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  • Writer's pictureAndrea Sangiacomo

Meditation: four basic principles

Updated: Oct 15, 2022

Formal meditative practice is just a piece (important, but just a piece) in the broader picture presented in the discourses. And how to develop it is open to multiple suggestions and approaches, which might be more or less suitable for different people or in difference circumstances. However, it might be good from time to time to refresh what are the underpinning fundamental principles shared by all these possible approaches. These principles are relatively simple, and they might be reduced to just four:

Embodiment: all forms of meditations are embodied to some extent. This does not mean that they necessarily take the body (or bodily aspects) as an explicit object, or that remain confined within the domain of the body (especially if this domain is conceived in narrow materialistic terms). Embodiment indicates a particular perspective on experience, which is understood as whatever happens to and within this sentient body, which is endowed with the five physical senses and the activity of thought, open and embedded itself in a complex environment, subject to conditions, relational through and through. This embodied perspective is opposite to a nowadays more common approach, especially among academic philosophers, in which experience is approached first via some form of linguistic or semantic expression of it, by way of reading, talking, writing, discussing about experience. Embodiment suggests that even language (and so much more philosophy!) should be understood as rooted in a bodily basis, and this bodily basis is more fundamental than anything else that might be said about it.

Attention: meditation has to do with a deliberate training, taming, and steering of attention. Ordinarily, we always have to play with attention, but often just don't know how to use attention, which results in our attention being used (and misused) or monopolized by external sources (advertisement is the obvious example). Working with attention entails a practical and a metacognitive dimension. The practical dimension is a degree of sense restraint, or the ability of withdrawing attention from its ordinary state of dispersal among sensory objects and stimuli and direct it consistently towards a chosen topic or object. This does not have to be a forceful effort, and yet it has to be steady and confident. Most often, sense restraint is compared with the process of taming a wild animal, by making it amendable to cooperation and learning. The metacognitive dimension in the use of attention is equally important and it consists in learning how attention works, what affects its workings, and how it can be best used in different circumstances.

Feelings: anything that we experience is felt, and basic feelings unfolds in the spectra of pleasure, pain, and neutrality. There might be different shades of each of these basic feelings, but some of it is always present. Feelings provide a crucial internal feedback to understand how attention unfolds, since pleasant feelings might encourage to sustain an experience and replicate it, while unpleasant feelings to discontinue it. This applies also to the working of attentions, and it shows even more the embodied nature of meditation, since feelings are most often also felt in the body. But feelings are also the basis for all sort of second-order reactions to them (pleasure elicits desire, pain provokes aversion, etc.). Observing feelings becomes thus a way of discerning between the feeling tone of experience and the reactions that it engenders, by thus raising the question of whether, or to what extent, those reactions are appropriate or could perhaps be avoided.

Understanding: in a sense, the goal of meditation is to provide tools for cultivating and developing the understanding. The understanding is the ability of interpreting and giving meaning to what is experienced. Understanding does not concern only external objects or situations, but also the very process of meditation itself. In a sense, bringing into play any of the other three elements mentioned above requires an exercise in understanding and at the same time develops the understanding further. This process moves forward by creating feedback loops between actual practice and its interpretation, so that a certain experience enhances the understanding of its meaning, and this understanding allows one to refine practice further. As the process unfolds, there might be deeper and deeper aspects of experience that emerge, or rather its most structural, common, and general feature comes to the surface.

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