Interview with Evan Thompson-Meditation is not an inner telescope

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sawfoot _, modified 6 Years ago.

Interview with Evan Thompson-Meditation is not an inner telescope

Posts: 507 Join Date: 3/11/13 Recent Posts
This interview came up recently:

http://www.tricycle.com/interview/embodied-mind

It's a nice read - and I look forward to his forth coming up book - there aren't many that straddle the middle ground of science and Buddhism (most tend to lean one way or the other). 

Particulary relevant for here are a few excerpts (which I would agree with!):
Looking back, do you have any regrets—things you would have changed, knowing now what you didn’t know then? There was a certain way we talked about mindfulness that I now think is wrong. Sometimes we described it as a special kind of inner observation that lets you see the way your mind really is apart from being mindful—as if your mind were a box and your looking into it revealed what was there all along.
Do you mean the notion that in meditation you see “what really is there”? Yes, where “see” means looking inside to see how your mind really is apart from such looking. For example, we said that Buddhist meditation lets you see that your experience is really discontinuous and momentary, rather than a continuous flow. But one could just as well argue that certain kinds of meditation make experience gappy and then reinforce that gappiness by giving you a theoretical system that says that’s how things really are, as the Buddhist Abhidharma philosophical systems do.
If we go back to the neuroscience of meditation, the idea that mindfulness is a kind of inner observation reinforces the mistaken idea that the mind is in the head. It leads to thinking of mindfulness as a special kind of inner monitoring that scientists using brain imaging tools can identify with the activity of neural networks. This is a mistake.
Experience and concepts are interdependent. Whether there are nonconceptual modes of experience is a complicated matter that both Buddhist and Western philosophers have argued about a lot. But in most cases of human experience you can’t have one without the other. Take science. Here you observe things, of course, but you can’t see them properly unless you have the right concepts. If you just look through a microscope with no guidance on how to look at what you see, you have no clue what you’re looking at. Even if you’re doing high school biology, you need to have concepts like “cell wall” or “organelle”—to say nothing of what’s happening at the edge of scientific discovery, where you’re using new imaging technologies and learning to see things. So observation is happening there, of course. But also a lot of conceptualizing.

Similarly, if you go on a Vipassana retreat, you may spend the first day or so watching your breath, but then you’re given a system of concepts for practicing mindfulness—concepts like “moment-to-moment arising,” “pleasant versus unpleasant,” “sensation,” “intention,” “attention,” and maybe some categories from the list of elements, or dhammas, in Theravada Buddhist philosophy. It’s a silent retreat, so this is the only thing you hear, and everyone else around you is doing the same thing, so this shapes how and what you experience. You get a powerful and socially reinforced conceptual system for making sense of what you experience. That system in that context may help to bring about certain nonconceptual experiences, but the minute you start thinking about them—which there’s no way to avoid doing—you’re back in the land of concepts.

I object when people reduce practice in this rich sense to a tool or instrument. Some people use the analogy that meditation is like an inner telescope: Outer science uses physical telescopes for looking at the stars, and inner science uses meditation for looking at the mind. I don’t like that analogy. It makes you think of your relationship to your own mind in an instrumental way. Your relationship to yourself is precisely not an instrumental one. A telescope is a tool for looking at something separate and distant. Meditation isn’t like that. If you think that awareness is an instrument that enables you to look within, on that analogy you’re thinking of the inner realm as one of objectivity—except it’s not, because it’s subjectivity. If you think of meditation that way, you can’t help turning your mind into an object, which is precisely what the mind is not. So here I think there is an important difference between meditation and scientific observation, despite the importance of concepts for making sense of both. Meditation can be very powerful and transformative: it can be very generative of insight, deep understanding, and connectedness. But not because it’s an instrument or tool that enables you to see a hidden inner realm.
Eva M Nie, modified 6 Years ago.

RE: Interview with Evan Thompson-Meditation is not an inner telescope

Posts: 831 Join Date: 3/23/14 Recent Posts
Yes, I've wondered about that quite a bit myself.  If you train people in certain concepts and then tell them to look for evidence and hallmarks of those concepts for many hours each day, it's not surprising that those expected things are often found by followers of those concepts.  That might explain why differrent Buddhist schools get such different results.  Perception tends to follow expectation.  Expectation come from individual variation plus environmental influence.  How many ways can one perceive or divide up reality?  Which types of perception does one meditator look for compared to another.  Not saying I think it is all bunk or anything, there does seem to be a lot of trends and commonalities across the board, but I do think belief systems, expectations and what you are trained to look for and think about have a strong influence on what you see in the end.  IME, the stuff we are trying to look at does not translate well to ordinary consciousness and language, yet that is what we are trying to do with it anyway.  I do think that can account for a lot of the arguments.  Ten people can look at the same kitten and come away with very different impressions of it, I suspect that is even much more amplified when we get to less agreed upon and more difficult to explain concepts.  Just because 2 people disagree about aspects of a kitten does not mean that neither wsd present and truly looking at the kitten, just that everything has to strain through perceptual filters and the same thing tends to get seen differently by each.  IMO, awakening has a lot to do with cleaning up the perceptual filters but I suspect such filters are never fully eliminated completely, it's always a continual process of improvement in smaller and smaller increments as you get closer.

Then in the end, maybe another question is does the mental plan of attack work or not work towards a goal?  If it works, does it seem the best working path?    If choosing to take on a certain set of beliefs and goals and practices, are you pleased with where it is taking you?  From what you can see, has it taken others to places you also want to go?  In the end I think your options are to try to stay exactly in one place forever (probably not possible I would guess) or to pick a direction and go that way.  But I do think it's wise to consider that not just the maps but also the beliefs, assumptions, guesses, opinions, judgements, accusations, and plans are just those things only and unlikely to be perfect representations of the actual territory.       
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sawfoot _, modified 6 Years ago.

RE: Interview with Evan Thompson-Meditation is not an inner telescope

Posts: 507 Join Date: 3/11/13 Recent Posts
Eva M Nie:
Yes, I've wondered about that quite a bit myself.  If you train people in certain concepts and then tell them to look for evidence and hallmarks of those concepts for many hours each day, it's not surprising that those expected things are often found by followers of those concepts.  That might explain why differrent Buddhist schools get such different results.  Perception tends to follow expectation.  Expectation come from individual variation plus environmental influence.  How many ways can one perceive or divide up reality?  Which types of perception does one meditator look for compared to another.  Not saying I think it is all bunk or anything, there does seem to be a lot of trends and commonalities across the board, but I do think belief systems, expectations and what you are trained to look for and think about have a strong influence on what you see in the end.  IME, the stuff we are trying to look at does not translate well to ordinary consciousness and language, yet that is what we are trying to do with it anyway.  I do think that can account for a lot of the arguments.  Ten people can look at the same kitten and come away with very different impressions of it, I suspect that is even much more amplified when we get to less agreed upon and more difficult to explain concepts.  Just because 2 people disagree about aspects of a kitten does not mean that neither wsd present and truly looking at the kitten, just that everything has to strain through perceptual filters and the same thing tends to get seen differently by each.  IMO, awakening has a lot to do with cleaning up the perceptual filters but I suspect such filters are never fully eliminated completely, it's always a continual process of improvement in smaller and smaller increments as you get closer.

Then in the end, maybe another question is does the mental plan of attack work or not work towards a goal?  If it works, does it seem the best working path?    If choosing to take on a certain set of beliefs and goals and practices, are you pleased with where it is taking you?  From what you can see, has it taken others to places you also want to go?  In the end I think your options are to try to stay exactly in one place forever (probably not possible I would guess) or to pick a direction and go that way.  But I do think it's wise to consider that not just the maps but also the beliefs, assumptions, guesses, opinions, judgements, accusations, and plans are just those things only and unlikely to be perfect representations of the actual territory.       
So we all have human minds (and brains), and shared aspects of cultures, and therefore commonality is to be expected. But what is the "actual territory"? What are we trying to represent? Is the goal - "to see things clearly"?

In Tibetan Buddhism they talk about Buddhist yanas, or vehicles, where each yana has a different starting point, different assumptions, different methods and different goals. Though you should probably hope that they all ultimately lead you to be a kinder more compassionate person. And while sometimes they talk about higher and lower yanas, really it is about a good fit with you and your circumstances - some will be better fit than others for particular individuals. And so rather than different ways at looking at kittens, there are different ways of interacting with the kitten - turning away from it, examining it with a microscope, singing to it, playing with it. And based on that, you shouldn't get into an argument on who sees the kitten most clearly, as the different approaches don't share the same goal of trying to see the kitten most clearly. 
John Wilde, modified 6 Years ago.

RE: Interview with Evan Thompson-Meditation is not an inner telescope

Posts: 501 Join Date: 10/26/10 Recent Posts
sawfoot _:

Particulary relevant for here are a few excerpts (which I would agree with!):
<snip>

Nicely put. Looking forward to reading this one.

Breadcrumb