by Joseph Kirby
When we get excited, our hearts beat faster. When we get embarrassed, blood rushes to our face. When we see something beautiful, we sometimes feel goose-bumps wash over our skin or a tingling sensation courses up and down our spine. We talk about feeling butterflies in our stomach when we feel nervous or in love. In fact, every one of our emotions – referred to with words like “anger,” “fear,” “joy,” “hatred,” “lust” – is also a nexus of physiological sensations on or within the body. Put in terms of an obvious etymology, “feelings” are feelings. It is, of course, very difficult to feel what strong emotions “feel” like while caught up in them. Try it – next time you are overwhelmed by anger, try to feel what that anger “is” in terms of the sensations careening up and down your torso, hammering in your skull. If you can manage it at all, you will likely discover something unsurprising: the sensation of being angry is extremely unpleasant. This is why, when we feel it, we try to get rid of it as fast as possible – which often means doing something unpleasant to whoever or whatever our anger is directed against. In this context, Buddhist meditation offers a technique for training your mind to do the opposite, a practice of sitting quietly and observing whatever sensations arise and pass away on the physical structure of your own body, without reacting. It is an attempt to follow the maxim “know thyself!”, but instead of working through the medium of language and discourse (as we do in philosophy), we work through the medium of sensation.
The aim of the technique can be described in biblical terms: “A tranquil mind gives life to the flesh, but passion makes the bones rot” (Proverbs 14:30). Consider Werner Herzog’s documentary on the death penalty, Into the Abyss. Near the end of the film, we are introduced to Fred Allen, former captain of the Death House in a prison in Hunstville, Texas. His job was to make as comfortable as possible the last day in the life of a condemned inmate. After spending eight or ten hours with the inmate, giving them their last meal, accommodating their last requests, his job was to strap the inmate down to the gurney where lethal injection would be administered. After performing these duties on over 120 men, Captain Allen was called upon to oversee the death of a woman, Karla Faye, the first woman to be executed in Texas in over 130 years. About an hour before her death, Karla smiled up at Captain Allen and thanked him for everything he had done. These words affected him deeply. That evening, his whole body began to shake uncontrollably, and sweat, and he was wracked by pain. A few days later, he found himself visualizing one by one all the other inmates whose deaths he had taken part in – he called the Death House chaplain over to his house and told him he was finished, he could not do it anymore.
“A tranquil mind gives life to the flesh, but passion makes the bones rot.” Captain Allen had felt bad about helping kill those 120 men, but he had repressed these feelings in order to carry out his job. These repressed feelings, however, had not simply vanished into nothingness – they remained, as a pain within his body that his conscious mind had trained itself to ignore. When he was finally brought to acknowledge this pain, it came out all at once, in the form of bodily pain, shaking, sweating, hallucinations. In theological language, we might say that hell is not some metaphysical afterlife to which some vengeful sky-god condemns those who breach his arbitrary commands; hell is the pain in our own body that we have trained ourselves not to feel. Meditation, in this context, would be purgatory, the concerted attempt to consciously suffer what our unconscious mind is already suffering. Socrates puts it well in the Gorgias: for those who have become habituated to lives of injustice, “their benefit comes to them, both here and in Hades, by way of pain and suffering, for there is no other way to get rid of injustice” (525b). The ontology of Dante’s Inferno is also apt: Hell is the revelation of what you have already become, stripped of all illusion, but also lacking all hope for change.
Perhaps this description of meditation as purgatory seems counter-intuitive. Go to YouTube and search for “meditation”: the videos will depict butterflies, gentle streams, tranquil forests, waves lapping gently on a smooth beach. Blaise Pascal provides a much better description of what meditation is like when you first undertake it: “all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber” (Pensées 139); why? because when they do, there arises “from the depth of [their] heart weariness, gloom, sadness, fretfulness, vexation, despair” (Pensées 131). Most of us understand what he is talking about: cabin fever, unaccountable depression, the sense of meaninglessness that assails us when we pause too long from our otherwise incessant business. But like all emotions, these feelings of “weariness, gloom, sadness, etc.” are also sensations on the physical structure of the body, and the meditator, temporarily withdrawing from the “external” world, is able to get rid of the illusion that some external entity is to blame for them. What occurs at this point is something similar to the transition Heidegger recommends as the path towards authenticity, from fear of this-or-that object to ontological dread, rootless anxiety, the realization of groundless freedom. Unlike Heidegger, however, the meditator experiences this process in the mode of hope, knowing through experience that this dread is the result of passion beginning to ooze to the surface from the bones. In short, beneath the pain lies the forest of the YouTube videos, a metaphoric attempt to depict the nature of the reality that is calling from beneath, a reality that “gives life to the flesh”: the infinite compassionate love that grounds reality. This can be said more precisely: the sensation of ontological dread is exactly the same as the sensation of what one might call “ontological love” – with the only difference being that in the former, the feeling is refused, while in the latter it is allowed to flow freely.
If it seemed odd to speak of meditation as purgatory, perhaps it seems even odder to speak of meditation leading towards ontological love – given that the kind of meditation I’ve been talking about is Buddhist in provenance and we all know that Buddhism speaks of “emptiness” and “nothingness,” not “love” or “God.” But consider S. N. Goenka’s reflections on Jesus, which he speaks on the seventh day of his ten day retreat:
Is there any doubt that he was son of the God? He was son of the God. After all, what is God? Truth is God. Love is God. Compassion is God. Purity is God. And here is a product of truth, of love, of compassion, of goodwill, of purity. He is a product of that – he is son of God. Those qualities are important, and if we try to develop those very qualities in us, then yes – we are good devotees of Jesus Christ. Otherwise no, it becomes a blind faith, blind devotion, does not work, does not work.
I have found Tillich’s distinction between ontological faith and moral faith to be useful in describing the difference between Buddhist meditation and (Protestant) Christianity: “In the experience of the holy, the ontological and moral element are essentially united, while in the life of faith they diverge and are driven to conflicts and mutual destruction” (Dynamics of Faith). The faith that a meditator develops is without question ontological, seeking to reunite experientially with the ground of Being. According to Tillich, Protestant Christianity is primarily a moral faith, oriented toward fixing the brokenness of the world. These two kinds of faith tend towards mutual conflict and misunderstanding, but it is only through dialogue that both advance towards what is holy: moral faith corrects the complacence to which followers of ontology can succumb; ontological faith corrects the guilt and pride to which practitioners of moral faith can be prone. Could these two modes of faith, two modes of practice, not be likened to two legs, walking forward only when they work together, step by step by step?
Joseph Kirby is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Christian Studies, focusing on the philosophy of religion, politics, and ecology.