Furthermore, people who eat only their vegetables finally do exist now in the West, and they are prone to a variety of deficiencies.

Finally, “eat your vegetables” has been around for so long partly because it’s such an ineffective command. We live in a culture of “do this and do that to be healthy, or else,” and the result is mostly guilt. I think meditation can be more than another recruit in our fanciful battle between good and bad habits.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 02/05/10 at 12:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If you feel good at the end of it, then you’re doing it right. It’s precisely not philosophy.

Yet that is such an extreme ideological statement, with all kinds of attitudes coiled up inside. If it feels good, then it’s working? Symphonies and heroin also feel good.

Again, you shouldn’t generalize your own response.

I would take this admonition more seriously if you weren’t generalizing about what would be good for my autonomic nervous system.

Think of it less as religion and more as a low-tech form of cognitive behavioral therapy.

Toward what end? What does “managing” stress better entail? I mean, sure, nobody wants to be the screaming puppet of road rage, but I don’t want to be Tim Robbins in High Fidelity either. I’m not saying there’s no such thing as effectively managing stress; just that meditation ought to be included in our deliberative conversations about values. Right now, I think it is an assumed value, and like anything that is mentioned without being really discussed, it has become a moving target.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 02/05/10 at 12:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Do you know what ‘criticism’ means? I didn’t think so. But I bet you think it’s worth doing.

Actually, I have lots to say about what criticism means. Only took seven years of grad school to get there!

Such substantive comparisons exist, as do very very detailed discussions of the neurology of alternate consciousness, psychedelic experience, etc. Google helps.

Google has blessed us with 10,000 results on every subject imaginable. However, that doesn’t mean that such conversations have filtered into everyday life, or that Google alone is going to be enough. Mostly, when you type stuff about meditation into a search engine like Google, you get 60 variations on About.com telling you to find a comfortable part of the room and breathe slowly.

The phrase ‘weak sense of self’ misses the point, as the ultimate goal of many meditative practices is a dissolution/transformation of the ‘self’ as commonly (poorly, egotistically) understood.

I certainly understand that, Waxbanks. However, I don’t find that most Westerners who meditate are actually living the rest of their lives as though seeking to shed the self.

We should be suspicious of people who insist they can know the outcome of an event in advance, and more specifically that devotion must be reducible to prescription.

I think the “aw, snap” factor here is interfering with my ability to correctly understand you. If meditation is an act of devotion, which is not how many practitioners understand it, then to what or whom is devotion being offered?

Sure, outcomes are out of our hands, but we do go to gyms (for example) with some sense of a probable and desired outcome.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 02/05/10 at 12:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In calling for a critical study of meditation you are, as previous posters have suggested, asking for help locating the rich existing debate on the question. Studies of meditation that are critical in a sense recognizable to literature scholars include Donald Lopez’ recent book ‘Buddhism and Science’ and Robert Sharf’s influential essays on the history of buddhist modernism. (Oxford has recently published a book called ‘The Making of Buddhist Modernism’ which is useful.) Serious philosophical and scientific studies of meditation have proliferated in recent decades; Varela’s classic ‘The Embodied Mind,’ provides an influential starting point. Navigating the recent neuroscientific literature presents special challenges, but is do-able if you have a little time. If you email me, I’d be happy to provide more references.

By on 02/05/10 at 12:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

One touted advantage of meditation is that it offers a relief from highly literate thinking. In not thinking of anything in particular, one is consequently not thinking in words.

Suppose this description is accepted for the sake of argument. Naturally, this raises the question: what were illiterate monks getting out of meditation for all those years? (Or: Are there drawbacks to literacy?)

And perhaps more relevantly: can meditation aid art criticism? What if it counters the instinct to experience everything as a text or an allegory? I’m thinking of a very colorful movie that’s popular right now, whose significance may be a sequence of emotional manipulations, rather than political angles of the formal aspects of the scenario. What if lots of movies “work” like this? Kubrick said the conjunction of music and pictures was the unique possibility of cinema. What if the last three Star Wars movies “really were” John Williams videos by George Lucas?

How many different levels does an artwork operate on, and can meditation, whatever it is, help us identify more of them?

By on 02/05/10 at 06:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Meditation is valuable to us because of the way we moralize about thought.

I should have quoted this out since it was my point of departure. Are you sure it’s the way we moralize about thought? Or could it be the way we moralize about language?

If thought can only be expressed in language, then meditation becomes some weird (and therefore perhaps “spiritual") thing. But if language is only one tool for thought, then meditation is the exercise of one’s non-linguistic conceptual faculties, and there’s nothing strange about it. It even makes sense for illiterate monks.

By on 02/05/10 at 06:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

To whom or what? That’s a good question. Another one would be, “Who hears?” Who is hearing right now? You can sit still for a few minutes and focus on that. You may find that it’s difficult to focus. If you can take one step back and watch the focus come and go, you may eventually see through “who hears?”

By on 02/06/10 at 01:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

This is like Andy Rooney with a Ph.D.  “Didja ever notice that people meditate?  What’s that all about?”

I’m not too worried about the swelling population of white people who meditate.  I mean, you make it sound terrifying that people claim to meditate, even though they do it in different ways.  You could say the same thing about reading: we all call what we do reading, but it doesn’t pay off for very many people based on what they read, what they do when they read, what they do after they read, when they read, where they read, etc.

But here’s how I meditate.  I put on The Stooges’ *Raw Power* LP (you know, the one with the original Bowie production), I spread myself flat out on the floor, I stare at the ceiling, and I imagine that I am simply an atom in Scarlet Johannson’s left breast.  The serenity of Barack Obama spreads over me.  I have visions of unicorns and oxen carrying off beautiful women across the sea.  Soon, I am George Hamilton himself.

Meditation gives me the peace of mind to tackle the real intellectual demands of our time, as I’ve learned from The Valve: comic books, movies about aliens and superheroes, science fiction novels, and unfalsifiable claims about cognitive psychological explanations of artistic achievement.

By on 02/06/10 at 11:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther,

You’re burned out on the Valve. That’s fine. Take a break. Don’t troll.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 02/06/10 at 05:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s not so much burnt out as disappointed.  There was a time when I could count on posts here that managed to articulate the significance—the freshman English “So What?”—of their presence.

By on 02/07/10 at 12:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

well, I thought it was funny.

By laura on 02/07/10 at 06:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

In fairness, Joseph, your statement All of us should wrestle with the relationship between meditation and everyday life was a bit wifty.

Still, here’s something:

I’m interested in science and medicine, the media landscape, and so on. My reflexes are not the reflexes of a literary man. I’m more of a magpie pecking at any bright pieces of foil. I’m interested in the world, not the world of literature.—J.G. Ballard

Things fall apart, the established canon cannot hold.

By on 02/07/10 at 05:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Laufeysson, if “wifty” is a word, it’s not one I know. What, you don’t think people should bother to consider how the different things they do relate to one another? And by the way, announcing that Avatar has no real political meaning is far more “wifty” than anything I ever wrote. No, the three recent Star Wars films were not music videos for John Williams. They weren’t even music videos for “John Williams,” by which we mean recycled bits of Prokofiev and Holst. There was lots of acting and plot points and what not, and it was all carried off quite poorly.

Laura, I thought Luther’s description of meditating was hilarious.

Luther, if you want a serious response to your non-serious comment, let me say, first of all, that “What’s it all about?” is a perfectly reasonable Socratic starting point. It’s not necessarily Andy Rooney or Seinfeld.

Second, I’m not expecting people to be “terrified” by diversity of practice. I’m expecting them to be curious about whether such diversity matters to our understanding of the practice itself (meditating).

Lastly, the “so what?” doesn’t just apply to posts. It applies to comments as well.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 02/07/10 at 05:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I already know from about five years ago that Luther’s taste in music is different from mine, but if you substituted Astral Weeks into what he wrote, I’m on board, lying on the floor, Scarlet Johannson and all.

By laura on 02/07/10 at 06:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And in my case, if you substituted Scarlet Johansson’s albums of Tom Waits covers, I’m on board, lying on floor, on Tom Waits’s left breast.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 02/07/10 at 06:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

We should be suspicious of a practice that has supposed benefits, but no possible downside. Even exercising, done incorrectly, can cause injury or exhaustion, a fact of which we are all aware. In truth, there are some studies of meditation that suggest it can be a negative experience for people repressing severe traumas (if they are not prepared to face repressed material), as well as for people with a weak sense of self. But these findings are rarely discussed, and they are probably just the tip of the iceberg.

You say that the dangers of meditation are “rarely discussed,” but the very first book I read on the subject, Jack Kornfield’s A Path With Heart, goes to great lengths to describe what can go wrong when meditation is done incorrectly.  I know it’s just one book, and because I’ve only been meditating for a short time, it’s the only one I’m really familiar with, but it’s one of the most widely-read books on the subject.  Furthermore, I’m not sure your comparison to exercise is accurate, because it’s much harder to hurt yourself breathing than it is to hurt yourself lifting weights.  I say this as someone with an anxiety disorder which can be exacerbated by meditation.

Where exactly are these discussions and debates about meditation not happening?  Could you be more specific?  You mention Google searches in the comments - but if I Google “James Joyce,” I’m going to come up with much shallower resources than if I go to a university library.

By Julia Glassman on 02/08/10 at 01:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

We should be suspicious of a practice that has supposed benefits, but no possible downside.

As my father says, anything, in sufficient quantities, will kill you.

And, to pile on, I’ll say that there’s a fairly substantial literature on both the procedure and errors of meditation, but that you’re getting into areas of theology as well as psychology and philosophy, and you shouldn’t expect consensus across doctrinal lines.

By Jonathan Dresner on 02/08/10 at 06:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Julie,

I only mentioned the weakness of Google results on the subject in response to the unhelpful claim that “Google helps.”

I would say that in casual conversations, the value of meditation and yoga is assumed, while the value of, say, reading a difficult philosophical text is often contested.

I’m delighted to have these book recommendations, particularly Kornfield and Varela.

The idea is not to trivialize meditation; if it amounts to just “breathing,” then the correct comparison would be to a gentle walk, which has little chance of injury and some (but not much) physical benefit.

Of course, the Kornfield book does raise another issue, one of style. I would never, in a million years, read a novel entitled A Path With Heart. Embracing such a book as a guide to the spiritual life feels like turning my back on the aesthetic distinctions that have brought me so much happiness and purpose.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 02/08/10 at 06:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph, I apologize, I shouldn’t have tried to tease you before we had established more of a relationship here.

And by the way, announcing that Avatar has no real political meaning is far more “wifty” than anything I ever wrote.

Maybe the *significance* of the film, which has drawn so many people to watch it, is based on some aspect of the film other than the first-order political implications of the scenario. Which as we have seen can be played like something out of Modern Chess Openings (Chomsky defense) predictably all the way to the endgame.

No, the three recent Star Wars films were not music videos for John Williams.

Well, yeah. But by making this claim internally, I enjoy them, while apparently you don’t.

By on 02/08/10 at 06:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Maybe the *significance* of the film, which has drawn so many people to watch it, is based on some aspect of the film other than the first-order political implications of the scenario.

Absolutely, and emotional cues are probably a big part of its popularity. I would simply note that emotional manipulation, particularly the manipulation of nostalgia and racialism, has real political consequences.

Well, yeah. But by making this claim internally, I enjoy them, while apparently you don’t.

Which may be because I don’t like Prokofiev that much. In truth, the first three Star Wars films aside, James Horner does more for me than Williams. I like the Jaws theme fine, but like “Luke’s theme,” it comes right out of Dvorak’s New World Symphony.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 02/08/10 at 07:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Zizek has a mordant comment on David Lynch’s involvement with/boostering of transcendental meditation in one of his books--The Parallax View most likely.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 02/10/10 at 11:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

More action at Joseph’s place. Check it out if you are interested. (And thanks to Joseph for being willing to pursue it a bit further.)

My first comments above no doubt seemed like gibberish, so I’ll try briefly to draw the threads together. Canon-formation—which was implicitly introduced as a subject by Luther, who can’t take certain forms of pop culture seriously—depends upon consensus value judgments. Inasmuch as “meditation”, whatever else it is good for, allegedly clarifies preconceptions and other possible mental lacunae, it may have some relevance to the open question of canon formation. For example, it may clarify the existence of different forms of perception, which may then explain why different people can legitimately find a work of art “speaking” to them in quite different ways.

For some reason I thought that this would all have been in Joseph’s mind when he chose to post his musings about meditation in this venue. Obviously I was in the grip of my usual obsessions. So if this followup helps, great. If not ... oops.

By on 02/11/10 at 03:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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