MEDITATION & MINDFULNESS: DEATH, BREATH, THE WITNESS, AND LIVING iN THE PRESENT

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The author is a former practitioner of Hindu, Tibetan Buddhist, and Zen meditation for 14 years

 

Mindfulness is Ubiquitous

There is no way to avoid the incessant promotions of meditation, Mindfulness, and the breathing/breath/breathword advice saturating the culture. These are usually marketed, expicitly or implicitly, as the key to peace, happiness, and even success. “Be present” or “Be in the moment” have become common unquestioned bits of folk wisdom. We run into it in psychology, schools, the health field, the workplace, social media, prisons, sports, diet programs, and other areas.

 

Online and print magazines almost never lack a blurb or an article having to do with meditating or being mindful. Insurance company materials promote it, pictures of it abound online, on television programs, and in print, whole companies exist based on it, and over 10,000 meditation apps are available (this was as of several years ago). Mindfulness alone is a 1.2 billion business and growing:

 

“But the road to mindfulness is, evidently, paved with gold. According to the Wall Street Journal story, the industry exceeds the millions — and that the combination of ‘studio classes, workshops, books, online courses and apps … is worth about $1.2 billion and growing.'” – From “Million Dollar Mindfulness: How Many People Use Meditation Apps?” by Amanda Zantal Weiner, Dec. 21, 2018, updated Dec. 11, 2019

 

Key Influencers

The Dalai Lama is a key player, having for years promoted Mindfulness at his Mind & Life Conferences to scientists and psychologists. His Mind & Life Institute has had a wide effect, influencing scientists and psychologists to take Buddhist concepts seriously and even view them as scientific:

 

Our convenings bring together researchers, contemplatives, and changemakers to explore big questions. Among them is how contemplative wisdom can be applied in pursuit of a more just, compassionate, and inclusive world.

 

Other key figures have been Jon Kabat-Zinn, who started the Center for Mindfulness in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and the late Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk (d. 2022) whose travels and books have increased interest in Mindfulness in the West.

 

Most people do not know what embracing meditation means because such meditation has been marketed as a way to de-stress and feel calm. Images of Buddhist monks and Buddha statues convey the idea that meditation brings peace.  Many Westerners are unaware that meditation (including Mindfulness, Guided Visualization/Imagery, Guided Meditation) is based on Eastern and/or New Age beliefs with a built-in spirituality. The techniques, if followed, alter one’s worldview and may induce experiences which can range from seeing things, to feeling at one with everything, to depression, or to breakdowns.

 

Eastern meditation is designed to bypass the thinking process, which is considered part of the material world and is therefore temporal and insubstantial, in order to grasp or realize what is considered to be the true nature of reality. Understanding what is viewed as the true nature of reality is the apogee of Buddhist practice, as well as of Hindu and Taoist practice.

 

Meditation and Death

Aside from the Dalai Lama, Ken Wilber, a Perennialist, has influenced many “influencers” of the culture, including the late Thomas Keating, Richard Rohr, Rob Bell, and others (the author of this article has read Wilber’s A Theory of Everything and books by Rohr, Keating, and Bell). Wilber is aligned with the Systems philosophy which has influenced educators and corporate heads; this is partly why the paradigm for schools now encompasses what is benignly called social-emotional learning. This has opened the door to meditation, Mindfulness, Tibetan bells, Transcendental Meditation, and other forms of Eastern mediation promoted under beningn sounding names in the schools. Wilber is nondualist which means he believes there are no distinctions.

 

This quote from Ken Wilber about meditation and death should give insight on the purpose of meditation:

 

It dawns on me, yet again, that all spiritual practice is a rehearsal—and at its best, an enactment—of death. As the mystics put it, ‘If you die before you die, then when you die, you won’t die.’ In other words, if right now you die to the separate-self sense, and discover instead your real Self which is the entire Kosmos at large, then the death of this particular bodymind is but a leaf falling from the eternal tree that you are.

Meditation is to practice that death right now, and right now, and right now, by resting in the timeless Witness and dis-identifying with the finite, objective, mortal self that can be seen as an object. In the empty Witness, in the great Unborn, there is no death—not because you live forever in time—you will not—but because you discover the timelessness of this eternal moment, which never enters the stream of time in the first place. — Wilber quotes from his book, One Taste: Daily Reflections on Integral Spirituality on his Facebook page

 

The Witness

Meditation is “dis-identifying with the finite, mortal self,” which, as Wilber explains, is the way to have death now; that is, to uncover the false self and awaken to the true nature of reality, which he refers to here as the “empty Witness.”

 

In Mindfulness and other forms of Eastern meditation that teach you to observe your breath, this is done so that you eventually become conscious of the breath as something being done, not you doing it. You are to realize that observing the breath means that it is not you observing, but rather the “witness.”

 

This “witness” is the Buddha nature/mind, which is the impersonal principle of existence and which is all that truly exists. Meditation is practiced to deconstruct the sense of one’s individual identity and self. I learned and read this when I was involved in Eastern beliefs as a New Ager. You already exist as this Witness, “the great Unborn,” and there really is no death since the individual self does not exist.

 

In our average everyday waking state of consciousness, we experience our individual self – our body, thinking mind, and feelings – as subject. And we experience everyone and everything outside of our individual body and mind as objects…..When we meditate, we are practicing a shift in our awareness. We are practicing being the witness “watching” temporary thoughts come and go in our minds, and temporary feelings and sensations come and go in our bodies. In other words, we are temporarily making our entire individual self – our entire body and thinking mind – into an object in a larger witnessing awareness. When we do this, we are temporarily shifting our subjective sense of self – our identity – from our gross body and thinking mind to the Witness. When we aren’t doing something like meditating – when we’re back in our everyday waking state of consciousness – it isn’t that the Witness is somehow gone. Witnessing awareness is always present, but since we identify only with the thinking part of our mind as our “self,” we don’t usually notice that the Witness is there, or experience it as our “self.” From Integral Health Resources

 

The dark side of Eastern meditation is unknown to most Westerners. Buddhist writings I read discussed meditations by monks visualizing skeletons and corpses, including their own bodily disintegration. This was originally done to control lustful desires and to detach from beauty, but is also practiced to be detached from life.

 

Discussions of this meditation are on Buddhist forums online. One person wrote that at a retreat, they did “a guided meditation where we visualized our death, rotting, and disintegration.”

 

Another responded, “Death, rotting and disintegration is also part of the white skeleton visualisation, and offering ur body parts away to the ghosts as offerings, then when your experiencing emptiness, you visualize your bones turning to dust.”

 

The term “ghost” in the latter quote refers to “hungry ghosts,” who are beings “tormented by desire that can never be sated.” These ghosts exist in

 

one of the six realms of cyclic existence (samsara), along with devas (gods), asuras (warring gods), humans, animals, and hell beings. Enlightenment can be defined as freeing oneself from these realms entirely. From Lion’s Roar, an online Buddhist magazine

 

The Present Is Not Real, Either

A large network of beliefs that fit the idea of no objective truth are flooding the culture, and meditation is intrinsic to all of them. Meditation is not just a technique but a way of seeing reality and it also causes one to shift their viewpoint of this reality. Phrases like “live in the present” or “be in the present moment” are not about enjoying the present moment but rather are from a worldview that denies our perceived reality. Check out Ram Dass’ book, Be Here Now (which I read as a New Ager and which had a strong impact on me) to see the Hindu and Buddhist thinking attached to that.

 

“Being in the present” is supposed to dissociate you from past and future, so that you become more unmoored from this reality and eventually unmoored from your identity as an individual. If you begin to think that something is doing your breathing that is not you, you are aligning with the purposes of meditation. Some who do Mindfulness start to feel they do not know who they are anymore. This is the purpose of  Mindfulness, to deconstruct the self; it is just that some people doing Mindfulness as a calming method are unaware of its purpose and get in trouble.

 

Daniel Goleman is a popular writer and psychologist, the purveyor of so-called emotional intelligence (an idea with many critics), and a follower of the Dalai Lama (Goleman is the author o books on meditation and on the Dalai Lama). Goleman writes about the “empty self,” an idea gaining ground in psychology which reflects the Buddhist belief in the no-self:

 

The notion of an “empty self” posits that there is no “CEO of the mind,” but rather something like committees constantly vying for power. In this view, the “self” is not a stable, enduring entity in control, but rather a mirage of the mind—not actually real, but merely seemingly so. While that notion seems contrary to our own everyday experience, it actually describes the deconstruction of self that cognitive neuroscience finds as it dissects the mind (most famously, Marvin Minsky’s “society of mind”). So the Buddhist model of the self may turn out to fit the data far better than the notions that have dominated Western thinking for the last century. From “Increasing Uses of Buddhism in Psychotherapy,” American Scientist, Vol. 92, No. 1, January-February 2004

 

Interstingly, consdiering the Dalai Lama’s connection to the popular movie “Inside Out,” and Goleman’s connection to the Dalai Lama, Goleman has authored a book, Destructive Emotons: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama. The view of emotions as a sort of committee in the head and the need to control them in “Inside Out” comes directly from the Dalai Lama’s Buddhist teachings.

 

Emotions and thoughts in Buddhism are allegedly merely passing illusionary phenomena. Identifying with these emotions and thoughts fools people into a belief that they are individuals, which is also another false reality in Buddhism. Buddhism uses the word Skandhas or Aggregates (sometimes translated as Heaps) to name the five phenomena that cause this identification: form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. This identity as individuals keeps one attached to this false reality which has no actual substance, thus ensuring rebirth. To escape rebirth and therefore suffering is the goal of Buddhism.

 

Buddhist meditation is designed to distance one’s self from one’s emotions, thoughts, and the sense of a separate self.

 

It is not just meditation and meditation methods falling on the culture like so much radioactive debris, but it is Eastern spiritual concepts as well. Whether one paved the way for the other, or whether they both have penetrated together does not matter. What does matter is the need to recognize and be aware of this since it is so masked in the culture.

 

The Contrast with Christ

What a contrast to Eastern spirituality, meditation, its themes of death and the “no-self” is the account and message of Jesus Christ: Jesus came as the way, the truth, and the life.” Jesus, who gave his life on the cross to pay the penalty for sins, bodily resurrected three days later, conquering death. Through faith in Christ, one has eternal life, that is life with God, the source of light, life, and love.

 

“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.” John 5:24

 

 “I am the bread of life.” John 6:48

 

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 6:23

 

The Word “Meditation”

Meditation as used in the culture and meditation in the Bible as translated from various Hebrew words are entirely different. Biblical meditation is pondering, studying, and reflecting, using the mind. It usually means reflecting on God’s word, and can also mean speaking it aloud. See here for more on the Hebrew.

 

More Information

CANA Articles

“Inside Out” and the Buddhist View of Self: The Movie, The Dalai Lama, and Emotions as the Enemy

 

“World Views in Contrast”

 

Peter Senge’s “The Fifth Discipline”

 

Other Sources

Christian scholar-apologist-theologian Dr. Peter Jones of Truthxchange addresses Wilber as part of a larger Neopagan infiltration of the church. By “Neopagan,” Jones means pagan in the broader sense. This is one article all Christians should read. (Wilber is specifically addressed in section numbered by Roman numeral III).

 

Christian evaluation of Systems Thinking