Tagged: afterlife

Three Best and Worst Reasons to Meditate

premasagar, Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0
premasagar, Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

The three reasons people meditate are: to attain enlightenment; to gain power or control; or, for relaxation or health benefits.

The best reason I can think of to meditate is to seek salvation. Is that a good reason? I don’t think so. Below I explain why.

This post presents three common reasons used for practicing meditation. Each reason for practicing has serious flaws. I argue that there are many easier, simpler, and healthier alternatives than using meditation for relaxation. We begin by exploring why many people practice meditation to attain salvation or to gain super powers. Then discuss relaxation and health reasons for practicing meditation.

The three reasons people meditate are:

1 Enlightenment

The ancient and medieval Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains invented magical alchemies, such as the practices of yoga meditation, for the purpose of transmutation and bodily immortality. For our post here, we’ll define enlightenment broadly to include transcendent insight, wisdom, or spiritual consciousness beyond body and mind.

Kevin Dooley, Flickr CC BY 2.0
Kevin Dooley, Flickr CC BY 2.0

For the Hindu sages who wrote the Upanishads (the earliest known texts to reference yoga) salvation was reached when the body was yoked to a chariot that sped into the sun[1]. Read my post Yogic Bodily Possession and The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions In Medieval India.

For modern yoga meditation practitioners the motivation is similar, that is, to attain spiritual liberation, to liberate soul from limitations of the body, from thinking, or from evil or worldly thoughts and desires.

  • Meditation is supposed to free practitioners from karmic past errors, wrongs, guilts, and sins committed in this or past lives–along with following the instructions of an infallible guru or spiritual teacher claimed to be free from karma or sin.
  • Meditation frees the soul. It washes or cleanses the body of light from impurities of worldly existence.
  • Another goal of meditators is attainment of nirvana or nirvikalpa samadhi, the supposed exalted state of cosmic consciousness achieved by legendary Buddhas, Siddhas, or gurus. Essentially, the practitioner seeks through meditation practice to render himself godlike, a second Shiva[2], a Buddha, or a Yogananda.

“All souls are equal. The only difference between you and me is that I made the effort. I showed God that I love Him, and He came to me.” ― Parmahansa Yogananda

eric, Flickr, CC BY 2.0
eric, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

2 Power or Control

Meditation is often practiced to attain control over one’s body, mind, and ultimately for control over physical universe.

  • Though most meditators will not admit, they often seek supernatural powers. The foremost power sought is mentioned as one of the eight Hindu Siddhis: Prākāmya, realizing whatever one desires[3].
  • Western Buddhists tend to talk down these powers, though clearly nirvana and other power states are part of buddhist and meditative doctrine. In Buddhist Tantra these super powers include clairvoyance, materialization, having access to memories from past lives[4].
  • To become Christlike is to be able to have power over Self, to have healing powers, to control nature and the physical universe. To perform miracles, read minds, walk on water, raise the dead and all manner of fantastical and unsubstantiated claims that defy the laws of the natural world.

“The servant Nature rebels and grows unruly when the master of creation sleeps. The more spiritually awakened he becomes, the more easily shall he control Nature.” — Paramahansa Yogananda

Meagan, Flickr CC by 2.0
Meagan, Flickr CC by 2.0

3 Relaxation or Health

Relaxation as defined here is the quieting, rejuvenating, and resting the body and mind from constant movement and agitation. Obviously, appropriate relaxation is vital for overall health.

  • There are countless, often simpler and easier, ways to attain relaxation and health besides meditation, including: sleeping, napping, getting a massage, bathing, listening to music, playing a musical instrument, walking in nature, and countless hobbies and games such as fishing, flying kites, playing chess, golfing, cycling and so on.
  • Popular culture and the media often portray meditation as a silver bullet that is the supposed antidote to a modern stressful lifestyle, the cure-all for nervousness and depression.
    While meditation practice may have benefits there are many situations where it is common to have adverse side-effects such as anguish, despair, hallucinations, psychoses, and even suicidal tendencies and death. See my index of posts Adverse (Side) Effects.
  • My personal anecdote is that many times in a five to fifty minute meditation session I would be agitated psychologically. Meditation may create anxiety. It is common to realize how restless the monkey mind actually is during meditation and how impossibly far one has to go to please and to reach the idyllic state of yogic perfection as touted by an infallible guru.

To Meditate or Not to Meditate?

By all means if meditation helps, meditate. Though there are many other more natural and easier ways to relax such as sleeping, fishing, and walking in nature to name only three out of thousands.

The solution, I believe, is education. The important questions arise not from the experiences of yoga meditation but from the belief systems by which practitioners explain their experiences.

The long-time meditators that I know who have been practicing for years apparently continue out of strong desire (or fear) of attaining salvation or of gaining super powers over body, mind, and the material universe.

The popular assumption that meditation is an effective method of relaxation or that it provides measurable health benefits is debatable. Behind the health claims is often a theology, morality and beliefs in salvation and super powers.

Most studies about meditation are flawed and unconvincing. The objective evidence suggests that meditation is not any better than drugs or other methods. See my post Meditation Not Better than Drugs or Exercise, Study Finds.

Rather than meditate to seek salvation or powers in another dimension or a future life, I recommend spending less time in meditation and more on education. To learn the wonders of how our minds can be tricked into believing strange, improbable things and finding reliable ways to make ourselves and the world a better place to live.

Question for readers: Are there other reasons to meditate that don’t fall under one of the three broad categories: attainment of enlightenment, power or control, and relaxation or health?

Notes

1  p 53 The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India, David Gordon White, University of Chicago Press, 1996
2 p 53 The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India, David Gordon White, University of Chicago Press, 1996
3 Siddhi (powers): Usage in Hinduism: Eight Primary Siddhis, Wikipedia
4 Siddhi (powers): Usage in Vajrayana Buddhism, Wikipedia

Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion

Life After Death_coverAfterlife notions are mirrors of our cultural and social needs

Our notions of heaven and the afterlife reflect what is valued in our Western culture–today it’s eternal youth, reunion with loved ones, and spiritual prowess.

In an epic 866 page book, Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion, religion scholar Alan F. Segal thoroughly examines the development of afterlife beliefs in Western culture.

For 4,000 to 5,000 years, society’s afterlife beliefs have endlessly morphed and twisted to fit mortal desires and social needs.

Romping through ancient civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Canaan, Iran, Greece and Christianity, Segal unveils the spell-binding metamorphosis of Western notions of life after death. The fore-bearers of contemporary afterlife beliefs included Rabbinic Jews, the Book of Daniel, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the New Testament Gospels, and Church Fathers such as Augustine and Aquinas, the Qur’an, Shi’a mystics, Zoroastrians, fundamentalists, and end-times Apocalypticists.

Our journey through the catacombs of afterlife beliefs is broadly summarized in these excerpts from Segal’s Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion.

Egypt: From mummies arise eternal stars

The identity of the person was symbolized in the very image of the person, represented sometimes by the corpse itself, first perfected into an artful representation by mummification, then transformed into an eternal star to enjoy the breeze on a day of leisure in a perfected Nile valley. p 700

Mesopotamia: Only Utnapishtim survives death

In Mesopotamia the afterlife was less optimistic; it was a poor consolation compared to the Egyptian notion of immortality of the gods…We never become immortal. Everyone must die. The fate of the dead is hardly pleasant in this culture, condemned to shadowy existence in the underworld. Gilgamesh tried for immortality but lost it. Utnapishtim, the only mortal who had escaped death, explains that no one else will ever be given this divine reward. p 700

First Temple Israelite and Canaanite Religions

Israelite notions of the afterlife emphasize the same truth as the Mesopotamian and Canaanite ones: Like us, animals have earthly life, we have life and, if we act properly, we will gain wisdom; but only God has immortality. p 701

To summarize, so far: The person dies. No one escapes death. Only God or gods have immortality in Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and First Israelite/Canaanite cultures from 3500 to 500 BC.

Enter the Second Temple period circa 500 BC.

What’s new in Afterlife version 2.0? The Persians, Greeks, and Jews developed philosophies about conquering death and immortality of the soul. Though Christians wanted nothing to do with immortality of the soul: it was bodily resurrection, especially of Jesus, that set Christianity apart from the pagan religions.

Second Temple Judaism

By the time the Persians and the Greeks made contact with Jewish culture, both had developed significant myths that spoke of conquering death…Zoroastrianism was virtually the national religion of the elite Persian rulers and left us clear evidence of bodily resurrection and a beatific afterlife. These surely stimulated and encouraged similar notions in Jewish life, though we lack proof of how the transfer took place. p 701

Greeks: Immortality is for heros

The early Greeks could envision a hero’s choice of fame over immortality, the very choice which Odysseus makes at the beginning of the Odyssey; they could envision a ritual process of immortalization in the Eleusinian Mysteries, perhaps aided by drug-induced experience, make this mystery religion into a weekend “rave”. Or they could believe the proofs of the immortality of the soul offered by Plato’s Socrates.

All these [Greek] notions were adopted into Israelite culture, after being retailored for adoption into a monotheistic scheme. The most long-lasting Greek contribution to Jewish culture was from the aristocratic, Platonist intellectual elite of Greek society that said that the soul was immortal. In return for a life of moderation and intellectual development, the soul went upward to receive its astral rewards. p 702

Christianity: Wanted nothing to do with soul

Apostolic Christianity at first wanted nothing to do with immortality of the soul… Christianity’s beginnings were in the apocalyptic groups that believed in resurrection of the [physical] body [after death]. p 705

What demonstrated that Jesus’ death was uniquely meaningful for human history was not the fact that he survived death but that he was physically resurrected…p 706

The Synthesis of Immortality of the Soul with the Resurrection of the Body

As Christianity moved slowly around the Roman Empire and slowly up the social ladder, it met a much more formidable form of the argument against the uniqueness of Jesus’ post-mortem existence: the immortality of the soul…The soul was immortal by nature in Platonic thought, not needing the redemptive sacrifice of Christ…The doctrine of the immortal soul was eventually adopted because it allowed Christianity to talk about an interim time when the good could be rewarded and the evil punished without waiting for the delayed, end-of-time [apocalypse]. p 707

Standing Back to Look for Patterns

With such an enormous time span to look at, some interesting reassurances emerge. First, the basic questions of life four or five thousand years ago are still the questions of today but our answers are far more comforting to us: We see a refreshing trend to include more and more people within the rewards of the afterlife. p 709

…Afterlife notions are mirrors of our cultural and social needs, available to development and manipulation, and that they tend to mirror our social wants. p 710

The first victim is the reassuring notion that the afterlife is part of unchanging, revealed truth…The notion of heaven and the afterlife always reflects what is most valuable to the culture. p 710

Humans have been traveling to heaven to see what was there before heaven was a place where the beatified and sanctified dead went. But that is no guarantee that they are true. p 711

Conclusions

Afterlife beliefs reflect the cultural and social needs of the time: ever-changing reflections of our immortal aspirations.

In 866 majestic pages, Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in the Religions of the West, reads like a smart novel and examines 5,000 years of development of afterlife notions in Western culture.

Understanding how life after death beliefs evolved doesn’t take away from the poetry. Like beauty and love, says Segal, notions of life after death are no less important because they are unverifiable.

For more from Life After Death; see my post Religiously Interpreted States of Consciousness

Religiously Interpreted States of Consciousness

OvO, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
OvO, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Dependence upon religiously interpreted state of consciousness (RISC) is dangerous and can be used to justify fanaticism and psychosis. Dreams, trances, and near death experiences are commonplace in human experience and often are interpreted as prophesies and new revelations says religious scholar Alan F. Segal.

In Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in the Religions of the West Segal thoroughly examines in his chapter Religiously Interpreted States of Consciousness new revelations, altered-states of awareness, and near death experiences.

Let us peek into Segal’s expose´ of Religiously Interpreted States of Consciousness.

Altered states of consciousness (ASC) or religiously altered states of consciousness (RASC), and religiously interpreted states of consciousness (RISC),  all refer to the same phenomena in different guises.

  • RASC stress that an altered state of consciousness is claimed by the adept;
  • RISC recognizes this claim but does not specify that any actual altered state needs to be achieved,
    • only that the behavior is considered to be consonant with RASC, thus the behavior is being interpreted religiously.
    • RISC is an analytic term, giving recognition to the difficulty in measuring exactly what ecstasy or trance is. p 323

The native understanding of the phenomenon in Jewish culture is not so much “rapture” as explicitly “ecstasy” in its technical sense (ek + stasis, meaning “standing outside”), as the narrator states his soul has fled. p 331

There is RISC in meditation, mindfulness, and yoga training and practices–that is, we find practitioners claiming ecstasy or nirvana, raising conscious awareness above “self”, transcending ordinary mind or ego, and sensing being “outside” of self. These altered states of awareness from meditation could be interpreted as ecstatic or psychotic, depending upon the person experiencing. [See my infographic of Depersonalization and Derealization]

The difference between deafferentation [the elimination or interruption of sensory nerve impulses] and disinhibition [temporary loss of inhibition] and a detailed mystical ascent to heaven is the long mystical training of the adepts who learn both techniques for achieving the physical states and the culture’s social and cultural lore about what the state means. p 336

Not surprisingly, we have seen that every group in society normally searches for a transcendent justification for its religious position, lifestyle, and political position. p 697

In contemporary Western society we find that meditation, mindfulness, and yoga are frequently used to justify an individual’s and group’s quest to transcend, to stand “outside” of, ordinary states of human awareness–to self-realize and to experience religiously interpreted states of consciousness (RISC). Nothing wrong with notions of transcendence, but when we try to validate RISC as infallible (exempt from error) these notions can be dangerous.

Dangers of believing in RISC

It is fanatical and dangerous, concludes Segal, to depend upon the validity of religiously interpreted states of consciousness (RISC).

Can we really privilege our ecstatic experience…? Granting that seductive premise is essentially arrogating to ourselves the same legitimacy we want to deny Osama bin Laden.

To believe in the validity of all such experiences is surely dangerous. It can justify fanaticism and psychosis. Science should seek understanding, not infallibility. p 711

Conclusions

Religiously interpreted state of consciousness (RISC), altered states of consciousness (ASC) or religiously altered states of consciousness (RASC) all refer to the same phenomena in different guises, says Alan F. Segal, religious scholar and author of Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in the Religions of the West, in his chapter on Religiously Interpreted States of Consciousness.

Trance or ecstatic (ek + stasis, meaning “standing outside”) states implies that human ego, mind, or self has fled ordinary conscious awareness or that the soul has fled from the body. Every group in society normally searches for a transcendent justification for its religious position, lifestyle, and political position, reminds Segal. Relying upon religiously interpreted states of consciousness (RISC) for validity can be dangerous and could be used to justify fanaticism and psychosis. Fallible humans ought to seek understanding first, not infallibility.

A Reincarnation Meditation

Thibaud Saintin, The old mirror in the old bedroom, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Thibaud Saintin,
The old mirror in the old bedroom, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This meditation, supposedly Tibetan, begins by staring without blinking into a mirror and without regard to the tears as they roll down your cheeks. After 30 minutes of this, if you haven’t fainted, your past lives are supposed to materialize in the mirror in a series of images.

One guru teaches this meditation and points out that it can be a dangerous; that it requires specific training and self-knowledge prior to the devotee safely practicing it. But many listeners think they are beyond danger. They go home, lock the bedroom door, and sit staring in front of the mirror in hopes to discover their past lives. They don’t consider the warnings of the guru or the connections of the past to the present.

One survivor of this meditation technique said:

“After a while your face just melts away. You’re concentrating so hard on not shutting your eyes you begin to get really dizzy.

“Then you begin to see pictures. You’re in all the pictures yourself, but sometimes you see picture of people you know, such as your parents, or close friends.

“It’s kinda nice for your ego running a movie in which you’re always the star, but it can be dynamite for some people. I personally knew one girl who went nuts doing it.

“Who knows? Maybe she was crazy anyway. See, she did the meditation with her husband. They were up in their bedroom with their mirrors, suddenly she starts going crazy, pulling her hair out by its roots and stuff. What she saw was that she had been her husband’s mother in the life just before this one.

“Heavy, huh?

“She actually saw herself giving birth to him and breastfeeding him and everything. Sent her round the bend. Completely schiz. Nobody, not even the guru, could make her snap out of the guilt of how she was an incestuous mother, having children by her own son. Spooked her husband, too. I think she’s in a bin somewhere in the Midwest now. Never learned what happened to him or the kids.”

I thanked him for the coffee and got up to leave. He pulled me down.

“Hey, don’t you want to know what I saw in my past?”

“Of course,” I said, and sat down, acutely conscious of my bad manners.

“Well, I looked in the mirror and what I saw just about wiped me away. But it was great. It made me know I had done the right thing coming to India and staying in this ashram for four years. Wearing these dumb orange dresses.”

He was momentarily overcome with emotion. He put his arms around me, smothering me in a bear hug.

“Do you know who I have been?” he bellowed, four inches past my ear.

“Who?” I enquired, muffled in his saffron covered collarbone.

“The Buddha’s charioteer. I drove the Buddha to his destiny. Beat that!”

I couldn’t so I beat it.

–story adapted from Karma Cola: Marketing the Mystic East by Gita Mehta, 1994, Vintage Books, p. 39-41

Mystical Experiences

deverish

Below is an index of my posts related to mystical experiences

Mystical Experiences

Critiques of Mysticism and Altered States

Sympathetic to “Spiritual” Experiences

Spirituality = apprehension of knowledge beyond ordinary awareness, not religious nor supernatual

Reincarnation/Afterlife

Angels, Fire-walking