Monday, August 01, 2011

Introspection and meditation


I blundered into a conversation about introspection at Less Wrong (I have a sort of fondness for that community, although I disagree with their premises, they are smart and earnest, and I go over there every few months to stir up shit).

A couple of thoughts: one, the term "introspection" is misleading. We can't use some magical mechanism to peer into our minds. In some deep sense we are strangers to ourselves and have to cobble together stories about our own goals and behavior in the same way we do for other people.

Two, and here I'm on very shaky ground, but it seems to me the point of Buddhist meditation is not accurately captured by "introspection". In fact in my own limited experience with it, it is more like a cure for the pathologies of introspection. But maybe that's just me. I really don't know what I'm talking about in this area, so here's someone who perhaps does making roughly my point. My expert consultant on such matters is off at The Buddhist Geeks conference, but will perhaps chime in.

4 comments:

haineux said...

There are multiple kinds of Buddhist meditation. The one you are referring to as "introspection" has the Pali name "Vipassana," and might better be called "Insight Meditation." Wikipedia uses a nice phrase to describe it: self-transformation through self-observation.

A typical practice would be to do some "stabilizing meditation" (called "samatha" in Pali) as a kind of a warm-up, then thinking about a text or a mental exercise, for instance, some aspect of "the way things really exist" (which is given the epically misleading title "Emptiness").

meaningness said...

Hmm. I guess I'm quite unsure what introspection is... quite apart from the diversity of views about meditation.

Modern vipassana / insight meditation methods were invented in Asia under Western influence and appear to be much more "introspective" than earlier techniques.

Some Buddhist meditation methods direct you to look away from mental events and toward the non-conceptual awareness within which the events occur. Is that what you had in mind?

mtraven said...

Some Buddhist meditation methods direct you to look away from mental events and toward the non-conceptual awareness within which the events occur. Is that what you had in mind?


Something like that.

I'm not sure what introspection means either. I think I was trying to contrast a naive symbolic interpretation of the term (ie, building models of yourself) with Something Else. Buddhism seems to offer Something Else, but I can't really characterize what that might be.

Or maybe I just wanted an excuse to find and repost that R. Crumb picture.

I confess that I often can't make head or tail of descriptions of different meditation techniques and Buddhist jargon about the mind. But I have at least stopped being miffed by that fact -- I imagine that if you follow the practices for a couple of decades it all makes perfect sense.

meaningness said...

I can only semi make sense of the meditation jargon of the specific version of Buddhism I've been studying for 20 years. I recently started learning about the Theravada meditation jargon and it makes no sense to me at all.

I'd say I didn't believe a word of it, except that it seems to work, based on fMRI data and lots of other hard science.

I sort of suspect it works in spite of the theoretical model, not because of it.