For the past few years, I have been struggling with myself about the nature of meditation. There has been a long-lasting debate in my head between two schools of thought about meditation.
One of these schools holds that meditation is an activity of disciplined concentration. When I meditate, I am to clear my mind of all thoughts and throw all of my being into total devotion to God. It is a very intensive, effortful activity.
The other school holds that meditation is an activity of relaxation. When I meditate, I am to just let go and do whatever feels good. Taken to its logical conclusion, this means literally sitting still for thirty minutes and letting my mind wander. If we take it even further, we can even drop the “sitting still for thirty minutes” part. Then I just go about my day and say that it’s all meditation. For this school, meditation is a very relaxed, undemanding activity.
As I said, these two schools of thought have been at war in my head for years. At first the concentration school was very dominant, and I subjected myself to horrifying disciplines. The man who did this broke down when he realized that he had given himself a knee injury from forcing himself to sit in half-lotus day after day, and that he would need surgery if he kept meditating in that posture.
I think that event marked me burning out on the concentration school’s style of meditation. After that I turned more and more to the relaxation method. My meditation became very laid back. In the same period, I actually became quite a lot more enlightened. So clearly there was nothing wrong with my methods — though correlation is not causation.
For a while I was doing my relaxation-meditation around three hours a day. It was a lot more consistent, both in methods and results, than I had generally been with my more disciplined mysticism. But I started to think, “really, what’s the point to sitting here; can’t I get the very same effect even if I happen to be doing something?” It was true; walking or riding the bus, I was no less enlightened than while meditating.
So I stopped meditating, and declared that my whole life was meditation. The enlightenment still did not subside. I took this as proof that there was still nothing wrong with my methods.
Around this same period, I got very into math. A word of explanation. People think that “math” consists of those tedious calculus problems they made us solve in high school. But there is another breed of math: deeper, more powerful, more beautiful. So unreadable, so occult almost nobody can understand it, so awesome nobody can begin to fathom the depths of its awesomeness. This is what mathematicians call by the name mathematics. Math was my LSD, math was my amphetamine, math was my ecstasy.
So I was living in my Zen math heaven where everything was meditation, which sometimes wasn’t heaven at all, but rather was mindlessly browsing the Internet or agonizing over some social issue. Then I started working a job, shelving books at a university library. This was my first menial-labor type job. For hours I put books in correct numerical order. You all know the truth about this kind of job: the quiet suffering that goes on every day.
I noticed that my tedious, meaningless job was making me very enlightened. The reason, I assumed, was the discipline imposed by being forced to think of nothing but putting books in numerical order. This had big implications for my theories about meditation.
At this point my thinking was entirely dominated by the relaxation school of meditation, holding that meditation is an effortless process with no discipline, and it now took the extreme form that I should just go about my day and say that it’s all meditation. The only reason I could call that meditation being that, periodically, I really was experiencing enlightenment.
But now I had experimental evidence that discipline mattered for enlightenment. This bolstered the case for the long-forgotten concentration school of thought.
I attended a group meditation session, and a math analogy started a new chapter in my thinking about meditation. (Lest you doubt something so puny as a math analogy could do such a thing, consider that all of science consists of math analogies. “A falling apple is like this graph,” etc. A few decades ago, we nearly blew up the world using math analogies.)
My math analogy was this. Aren’t math and meditation alike? When I do math, I concentrate intently and totally on some abstract mental thing, in hopes of catching an ecstatic glimpse of pure truth. Replace “math” with “concentration meditation,” and we have another true statement. On reflection, this is hardly an analogy: when I meditate intensely, and when I do math, those are almost the same thing. Only in one case I am focusing on God, and in the other case on abelian groups or something.
So now I had not only a motivation for resuming disciplined meditation, but also an explanation of how to do it. One of the issues I had with disciplined meditation was that I could never find a meditation technique that I could believe in. Now I had one: meditate like you do math. I both knew how to do that, and could actually buy it as a plausible hypothesis. So I did it, and boom.
Meditation started to feel formidable to me again. It started to seem like a great art that one could plumb for one’s lifetime without scratching the surface. It started to seem like the sort of thing that only a small fraction of people in the world were qualified to do. All of this fell out of the math analogy, of course, and my experiences validated it. I had made meditation entirely too everyday, too unpretentious, with my relaxation approach. Now “meditation” was once again a word that made the animals scatter when it hit the ground: a word that could inspire awe and fear.