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Meditation & metaphysics
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2/9/15 2:40 AM
On the back of Kenneth's BATGAP interview, Rob Burbea's latest series of talks on Dharma Seed (parts one, two, and three), along with recent (and somewhat heated) discussion here at the DhO, I thought it might prove fruitful to take the general pulse with respect to meditation and metaphysics. 

The question can be put something like this: is there something unique to spiritual / meditative insights that permits one to "get outside" subjective, first-person experience and reveal what the world is really like?

Put differently: do spiritual / meditative insights constitute a kind of privileged ontological knowledge? 

There seems to be a clear and demonstrable difference between what is the case and what we know or can know to be the case. Do certain meditative insights transcend these limitations and provide direct access to a kind of perfected epistemology (read: omniscience). If so, how can one be certain of it? Note that the problem seems inherently circular.

If no to all or any of the above, what does this suggest about the general pursuit of spirituality and Buddhism in particular? Are more skeptical, reasoned approaches themselves intractably belief-based? Do they simultaneously reduce spirituality to a kind of aimless and resigned endeavour, where the very best outcome one can hope for is to massage the relative quality of (inescapably) subjective experience and to more peaceably co-exist with the fundamental unknown? Further, are such frank and (presumably) honest assessments of the practical limitations of spiritual development in line with our actual motives and expectations as practitioners?

Thoughts welcome.

RE: Meditation & metaphysics
Answer
2/11/15 12:56 PM as a reply to John M..
Seems to me this whole line of questioning is coming out of the recent (say, last 300 years) of the Western Tradition; specifically, the conflicts and transitions between modernity (rational enlightenment) and post-modernity, both of which have varient modes, and the latter of which seems to emerge from inherant tensions within modernity itself.

The question I always want to ask in response to folks who ask questions like your OP (which is a great question, don't get me wrong) is: how familiar are you with the whole context within which your question is being formulated? As it appears to me to be so loaded with terms from the past 300 years of the western tradition and as the key terms in your question (and what they may or may not signify)
(metaphysics
ontology
epistemology
subjectivity (and hence, objectivity)
certainty)
are themselves the very things that are being pried apart, turned inside out, investigated, debated, questioned by the various factions within the western tradition of the past 300 or so years--
the logical place to start is what do you mean by those terms? And how familar are you with the history of those terms?

For one example, let's contrast 'metaphysics' and 'experience'.

Let's unpack the assumptions loaded in those terms.

Here's a rough sketch of what i assume they may mean to you and most people reading this.
"Experience" is by definition all the sights, sounds, tactile sensations, thoughts, feelings, etc. however you want to slice this moment. Right? "Metaphysics" is then stuff we merely think about or imagine as a non-experienced context for experience, right? Like: "consciousness is the field from which the material universe emerges and to which it returns" or, "experience is an epiphenomenon of material processes". Whatever ones metaphysical biases, one of those two metaphysical explanations for 'experience' may seem like common sense, and may seem to be very much grounded in experience (that's how metaphysics works, right?).

Metaphysical beliefs are by definition about things we don't experience, which purport to explain experience. Agree, disagree, confused? If agreed, then why not simply jettison all metaphysics and just stick to 'experience'? OK, that's reasonable. But what if 'experience' is itself a metaphysical concept loaded with lots of assumptions which we can't verify in direct experience...? There's huge differences in arguably post-modern approaches which are experience centric between say 'logical positiviists', husserlian phenomenology, and heidegger's phenomenology. Pragmatists like Dewey and James also tackle these issues and come up with, again, different approaches/resolutions. Those who largely followed heidegger got so annoyed by the problematics involved that they looked much closer at how language functions.

But the basic point I'm making is that it's tough if not impossible to argue about this without arguing within the assumptions and frameworks of a given historical epoch, or even within the tensions between the assumptions and frameworks of a massively transitionary epoch between naive modernity and ... whatever may come next. (Oh, well, I just gave myself away as a Heideggerian! lol). In other words, you can argue that it's just a simple question and all this history is irrelevant... but from where I stand it looks to me like folks will just re-invent various versions of the wheel if they ask this kind of question without some awareness of the historical context in which the whole problematic emerges.

RE: Meditation & metaphysics
Answer
8/18/15 5:10 AM as a reply to . Jake ..
Hi Jake, thanks for that -- sorry to have missed it when it was posted. Food for thought, to be sure. It's worth noting that the original post was prompted in no small part by someone on DhO that was claiming access to someone with complete omniscience. This seemed quite plainly delusional, but it did call into question my own expectations re: meditation (and whether they were any more grounded).

I agree that the questions here are couched in jargon from the western traditions, and that this brings its own baggage -- not the least of which is my own limited understanding. That said, few other frameworks can even begin to provide the language needed to explore these questions. At the end of the day, you work with what you've got, and begin from where you're at.

If we set aside the language of philosophy and look instead at the language of spirituality and meditation, we encounter concoctions like The End of Delusion or Absolute Truth/Reality or Wisdom Mind or Things As They Are, and so forth. It all seems to imply an experience that somehow sits outside of experience; a context that sits outside of contextualization; an interpretation that ends interpretations. And, implicit to all this, the assumption that the practitioner can arrive there.

Increasingly, this seems like total nonsense. 

RE: Meditation & metaphysics
Answer
8/18/15 8:27 AM as a reply to John M..
The question can be put something like this: is there something unique to spiritual / meditative insights that permits one to "get outside" subjective, first-person experience and reveal what the world is really like?

IMHO, no. That's just a way of replacing an immediate permanence (self) with a less immediate permanence (some other really real). There seems to be no really real.


RE: Meditation & metaphysics
Answer
8/18/15 12:40 PM as a reply to Chris Marti.
Chris Marti:
The question can be put something like this: is there something unique to spiritual / meditative insights that permits one to "get outside" subjective, first-person experience and reveal what the world is really like?

IMHO, no. That's just a way of replacing an immediate permanence (self) with a less immediate permanence (some other really real). There seems to be no really real.


So... is thatreally real ? ;)

RE: Meditation & metaphysics
Answer
8/18/15 1:11 PM as a reply to . Jake ..
. Jake .:
Chris Marti:
The question can be put something like this: is there something unique to spiritual / meditative insights that permits one to "get outside" subjective, first-person experience and reveal what the world is really like?

IMHO, no. That's just a way of replacing an immediate permanence (self) with a less immediate permanence (some other really real). There seems to be no really real.


So... is thatreally real ? ;)

OK I can't resist, real is really empty.