Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Forms of Meditation

In one of my recent posts, I talked about how I use the Book of Mormon as a form of meditation. I have thought about this idea at great length, and it occured to me a few days ago that I could put together a whole post on the subject of meditation and its various forms. So that's what I'm going to do.

I should probably give you a definition of the term, shoudn't I? While I may wax ambitious by trying to define something as broad as meditation, I believe that all forms of meditative practice have a simple and overarching commonality. I will present this shared trait in the form of a quotation from the Book of Mormon:

"For he hath answered the ends of the law, and he claimeth all those who have faith in him; and they who have faith in him will cleave unto every good thing [...](Moroni 7:28)

When you "cleave unto every good thing", you don't just display a naive optimism or cheeriness, but rather exercise one of the primary fruits of faith. Since all good things come from God, this occurs because having faith in Him will cause you to have faith in all of his creations. Everything would therefore gain an almost infinitely greater value, since you would see a divine hand in all things. 

This "looking for the good" constitutes the essence of meditation. More specifically, I believe that meditation involves looking for the good where it isn't immediately apparent. By trying to find value in things they would otherwise neglect or pass over, the student of meditation will eventually learn to find value in everything around them. Moreover, this process involves actively trying to avoid judgment, for only if a person becomes willing to avoid prejudice will they find good in the things they previously rejected.

That said, I will divide meditation into two overarching categories: "inbound" meditation, and "outbound" meditation. Practicing "inbound mediation" involves placing yourself in a nonjudgmental attitude toward the external world. Every moment you live your life, you take in incredible amounts of data from the people, objects, and activities that surround you, and it is precisely this intake of information that constitutes the essence of our experience as human beings. However, this faculty of perception hardly occurs uniformly. As a part of the human condition, you and all other human beings favor some perceptions above others, and this naturally means that some perceptions will get suppressed. For example, we here in Utah have long since forgotten what it's like to look at our mountains with "fresh eyes". We think of them as simply "there", meaning that we can never experience the outsider's wonder at, say, Mount Timpanogos.

Inbound meditation is how you avoid favoring some experiences above others. Through its various forms, it can teach you to see the good in all outer phenomena, regardless of their outer appearance or worth in the eyes of the world. Naturally this leads to a greater enjoyment of life. Because it can cause you to have less of a prior prejudice against certain types of experience, inbound meditation gives the practitioner a greater appreciation for all things virtuous, lovely, or of good report.

But how does one practice it? I actually think that many activities capture the spirit of inbound meditation, but they all have a common structure, which goes as follows: the practitioner focuses on something he or she thinks is inconsequential, and by repeatedly trying to find the "good" in it, the person finds that they can better find the good in all things. Generic mindfulness meditation falls quite nicely into this category, for when people focus fully on some object of focus like the breath, they generally find it increasingly easy to enjoy sensations in the world (or "be present"). The breath does not hold a monopoly on this kind of meditation, though. Even when seated in traditional meditative positions, you can also choose to focus on a specific spot in your field of vision, a repeated short phrase or "mantra", or even a simple, repetitive song.  (See this article for an excellent treatise on mantras in a Mormon context)

Inbound meditation need not always have such an oriental character. From my perspective, any object in the external world which is both simple and constant can act as the requisite focus for this kind of activity. I have already mentioned the Book of Mormon as such an object, but in fact, many activities can have this effect. For instance, I believe the process of coming to believe a doctrine or teaching qualifies as inbound meditation. Likewise, the act of loving someone in a romantic context can have this kind of effect (perhaps the reason why a certain Beatle didn't hear the bells on the hill "till there was you").

However, you can also practice "outbound" meditation. Just as inbound meditation involves being nonjudgmental of those things that come in at you from the world, you practice its opposite when you avoid judging those things that come out into the world from you. This might strike you as odd, seeing as most people think that we should avoid saying or doing certain things at all costs. But we cannot avoid the fact that most, if not all of us repress certain things about ourselves. In other words, there are parts of you that, despite the fact that they exist and have needs, are buried and repressed by the conscious mind. 

To give an example, suppose a person identifies very strongly as a clear-headed intellectual. He or she would picture themselves almost exclusively as a person who can reason through ideas logically and deductively, and this person's self-image would depend entirely on their capacity for thought and reason. However, since human beings are almost never completely lopsided, this hypothetical intellectual (who, by the way, is not me) would almost certainly repress a  human capacity for emotion and connection. This is not something abnormal, however. In fact, it is the very fact of their talent that ensures the presence of a corresponding weakness.

Though I intend to talk about this much more in a following post, it should suffice to know that everyone favors certain things about themselves at the expense of others. However, those rejected parts of your identity are far from dormant; they want very badly else to have more of a voice in the congress of your conscious mind and to have a say in what you do. The process of listening to it and giving it what it wants is essential to psychological well-being, and I believe that what I call "outbound" meditation is the best way to do this. 

In short, outbound meditation involves being nonjudgmental of whatever comes out of your mind. In the process of our day-to-day lives, we explicitly reject certain thoughts or behaviors because they are somehow "unacceptable" or "irrelevant". However, more often than not these spontaneous eruptions from your mind represent the cries of its buried unconscious, and you will not achieve much psychological progress until you learn to find the good in them. 

The way to do this is simple: pick a medium of art, and spontaneously and uncritically create. Don't care about how good you are or about whether or not people will like it; all you need to do in order to practice outbound meditation is to treat everything that comes out of your mind with value. However, you should also try to somehow create from a feeling, as if you let that feeling create for you. In this way, the psychological "energy" that lies behind it can have a means of expression, by which it can vent off some of its inner pressure.

The famous psychologist Carl Jung called this process "active imagination". He believed that it was a manifestation of a sort of mental "transcendent function", by which the conscious and the unconscious parts of your mind work together. As a result of this cooperation, he says that you build a bridge between those warring parts of your psyche, so as to better "integrate" those parts of you with which you don't identify.

But this is all very theoretical. To speak more practically, know that I practice this kind of outbound meditation, and that I have benefited greatly from it. By writing directly from my inner centers of conflict and stress, I am able to come to a greater understanding of what that part of me wants, and moreover, what to do about it. I am a writer, but this also works in the context of painting, sculpture, dance, and music. It can also occurin a religious context. When I kneel down to pray, I pour forth to my Father all of my worries and and my inner conflicts, and almost immediately I feel a greater sense of inner peace and calm. Moreover, the journal-writing which the general authorities have encouraged us to do fulfills this same function, for it lets us relieve externally much of the pressure we feel internally.

To sum up, these two kinds of mediation are mirror images of each other. One of them takes a divided and lopsided perception of the world and unifies it by bringing it into our consciousness, and one of them takes a divided and lopsided consciousness, and unifies it by bringing it out into our perception of the world. By using these two forms of meditative practice, I have found my life much more enjoyable and easier to manage. I would wholeheartedly recommend both of these activities to anyone who finds that their life is hard, or even to anyone at all.

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