Last week large swathes of Edinburgh University suspended ‘conventional’ teaching and launched into a five-day experiment known as Innovative Learning Week. Participation was voluntary, and early reports suggest mixed results – academics bristled at the implication that our usual teaching isn’t innovative; others, noting a pattern of student and staff absence, rechristened it Innovative Skiing Week.
For my contribution I wanted to see how students would react to the idea that meditation might not be simply a non-academic (even un-academic) practice, but possibly a response to ‘conventional’ scepticism in the humanities over the inadequacies of language and concepts in doing accurate justice to the subtleties of human experience. (This is the idea that turning our rich experience of life – of the inner and outer world – into words is socially and intellectually indispensable but also a monochrome impoverishment and a distortion.)
I have a feeling that it was curiosity and mid-semester stress, rather than the scent of an unarguable intellectual premise, that got the punters in – but whatever it was, the sessions were surprisingly well attended. We looked at both the theory and practice of meditation, drawing on Buddhist and Christian traditions, with the most interesting aspect for an on-and-off meditator such as myself being the ability of first-timers to cut right to the heart of things.
‘Isn’t meditation basically selfish and anti-social?’, asked one student – pointing to monastic communities hidden away in remote locations, cut off from the rest of the world.
The reality where many practitioners are concerned is surely ‘yes’ – at least sometimes. And lots of cultural critics have worried about a turn towards a form of religion or spirituality that’s all about how I am, how I feel, etc – with little by way of community or concern for others. Surely, they say, a society is in trouble once it goes down this road: thank God the invocation of ‘well-being’ by politicians is usually just a fleeting attempt to distract voters from something embarrassing, otherwise we’d be headed into an era in which ‘well-being’ becomes the flimsy and subjective basis for a society’s morality.
But it’s not supposed to be this way. One possible answer to this student’s concern would be to ask whether it’s necessarily true to say that life in a monastic community halfway up a mountain is actually more anti-social than life in a big city.
Picture a city in rush-hour: a hive of co-ordinated human activity, yes, but most of it consisting of people feverishly intent upon their own projects: I have to get to work, or from A to B; to progress through my To Do list; to get person X to do this for me, to ask person Y about that. We shouldn’t equate busy-ness with sociability – very often they’re totally opposed.
On the other side you could argue that part of what a monastic community does is to create the space for true sociability, for real relationship between people – placing limits on what has to be accomplished each day so that there is time for Person X rather than just a consideration of what he or she can do for me.
Of course, it’s easy to get stuck here into the romanticised, moralising caricature of modern society that so many books about meditation take as their starting point. But for all that such observations often feel worn-out – thanks to reams of spiritual and therapeutic commentary running from Thomas Merton and Carl Jung in the 1960s to Slavoj Zizek or Archbishop Rowan Williams in our own day – the practical difficulty of living a busy life and engaging with, rather than instrumentalising other people surely remains fresh.
Another student recalled a past experience at a meditation session: people were seated quietly around a candle, and there were all sorts of references to an individual, now deceased, who had been a kind of guru figure for the group.
The student spent most of this session speculating about what had led the people in the room into this rather eccentric context – a kind of social analysis that humanities departments (when in ‘conventional’, strictly non-innovative mode) are supposed to be pretty good at encouraging in students. At (almost) no time in that meditation session, as the student remembers it, was he immersed in meditation itself, in the experience of the place itself.
Fair enough, perhaps: we’re generally not prepared to immerse ourselves in an experience that we don’t trust – whether that’s a dodgy-looking meditation group, a person who may be out to harm us, or a piece of art about which we suspect inflated or pseudish claims are being made.
But beyond this, don’t we end up with the problem that critical intellectualizing and immersion seem to be mutually exclusive ways of dealing with the world, at any given moment? And that – certainly in a university environment – we usually find ourselves overwhelmingly oriented towards the former?
(Whenever intellectualizing seems to be going too far I remember a cinema-going friend of mine who, rather than surrendering himself to the experience, used to spend the duration of the film commentating (out loud) on likely plot twists, poorly-scripted dialogue, or acting performances unlikely to yield an Oscar.)
What meditation shows us – and one or two of our sessions bore this out – is that intellectualizing and immersing can’t be simultaneous but they can be complementary. If you try to do them at the same time, you end up with a form of ‘self-awareness’ that’s actually not awareness at all but just an ever more vexed and complicated commentary on yourself: as the students tried various meditation techniques they found themselves tormented by ‘am I doing this properly?’, ‘is it going okay?’, ‘has five minutes passed yet?’, ‘does this technique suit me better than the previous one?’, ‘am I going to be a better person soon?’, etc, etc.
Instead, to get used to watching quietly as your mind tries to formulate intellectual judgements, and to refuse the temptation to carry that process forward – instead to let it run out of steam of its own accord – you start to move into something more immersive; that feels almost like the polar opposite of intellectualizing.
To give your thoughts the slip in this way, now and again, is what Thomas Keating – the creator of one of the meditation techniques we tried – insists is the only true holiday you can take: a holiday from yourself.
And – maybe I’m biased – surely it’s cheaper and more innovative than skiing?
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