The extent of meditation practices

People who meditate a lot tend to go through a phase where they are convinced that meditation is the best thing to happen to humanity since the Neolithic revolution - a period in prehistory where humans harnessed the power of agriculture and became sedentary, thus paving the way for civilisation with all its trappings. Meditation as a way of looking at your moment-to-moment experience is credited with being good for a person's relations with themselves and with others, good for the workplace and its attendant pressures, indeed good for civilisation itself since Good Meditators would Never allow the world to become as war-like or as climatechanged as it has in recent decades. People searching for awakening tend to suffer from just as many delusions when it comes to their picture of what being enlightened would be like. We're told that there will be insight into our past lives, that we will be able to do remarkable things such as read other people's thoughts or travel through space and time without having to get up from our cushion. According to them, we might be able to cheat death, or have no need for food anymore. Our skin might be magically healed or we might be released from other persistent physical or psychological burdens. Someone better look for the kryptonite.

As you can imagine from reading the above paragraph, I'm quite skeptical when it comes to the claims to metaphysical benefits of meditation practice. Whereas I do believe that paying attention in your life keeps you tethered more closely to what your personal values happen to be, I have to reject the fairy tale-ish stories of flying gurus or communion with the recently deceased until I see some cold hard proof. So, if we can't live longer or with less need for food, if we can't suddenly talk to animals or dead people and if we can't learn to levitate or use strong mind control on others through meditation, then what are the true limits of this practice?

The way I see it, there are two sorts of meditation. Mindfulness-based practices that can be applied to develop or maintain healthy relationships with yourself and others. And insight practices that pertain to gaining a new understanding of reality, which makes it easier to stop identification with any component part of that reality - a dissociative practice that leads to a loving observation of everything that happens. Maybe the application of these practices is limited to the scope of one human's perception of themselves and the reality they inhabit. It seems reasonable though to assume that there might be room for meditation as a tool within groups, seeing as they are collections of humans. Let's explore.

In earlier blog posts, I've tried to understand some of the processes that make groups of people such a force in our lives. How can it be that a group of moderate people can come to immoderate decisions. The harder question to answer: can meditation make any difference in those group dynamics? One could argue that awareness of group dynamics can help group members prevent unwanted outcomes. On the other hand, it's hard to think of a specific mechanism by which this would be effected. For decision-making we need communication. To communicate we mostly use verbal language. A meditator's voice might be drowned out by the persuasiveness of others' arguments. A meditator's attempt to inject opponent arguments may get them suspended from the decision-making process. Even organisations that consist largely or wholly of meditators suffer from this ailment. Just witness the number of schisms that have taken place in buddhist circles.

Not to sound pessimistic, but it seems to me that because individuals suffer from a large number of biases in judgment and decision making, these "faults" tend to be magnified when humans combine into groups. Of course, all the available human strengths have just as much chance of being magnified in group decision making. I think it's important to mention that, since these blog posts might end up painting a very bleak picture of human decision making which I don't think is the only story out there. 

So, what do you think? Is group decision making beyond redemption? Can meditation be used to mitigate bad outcomes?

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Meditation leads to a higher

Meditation leads to a higher consciousness, less self-centeredness and more attention for the good of all. This benefits groups and thus society. The ‘large number of biases in judgment and decision making’ you mention will be gradually reduced as one practices meditation. Just like the advances Western civilization has made over hundreds of years, that you talked about in your other post, meditation will not change things over night. Lots of people within the Buddhist community may ‘not be there yet’. Being a dedicated Buddhist should ultimately mean one is dedicated to the path of spiritual growth, but it does not mean one is wiser or less selfish than the average person. There are lots of totally self-centered people seemingly walking the spiritual path or walking the spiritual path as a lifestyle, to give them an identity and strenghten their ego instead of breaking down the barriers between themselves and others.

Good point. It might very

Good point. It might very well be that walking the spiritual path is not analogous to "being a good person" or wanting the world to be a better place. Following your line of reasoning, I guess you could find awakened people who are total bastards to everyone around them. I suppose that wanting this to be different reflects more about my personal predilections than it does about meditation practice.

On the other hand, if meditation is really such a great tool for inner illumination, why couldn't it be used to bring people closer together and mitigate some of the worst effects of group decision making? And if so, how?

I don't know about your

I don't know about your definition of awakening, but mine doesn't include ‘being a total bastard to everyone’! My point is, walking the spiritual path / living a seemingly spiritual life, isn't analogous to gaining insight and making progress along that path. Like, is it just clothing, or is your heart really in it?

As for your last paragraph: now you're just being stubborn! ;)

I like being stubborn! Okay,

I like being stubborn! Okay, so do I understand you correctly when I think you're saying that not every meditator is necessarily looking for insight? I think you're saying that people do these practices for all sorts of reasons - one of them being insight. But others are only cosmetically involved?

This may well be true. On the other hand that really does not tell me anything about the possible extent of application of meditation practices. I'm trying to "feel" my way here myself, so it might not have been entirely obvious from the wording in the article. What parts of our common experience can we influence by meditating? I've taken the example of social decision making, which appears to be fraught with many kinds of subconscious processes.

On the individual level we have a myriad psychological biases, as listed here for instance. On the group level, there are other processes that influence our decision making. Both these kinds of processes cause "mistakes" in decision making. Usually, the higher the stakes, the greater the mistakes. Think of war, global warming and exploitation. From your first response, I'm happy to see that you have high hopes for the applicability of meditation to group decision making, stating that more awareness benefits groups and society, as well as the individual meditator himself. 

I can't say that I have the same level of confidence, although I would like to believe that it's possible to clear all the obstacles that stand in the way of one's goal. Somehow, though, there is also a slight nagging feeling. If we could avoid making mistakes altogether, would we want to? 

I'm well aware of biases in

I'm well aware of biases in judgement and decision making. One of the great books that taught me a lot, as well as confirmed a lot of what I already noticed in people's behaviour, is Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland. You may have read it.

Now, as a highly conscious being I have noticed inconsistencies in people's talk and behaviour since I was a child. While growing into an adult I gained more insight and knowledge about the ways of the world, and as I raised my consciousness I became aware of more of these human traits. I was also able to shed a few of them within myself. So, my confidence comes from experience.

My whole reasoning is of course based on the assumption that meditation raises one's level of consciousness. For most of my life I haven't done meditation, but I did other things to raise my consciousness.

> If we could avoid making mistakes altogether, would we want to?

If we could avoid it, it would mean we'd have learned our lessons, so there wouldn't be anything to be gained from making mistakes anymore. It's not really a case of 'wanting to', we just wouldn't make 'em anymore.

Now think about this, in relation to higher consciousness leading to better decision making: we're slaughtering thousands, if not millions, of animals a day in our society, after raising them under the most unnatural and brutal circumstances, meanwhile poluting our environment and killing our planet just for animal-keeping (think massive soy production for livestock feed, gasses in the enormous amounts of cow, chicken and pig excrement that damage the environment, energy costs for keeping and transporting animals etc.). Wouldn't we decide to do things differently (there _are_ other options) if we, as societies, had enough consciousness to see the connection between all these things? But most people don't even know where their meat and dairy comes from, what happens before it enters the super markets, because normally we don't get to see what happens 'behind the scene'. And the industry doesn't want you to either--it's by design. Even you, if I remember correctly, practice metta meditation for more compassion, yet eat meat; so far for compassion towards animals and nature. When you gain more awareness on this subject, you may make a more conscious decision that results in a better outcome for the planet, your environment and thus yourself (one needs enough consciousness to see the connections here, too). Each individual making such a more informed decision is part of the group. The more people in a group deviate from the norm, the harder it becomes for the other members of the group to resist change. So in the end, a more conscious decision will be made by the group. The group consciousness has been raised individual by individual.

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