Meditation, from the Vedantic perspective, is not a passive experience but rather an active process of Self inquiry. Why? Because without the discriminative faculty of the intellect, meditation becomes just another “feel good” experience.
By inquiry I mean exploring the difference between the Self – limitless, consciousness, existence and the not-self, the objects of perception including sensation, emotion and thought, that appear within consciousness. The peaceful (sattvic) space of meditation provides the perfect environment for inquiry into the nature of Self.
This is not to say experience is bad, though it isn’t good either. Experience, rather, is value neutral. Effortlessly, we superimpose our conditioning upon experience, meaning we place value on objects based on our past experience. One of the goals of Vedanta is to recognize and neutralize this conditioning, because these likes and dislikes (desires and fears) bind us, causing suffering.
What is experience? The transaction between consciousness and objects, both subtle and gross, via the mind. Think of consciousness as light, reflecting off the mirror of mind, onto objects. Though for many, this mind mirror is covered with our likes and dislikes, causing a distortion of reality. We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are, through the lens of our conditioning.
The upside of experience is that it can feel good and even provide a glimpse into the non-dual nature of reality. The downside, experience can just as easily feel bad and lead us astray. Consider for a moment the fact that our experience is affected by how we feel emotionally, the state of our mind-body-sense complex, and the changing nature of the field itself. What are the odds that all three factors are going to line up with our likes? Probably no better than 50/50 unless we understand the nature of the field and the right attitude with which to take action, i.e. Karma Yoga.
In the case of “feel good” experiences, including those perceived during meditation, they don’t last and once they pass, we are often no further along the path of liberation than before meditation, unless we have mined the experience for knowledge via the intellect.
Experience versus knowledge. Do we want to build our life on the changing sands of experience or upon the solid ground of knowledge?
Experience surely exists but is it real? Vedanta teaches that in order for something to be real, it has to last, permanently. Objects and experience fall into the not-real or apparently real category, owing to their coming and going. On the other hand, absolute knowledge is that which is always true and good. Vedantic scriptures, backed up by the investigation of sages over millennia, provide the logic that the Self (beginning-less, action-less, limitless, all-pervasive, ever-present, non-dual consciousness) alone is real.
Put another way, knowledge = what’s real = the self = limitless, conscious, existence.
Questions to reflect upon before, during or after meditation:
1. Who or what is meditating? This inquiry moves attention from identification with the objects of experience to the subject, the perceiver of experience.
2. Am I this body, heart and mind or am I the one that perceives sensation, emotion and thought?
3. Do the objects of my perception know me or do I know them?
4. Can limited, changing, experiences offer lasting and limitless joy?
5. What is the knowledge or truth that can be extracted from experience?
6. Is my meditation practice simply a feel good experience or am I actively neutralizing likes and dislikes, fears and desires, by not moving towards or away from experience?
Another name for meditation in Vedanta is Upasana Yoga, which means to worship or sit near. When practicing meditation, what are we sitting near or worshiping? The Self: Sat-chit-ananada (existence, consciousness, limitlessness). Upasana yoga or meditation is inquiring into and abiding (remaining) within this Self as this Self – you.
Upasana Yoga includes practices (sadhanas) that purify the mind, preparing it to assimilate the knowledge – I am limitless, conscious, existence. These practices include:
1. A study of our values and whether or not our day to day actions reflect those values. When we live from our values we cultivate clarity, confidence and contentment.
2. Creating a lifestyle that supports inquiry, by assessing our diet, work, the people we spend time with and the activities we engage in. Does our environment support Self inquiry or inhibit it?
3. Mind control (sama), sense control (dama), forbearance (titiksha) and holding attention on one object (samadhana).
The value of meditation and all experience for that matter, is not how relaxed, peaceful or good we feel, because emotion, like all objects, comes and goes. The real benefit of meditation is the knowledge of Self that can be extracted from experience. Self knowledge, is always good and when fully assimilated (actualized), equals moksha or liberation.
Liberation from what? 1. Emotional and mental suffering, 2. Our attachment to objects, 3. The belief that experience can enhance or diminish us, 4. A sense of limitation and inadequacy, and our 5. Binding fears and desires. Only knowledge, not experience, provides freedom from the ignorance of our true and essential nature – AS LOVE, which is the motivation for all action and the source of all experience.
Photo of Mt. Sopris, Carbondale, CO, by Katherine Dessert.