Meditation as Disciplined Non-Thinking
A Brunton passage elucidated
‘Meditation’ has two main senses. The first refers to disciplined discursive thinking. Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy classically illustrates this first sense. If we use ‘thinking’ as short for ‘discursive thinking,’ we can say that the second sense of ‘meditation’ refers to disciplined non-thinking. Accordingly, meditation in the second sense is an attempt to silence the discursive mind and enter into a non-discursive state of awareness.
With this clarification in mind, we are ready to appreciate a passage from Paul Brunton:
All thinking keeps one’s awareness out of the Overself. That is why thinking about the Overself merely produces another thought. Only in the case of the sage, who has established himself in the Overself, is thinking no barrier at all. In this case, thinking may coexist with the larger awareness. So it is not enough to be a good thinker; one also has to learn how to be a good non-thinker. Of course, the way to do this is through the practice of meditation. (Inspiration and the Overself, Larson Publications, 1988, p. 144, #48)
Roughly, Brunton’s Overself is something like Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Oversoul. One can think of the Overself as the consciousness that is presupposed by all conscious encounter with objects. No matter what object one is aware of, there is a distinction between the object and the consciousness or awareness of it. This is so even when the object is oneself. My body, its parts, and its attributes can appear to me as objects, and the same is true of the mental contents (memories, sensations, etc.) accessible by me through inner sense. But these objects making up the empirical self or psychophysical complex (body + empirical mind) cannot appear unless they appear to consciousness. This consciousness to which they appear, however, does not itself appear, or at least does not appear as an object. It is not however nothing: it is the transcendental condition of anything’s appearing in the first place. So we may call it transcendental consciousness.
At this point various philosophical questions can and must be asked, and various objections must be answered. But for present purposes let’s suppose that they can all be answered and that the notion of transcendental consciousness, in some version or other, is epistemically in the clear.
We can then define meditation as the attempt to come to a non-objective or non-dual awareness of the transcendental awareness which is the ever-present condition of anything’s appearing in the first place. As Brunton points out, this cannot occur by thinking about the Overself. For such thinking about merely produces another thought-content, another proposition, about the Overself. We end up objectifying what is in truth the subjective condition of all objectivity.
This is part of the problem with philosophy as a discursive activity. It produces thoughts, thoughts, and more thoughts. But we ought not be satisfied with mere thoughts; we ought to be satisfied only by the Reality to which thoughts point, and from which they emanate. What we want is the Real, not more and more thoughts about the Real. And this is why the mystical objection to philosophy will always carry weight.
So the mystical paths need to be explored by those concerned with a balanced approach to the ultimate truth. Isn’t that what we are after in philosophy: the ultimate truth about the ultimate matters? Or at least that is what we ought to be after. From this I conclude, in agreement with Brunton, that “it is not enough to be a good thinker; one also has to learn how to be a good non-thinker.” That is to say: although it is necessary to hone the discursive intellect to the sharpness of a razor, it is not sufficient. One must also learn how to silence and transcend the discursive intellect — but without denigrating it or failing to appreciate its proper sphere of application, as some exponents of Asian philosophy unfortunately do.
If we use ‘philosophy’ in a broad sense to denote not merely discursive theorizing but also the attempt to attain wisdom and insight, then one problem with academic philosophy is that it promotes the hypertrophy of the discursive faculty to the atrophy of the intuitive.
Academic philosophy is like organized religion: it is more often than not in betrayal of its own normative nature and highest purpose. I say that as someone who knows academic philosophy and organized religion from the inside.