Philosophy, Meditation, and Spirituality

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These are a few thoughts about a recent piece by Paul Austin Murphy, in which he debates the claim of some spiritually oriented people that meditation will “reveal far more to you than any philosopher”, noting that “many of the people who advocate meditation or ‘spiritual but not religious’ positions (or lifestyles) have a deep problem with the ‘logic-chopping’ nature of (Western) philosophy”.

He complains about this line of thinking, saying that he knows of many academic/professional philosophers who practise meditation, and that the anti-philosophy position is itself a philosophical viewpoint, based upon some philosophical thinking.

He then asks, “what did the person whose quote opened this piece mean by his claim that meditation ‘will reveal far more to you than any philosopher?’ More specifically, what does he mean by ‘reveal’?” He debates that point, then concludes that “it can still be accepted that philosophy reveals certain things and meditation may reveal other things”.

He then launches into a critique of some egotistical meditators who claim to have transcended the self (ego), when they clearly haven’t, and concludes: “I don’t believe that simply because you meditate a lot that you automatically ‘transcend the ego’, transcend philosophy, or transcend thought itself”.

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I’m in agreement with much of what Murphy says. I think some observations would nevertheless be helpful. Let’s begin with the opening quote of which he is critical: “Have you tried meditation? That will reveal far more to you than any philosopher”. Murphy asks what this means, so I’ll attempt to answer. This person hopefully did not mean that simply taking up the practice of meditation for a brief period each day will suddenly reveal deep secrets about the universe. He presumably meant that after a long practice of deep meditation, perhaps over a period of many years, you may begin to have experiences of the deeper nature of reality, experiences which are not available to the philosophical mind.

What is the spiritual ‘philosophy’ on which such a statement is based? Pure consciousness (the soul?) inhabits a spiritual realm way beyond the physical plane and, in order to incarnate into a physical body, acquires on the downward journey a mental ‘body’ (as well as others). The mind, and also its activities e.g. philosophy, is therefore considered to be one, albeit probably the most important, aspect of our personality, or lower nature, along with emotions, instincts, drives etc.

This has both positive and negative consequences. On the good side, the mind enables humans to be intelligent, to solve problems, do science, and to philosophise, for example. On the negative side, the mental level seems to have a life of its own, is quasi-autonomous, and can lead consciousness astray. One manifestation of this is that false philosophies or belief-systems can seduce consciousness. In other words, the ego can accept uncritically any set of ideas which appears in the mind, and assume that these are its own ideas, and therefore the ‘truth’. As the well-known spiritual statement goes, “the mind is the slayer of the real”. (I am currently engaged in another conversation with Murphy about the relationship between philosophy and psychology/psychoanalysis, and am preparing a response to his critique of my article on that theme.)

The negative aspect of the mental level/body about which meditators complain most frequently is the ‘chattering’ or ‘monkey’ mind, the fact that our consciousness is constantly invaded by all sorts of random, unsolicited thoughts, which seem to serve no useful purpose. The practice of meditation therefore seeks to silence this chattering mind. If this is accomplished, even though consciousness/soul remains in a body, it seems to have returned to its higher state of being before it acquired the mental body. This is when deeper experiences about the nature of reality may be ‘revealed’ to the meditator, when the mind has been silenced.

That the mind is part of our lower nature does not mean that we should reject philosophy. We should, however, have some reservations about its limitations and usefulness. Philosophy is possibly the most sophisticated use of the mind that humans have come up with, but the untrained, innate mind is liable to fall into all kinds of traps; there are strong tendencies towards illusion and self-deception. The main pitfall is the tendency to believe that one’s own worldview is the correct one, as I noted above. Various mental tricks/failings that might be used to assist in that process are: false preconceptions, logical fallacies, cognitive biases including confirmation bias, unconscious factors, rationalisations, and so on. All these would have to be identified and overcome in order to do good philosophy. In other words consciousness has to rigorously analyse and train the mind before any good philosophy is possible.

One benefit of such a well-trained philosophical mind is the ability to recognise the failings of others. Murphy is very good at this and writes much critical material about other philosophers, which is always an interesting read. This well-trained mind also makes possible good philosophy in the normal sense of the word, the ongoing attempt by humans to understand the nature of ultimate reality. In this difficult task, we should be prepared to accept help from any useful source, whether it be a well-trained philosophical mind, science, personal experiences whether or not through meditation, or anything else. We need a truly multi-disciplinary approach.

Returning now to Murphy’s conclusion: “I don’t believe that simply because you meditate a lot that you automatically ‘transcend the ego’, transcend philosophy, or transcend thought itself”. It is certainly, or at least probably, true that these things are not achieved automatically, but they are nevertheless the ultimate goals of meditation and the spiritual path. At some point the soul, having transcended or silenced thought, returns to something closer to its original nature, pure consciousness. It nevertheless retains its sense of individuality (ego), its sense of separateness from the Ultimate Ground of Being. These are the states of being that I assume Murphy’s anonymous meditator is referring to when he says that meditation will reveal far more than any philosopher.

The dissolution of that sense of separateness, transcendence of the ego, is said to be the very last stage of the spiritual path. Buddhists call this nirvana, the blowing out of the candle, the reabsorption into the Ultimate Ground of Being. It is obvious therefore that even advanced meditators will still have an experience of separation, of ego, although hopefully not always of the vain and arrogant type that Murphy is familiar with.

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For the record, and in case anyone is wondering, I am someone who considers himself to be very spiritual. I do not meditate, however, and make no special efforts to silence my chattering mind, even though I recognise the benefits this might bring. I believe that my own personal spiritual path lies within music. As anyone who follows me on Medium will know, I also indulge in a lot of amateur philosophy.

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I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).

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Graham Pemberton

Graham Pemberton

I am a singer/songwriter interested in spirituality, politics, psychology, science, and their interrelationships. grahampemberton.com spiritualityinpolitics.com