Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

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Meditation without beliefs

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If anyone is interested in seeing me become uncomfortable in a hurry, the surest method of achieving that goal is to ask me my opinion about something. Anything. Perhaps some of the discomfort arises because of uncertainty about why my opinion is being solicited. Is the inquirer looking to pick a quarrel? Is the inquirer seeking my advice? If so, will the advice be followed? If it is, will I be held responsible for the consequences?

Perhaps most of the discomfort stems from my own uncertainty about what my opinion is. Over the decades I have learned that most of my opinions are liable to change, so there is really not much point in anyone learning what my opinion on anything at any given moment is. Often enough, the moment I have expressed what I think my opinion may be, the shortcomings of the opinion become so obvious that I feel foolish for having expressed it.

Enough of this pointless speculation about why being asked my opinion makes me uncomfortable. Like most things in life, it really does not matter.

Doxastic minimalism

Several decades ago, I wrote a book about the Indian Buddhist philosopher Dignāga. At the time I was writing the book I was intrigued in some of the points of commonality between Dignāga and an earlier Indian Buddhist philosopher, Nāgārjuna. Both of these authors seemed to me to represent a philosophical attitude that I called doxastic minimalism, that is, the preference to keep speculating and personal opinions to a minimum. (The English word “doxastic” is derived from the Greek δοχαστικοσ, meaning conjectural, which is derived from the verb δοχαζειν, meaning to conjecture, to guess.) Whether it was accurate to portray these Buddhists from long ago as doxastic minimalists is for others to ponder. All I know is that the idea of doxastic minimalism appealed to me personally for some reason—perhaps for no good reason—and that I was bold enough to project my own attitudinal preferences onto two ancient philosophers whom I happened to be studying at that moment.

One very good way to achieve doxastic minimalism is to study logic and epistemology. This, it seems to me was the strategy preferred by the Dignāga, or at least of the Dignāga of my fantasy world. What Dignāga did in his principal work, Pramāṇasamuccaya (Collected writings on the means of acquiring knowledge), was to lay out the criteria that would have to be met for a thought or belief to be established as truthful. Without going into details here, the upshot is that remarkably few of the propositions running around inside our heads meet these criteria. That is not to say that the propositions in our heads are false; rather, it is to say that the vast majority of our beliefs, thoughts, and propositions are indeterminate. They are beliefs that cannot be established as either truths or falsehoods. Realizing that tends to make a person feel a bit more humble and less prone to being intoxicated by a sense of certainty.

As I imagined Nāgārjuna, his strategy was to examine the very idea of what it means to establish a belief as true. The examination, articulated in his work Vigrahavyāvarttanī (Averting disputes), goes approximately as follows. Any belief in order to be deemed established as a truth, must be warranted by observed data or by another belief that has itself been established as a truth. But the belief that a given observed datum or another established belief is an adequate warrant is itself a belief that requires a warrant, and that gives rise to an infinite regress. A belief needs a warrant. The belief that a belief needs a warrant needs a warrant. The belief that the belief that a belief needs a warrant needs a warrant needs a warrant. No matter how far one pursues this chain of warrants, one arrives at a putative warrant that is itself unwarranted. This strategy seems more radical than Dignāga’s, in that Dignāga’s method shows that astonishingly few of our beliefs are grounded in a warrant, whereas Nāgārjuna’s method leaves us with the sense that there are, in the final analysis, no warranted beliefs. Note that this can only be a sense; if it were an established truth, then it would be a counterexample to the claim that there are no warranted beliefs.

Meditation without beliefs

I have no idea whether meditation is a good way to achieve anything. That question does not even interest me very much, because I am not in the business of promoting meditation. It is something that I started doing because I thought it would result in changes that I regarded at the time as potentially positive, but eventually I was not sure what it means for a change to be positive. Perhaps change is nothing more nor less than just change.

By now I meditate only because it is a habit that is, so far as I have been able to tell, relatively harmless. One could say I do it for aesthetic, or perhaps hedonistic, reasons. I enjoy it. Usually. To be more accurate, I usually enjoy the things I do that I call meditation. There are plenty of things that people do that they call meditation that I do not enjoy at all. Guided meditations, for example, tend to irritate me. Being told to relax tends to make me tense. Being told to focus on my breath tends to make me want to solve algebra problems in my head or see how far I can get in recalling Bach’s second Brandenburg Concerto.

By far the least satisfying modes of meditation to me are those that have a hidden or explicit agenda of reinforcing some dogma or other. (The English word “dogma” comes from the Greek δογμα, which is derived from the verb δοκειν, meaning to think or to seem good.) For example, Buddhist vipaśyanā (insight) exercises have the agenda of reinforcing the Buddhist dogma that every experience is ultimately unsatisfactory because it is transitory and neither one’s self or one’s property. Other forms of meditation are meant to reinforce the dogma that God (or Buddha nature, or Brahman, or Awareness, or Spirit, or Unconditional Love) is the fundamental core of every living and sometimes even every non-living being and that because this ineffable entity is the true self (ātman) of all beings, all beings are in a sense one. There are people who seem to thrive on meditative exercises rooted in such ways of talking. I am not among them. I do not like being told what I will believe after doing the meditative exercise properly, nor do I thrive on being assured that if I emerge without embracing the dogma, then I must be doing the meditative exercise improperly.

Fortunately, there are meditative exercises for people with temperaments unfortunately like mine. Not surprisingly, the exercises that are conducive to doxastic minimalism are themselves minimalist in nature. One example is the exercise (if one can call it that) called shikantaza (just sitting). Although it is called just sitting, it can just as well be done standing, walking or reclining. The instructions are admirably simple. 1. Just sit. 2. Eventually stop sitting. No need for a timer, a bell, a set of robes, a special mat and cushion, or a guy creeping around the room with a cricket bat ready to hit you if you move a muscle or begin to slouch. Just sit. And then do something else.

There is another meditative protocol that has become popular during the past few decades, one that I find satisfactory. It is called Centering Prayer, but I must confess I have no idea why it is called that. It is similar in many ways to shikantaza, except that one is encouraged to use an anchor of some kind to keep one’s chain of thoughts from growing too long. This anchor can be a single word, but it can just as well be a visualized image, or one’s breath. The purpose of the anchor is not to focus single-pointedly on it, but rather to return to it momentarily if one catches oneself pursuing a train of thoughts, feelings, or emotions. Some Centering Prayer practitioners guide themselves by what are called the four R’s. They are:

  • Resist no thought.
  • Retain no thought.
  • React to no thought.
  • Return gently to the anchor. (Some versions refer to the anchor as the sacred word.)

In Centering Prayer parlance, the word “thought” refers to anything that comes into the mind, whether it be a verbally articulated idea, a bodily sensation, an emotion, a fantasy, a vision, or a fleeting conviction that one has attained unsurpassed supreme enlightenment. Retain no thought. Let it go.

That’s enough words.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Tuesday, March 30, 2021 at 14:09

Posted in Uncategorized

Writing to faceless readers

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When I picture my mother, Helen Louise Schooley Hayes (03/11/1922–09/16/1993), the image that most often comes up is of her sitting at a table, a fountain pen in hand and a sheet of line paper in front of her, a cup of coffee off to one side and an ashtray with a lighted Pall Mall cigarette on the other side. When I picture her at different stages of her life and in different places where we lived, the table may be different, as also the brand of cigarette, but the cup of coffee and the fountain pen and lined paper are invariably present. I can still see her looking thoughtfully into space, taking a couple of drags on her cigarette, then lighting up with a smile and writing a few more sentences. Watching her write, even when as a young child I occasionally resented being ignored, brought me joy.

These pictures in my mind are almost the only ones I have of my mother. She hated being photographed. One Christmas she gave me a camera and then threatened to take it away from me when I snapped a photo of her preparing Christmas dinner n the kitchen. Years later she joked that she hated to be photographed because cameras only captured her overweight exterior and graying hair and failed to capture her inner beauty. It was one of the many light-hearted comments she made that contained a grain of truth.

During her lifetime, my mother wrote thousands of letters to her friends and relatives. Writing letters was nearly a daily activity. Her letters were written in a style that showed the influence of her favorite authors: James Thurber, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, William Saroyan, Erma Bombeck. They were funny, clever, insightful, self-deprecating. She had a gift for drawing attention to human foibles by telling stories that illustrated her own. Like many people who write well, she had a tendency to lurch in the direction of depression, and I suspect that writing letters was a way of cheering herself up and keeping things in perspective—humor is, after all, one of the classical defense mechanisms. Whether or not she cheered herself up by composing her wry epistles, she nearly always managed to cheer up the recipients.

Several of the people to whom my mother wrote frequently, including myelf, urged her to consider writing a book, or at least essays to be submitted regularly to magazines. It seemed a shame that only one person at a time could enjoy her witty observations. Her response to such urgings was always the same: she could not imagine writing anything that was not addressed to a particular individual. When she wrote to a friend, she wrote what she knew that friend would appreciate reading about. If she could not picture a specific recipient reading her words, her muse remained mute. Although she loved language, she did not write for her love of well-turned phrases. She wrote for her love of specific people. She wrote to connect with them, one at a time, the way that intoverts prefer to connect with others.

When I was an undergraduate the first time around, I majored in English composition, which involved learning to write for several genres—poetry, short stories, plays, technical treatises, essays, even novels. I discovered that, like my mother, I could rarely write anything unless I had a specific reader in mind. If I imagined my professor, or my roommate, or one of my uncles, or the ghost of Mark Twain reading the piece I was writing, the words flowed more easily, and the result, I fancied, was more satisfactory than when I tried to write to an anonymous, faceless reader.

In one of my several attempts to encourage my mother to write for a wider audience, I suggested that she might try writing an essay with a specific reader in mind and then send it to be published. The finished product would surely be appreciated by far more people than the one for whom she was writing it. She thought about it for a moment and then told me it would never work. If she knew that eventually she would send it to a wider readership, she would also know that she was only pretending to write it for a specific reader, and her writing would reveal the pretense. It would lack authenticity. At the very least, it would lack the characteristic that made her writing such a joy to read, namely, that it was intensely intimate. On the other hand, if she really did write a piece for a specific reader, she would then feel it was a betrayal of that person, almost an invasion of the privacy of both the writer and the intended reader, if she shared the writing with a wider audience.

My mother lived long enough to see a computer enter her household. Despite all my father’s enthusiastic endorsements of the modern convenience of WordStar as a writing tool, my mother could not be tempted to try to compose a letter on that alien contraption. Even using a typewriter robbed a letter of its personal touch—a letter really should be written with a fountain pen, so the reader could detect all the subtle fluctuations of mood that showed up in the handwriting—but a letter noisily hammered out on a dot-matrix printer connected to a desktop computer was far too impersonal, not to mention just plain ugly, for words. The computer, she was quite sure, was a passing fad, for such a gimmick could never be used for true communication.

Looking back on my adolescent and adult life, I recall writing three or four letters a week to various friends and relatives. That habit stopped not long after a computer found its way to my desk when I was forty-one years old. My fountain pen eventually got put into a drawer and never came out again, and soon afterward my muse sought employment elsewhere. For the past thirty-three years I have been condemned to writing lifeless prose to faceless, and largely nonexistent, readers.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Monday, March 11, 2019 at 11:32

Posted in Uncategorized