Life is full of contradictions.
I am attending a research retreat on mindfulness and contemplative practices at the beautiful Garrison Institute. I am learning a lot of interesting things, and meeting a lot of like-minded and excellent people – the kind of people with whom I could have deep conversation about the unreal nature of reality, unlike most people from other walks of life would politely and tactfully excuse themselves when I get a bit unreal.
I also learned some meditation. Of course, the unreal soul in me wouldn’t let it slide without a thorough analysis, finding or inventing all kinds of connections.
Let me start with something totally unconnected. News. Why is something news? Recently, I read about some people of Indian origin getting shot in obscure places in Kentucky or Ohio. That is the kind of things an Indian would pay attention to, when planning a trip to the US during these troubled times. But, why was it news to begin with? Because it doesn’t happen that often. In that sense, this piece of news should be a comforting one. Isn’t that a contradiction?
Another one on the same vein – when I spoke French while in France, or even now, most French people tell me encouragingly that I speak well. But I have never heard them congratulate other French people on their perfect linguistic skills. In other words, when somebody tells you that you speak their language well, it invariably means that you don’t speak it well enough. Another contradiction. Oddly enough, native English speakers don’t usually make such encouraging comments. I guess they feel that the whole world should speak their language.
Let me get around to what I wanted to discuss. The purpose of mindfulness meditation is, of course, to be mindful. What does that mean though? The meditation techniques teach you to be as aware as possible of the here-and-now. You accomplish this feat by gently removing your thoughts, by emptying your mind, as it were. So mindfulness is not totally different from mind-emptiness! What a paradox!
It stretches beyond that though. Rather, I am going to stretch it to morbid lengths. Don’t get me wrong, I am all in favour of mindfulness and other meditation techniques. They bring you great benefits – a fact that the researchers at the conference expertly demonstrated. But what does an empty mind mean? A mind devoid of thoughts? Is mind a container waiting to be filled with thoughts? Or is it something constituted by thoughts, like a wall by bricks? I am pretty sure it is the latter. Remove the bricks, you have no wall. Take away the thoughts and you have no mind. An empty mind is a mind that doesn’t exist. It is a dead mind. Can a body host a dead mind? Like Morpheus states in Matrix, a body cannot live without a mind.
I have another argument to put forward to insist that this proximity to death is what the meditative state entails. In Buddhist tradition, the cycle of life and death is suffering. The purpose of life therefore is to rid ourselves of this cycle, samsara, by practising detachment, for instance. When we finally transcend samsara, we are one with the manor oneness that is the supreme consciousness – the Brahma. Our tiny consciousness finds its source and destination. We are no longer accursed to live. It is indeed a final and complete death.
In the physicalist view of mind, however, consciousness is an emergent property of our physical bodies. There is no such thing as consciousness without a body, and the notion of a supreme consciousness is just silly. When the body dies, so does the associated consciousness. Every death is a final and complete death, and there is no continuity of consciousness beyond the death of its housing. This view has to be true, or we would be walking around with the memories of previous lives. Sure, there are some reports of people remembering their previous lives, which is news precisely because it is rare. Without commenting on the veracity of such reports, we can safely say that there is no continuity of consciousness for almost all of us. And, there is no such thing as discontinuous consciousness. The stream of consciousness cannot be cut into independent pieces with no memory of each other, for then they become separate consciousnesses.
Let me summarise. Meditation leads to a balanced and well-rounded life. Certain lines of eastern meditation target an empty and silent mind, which is not distinct from a dead mind. Given that the ultimate goal of life according to the corresponding philosophical schools is to break from the bondages of life, which is the not distinct from death in physicalism, these two objectives seem to match. In other words, life and death are not as distinct as we might think, which is the weirdest contradiction of all.
Well, maybe it is not. There is no death without life. Can there be life without death? Perhaps no, not even in theory.