I think the attraction of meditation lies in the promise of overcoming an existential loneliness that many people feel. By imagining your ‘self’ to be merely a figment of your imagination, you can melt into the rest of the universe and ‘become one’ with it. On this view, our separateness from the things and people around us is just an illusion, brought on by not really paying proper attention to the true nature of consciousness.
Although I can’t be certain, I think this is a load of nonsense. If an insight into reality can be achieved only by ingesting drugs or sitting cross-legged on the floor for hours on end while paying attention to the breath, then perhaps this is not a doorway to perception at all, but merely a self-induced hallucinatory state.
Just as it would be strange to claim that we only see things as they really are when standing on our heads and holding our breath until we go dizzy, then similarly it is odd to claim that we only see the world as it really is when we have our eyes shut, sit cross-legged on a hard wooden floor and observe our breath for hours. Why on earth should such actions bring about enlightenment?
When I was a child I would sometimes repeat a word over and over until only the sound remained; the actual sound of the word became uncoupled from its meaning by the mindless repetition. It might also be the case that by sitting in silence with eyes closed and observing the breath for long periods of time, the breath becomes uncoupled from our sense of self until only the sensation of breathing remains. Yet why should this unnatural, slightly disorientating state be considered somehow more real and enlightened than the one we inhabit when moving around and doing things? Could a large dose of wishful thinking be involved here?
Sure, you can sit cross-legged on a floor for 10,000 hours (the accepted period of time it takes to become expert in any particular field). Day after day you can spend sitting on your bedroom floor, watching your breath or chanting ‘Om mani padme hum’ and waiting for the realisation to descend upon you that ‘you’ are an illusion. Of course, by so doing you are not actually helping other people, but still you will feel that you are somehow contributing to world peace. This is the way of Maharishi Maheshi Yogi.
Whatever the truth of these claims, I believe that such mental gymnastics are ultimately unnecessary if a desire to escape a feeling of isolation in the universe is what is sought. For that, I’m convinced there is a better path to enlightenment.
The other way is the way of Mrs. Smith from the Women’s Institute. Mrs. Smith takes an interest in other people. She listens when her neighbour tells her that Mrs. Jones is ill in bed. She then calls Mrs Jones to see if there is anything she needs. She follows the lives of her children and grandchildren with interest and remembers all the people who feature in their stories. She bakes cakes to raise money for the reparation of the church rooms so that local people can continue to meet there every Tuesday morning for tea. Mrs. Smith doesn’t feel isolated in the universe.
In short, I believe that the desire to rid ourselves of the sense of self is really a desire to become less selfish and more selfless. This is the lesson learned by Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. What made him so miserable and prevented him from being happy was an inability to take an interest in the lives of others. Yet as soon as he does, he feels as though a weight has been lifted off his shoulders.
Scrooge had no need to imagine that his ‘self’ was really an illusion or that he was ‘one with the universe’. Simply by making himself part of a community rather than feeling separate from it enabled him to overcome his misery and loneliness.
And his actions produced positive effects in the world. Bob Cratchett and his family were able to have a good Christmas after all. Can meditators honestly say that their actions bring about a better world? It seems to me that the danger of becoming totally self-absorbed and detached from the real world is greater than the chance of attaining blissful self-enlightenment.