in Guru Ploys, Meditation

Selfless Realization from Meditation?

Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

Meditation techniques are often used to negate the self.

Assuming the “self” is a product of the human mind, and with the idea of self as limited or false, Hindus and Buddhists created mental methods to transcend or reverse this faulty self-identity1.

What is meant by self-identity is who and what one thinks one is. It is the pillar of one’s personality2.

Traditional Eastern Hindus and Buddhists often used techniques to deconstruct self-identity.

Hindu-inspired meditation movements treat self as delusion.

The ultimate aim in Hindu meditation is transcending the self. The self is to be sacrificed for a so-called Higher Self.

Buddhist-inspired practitioner’s try to perceive the self as illusion.

The ultimate aim for the Buddhist is destruction of the self. That is, the ideal is annihilation of self-concept that supposedly is the cause of one’s suffering.

Read my post about the Contradictions with Samadhi 

What many Hindu- and Buddhist-inspired meditation techniques have in common is that they involve negating thought to transcend thought.

Whether one can actually transcend or negate thought may be debatable. But these mental methods, that some claim are beneficial, even miraculous, contain contradictions and warnings.

Selflessness contains contradictions, including:

  • Self-identity is deconstructed and then built up using a guru’s or a group’s beliefs and worldviews;
  • One’s feelings are given more importance than thought. Negating thoughts may prevent the use of critical thinking which could protect one from unnecessary suggestibility and gullibility.
  • Valuing selflessness and denying selfishness is itself “self-centered”. Humans all are out for self-interest.

We may never know if negation of self is possible. Heck, scientists, philosophers, poets, and mystics have been debating for millennia what “self” may be. We may have many selves. Here we defined self-identity as what makes up one’s personality and sense of who and what one is at any given moment.

My decades of practice with meditation techniques demonstrated to me that thoughts are never actually transcended nor negated. The desire to permanently attain a selfless or thoughtless state of enlightenment seems to me to be a delusion, one that many gurus and groups use to lure and keep followers.

I have had many experiences in and out of sitting meditation where I felt like I was floating above my self, was bursting with love, or was one with everything. Most of these experiences occurred randomly outside of sitting meditation without any effort on my part3. Even while writing this I find that by simply thinking or imaging something intently I can experience overwhelming emotions well up from within. So-called self-transcendent experiences may occur often and may be ordinary to many people. Perhaps they are so ordinary we frequently discount them.

“Before enlightenment: Chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: Chop wood, carry water” a Zen monk supposedly told his students.

Can people transcend self using mental techniques that negate one’s thoughts? Might some gurus and groups distort people’s perceptions of the themselves to take advantage of them?

Notes

The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power, Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, Frog Books: Berkeley, CA, 1993, p. 101

2 ibid, p. 103

3 These so-called transcendent or mystical experiences that I have had I have interpreted in various ways at different times throughout my life. While I was fervent religious believer, I interpreted these experiences as supernatural, as a gift from god or guru. After I learned to think more critically, I have interpreted my past and present “mystical” experiences as natural, as part of being human. Just because there may not be a definitive explanation for self-transcending experiences does not give us license to say we know they have some extraordinary or supernatural cause.

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50 Comments

  1. We’ve already gone over this issue of “self” vs “Self” in the context of TM, but don’t let countering POV from a scion of advaita vedanta (Maharishi Mahesh Yogi_ spoil your attempts at attacking a straw dog.

    Seriously, we’ve already gone over this.

    TM is a resting practice that enhances sense-of-self. There’s no “illusory” self dismantled or destroyed or whatever. All that happens is that connectivity in the specific parts of the brain thought by modern (non-TM) researchers to be responsible for sense of self is enhanced by TM practice and eventually a sense-of-self that is NOT associated with “things” starts to emerge. When that sense of self is present at all times, whether the person is awake, dreaming or in deep sleep, the meditator starts to identify that ever-present “self” as the “real” self, while transitory “things” like beliefs and thoughts and so on are viewed as transitory and therefore not part of the real self.

    Research on this has been published for some time now, and I’ve already mentioned it.

    But don’t let evidence that challenges your POV about what meditation (of a specific type, at least) does get in the way of your rhetoric about what you say it does.

  2. @saijani, thanks for the brief explanation of TM. I know next to nothing about it, so forgive any ignorance on my part. TM sounds like it’s dualistic in the sense that there is the real self and then there is a collection of things called thoughts and beliefs. Where in this construct do emotions belong, especially when they arise spontaneously as a result of past trauma? I’m asking this question because there is much debate in the psychological/philosophical communities as to whether emotions originate in thought or whether they are stored in the cells of the body. If emotions are physically rooted, which I’m starting to believe may be true, then disavowing thought would not solve the problem of violent emotions. The meditation which I had practiced didn’t solve the problem of emotions, it only helped me close my eyes to them, both literally and figuratively.

  3. I don’t believe in a self. But I do believe in many selves, all fluxing and interacting. I am convinced that the notion of one single self is both an illusion and often harmful.
    Are there ways to make healthier selves — sure.
    See my posts on “Many Selves” if interested.

    I agree with Scott that many meditators, under the rhetoric of negating self are deceiving themselves. They are simply suppressing some selves, building other one.

    Identity is a funny thing too — fluxes between selves. Some folks find identity very important and others don’t — I think this can be a temperament thing.

  4. @Sabio: I agree. The notion of one “self” is probably a faulty premise. This is one reason why I think peddlers of meditation techniques often mislead people: they dangle the notion that to be happy or eliminate suffering one must find their true self or some better version of their self. The fact that we all often seek improvement is a given.

    @saijani: The tone in your comment seems rather condescending, as if we all should know (since in the past you seem to believe that you have brilliantly refuted any counter evidence) about the mechanisms of action and of the claims of the proponents of Transcendental Meditation practices.

    TM seems then seems to define “self” as real/unreal, ever-present/not-ever-present, etc. “The meditator starts to identify that ever-present “self” as the “real” self, while transitory “things” like beliefs and thoughts and so on are viewed as transitory and therefore not part of the real self.” Is this not dualism? Dividing up the cosmos as real/unreal, higher/lower, spiritual/material. Seems its similar black and white type thinking that most religions use to divide or separate the person or “self” from the universe or cosmos.

    There may be one self. There may be many selves. I don’t know. What does matter to me is that many meditation advocates seem to be playing mind-manipulation games. Some meditators may like playing that game. Others don’t and try to warn others of the dangers. I’m with the latter.

    @Uwsboi14: Maybe we haven’t yet found our “real self” because we haven’t been practicing TM? And, should we practice TM and should we not find our “real self” (which is highly probably because the “self” is a moving target) the Maharishi group (or any other meditation movement) would tell us we haven’t been true-enough disciples or we haven’t practiced the techniques long or deep enough. We would always be to blame. It would always be our fault that our supposed unreal self can’t find our real self. It is also obvious how for many meditation proponents that any faults or failures of the given techniques not working (or worse of f**king up people’s minds) are never caused by the guru or group.

  5. @Scott, definitely – either it’s our fault or we were just practicing the “wrong type” of meditation. Funny how every person’s own kind of meditation is the best or the only one that truly works the correct way (as if that makes any sense). Reminds me of religion. Even the god-denouncing. goal-denouncing Zen Master thinks he’s got it right and that everyone not practicing Zen is deluded. sigh

    These various types of meditation cannot differ too much. First of all, your eyes are closed and the mind will try to wander regardless of the techniques. If you’ve managed to “still” the mind or come to that place of Zen, you’ve only succeeding in dulling it through either sheer boredom (watching thoughts) or by bludgeoning it with a mantra over and over again. I don’t consider this a successful outcome. The mind loses its sensitivity during these processes. It’s a lot like abusing a pet dog who eventually stops wandering and discovering, and instead cowers from anything new and different, anything that it’s been told is “not real”. To me this means the mind has been made submissive and therefore no longer capable of thinking freely. The mind has actually become dependent on meditation to feel good. How is this a good thing?

  6. The following is a rant I need to put on my own blog:

    Nirvana
    Zen
    Real self
    Self-realization
    Cosmic bliss
    Spiritual ecstasy
    The Zone (not the diet plan)
    The Now
    Going clear
    Finding God
    Being one with all
    Going to heaven
    Being one with Jesus
    etc, etc, etc

    Seriously, how could any one of these particular terms be the only correct one? Either they’re all bogus is some way or they all point to the same truth. Personally, I’m doubtful that such things exist, at least not in the way their proponents say they do. And I definitely don’t think that to live without such experiences is evidence of a life unlived. It may well be that a life which strives towards these experiences is a life perverted, a life hijacked.

  7. Scott,

    I really enjoyed this article. I also really like the article about people rationalizing their lack of results from meditation and continuing to meditate anyway.

    I used to be fascinated by the idea of self transcendence and spent many hours meditating hoping to experience it. Your website and some others convinced me I could spend many years meditating and never experience moments of what appear to be self transcendence, if there is such a thing. There is a lot of research nowadays about how mindfulness meditation can make people happier, healthier, more compassionate, etc. I would rather exercise, eat well and get enough sleep to achieve such things.

    Jeff

  8. @Jeff: Glad to hear you too are meditating less and feeling healthier.

    BTW: I think so-called transcendent types of experiences (often called mystical or altered mental states of awareness) may have value, even though these experiences may never have an objective criteria but seem mostly to be subjective interpretations of feelings. Many so-called transcendent experiences are a normal part of human experience whether occurring randomly or induced through chemicals, stress, or meditation.

    Thanks for your encouraging words.

    @uwsboi14: Yes. You ought to post that on your blog. It’s kind of poetic in its flow that starts with your list of terms. I hadn’t thought that religions often claim that people who don’t have their “experiences” haven’t fully lived. And, that for believers to just have faith and to just obey and surrender to supposed gods or gurus is akin to “hijacking a life”.

    Thanks

  9. @SkepticMeditations,

    You said that these transcendent types of experiences may have value though they may not have objective measure.

    And yet,, I already furnished you with links to consistent objective measure of a specific kind of transcendental “experience” during TM. Here’s the links in our previous comment thread:
    http://skepticmeditations.com/2014/12/02/claims-for-meditations-benefits-overreach/comment-page-1/#comment-2241

    The point is that TM theory claims that this breath suspension state is the most efficient anti-stress form of rest and that TM creates a situation where the brain cycles between normal restful wakefulness and this most efficient anti-stress form of rest, called “pure consciousness” or PC for short.

    Further, TM theory asserts that some physical aspects of PC start to become a trait outside of TM practice, leading to a nervous system that deals with stress more efficiently.

  10. To Scott:
    Respectfully, I really disagree with you. Philosophically talking:

    “selfless realization from meditation”: No, if you don´t have self first, you cannot abandon it. If you don´t have self first you will surrender your own will to another person, you will lose your freedom. The first part of training, at least what I remember for example in Platonism schools, is centering the self (what is ego), separate what is mine from what is external to me, getting strong our own will (is what depends on us, external things does not). Meditation is the last part of this work, once you know what your center is then you can do des-centering.

    “self is a product of the human mind”: what happens in deeper states of concentration? When your mind is deeply in silence, do you perceive yourself? Or do you feel expansion?

    “What is meant by self-identity is who and what one thinks one is. It is the pillar of one’s personality”: in weak personalities the philosopher Rudolph Steiner advices if they search a Master they will be losing their own will.
    Thought is needed, blind surrender is dangerous. But also is true that reason is limited because is adapted into a theory and cannot see what does not belong to that theory.

    “techniques to deconstruct self-identity”: Why do you reduce to a technique? The work to convert is not only a technique, you can meditate all your life and you will never find what you look for. Without correct guide of a person (don´t call Master if you don´t like the term) who you really can respect and is more advanced than you, you cannot receive specific corrections every time you are losing your way by wrong interpretations.

    “Practitioners fail to see that self-centeredness is masquerading as selflessness”: Again, don´t do these teachings without proper guide, someone who you could talk honestly, trustable without being his or her slave, who keeps your freedom to think, feel and act. Someone who you could see his or her example in living everyday, who has corrected his or her own life according to moral principles. Veneration to someone does not mean slavery. If you do it by yourself you will interpret it wrongly, present living Master is needed to correct each student individually in their development.

    “Self-identity is deconstructed and reconstructed and replaced with a guru’s or a group’s beliefs and worldviews”: Renounce to self identity to enhance moral values, not your passions or desires, and live correctly. The group beliefs and worldviews are not important, they could be wrong, they are human beings.

    “One’s feelings are given more importance than thought. Negating thoughts may prevent use of critical thinking that could protect one from unnecessary suggestibility and gullibility”. I guess this interpretation is wrong, is not feeling, it means instinct but the teachings are wrong too. Sentence to be discussed later with proper information.

    “My decades of practice with meditation techniques demonstrated to me that thoughts are never actually transcended nor negated. The desire to permanently attain a selfless or thoughtless state of enlightenment seems to me to be a delusion, one that many gurus and groups use to lure and keep followers”: It´s not suppressing thought, what we can see like progress is when you are becoming more virtue, when you can control yourself.

    “I have had many experiences in and out of sitting meditation where I felt like I was floating above my self, was bursting with love, or was one with everything. Most of these experiences occurred randomly outside of sitting meditation without any effort on my part. Even while writing this I find that by simply thinking or imaging something intently I can experience overwhelming emotions well up from within. So-called self-transcendent experiences may occur often and may be ordinary to many people. Perhaps they are so ordinary we frequently discount them”: Mystical feelings or experiences can be created by imagination, there is a principle of mind studied by philosophers.

    “Before enlightenment: Chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: Chop wood, carry water” a Zen monk supposedly told his students”: One possible interpretation, we don´t have the Zen teacher here to ask what he meant: The external world is still the same, one has to work, to eat, etc, but the subject has changed and perceives it differently, calmly, deeply.

    “Can people transcend self using mental techniques that negate one’s thoughts?” In the words of my philosophy professor “someone who goes through mystical meditations without previously center the self, flies away and finishes in wrong places”. With techniques: NO.

    I hope you could understand me. Thanks.

  11. @saijani: Let’s stay on topic here. Our discussion here is on the psychology behind negating the “self” using meditation techniques.

    Your citing TM studies (which I have already commented on numerous times in the past) is off our topic here.

    You previously commented that in TM there’s no illusory “self”, instead you use terms such

  12. real self
  13. ever-present self
  14. pure consciousness “self”
  15. Are these terms not based on dualism? How can we have a real self without an unreal self, or ever-present self without a never-present self, or pure without impure consciousness?

    These terms are examples of the kinds of psychological divisions that seem to “negate”, place value judgements on the opposite self. eg. “Without TM people are stuck in the impure, the unreal, the never-present self”. Isn’t that the implication with these kinds of meditation techniques espoused by their advocates?

    @Researcher: Thanks for joining our discussion here. You’ve written much in your comment. Let me try to address a few key points I see there:

      1) Self(s) may be a psychological construct. I’m not saying meditation techniques have no value. Of course, emotions are important for the complete experience of being human.

      2) The notion of “negating” the self(s) is implied when people claim one must practice meditation techniques to attain a purer or higher state of consciousness or awareness of “self”.

      3) The concepts of pure/impure, higher/lower, Master/disciple all create divisions in the psyche of followers. Is this not dualism? Ironic since many meditation advocates claim “oneness” or unity consciousness is the goal of their meditation philosophy which appears as a ruse for hiding dual thinking and negation of what they conceive of as the “bad” or impure self.

      4) This kind of dualism and negation is used by meditation technique peddlers to create the need, to diagnose the disease (the impurer, lower, suffering self) and then offer their cure: mental methods that instill their worldview and beliefs into the negated “self(s)” of followers.

      5) Again, I’m not saying meditation techniques are bad. It’s the psychology of negating the person’s self(s) that may be harmful.

  16. To Scott:

    Yes, I´m sorry it was too extent, it´s a habit of philosophy discussions.
    In few words, I believe that good or bad about these practices depends on who directs them and how they are done.

    I guess there are many interpretations that were distorted in different schools. That is why there is so much confusion in students… But the ideas at their beginning were clearer. I prefer to read the ancient books of spiritual practices, for example Stoicism. Master-disciple relationship in Stoicism produced good results, it was a serious work.

    Thanks.

  17. @ Scott — First, I do think that any religious practice or doctrine can (and usually has) been abused. That however, doesn’t invalidate the religious practice: it means there are jerks out there who should be publicly shamed, put on trial, or worse.

    Second, I think your critique of South Asian religious practice applies to nearly all attempts by humans to understand the mind. You write,
    “Can people transcend self using mental techniques that negate one’s thoughts?”
    In essence, South Asian religious practices that can be generally categorized under the term “meditation” aim at controlling the activities of the mind — for example, the second sutra of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra and the last two steps of the Buddhist Eight-Fold Path. In context, these meditation practices are part of a broader system that aims at developing a good life for the practitioner. The writings of Seneca, Plato, Aristotle, and a host of other thinkers have similar concepts of taming passions or thoughts and controlling the mind to those found in South Asian religions. Even Jung’s and Freud’s psychologies aim at similar control of the “self” through concepts like ‘sublimation’. Given your deep experience with the SRF, I wonder what your thoughts are about the idea that this whole discussion of the ‘self’ is in fact a metaphor aimed at helping people understand and manage one’s mind, thoughts, and behavior — rather than actually referring to a metaphysical or supernatural ‘reality’?

  18. To My Other Feet:

    Thanks Sir, I see you understand East and West philosophies. I agree with you. Maybe you could open Scott´s inflexibility in his point of view.

    In reverence, thanks.

  19. To Scott:

    I´m sorry that you were tricked there in SRF and your expectations were not fulfilled, but your experience does not prove that all what mystics or philosophers are talking about the existence of a higher self are wrong ,or that enlighment does not exist, or that permanent inner peace is impossible. Don’t give it assessment, leave it open to question.

    If you, based in your personal experience, generalizes your results to all spiritual works then you are mistaken. You are withdrawing into yourself because of your past experiences.

    In an interview, Dalai Lama advised to general students that if they search for a Master they should be careful. In relationship of the different kind of abuses occurred in different schools, he advises to look for the instructor at least during ten years (to observe his life, if he is correct and trustable) before taking someone like Master and obey him. It´s not easy to find someone trustable, but Scott it is also true that there are still living people in spiritual schools who are teaching correctly.

    In reverence, thanks.

  20. I’ve noticed on this blog that, even when I direct my comments to a particular person, they don’t respond (except for Scott and Sabio), but I will try again.

    Researcher,
    1) What are the signs/indicators that a leader or spiritual school is teaching correctly?
    2) How do you know that the Dalai Lama has more wisdom than you other than by what you’ve been told? What in your experience of him shows that he has earned his position of authority?
    3) Do you believe a person can lead a compassionate, worthwhile life without meditation? Or is the non-meditator not living up to his potential?

  21. @All: Many, many followers of Buddhist- and Hindu-inspired meditation techniques claim there is in actuality some kind or essence of a higher/lower self, a pure/less-pure consciousness, a self-centeredness/selflessness way of being. And, that the struggle to overcome the lower for the higher is the purpose of meditation techniques.

    Are these two poles (lower/higher, pure/less pure, etc) a description of the interwoven human that can only be defined in relation to the other half?

    Is not emphasizing the poles, the opposites, a dualistic approach?

    Is not this dualism, the abstract division of a self or selves, the meaning that makes the value of meditation practice? Without that meaning, meditation has little value over other activities: sleep, sex, or washing dishes.

    @My Other Feet: Your notion of the “self” as a metaphor for something harmless is quaint. SRF and many of these Buddhist and Hindu meditation peddlers teach that the soul, self, consciousness is something absolute, real and knowable and savable only by using their meditation methods.

    @Researcher: I don’t recall ever saying I was closed to meditation techniques. On the contrary, I’ve asserted that the issues I’ve written about in this post emphasize the “psychological” aspects and danger of the gullible people who often practice these kinds of techniques.

  22. Hello Sir, don´t believe that I have all the answers, I just can tell you what I´ve experienced. I´m feeling like tested with a detector of lies…
    1.In my personal experience: speaking truth, not promising you nothing, acting according to what they said (coincidence between their words and actions), teaching ethics principally, not commercializing, presence of the directors to guide students, communication, possibility of discussion and even disagree and get off, cut off delusions (speaking crude reality), not attachment to their students not overprotection. It´s difficult to explain because I went too to another school (hindu), there are some similarities but there were something that were uncomfortable to me, for example the attachment in hindu school was strong “Baba sent you to us” “we all are brothers” “trust in me” said me the hindu nun and they begin to interfere in my private life (accommodating to a company related to them, moving me to live with some other students), I had no possibility of choice (feeling like regressed to childhood) and get off with discord of her. There is an internal alarm that advice you where you have to go, where don’t, I don´t know how to explain it, it´s perceived during the experience.
    2. I went to a conference of him, my director take us to hear him. To be sincere, I was boring hearing philosophy, maybe it´s the way he speaks that is boring but some things he told that day to me were right. I don´t see him like a saint, I consider him more a learned man of Buddhist philosophy and some things he speaks could be valuable to think. He is not different from another philosophy professor.
    3. Without meditation: Yes, I have seen that in friends that have created lovely families, they are really happy and they grow up a lot, true love can produce this inner transformation. Sir, I think that this way of meditation is chosen by people who are alone but it is not the only one way to grow, this is more a sad way compared with those ones who created good families.
    Don´t know if you understand my English, it´s not my native language. Thanks.

  23. @Researcher, I really appreciate you taking the time to respond so thoroughly and thoughtfully. I enjoy an honest debate and even when there is disagreement, it is still friendly and with mutual respect.

    1) There is something in the hindu version of spiritual schooling which does feel like a reverting to childhood. That doesn’t seem right to me in the long run. But, it does take all types to make up this world and for some, remaining in a child like place seems to work well enough. However, one can’t expect that kind of person to have a firm grasp on reality either.
    2) I can appreciate your way of viewing the Dalai Lama. As you say, he’s not a saint, but he may have some worthwhile points to make about life.
    3) Meditation without a family is definitely the more lonely way of trying to find comfort and satisfaction. I tried that, and meditation without companionship just created more loneliness and separation. I had hoped meditation would replace the human contact which I was missing. Of course, it failed, but I had been told it would give me something even greater than human love. Oh, how that idea proved to be wrong…

  24. @ Scott — I think you discount my second point too quickly. Moreover, I’m not sure that I’m clearly making my point.

    You focus on the fact that there are people who abuse the information contained in religious systems, which in turn hurts the people who follow those abusers. I agree is a problem, even criminally in some cases, and it ought to stop.

    However, I’m distinguishing the abuse of religious doctrine by a person from the religious doctrine itself — in other words, a tool can be used for bad or good, but that doesn’t necessarily make the tool bad or good. How do you view this distinction? Do you believe there is a problem with the religious systems that teach meditation, as well as the people who abuse such systems? If there is a problem with religious systems that teach meditation, what do you think it is?

    Thanks for writing,
    -Greg

  25. To uwsboi14:

    Thanks Sir. We learn making, mistakes are inevitable. We have to stand up and go on learning.

    In reverence, thanks.

  26. @Researcher: I agree. I don’t have “exact answers” either. That is why we are calling into question the claims being made by meditation proponents. If all we have are subjective, inner “reality tests”, and people have a variety of both negative and positive experiences, then we ought to not dismiss the psychological dangers and manipulations inherent in the religious belief systems of many of these meditation techniques.

    There is a false dichotomy (tensions) created by meditation peddlers when they split the so-called self, by dividing follower’s psyche and the world into a dual higher/lower, greater/less self or consciousness.

    Many people are duped into practice of meditation techniques by these key premises:

      * “You are asleep. Meditation will help you awaken. If you are not yet awakened, keep meditating.
      * You are flawed. Meditation will help you be a perfect being. If you are not yet perfect, keep meditating.
      * You suffer. Meditation frees your mind and body from suffering. If you are suffering, continue meditating.
      * You are god but don’t know it. Meditation is the method to realize you are a god. If you don’t know you are a god, keep meditating.”

    These are the underlying premises that I think motives many people to practice meditation. And these are the premises that make meditation bad and delusional.

    I guess so far either no one gets my points. OR, my points are creating too much cognitive dissonance for the meditation proponents to grapple with these points or to respond to them directly.

    @My Other Feet: Your argument sounds similar to the many Catholics who justify their church, priests, and the doctrine saying things like, “Just because some priests are pedophiles and rapists (of their trusting followers of the faith) doesn’t make the religion bad”.

    I’m not saying that all religion is bad. I’m saying that there is a dark side to meditation techniques that are given to people who seek higher self, god/cosmic intelligence, deliverance from suffering/death, and on and on.

    My post here was an attempt to distinguish some psychological problems with meditation techniques that are parts of these kinds of religious philosophies.

    Yes, it’s the people, their ideologies more than the techniques that are the problem. But the techniques, coupled with the bad ideas, are also part of the problem.

    @uwsboi14: Thanks for sharing your own experiences of meditation practices and group. It helps to hear from someone who has or is in the process of coming out sanely from the manipulations that many people don’t see or want to be aware of.

  27. To Scott:

    Many of your questions are philosophical questions and they have answers but I don´t remember how were them…

    To me, your questions are confusing, they are a mixture of many things included in the theory you were indoctrinated (you got conclusion from a theory-practice that is not trustable; if the premises of your hypothesis are wrong your conclusion will be strange). Well, let´s start to question the theory in contrary position of ideas that have worked and see what is true and what is false.

    In money making places there are the premises you have mentioned, but they are slogans to attach your ego promising you a determinate result (if I tell you what my directors told us, “Why do you meditate? For nothing!” Would you keep on meditating?). I agree with you, if the premises are wrong the meditation practice is devalued.

    Thanks for your patient.
    In reverence, thanks.

  28. @Researcher: Yes, the premises are what I was getting at. I am working on a followup post that may help clarify what I am talking about. Or, maybe I’m just going down a rabbit hole?

    @Sabio: Thanks for the links to sites critical of Transcendental Meditation. I guess I go down a rabbit hole when I try to take on some of the psychology of meditation advocates, especially the Hindu- and Buddhist-styled believers.

    The staunch meditation proponents of TM, Zen or whatever don’t seem to have anything to add to this discussion (they don’t seem to have any response to the logical contradictions of their faith in the techniques and gurus?). Maybe I would if I was a true meditator and was perfectly attuned with some higher, purer consciousness?

  29. @SkepticMeditations
    How can reference to research on the physiological and psychological (there aren’t any, actually) correlates of teh “pure consciousness” state during TM be off-topic in a discussion of sense-of-self during/after meditation? The theory of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi–that certain of these physiological correlates will start to show up as a trait outside of meditation, appreciated as the emergence of a sense-of-self that is not associated with any specific object of attention–is supported by research on the physiological and psychological correlates of people reporting being in this situation (having a “pure” sense-of-self) continuously for at least a year.

    You appear hung up on the term “pure,” but in this context, it merely means “without other qualities.” As one subject put it:
    ” When I say ’’I’’ thats the Self. Theres a quality that is so pervasive about the Self that Im quite sure that the ‘‘I’’ is the same ‘‘I’’ as everyone elses ‘‘I.’’ Not in terms of what follows right after. I am tall, I am short, I am fat, I am this, I am that. But the ‘‘I’’ part. The ‘‘I am’’ part is the same ‘‘I am’’ for you and me”
    The physiological research of “pure consciousness” during TM shows that the parts of the brain generally associated with sense-of-self are involved in higher alpha1 EEG activity (which is associated with simple connectivity –a “carrier wave” if you will) and less associated with other frequencies associated with processing information. When this style of activation in those areas of the brain becomes strong enough outside of meditation, the “pure” sense-of-self emerges.
    In other words, the regions of the brain that collectively give rise to “sense-of’-self” are well-connected, but less likely to be engaged in activity concerning mental and physical things. This is a resting state process, but we are constantly cycling between activation of resting state networks of brain regions (RSNs) and activation of networks associated with doing things (task-positive networks or TPNs). “Pure” sense-of-self is merely how some people describe having a nervous system where the RSNs are strongly connected and TPNs are less likely to be processing data during mind-wandering rest. In other words, a more efficiently functioning nervous system where RSNs and TPNs don’t interfere with each other.

    How can discussion of the above be off-topic when discussing “sense-of-self” during/outside of meditation?

  30. @uwsboi14: If you want to respond to a specific person and have him receive that response, be sure to put the “@” before his name at the start of a paragraph. I believe that you can force teh forum to email notifications to multiple people that way.

    thanks for the brief explanation of TM. I know next to nothing about it, so forgive any ignorance on my part. TM sounds like it’s dualistic in the sense that there is the real self and then there is a collection of things called thoughts and beliefs.

    I said things badly. TM is a simple mind-wandering meditation practice that is supposed to allow the nervous system to rest as efficiently as possible. The “deepest” level of rest, according to TM-theory, is the state of “pure consciousness” (PC) also called “samadhi.” This is [supposed to be] a state where teh brain is neither processing outside sensory data nor is allowing the feedback loops that are teh “aware of” activity of the brain. The result is that the resting state of the brain tends towards maximum efficiency.

    It turns out that an extremely important collection of bran regions becomes more active during mind-wandering rest and is called the “default mode network” (DMN) because it is so consistently activated when the brain is resting. It turns out that activity in the DMN is thought to be responsible for “sense of self.” It also turns out that the DMN appears to become most active during the PC state during TM.

    During PC, the meditator’s brain appears to be quite alert, merely resting. Since the DMN is most active during this time, it seems plausible that the brain activity we call ‘sense-of-self” would be most active as well, but we can’t be “aware of” sense-of-self during this time since we can’t be aware of anything during PC. Even so, we could call PC (AKA samadhi) the ultimate non-dual state.

    TM-theory suggests that brain activity during TM bounces somewhere between normal waking state activity and the “absolute quiet” of PC. Repeated practice of TM and normal activity gives rise to a situation where teh brain activity associated with PC starts to show up more and more outside of TM. THis is experienced as the emergence of a “pure” sense-of-self that isn’t associated with any form of activity, even as the person engages in any kind of activity. When this pure sense-of-self becomes present at all times, whether one is awake, dreaming or in deep sleep, this is considered the “first stage” of enlightenment.

    Maharishi also calls it “glorified ignorance” and notes that it is teh ultimate state of _duality__ –where teh separation between self and not-self is greatest. There are further ‘stages” or “states” of enlightenment that start to resolve duality; however, the only research on people in this state involved only 17 “enlightened” people, and there was no way to do analysis of sub-groups of people who appeared to be in the more “non-dual” enlightenment states.

    Where in this construct do emotions belong, especially when they arise spontaneously as a result of past trauma? I’m asking this question because there is much debate in the psychological/philosophical communities as to whether emotions originate in thought or whether they are stored in the cells of the body. If emotions are physically rooted, which I’m starting to believe may be true, then disavowing thought would not solve the problem of violent emotions.

    TM is merely an enhancement of normal rest which is supposed to enable to nervous system to undo the damage from stress and trauma. While it is true that often, TMers find their minds quieting down during TM, one can’t predict how any given meditation will progress. Likewise, long-term TMers tend to have very quiet minds, but even someone in the first stage of enlightenment often still has many random thoughts (probably not as many as “pre-enlightenment” however, but this isn’t something that one can predict).

    With respect to emotions, emotions that are due to past trauma/stress will tend to become less extreme, just because the nervous system is becoming more efficient at resting. However, in theory, even fully enlightened people still get emotional about things -its just that their emotions don’t overwhelm their pure sense-of-self. In theory, even in the first stage of enlightenment, no experience or memory can overwhelm this pure sense-of-self. Its not that emotions go away, just that they aren’t able to keep the brain from resting efficiently when not engaged in specific activity.

    The meditation which I had practiced didn’t solve the problem of emotions, it only helped me close my eyes to them, both literally and figuratively.

    TM is just a mind-wandering resting practice. TM practice doesn’t directly “solve” problems, it allows teh nervous system to rest and repair damage from stress so that problems become easier to solve/manage/address/whatever.

  31. @SkepticMeditations
    @Sabio:

    Now you’re siting random anti-TM blogs as-a-whole to refute published scientific research? That’s kinda difficult to respond to. Can you be more specific with the criticisms that you found there that you think are relevant?

    @SkepticMeditations:

    The staunch meditation proponents of TM, Zen or whatever don’t seem to have anything to add to this discussion (they don’t seem to have any response to the logical contradictions of their faith in the techniques and gurus?). Maybe I would if I was a true meditator and was perfectly attuned with some higher, purer consciousness?

    REALLY?

    You dismiss as irrelevant my pointing out scientific research on “pure consciousenss” and “pure” sense-of-self and how it emerges in some people as a permanent trait with specific physiological correlates and then you have the gall to assert that I have no response to the “logical contradictions of their faith in techniques and gurus?”

    Talk about circular arguments: you’ve disallowed the discussion of the data that shows that your characterization of things as being merely a matter of belief/faith is not valid, and then complain that I haven’t responded to your claim that everything is the way you say!

    The published research on the physiological correlates of people reporting to be in a certain situation (having a “pure sense of self” always present) exists. There’s the beginnings of a theory to explain how the physiological condition in these people gives rise to their descriptions of their internal mental state in terms of “pure sense-of-self.” Research on beginning TMers shows that, pretty much invariably (within the limitations of physical research on physical systems with such widly variable states as human nervous systems), the trend is for the electrical activity of the brain outside of TM practice to start to show consistent changes similar to that found during TM practice and that these changes are most strongly found in the subjects reporting “pure sense of self.”

    There’s many reasons for doing TM besides wanting to “become enlightened,” and Maharishi suggested that no matter WHY someone mediated, both the health benefits and “spiritual” benefits of TM practice would manifest over time, regardless of why a given person decided to do TM. It’s not a matter of faith to assume that the continued physiological changes in the direction of those experiencing “pure sense-of-self” will eventually bring about “enlightenment,” any more than the assumption that practicing tennis under the guidance of a good coach will eventually make your tennis game better is a matter of faith. Questions about “how long does it take?” or “is it worth the bother?” or even “is it going to work for me?” might be valid, but those are commonsensical questions that apply to any activity, and are not a matter of faith, but of prioritizing one’s time.

  32. @saijanai: Just because you think it’s relevant, peppering your comments with citations and links to TM studies, doesn’t mean that I agree that its relevant. We were having conversation about the psychology of why people practice meditation for years.

    Thanks

  33. @ S.M. — I disagree with your attack on my previous comment: you seem to be relying on an approximation or corollary of Godwin’s Law by comparing my position to something that is morally unconscionable. Likening my view to the systematic cover-up of sexual abuse by the Catholic church doesn’t address the issue: other than trying to imply that I am the type of person who condones rape and pedophilia (which I do not condone), I’m not sure why you’d make the comparison. But I can play along: there are indeed Catholics who want to see pedophiles and rapists removed from the priesthood, while continuing the institution of the Catholic church in a way that does not promote those abuses — that position is not incoherent or invalid, though you seem to imply that it is. It’s the same position held by anyone who follows a conceptual system that has ever harmed anyone, including governments, sciences, and languages, which I address below.

    To return to my point, I think that you find my views too accommodating towards religions that have been used to harm people.

    Even though you generally apply your reasoning to religious practices derived from South Asia, your reasoning puts you on a broader slippery slope. If I understand you correctly, we ought to stop using meditation because it has been used to harm people, and presumably, it will therefore be used to harm those who continue to meditate. If we discard meditation because it has been used to harm people, it seems to follow that we ought to discard all conceptual systems that have been used to harm anyone, and all religions (and sciences, governments, languages, etc.) have been used to harm people at some point in history. Therefore, do we discard all conceptual systems because they cause harm? We arrive at a solipsistic and absurd point similar to the one Descartes describes in his Meditations. I don’t agree with Descartes’s resolution of his solipsism problem, but since we find ourselves in a similar position I’m curious what your solution is. At what point does your argument stop “cutting”? Which conceptual systems are harmless enough to keep? If none are, what do you do instead of following any of these potentially harmful belief systems (including science, government, or even language)?

    Perhaps I’m pursuing the theme of this post too far, but you write frequently about this topic — the dangers, or lack of benefits, from meditating. It’s clearly important to you, judging by the number of words you dedicate to it, so I think it deserves to be followed further.

  34. @My Other Feet: Wow. That comment was posted weeks ago. I didn’t think your argument FOR religion was solid and I provided you with a counter-example of where Catholic religion did harm.

    I’m not clear what you are trying to say with your latest comment. Let me try to see if I understand you:

    Your main “beef” with my posts and comments seems to be that I emphasize the harms done by religion and meditation practices. That I too much write about the harms and not the benefits.

    Is that what you are saying?

    If you want me to understand you, please keep your comments concise and on one point.

    Thanks

  35. @ S.M. — You’re correct, I replied to an old comment. I’m currently unable to dedicate time to blogging on a daily basis, and I missed this comment. It’s an interesting discussion.

    It wasn’t my intent to “explode”, if that’s you perceived it. What I was trying to say with my last comment was little more than an ad hominem attack, claiming that my view somehow implicitly condones rape and pedophilia because you see a connection with similar argument put forth by Catholics. However, those Catholics would like to see their religion improved while not discarding the baby with the bathwater. Without further premises, that desire is not incoherent, inconsistent, or invalid. Your comparison is specious: it’s not a counter-argument to my point.

    The last half of my comment was aimed at trying to develop a positive discussion about what you’d like to see in place of these abuses that you frequently, and correctly, decry. I agree that there are predatory religious figures out there, and given your deep experience with a particular group, I wonder whether you have any thoughts about what ought to be done to fix the issue. Ringing alarm bells about abusers is a good first step, but I’m curious if you have thoughts about second steps that might further correct the abuses you see.

    Thanks for writing,
    -Greg

  36. @My Other Feet (Greg): Thanks for replying promptly to my message. Sounds like I understood you then, I think.

    1) Regarding your question that asks so what’s next after “ringing alarm bells about abusers”:
    My goal at Skeptic Meditations is to allow us a forum to examine the hidden, often dark, side of meditation, yoga, and mindfulness and the groups who peddle them so we all can be smarter, safer, and learn and grow.

    I am not against all meditation. I am for reason and critical thinking along with enjoying emotion and human experiences. Your point is well-taken that I could offer more responses about what we are left with if we remove the “abuses”.

    2) My providing a counter-example of Catholic rape and pedophilia is not an ad hominem attack. Clearly I was putting forward a counter example to your argument. If you took my counter example as an attack against your person or character (ad hominem), then that has nothing to do with my comment except maybe you taking that personally. I respect you as a person and appreciate your comments. Though we may differ or argue from different perspectives, that need not be attack of persons.

    Thanks

  37. I am late to this post, but…the idea that the self is merely a figment of your imagination and mind (whose imagination and mind, though, if you do not exist?) strikes me as so anti-science that it makes me want to scream and tear my hair out. Do the people who promote this idea deny or ignore the effects that a person’s unique genetic code has on the shaping of his/her neurological makeup and self? Do they deny the very existence of DNA? What about neurotransmitters and hormones, which also play a formidable role in the sculpting of the self? Do they deny those too? If you want to get rid of your self and identity entirely, you are going to have to get rid of those things too–and you can’t.

  38. @Red: You bring up some good questions/arguments. One’s “self” can never be fully known–by anyone. Not by a saint, master, or mystic. Many believers in religious or magical thinking claim that an omniscient god or force may know or be able to manipulate the “self” though.

    In my blog post, Meditation techniques offer an illusion of control, under Masters, frauds, and the uncontrollable self I wrote on this topic and concluded that “Any teacher or mystic who claims to be totally selfless or egoless must also claim to be totally conscious.”

    DNA, neurotransmitters, hormones, virtually the entire body and brain functioning goes on without our conscious awareness. Apparently, there are many gurus who are so advanced they play and manipulate their DNA and unconscious neurons. Total masters, eh? In total control of themselves and the cosmos? Or, more likely only in control of the minds of their followers.

    Thanks

  39. “…virtually the entire body and brain functioning goes on without our conscious awareness.” Yup, and that’s the way it was meant to be! If we didn’t breathe unconsciously, for example, we’d be like whales, whose breathing is a conscious effort rather than an autonomic reaction. This is a fabulous adaptation for a mammal that spends its entire life underwater, but it also means that they can’t sleep for more than a half hour at a time! Clearly, our brains were not supposed to work that way. Even if you could theoretically be aware of everything that went on in your body at every moment all the time, would that really be healthy or make you feel good? That sounds like a taste of hypervigilant sensory hell to me.

    Another point that I’d like to raise is, what could be so healthy about a mindset that focuses on tearing down, destroying, or eliminating the self instead of learning to love, nurture, accept and embrace the self? Most people, especially those with cripplingly poor self-esteem or people who have been abused, find that it is the latter and not the former that helps alleviate their suffering. If you’re stuck with your complete self–mind, body, emotions, DNA, hormones, frontal lobe, autonomic nervous system and all–why not just learn to love it, love all that you are, and be happy with this self?

  40. @Red: You’ve raised some excellent points about our autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for our breathing, digestion, heartbeat and all automatic body and mental functions.

    Many yogis and spiritual teachers make claims that humans can indeed consciously control these otherwise unconscious, autonomic functions through specific techniques. For example, Swami Vivekananda, on page 144 of his book Raja Yoga writes:

    “We do not know anything about own bodies…Why do we not? Because our attention is not discriminating enough to catch the very fine movements that are going on within. We can know them only when the mind becomes more subtle and enters, as it were, deeper into the body…We have to get a hold of that which is setting the whole engine in motion. That is the Prana….The mind is also set in motion by these different nerve currents, so at last we shall reach the state of perfect control over the body and mind, making both our servants…So we must begin at the beginning, with Pranayama, restraining the Prana.”

    These are the popular interpretations of yoga and meditation.

    I agree with you that is preferable for individuals to accept all of themselves rather than shun what they feel or are told is their “lower” or egoic self. Somehow, though, I expect many meditation advocates to say this is indeed exactly what they are doing or attempting to do with their yoga meditation practices.

    Thanks

  41. I find Red’s comments interesting in that Red’s statements presuppose the self’s existence without providing any basis for it. I completely agree with his conclusion that people ought get comfortable living their lives, rather than holding unattainable aspirations, there is no branch of science (or religion for that matter) that conclusively locates or identifies the necessary constituents of a ‘Self’. Many have tried, but their premises are often unsatisfying to folks who hold other beliefs: e.g. Buddhists compared to Christians, compared to Atheists who accept various scientific methods as the only valid epistemological tools.

    Early anatomists, like Galen, thought the self resided in the heart. In 15th and 16th Century European medicine, like Descartes, it was thought to reside in the Pineal gland, but you can open up a head and point to a self. The body isn’t the self, or else corpses would have legal rights. The mind is a difficult to define in scientific terms, and yet it’s not possible to be a self w/out a body. It seems you can’t have a Self w/out most of the pieces of a body and mind. But we don’t know what’s necessary to have a self. Science has no better grasp on what a Self is than religious systems do.

  42. I apologize for the typos in that previous comment. The one that needs correction is, “… but you CANNOT open up a head and point to a self.” Here’s to better proof reading in the future.

  43. My Other Feet, I disagree with a lot of what you’ve said.

    “Science has no better grasp on what self is than religious systems do.” How do you know? I come from a scientific background and I can tell you that while science’s grasp of the self is not perfect, it at least acknowledges that human beings really do exist, something that many Eastern religions appear to deny to some extent. I can therefore state that, if nothing else, I fulfill all the criteria for being a member of the species Homo sapiens. Even if we were to assume that the self is purely material, denying its existence would mean that we would need to deny the existence of the material world in and of itself, which strikes me as wildly delusional. This was my basic original point.

    Second, I don’t agree that people should merely get comfortable living their lives rather than striving for unattainable aspirations–that is a misinterpretation of what I said. I believe that people should try to get comfortable with their selves and identities rather than trying very hard to control or deny them. I do believe that seemingly “unattainable” aspirations of a different kind can be worth striving for; two hundred years ago, for example, the goals of the civil rights movement would have seemed unattainable. But that’s a different discussion.

    Everything you’ve stated about Galen, Descartes, etc., just shows us that science has moved on, not that science doesn’t know what’s what. I would venture that without any sort of nervous system, you’re not too much more than an inanimate object. That sounds relatively simple. The heart is necessary to the self because without a beating heart you’d drop dead. Without a pineal gland, your body could not produce serotonin or melatonin, which have a formidable effect on personality. And so on. The fact that many different parts are integral to the body and self does not mean that we are no more than the sum of our parts and that we therefore do not really exist. That’s kind of a fallacy of division. It’s like saying that because my body formed from the four amino acids that make up DNA, I am nothing more than four amino acids. Or that I am a cat, or an elephant, or a flatworm, or Ted Bundy, all of which were also formed from the same four amino acids, albeit in vastly different sequences. (And don’t ask, “Well, how do you know you’re not actually a cat?” I have a test for you: can you bend down and lick your own butt? No? Odds are you’re not a cat.) An author named John Horgan wrote on this particular issue and stated that the fact that the self may not be fully understood does not mean that it it nonexistent. He wrote, “I can’t point to a classroom or a laboratory and say, ‘That is the Stevens Institute.’ But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.”

    And if you can’t open up a head and point to a self, what do you think of the fact that a person’s self and identity can become irreparably altered in the wake of severe brain damage?

    The more I think about it, the more apparent it becomes that a lot of the founders of various popular Eastern philosophies were very poorly versed in anatomy and physiology, and that they lived in incredibly primitive societies. It may be time to admit that the “no-self” ontology has become highly outdated and should likely be abandoned.

  44. Last but not least: My Other Feet, I see from your other posts that you identify as a man. Assuming you are not trans (if you are, then forgive my assumption), you must be basing this identity on certain biological characteristics, such as the presence of a Y chromosome and the inability to, say, get pregnant. You probably consider this maleness an integral part of you and take it for granted. Are you going to tell me that it does not really exist? At bottom, in order to deny the existence of the self, you must deny the existence of the human body.

  45. @My Other Feet and Red: Thanks for your comments. Interesting discussion.

    @My Other Feet: You seem to be arguing that religionists may have a better, or at least equal, grasp of the “self” over that of the scientists. That may be; if you define the “self” in certain ways, as do the Buddhist, Hindus, or Eastern mystical traditions.

    Knowing that the question of the self is a thorny one, I narrowed my definition in my above post to: “Assuming the ‘self’ is a product of the human mind, and that the idea of self has been assumed to be limited or false to Hindus and Buddhists who created mental methods to transcend or reverse this faulty self-identity.

    What is meant by self-identity is who and what one thinks one is. It is the pillar of one’s personality.”

    That may be still too broad of scope to be useful, but I wonder what it is that makes you seem to argue religion has an equal or greater grasp of self than science?

    @Red: If you don’t mind my asking, what is your scientific background? You seem to have a strong grasp of science. Appreciate your perspectives.

    I agree that neuroscientists are more likely to have a realistic, working knowledge of objective human beings rather than the religionists, who tend towards magical thinking.

    Where religionists may have an edge though is on addressing the ordinary psychosocial needs of many humans (e.g. providing sense of community, mental controls, and morality). Humans often get their self identity through fulfillment of “religious” psychosocial needs, and less so through identification with biology, chemistry, neurology, or clinical psychology.

    I’m open to examining what religions, like Buddhism or Hindusim, have to say about the “self”. Heck, I meditated for decades to that end. Though their hypotheses seldom, if ever, are objectively testable. Instead from them we get rather non-falsifiable, subjective claims. Maybe that is what most people’s sense of “self” is though, which is rather chimerical. Meditation perhaps offers a way to subjectively “find” the self, however one chooses to define that–which I argue is most often the guru, or spiritual teacher, who implants and then validates whether one’s self is real or not.

    Thanks

  46. @Red: I was not, and am not, attempting to attack your credentials as a scientist or ontological realist. I apologize if I misinterpreted you statements: I thought we had something in common in the conclusion of your previous comments. Let me try to clarify my previous, and poorly spelled, statements.

    I agree with you that a form of solipsism (i.e. denying the existence of the material world) is not a tenable position, and I believe you misunderstand the ontology and epistemology of the Eastern religions that you intend to criticize, if you believe that they state human beings, and the broader material world, does not exist. Disregarding New Age religions borrowing from older Hindu and Buddhist traditions for this discussion, traditional Hindu and Buddhist ontologies do not deny the existence of the material world or human beings: they call it Maya; it is a thing, and it exists under those epistemic systems. Buddhist and Hindu epistemology is concerned with what one ought to identify with, which is a psychological question, rather than a physical one. In the same way, a human ought not to solely identify with the atoms or cells that compose one’s material body, because the human is more complicated than that. Eastern Religion, as such, would agree with your statement that denying the existence of the material world, including the species and members of the species Homo sapiens, is wildly delusional.

    Regarding your second point, I agree: let’s bracket that discussion of ambitions and their attainability.

    I agree with your third point that science has progressed and improved from Galen’s and Descartes’ times. I’m quite pleased with the scientific advances the human species has made, in spite of the damage some of those advances have caused to people and other parts of the planet. The crux of your point seems to be this: “the fact that many different parts are integral to the body and self does not mean that we are no more than the sum of our parts and that we therefore do not really exist.” This seems to be a restatement of your point about the absurdity of solipsism: I agree. Let me try to restate my point from my previous comment in the following paragraph.

    Neither science nor religion can accurately state what necessary parts constitute a Self. Listing the material components that make-up the human body doesn’t show there’s a self because a corpse has those same material components, but I wouldn’t claim corpses have selves. Self-ness or identity is fluid and difficult to define: if my foot is amputated, or I have a minor heart attack, something has fundamentally changed about my life, but I am still me; I can still continue to live my life; arguably, I am still myself. But this is a slippery slope because there are some events that could make me no longer myself: a permanent coma, a fatal gunshot wound, and other horrible events. This is not a solipsistic argument about the lack of existence of selves. Rather, I’m saying that humans are at a broader loss to define what the self is using physics, psychology, biology, Buddhism, Christianity, or any other epistemic framework to solve the problem. Phenomenologically speaking, the necessary conditions that constitute the self may not be accessible using the epistemic tools of science or religion because the existence of self-awareness and reflexive thought is a prerequisite to developing and using these epistemic tools. In other words, science and religion are both incomplete epistemic systems, which in part, is what makes them so powerful, useful, and able to create new explanations for our experiences of the world, but they cannot prove their own necessary conditions — until further notice, those conditions can only be assumed.

    One could claim that science will prove what constitutes the self, but to state that science or religion will prove those assumed conditions only displays one’s faith in the epistemic system they prefer. Currently, we don’t have that knowledge by any means.

    Regarding your last point of your first comment, “The more I think about it, the more apparent it becomes that a lot of the founders of various popular Eastern philosophies were very poorly versed in anatomy and physiology, and that they lived in incredibly primitive societies.” I agree: the founders of Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, etc. lived more than two thousand years ago. Of course they were poorly versed in anatomy and physiology compared to our current biological knowledge, just like Galen, Aristotle, and Descartes. Moreover, the founders of these religions weren’t purporting to do scientific biological analysis. I think you’ve misrepresented the problem: the problem of the self is a philosophical problem, not a scientific one. Martin Heidegger has written extensively on the difference between science and philosophy: it’s paraphrased in this paper (http://wesscholar.wesleyan.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1035&context=div1facpubs).

    @Scott: I seem to have misconstrued my point in my previous comment. I wasn’t trying to argue that religion has an equal or greater grasp of self than science. I’ve tried to clarify my point in my reply to Red, but my argument is more of a negative claim about the epistemic abilities of science and religion, rather than a positive claim about religion’s epistemic powers over those of science. Generally, the various fields of science have demonstrated an incredible ability to generate useful knowledge that we does fantastic (as well as some terrifying) things everyday. However, each branch of science has a narrowly defined problem set, and it’s a mistake to assume that current scientific methods, by default, answer millennia’s old intractable philosophical problems — this was the mistake of the Logical Positivists in the 1920’s. Like hammers and ratchets in a toolbox, the sciences (and religions) are tools in our epistemic repertoire, which we use to make sense of the world, and it’s a mistake to think that we can use one tool for a job that it wasn’t intended to do.

    Specifically regarding the problem of the Self, thinkers have been trying to get a handle on what the Self is since the beginning of written history, and presumably before that. My point is phenomenological: similar to Heidegger’s concept of Dasein (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dasein), we know that self-awareness exists, because we have it, but our attempts to explain the necessary conditions for self-awareness (using any epistemic system, including science or religion) have proved unsatisfactory. To list categories of material objects identified by various sciences and call it “Self” is fallacious because science (and religion) haven’t identified the necessary components of a self. This mistake is just as fallacious as accepting Aristotle’s, the Buddha’s, or Jesus Christ’s thoughts about the soul as a complete description of the Self.

    Sorry for the long post.

  47. These are indeed interesting thoughts and contributions. I think part of the problem, at least in the West, is linguistic. To me, “self” and “identity” are not always the same thing. For me, a bare-bones definition of the self is “this sentient being, this subject-of-a-life, that I see when I look in the mirror.” So, no, that is not exactly the same as personality or identity, but there is no denying that neurology and genetics do contribute to the latter in some way. However, this is indeed where the phrase “no-self” begins to sound a bit odd. Wouldn’t “no-identity” be more precise?

    I also think that the idea of there not being a self sounds very profound to us in the West, like an unquestionable truth, because it’s sort of wrapped up in a shroud of spirituality and Orientalism and people assume that this is a concept completely new to the West. In fact, we’ve seen these ideas come and go in our own culture–David Hume’s bundle theory, John Locke’s tabula rasa theory, postmodern constructionist theory, meme theory. The difference is that in the West these theories are regarded as subjects of philosophical investigation to be criticized, examined, and held up to scrutiny. When it comes from Hinduism or Buddhism, it’s presented as mystical knowledge or something you really, really, really need to meditate on to understand or something that your therapist or guru told you you must swallow without question or else things will never get better.

    Anyway, that’s my contribution for now. I really need to charge my device quick!

  48. @My Other Feet: Thanks for clarifying your comments. Science and religion may be epistemic tools, but I see little in religion that makes it a reliable tool for knowing reality outside of one’s personal faith or psycho-emotional life.

    @Red: Likewise, thanks for clarifying your points.

    The “no identity” or no self is probably best attributed to Buddhism. In Hinduism, the identification of self seems to be transformed into Self (as in Brahman, Cosmic Intelligence, Supreme Being), where the personal self gets “destroyed” or lost in the impersonal, selfless self. These interpretations seem more mythological than actual.

    A person in a vegetative state, in a comma, probably doesn’t have a self as we normally would call it psychologically. Brain destruction seems to destroy or modify self.

  49. Well, as an addendum, comas are very strange phenomena. They exist in shades of gray, rather than a brain-dead/non-brain-dead binary. Clinicians I’ve known have seen firsthand (and as I saw firsthand in one case) how a person in a coma can still retain self in some way even as the basic functions of the brain fail without mechanical support. It can be hard to explain; for example, the patient may be capable of hearing and processing noises and voices and even have rudimentary forms of communicating without being considered fully “awake.” The depths of consciousness and liveliness in comatose persons have not been fully plumbed at all, and for this reason I generally avoid the “pull the plug and get it over with” stance.

    But while we’re on the subject of coma and self, it’s interesting to see the cases in which a person comes fully back to themselves after awakening (a physician I knew saw this more than once, and if you count a postencephalitic state as a kind of quasi-coma, it was well-documented by Oliver Sacks) and the cases in which the patient’s identity seems to have been horribly wiped blank, as happened to John Lydon (better known to us as Johnny Rotten) following an intense case of meningitis and subsequent coma as a seven-year-old. Lydon recounted his complete retrograde amnesia and lack of identity in this period (it lasted over a year, I think) as the worst experience of his life. He didn’t recognize his own parents and no longer knew how to read; everything had to be taught to him all over again. So when I hear that losing your sense of self is a positive or liberating or enlightening experience, I think of Johnny Rotten and take it with an enormous grain of salt.

  50. I’d also like to say that although I had my hackles raised a tiny bit in the beginning, I am really quite impressed by how civil everyone has been in this conversation, which is a rare treat on the Internet.

  51. Thanks, Red, for sharing your observations and experiences on this challenging topic of “self”.

    Yes, there is much more I could (probably most people could) learn or discover about the brain and our notions of what we call “self”.

    Meditation practice by itself doesn’t seem to be a problem. The wild expectations and magical thinking people have about meditation is problematic, even harmful.

    When I was a monk, I was taught all our problems can be solved through meditation–through spiritual enlightenment. Since then I’ve discovered meditation and magical thinking were used as psychological controls I willingly accepted from gurus and spiritual teachers.

    Thanks again for contributing to our discussions.

  52. @ Red: I think you make an important observation about the problems of language as a means of communication. To paraphrase Winston Churchill’s quip about democracy, language is worst way to communicate, until you consider all the other methods. We could likely write an entire book on identity and its relationship to the concept of self. To do a comparative philosophical analysis of how some Buddhist philosophical schools view the self, compared to Hindu, Western and other Buddhist schools, requires it’s own series of dusty books — probably bound in leather and published by Harvard.

    I think the common criticism of Buddhism and Hinduism as mystical largely is inaccurate, and it comes from a lack of access to, and understanding of, the lengthy philosophical tradition that these two schools helped develop in India. Popular conceptions of Buddhism and Hinduism leverage mysticism because it’s sexy, and it requires little explanation or previous understanding of the tradition. However, there are hundreds of years of critical writing done by Buddhists and Hindus that are anything but mystical, with no meditation required. The abhidharma model of mind is an easy example to point to (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophy_of_mind#Abhidharma_theories_of_mind), and there are many lengthy philosophical debates between Buddhist, Hindu, and Jaina thinkers about the nature of self and the material world, as well as the other minds problem, and other classic philosophical problems.

    For those who are interested, or are perhaps sadomasochistic, there’s an interesting debate between Buddhist and Hindu thinkers about the nature of the self that took place in India about 100 – 400 A.D. It’s far from magical thinking, and the analytical terminology is as advanced as any Western philosophy of mind. I believe Dan Arnold has written about it in his latest book (http://cup.columbia.edu/book/brains-buddhas-and-believing/9780231145466).

    @ Skeptic Meditations: I think your exception of one’s faith and psycho-emotional life is a rather important problem set to except from epistemological examination. Debatably, that aspect of our lives is a key part of what makes us human (for better and worse), and it is certainly a key theme of this blog, if I understand your project correctly. Whether one believes in Freudian or Jungian psychology (which certainly have their own mythical, magical, or mystical flavors), analytic or phenomenological philosophy, or religious tenets, these are all tools that attempt to address this psycho-emotional problem set, granted they do it in distinct ways.

  53. @My Other Feet: Thanks for your contributions to the discussion. I will check out the links. Yes, the aim of this website is to explore the hidden side of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness. Cheers.