As an atheist and skeptic, I enjoy thinking, reflecting, pondering.   The idea to deliberately stop thinking appears ludicrous to me.   

Over the years, I have read many definitions of what meditation is supposed to be, but behind many big words it seem essentially to be just an attempt to stop thinking.  Personally I am puzzled, how not thinking can attract anybody.  

Yet so many people claim, that meditation is beneficial for them.   They obviously feel something they call spirituality and it seems that by meditation they can enhance it.  It is elusive to me, just as the idea of somebody claiming to be spiritual but not religious is beyond my comprehension. Feeling interconnected with some cosmical power is as alien to me as is the belief in a deity.   
Sometimes I am wondering, if some spirituality module is lacking in my brain.   Or rather, that I am free of it.   I do not miss spirituality, whatever it may be, but I am puzzled, why it is of so much importance to so many people.   The belief in a deity and in the power of rituals like praying can be explained by extrinsic influences.   But this elusive spirituality seems to be intrinsic.  

Do other atheists experience something like spirituality?   Are there others, who are as void of it as I am?  

Tags: meditation, spirituality

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I agree with the idea that meditation is really a method for reaching an atypical or altered mental state. It is not about stopping thinking. It is more about gaining access to or allowing to run some of the mental activity just below consciousness. One might think of it as controlled daydreaming. I am sure practitioners of meditation would object to the way I put it, but the basics are the same. It is reducing the volume on consciousness to become aware of other mental activity. The brain needs such rest periods for proper functioning. I can understand its benefits. I can also see where atheists might get upset at the mystical-spiritual-religious accoutrements that go with it. However, one can meditate without the sense that it is "higher" or "better" or "purer" than ordinary thought. Meditation is not the only way to achieve these effects. Biofeedback works well (and isn't "concentrate on the breath" just a form of biofeedback?). I like listening to music with a good sound system and a good set of earphones, and then concentrating on some specified aspect of the music.

"Spirituality" is a different matter. Sam Harris seems to like the word. I am not so fond of it. The word still implies an "invisible world" to me. Though "spirit" originally meant "breath" or "breeze," it is not exactly that now. Most people hear the word "spirit" and think "ghost" or "soul" or both, some incorporeal thing that resides in bodies. When a person says "I am spiritual," this believing in "spirits" is really what they are on about. It is almost animistic in a way. Ultimately, if one has a "spiritual" experience, this is just a diverting label for a deeply emotional experience. That the experience may seem to come from an external source is simply another by-product of the brain's inability to be aware of its own functioning. I have heard "numinous" used as a substitute, but this gets us no further, since it refers to a feeling of being in the presence of the divine. Perhaps a revival of words such as "awesome" and "wonderful" in their original meanings might get us closer to the actual experience.

Summing up, what I have learned from the replies, I correct my previous assumption.  

What about these assumptions instead?

1.  Meditation is the attempt to stop all active goal oriented purposeful reasoning, reflecting or pondering, thus allowing full awareness for emotions and sensations.

2.  There are individual differences.   Only some people reach altered states of mind by meditation.   Some people only reach such states under drugs, brain stimulation or illness. 

3.  There are two ways of focusing upon emotions and sensations.   Either by active attempts to stop purposeful reasoning as in meditation, or by exposing oneself to such intense external stimuli of music, nature, swimming, that this attracts all focus and purposeful reasoning is temporarily deactivated.  

Very accurate summary.

There is one small caveat.  You and I judging by previous messages differ on how much animals 'think' - you see them more towards an "instinctual robots" end of an intellectual capability spectrum.  I consider them rather more towards the conscious, abstract thought end of that spectrum, where we humans are the extreme example.

Of that I am sure, with their tool use, planning, decision-making, societal and familial behaviours, recognition of individuals and themselves and so on.

What I am not so sure of, is how they think.  How they represent abstract concepts like 'family' or 'reward', how they evaluate, rank and prioritise alternative actions to select the best one.  It's a failure of my imagination to see how they can reason without language.

It's not an assumption, however, that pre-human species had very similar brain to animals.  (Caveat: We can see the physical organisation, the chemical composition and the similarities are undeniable.  It's the same brain.  However, we have no clue of the mind that that brain gives rise to, just as we cannot exactly determine the mind of someone in a mal-functioning brain.  We can draw broad conclusions, but we cannot 'see' it exactly.  Hence, for example, the philosophical questioning over qualia - what is red?  Does everyone experience 'red' in the same way?)


All of which leads me to a nebulous, unsure conclusion that differs from yours slightly.


... full awareness for emotions and sensations.


I would add a third thing.  Emotions and sensations and a possible third thing which is the communication of the results of non-verbal thinking, communicated in a non-verbal way.


Simply, the behaviour and capability of some animals are too detailed and complex to be expressed solely in emotions and sensations.  (Big caveat : I am ignoring emergence).



A clip from an old BBC documentary - the squirrel had one possible path to the nuts, and over time worked it out.  This is the result.  I don't see how sensations and emotions are sufficient to represent that.

How do dolphins do this?  They need to be able to think "Hey, if we all four go this way 3 metres, stop, put our heads down, and tails out the water, flap our tails, stay like that for at least 5 seconds, then swim back to that girl in purple, we all get a fish".  It's beyond me to imagine how they do that thinking without words.


That is the third thing.  That kind of thinking in our animal brains that we can be aware of in meditation and other activities.  Sensations, emotions, and non-verbal thought.


There's more.  Sports people, musicians, dancers, artists, writers - every area of activity has a concept of the 'zone'.  It is so often described as 'getting out my own way', or 'not thinking of the game' - sounds suspiciously like allowing the animal brain to play the sport, and the conscious brain being switched off.  I have a couple of examples where I have experienced that in my own life.


So, yeah, sorry for the length.  

I would allow for a third thing.  Sensations, emotions and non-verbal thought.





Concerning the question, if animals think or not, I can only agree to differ.   I cannot know, what and how much animals have any kind of a subjective consciousness.   I only have a very subjective imagination, that the working of an animal's brain could be compared with:

1. Persons walking or acting during their sleep.  They do not consciously think about or decide what to do, they act automatically, like robots.  Their normal human consciousness is turned off during sleep.   In the case of homicide while asleep by someone, who has never killed before, this is a behavior, that has not been learned.   How to kill is wired into the brain as an old archaic instinct, normally controlled by thinking during the conscious state of being awake. 

2.  Newborn and very young babies.   Early in life, before sufficient maturation of their brain, they learn and interact with their environment by instinct.  

If you define as thinking, what people do during their sleep and what guides the behavior of babies, then the disagreement is about the meaning of the word thinking.  

Maruli, I wanted to jump in here with a concise, structural description of meditation. From the manual you quoted above, this was the critical bit:

"The moment you observe that you have been lost in thought, notice the present thought itself as an object of consciousness."

In the shortest terms, meditation is about achieving Apperception, or sensory awareness of mental phenomena. Since the feedback loop for this overlaps with sensory input, the techniques of meditation generally attempt to dampen external perceptions and amplify the feedback perceptions.


Meditation is not strictly required for this, and everyone has the 'hardware' for it, but it requires strengthening the logistical/evaluative sector of your mind (one of the non-verbal ones). If that area is too weak, you'll find it very challenging to focus on the feedback.


Although this perspective is dependent on a structural model of the mind that I've been hammering out for quite awhile, I think it's fairly clear and helpful for understanding this phenomenon.

"meditation is about achieving Apperception,"

I consider apperception as an automatic process, a self-evident part of learning and of integrating experiences.   Why should anybody need to focus upon it and call this meditation?

"sensory awareness of mental phenomena"  
Sensory for me are the perception of touch, smell, taste, sound, vision.     I have never heard of anybody tasting his thoughts.
I only know intellectual awareness of mental phenomena.  I know introspection and self-awareness as a meta level of asking myself the reasons and triggers of my own reactions, attiutdes, thoughts, emotions at any moment.  
But this is nothing I focus upon doing, I am just doing this all the time.

Your first point applies a different meaning for apperception than I used or linked. While that sounds like the use in psychology, I use it from the philosophic background. To be specific, meditation relates to apperception as an 'inner sense' of the act of thinking and the mental motions involved, rather than simply the contents or results of thought.


Self-awareness is not simply a meta-level process, but also a sense-like capability. It is a common mistake to repeat the five Classical Senses as canon, but not only are there upwards of 18 physical senses in humans (balance, temperature, etc. are other senses), there are also numerous channels for internal feedback.


To take a common example, don't you 'hear' the contents of your thoughts oftentimes? Mental dialogue, along with visual, etc. awareness of what you think about are a universal experience for people.


The key distinction with apperception as an 'inner sense' is the additional awareness of producing that mental dialogue, visual image, etc. By doing this, each person can gain a structural perception of the mind itself, much in the same way you would look at a car engine, with the same benefits for 'fixing' damaged components. 


Since it seems you lack direct experience with apperception, we run into the fundamental problem that people can't imagine things for which they have no initial experience-- or in other words, you're mentally blind to the experience. That's why I tend to focus on structural explanations; they can tell you how a phenomena operates and how you can identify it despite the constraints of mental blindness. 


So by saying that, I don't think you'll have any success trying to match these ideas against your memories. But I do think you can look at this topic mechanically-- what does it, how it works, and the impact of doing it --without having it feel incomprehensible.

"apperception as an 'inner sense' "   
The claim of an 'inner sense' that eludes being dealt with using psychological methods reminds me a bit of the claim of the existence of a god.   

I consider rational self-awareness, introspection and self-monitoring as sufficiient without any elusive additional sensing.   And I did omit considering the inclusion of physical signals of the body as is the sense of balance, aches, pains etc.   They are of course also real sensations.  
"Since it seems you lack direct experience with apperception, "   
I wonder if this 'apperception' and 'inner sense' correspond to transliminality from my other thread.  

There are always two ways of interpreting things.   Whatever may be absent from my brain, for which meditation is something beyond my personal experience, this does not mean, that I am mentally blind or deficient.   Maybe I am free from some burden, that compels some people to meditate, while I am free from the need. 

Terminology Corrections:

I used the term 'inner sense' to distinguish between awareness of mental content and awareness of mental action. The use in psychology primarily refers to the former, but the latter is by no means excluded from psychology or any other scientific study-- the terms to discuss it are just different.


And you misunderstood what I meant by "mentally blind". It was not any implication of deficiency, it's more of a 'tunnel vision' effect that everyone deals with. For example, if you go up to someone raised vegetarian and ask, "What does polar bear meat taste like?", they can't possibly provide an answer because they don't have the past experience to simulate that taste. That lack of appropriate resources for emulating a sensation is 'mental blindness'.


Actual Points:

The real limitation of rational introspection without apperception is that you can fall prey to 'attention blocks,' or mental barriers that people establish to hide, rather than fix, structural flaws in their beliefs/behaviors. 


The simplest analogy I can suggest is that the mind is like a car engine; you can definitely do a solid job maintaining it by monitoring every detail like fuel mixture, combustion rate, etc. But apperception is like opening the car hood and looking at the engine from the outside-- it's often much easier to troubleshoot and it highlights fundamental design issues that you could never see otherwise.


Everyone has the mental structuring and capabilities to be apperceptive, it's mostly a matter of whether you have made it a strong enough focus of your attention to distinguish it from the other mental noise.

"The real limitation of rational introspection without apperception is that you can fall prey to 'attention blocks,' or mental barriers that people establish to hide, rather than fix, structural flaws in their beliefs/behaviors. "

This is a devaluation of rationality.   I perceive myself right now defending rational thinking, rational self-awareness, rational introspection against the elusive woo-woo claims of an 'inner sense', whatever this is.   Any claim, that rationality leads to flaws, attention blocks and what else is similar to the claim of believers, who pity me for not being enlightened by the connection with their god.   

As much as I am curious to comprehend things on the basis of undisputed rationality, defending rationality is futile.   While I do not claim to be perfect in applying rationality, I see no point in defending it as the best available method to deal with life.   

Again, you're mischaracterizing my background. I have no tolerance for any such non-sense in my philosophy, but it's a little tricky to explain structural layouts without taking a visual schematic and running through the details from the ground up.


This isn't an issue of rationality so much as it reflects limitations in the processing mechanisms of the human brain. Regardless of your strategic approach, you can only make evaluations based on the information you have available. This discussion is exactly about acquiring extra data by a more round-about route-- and in doing so, having a larger base of data for rational evaluation.


(Though as a side-note, I reject the concept of 'irrational' thinking; minds cannot function in anything but a rational, structural fashion. I would instead label 'dogma' as the primary failing when people apply mental shortcuts to preserve flawed beliefs instead of acquiring a proper physical correction. Rationality as a philosophy is merely a dedication to intellectual rigor in avoiding such mental cheating.)

Rationality is a completely sufficient strategy, based upon taking all important information into account.  

I prefer to end this part of the discussion instead of exposing myself to further condesenscion.   


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