Meditation: The Royal Road to the Unconscious, by Michael Washburn.  (Google doc).


(I have used this chapter in one of my transpersonal psych classes; Washburn offers an interesting Jungian/Wilberian psychological take on the process and "psychomechanics" of meditation.)


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It might behoove you to know what Epstein means by 'ego' before you jump in with your diatribe? Did you read the linked article? He would in fact agree with some of your points about some aspects of the ego. It seems though his notion of ego is larger than those aspects. And just maybe traditional Buddhism might have some limitations of how it defines ego? Or conflates its entirety with those aspects? Maybe some ill-informed co-option in the other direction?

I actually have the book Psychoanalysis and Buddhism so do I really need to read the paper in order to see that he is going to water down Buddhism? He says, "Advanced stages of insight meditation involve profound experiences of dissolution and fragmentation, yet the practitioner, through the practice of "making present" is able to withstand these psychic pressures. It is the ego, primarily through its synthetic function, that permits integration of the experience of disintegration. In true egolessness, there could be only disintegration, and such a state would manifest in psychosis." What if it is the power of concentration as Samma Samadhi that has been developed for years that is the factor that allows the mind to not be buffeted away by trying and "profound experiences" to pierce the veil of fear (of psychosis) finally recognizing the falsity of the believed in person or being? Again why overlay a psychic boundary where there is none?

Elsewhere he says it is the ego that keeps in contact with the meditation object. In the tradition it's called vittaka and viccara, sometimes translated as applied and sustained intention. An old metaphor is helpful. Applied intention is a striker striking a bell. The ensuing ringing is sustained intention. Is this enough to describe what is happening or do we need to postulate a structure or matrix of psychic tentacles in order to practice? Why must we hypostatize every impersonal function? (I've got dandruff. No that's ego's dirt!) Elsewhere he says anatta is merely the disbelief in personality not the abolishing of the I. But that is just the 1st glimpse of nirvana for a stream enterrer i.e. personality belief is abandoned. On a deeper realization the "I" is seen to be nonexistent sans fear or psychosis. Alas the crux of the matter, anatta may be too radical an idea for a Freudian. Maybe Psychoanalysis and Buddhism will never mix because of anatta (btw anatta is just a synonym for sunyata). I could go on and on. But what is your experience with concentration and insight practices in order to have an opinion in this matter?

Gotta go...I teach meditation on Thursday nights.

Then I apologize because your opinion is informed by reading the work in question. Though I still disagree with it for a number of reasons. My experience and study of the matter is also extensive but a pissing contest is pointless. I've learned from past experience that it is counterproductive for us to argue so I'll leave it at that. My reaction is my own fault and I'll just have to work on that, again.

Well, thanks for bringing up the thread again because I'm just now reading the linked Washburn article with much appreciation!

I love Washburn's phrase: sustained nonselective alertness. It is beautiful. I immediately want to steal it and use it in my own meditation instruction.

However, I am acutely aware of the traditional dichotomy between so-called RM (receptive meditation) and CM (concentration meditation). Of course we can definitely go to brain scans and show how two or three or more different basic procedures of meditation use different neural teams. The TM people have some interesting research on this. However the "two kinds" approach strikes me as falsely scientific and largely intellectually bankrupt. When did this distinction begin? Is it truly traditional or (like most "traditional" things) does it actually only go back a couple of generations?

I note that "sustained" cannot be distinguished basically from repetitive. And that "nonselective" is specific modality of focus that must be selected for.

The repeated intentional attention to a particular mode of conscious for the purpose of existential self-enrichment largely describes both approaches. There may be no root distinction between RM and CM  since the common functional principle is so easy to describe. Distinguishing between them also indulges the standard, and widely inaccurate, method of "classification by apparent content".

One can see why certain teachers, promulgating a "relaxed witnessing" of "allowing presence" form of meditation would have employed a self-serving phraseology which sets themselves in opposition to "concentration". But this is narrow. All teachers tend to exaggerate their own approach as the Real Meditation -- or at least as "one of the basic two alternatives". 

The actual commonalities in the unfolding of various meditation techniques AND the multifarious divergences are both obscured by continuing the "tradition" of informing people about "two basic approaches".

Layman --

I'm a Christian contemplative practitioner, and have just the barest of understandings of the complexities of and distinctions between the various types of eastern approaches to meditation. At any rate, I  appreciate Thomas Keating's take on concentrative and receptive practices. He sees them as more the two ends of a continuum rather than RM and CM as distinct from each other. Also, he suggests that concentrative methods tend to become more receptive over time. (And maybe that's just his personal bias as a primarily RM practitioner). Cheers. 

Hi Mary,

The notion of a continuum definitely softens the distinction -- which is nice & useful for a lot of folks. However it also keeps up the potentially false dichotomy. So maybe they are not alternative enough to be alternate directions (which become less distinct over time). Or maybe this continuum should be replaced by a dozen or a hundred radial spikes moving outward from the center of a sphere. Etc.

Personally, in my practice, I look human dynamics which do not seem to fall in "eastern" or "western" or "concentrative" or "receptive" categories. These make good shorthand but fail us when we want to go deeper into understanding the nature and deployment of meditation.

One of the things which Keating's remarks hint at, though, is the very interesting phenomenon of convergence-and-divergence among meditation approaches. I do a weekly "harangue" for interested parties from the address pretendtomeditate@gmail. That name is a response to the two-fold nature of meditation -- being, on the one hand, a process whereby even the smallest variation in the application of a particular method will become increasing divergent over time with repetition (just like an unfolding fractal) & on the other hand the fact that certain regular stages are exhibited by meditators using very diverse methodologies. The latter fact, the convergence, suggests that the basic form and intention to meditation has its own efficacy quite apart from the specifics of the method. Therefore "pretending to meditate" is a perfectly functional tactic for engaging the progressively indistinct aspect of unfolding meditative development. 

And cheers as well!

A number of accomplished Buddhist practitioners have noted that traditional Buddhism did not develop the kind of structures as did psychoanalysis. The ego is one of them. Yes, Buddhism has an effective notion about the separate self sense lacking inherent existence, but that applies to everything including emptiness and enlightenment. (Well, depending on which school of Buddhism...) For example, Wilber in Integral Spirituality:

"This view of the early stages of I formation—this phenomenological history of the damaged-I
(especially during the first few years of life) [....] is indeed one of the great contributions of Western psychology, a specific contribution we find nowhere else in the world" (153-4).

And echoing Kornfield above: "Painful experience has demonstrated time and again that mediation simply will not get at the original shadow, and can, in fact, often exacerbate it" (154).

Wilber cannot be accused of a supposed biased Theravada like Korfield or Epstein. Nor can David Michael Levin (another shentong), who says in the Levin thread here:

"In stage III, the individual is committed to further training, a practice of self-discipline.  By virtue of this commitment, this work on oneself, the self-responsible individual grows beyond an ego-logical identification and begins to live the more creative becoming of a Self.  Recognition of the difference between (the being of) the ego and (the being of) the Self is crucial.  Whereas the ego is a defensively adaptive structure identified with an essentially fixed, socially conforming content, the identity which begins to form in the work of stage III, the way of living I am calling the 'Self,' is an ongoing process of self-development, a structure of individuation creatively open to change, a structure organized by, and identified with, processes that carry forward learning and growth."

I'd here point out that what he is calling the Self is indeed how Epstein defines the synthetic function of the ego, whereas the self-represented 'I' might be more akin to Levin's ego per se. However Levin makes clear that the ego is necessary in this Self journey. For it is only

"after the ego is firmly established, it becomes possible to 'return' to these echoes, not only making contact with our bodily felt sense of that pre-ontological openness -- whatever sense of that 'primordial ecstasy' we may now, by virtue of some directed exertion, be able to feel -- but also 'retrieving' it and freeing it for an ongoing integration into present living."

It is only after the "ego is firmly established" that we can return to and integrate our prior state/stages and go transrational via a Self that is more than an 'I' and more likely more ably (postmetaphysically) defined as the synthetic aspect of ego, itself a developmental outgrowth of the "I." The ego ideal is much more associated with this "I" aspect, and ironically enough with an emphasis on concentrative meditational techniques designed to get past this "I" by fusing with a pre-egological awareness.


From a review of the book Psychoanalysis and Buddhism

“Engler argues that the Buddhist critique is not aimed at the psychologically differentiated self (which psychoanalysis aims to strengthen), but is ontological. The Buddhist analysis is about self-representation and shows that representing yourself as independently existing will lead to suffering. He goes on to give an account of different types of self-experience using both Buddhist and psychoanalytic understanding. This includes unselfconscious experience both ordinary (for example, being absorbed watching a sunset) and non-ordinary (meditative absorption or dhyana), as well as experiences of non-self. The issue of self /non-self recurs a lot in the book, although not always with the same lucidity that Engler demonstrates in this chapter.” 

A free Google preview of the book can be found here.

This post and following from Engler are also relevant here.

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