Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Why Meditating Is Different From Saying The Rosary

Maia at Alas fails to appreciate that some Eastern religions are substantively different from traditional, Western religions:

One weird feature of the left, probably going back to the 1960s, is a completely inexplicable view that Eastern religions are in some way better than Abrahamic religions. While this is less strong than it was, you can still see it, particularly in the way the Dalai Lama is treated.

Every major religion, every religion that has ever had any power, served the interests of the ruling class. Religions can and do justify existing power structures and give people reasons not to fight back. While most religions also have ideas that undermine those power structures, all major religions spend most of their time upholding existing power structures. If you like meditating then go for it, but don’t pretend it’s that different from saying the rosary.

Oh, but it is... saying the rosary implies a listener external to the practitioner (God, if you will), whereas meditation requires no such metaphysical commitment.

Any of y'all who consistently read this blog know that I'm solidly in the materialist/agnostic camp. Does it come as a surprise to you, then, to find that I meditate? Admittedly I don't do it with any great frequency, and its usually in support of my martial arts training, but I do it nonetheless. I suspect that if I pursued it more vigorously I'd probably be a better person in some sense as well.

Maia should read Zen And The Brain, which I've written about previously here, here, and here. The author, James Austin, does a pretty good job of exploring and documenting the effects of consistent meditation, but at no time does he find it necessary to invoke any sort of supernatural explanation for those effects. Instead, he notes that all of the beneficial effects of meditation can be attributed to physical causes.

So what, then, to make of religions that have a large meditative component? If they understand the nature of meditation, and decline to attribute its affects to the influence of some outside power, doesn't that make them "less false" than other religions in some non-trivial sense? There are lots of meditative practices in Western religion, but I'm not aware of any that don't come with supernatural baggage attached. Contrast that with, say, then Zen practices described in Dr. Austin's book, which don't logically require any commitment the existence of deity.

A lot of Eastern religions are not different than Western religion; they fall apart in the absence of a supernatural framework. But the meditative practices found in some of them remain valid from a materialistic perspective, which makes them superior to Western religions IMHO.


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