Saturday 30 March 2013

Absence, Mindfulness and Decision

I find that Easter is a mindful time of year. It is a time for letting go of what's past and renewing hopes and readiness for what lies ahead. But because it is such a meditative time, there is also an opportunity for thinking about the nature and power of prayer and meditation itself. It feels like a regrouping of strength, a gathering of resources, a process of 'listening' and authenticity which produces a general nourishment. My experience is that it works. But I am mystified as to how it works. What's the mechanism?

Mindfulness researchers have been looking at this for some years now. In a research area growing from psychology, there are numerous theories around, looking at the social and neurobiological effects of meditation. I must confess this isn't really my thing, although much of it looks interesting. I worry about the tendency (which is not universal) towards a mentalist description of mindfulness. Indeed, the polarity between mentalist and behaviourist conceptions dog most attempts to grasp what are fundamentally metaphysical ideas.

What interests me most is the relation between mindful behaviour and decision. It is, after all, the decisions we take, not whether we can retreat into a meditative state, which count. I have been arguing for some time for a model of decision-making where what is not thinkable has a causal bearing on the decision that is taken (see In other words, it is what is absent from thought which determines action, not the internal logic of thought itself. In fact, our very conception of logic is bound up with  the communicative decisions we take and the way that discourse is coordinated (as in Habermas's 'communicative rationality').

This is slippery territory, because rationality lurks somewhere - even in arguments that seek to challenge conventional notions of it, it is the best (only?) thing we have as humans for coordinating ourselves. But the challenge appears to be finding effective ways of using rationality so that we don't steer ourselves into catastrophe.

There seems to be a relationship between mindfulness and absence. We often feel disposed towards different kinds of decisions after meditation or prayer. Is the difference an opening-up of new areas of thought? If it is the case that absence causally determines decision, then we could see that if meditation determines areas which were previously absent from thought, then this would have an impact on decision.

I have a hunch (only a hunch!) that meditation and prayer are moments of determination of absence. This is what listening does. New concepts are discovered. In the process of doing this, the landscape of absences changes. From a game-theoretical perspective (see - I'm talking in short-hand to get it all down!), new concepts may be recursively applied thus changing the decision-tree and identifying new kinds of equilibrium points.

But there is another question concerning the 'brain' within which this happens. My description as it stands appears 'mentalist': it appears that the determining of absence happens within a person's head. I do not think this is what happens. As I argued here ( I think the deep experience of dwelling on an absence is deeply social. Prayer is not personal; it is social. It is social because the sensation of dwelling on something deep is quite universal, and we know that our feeling of being 'in the presence of a higher power' is the same feeling that every other member of the species experiences in these circumstances. It is not a moment of personal discovery (as it is sometimes portrayed). It is a moment of social identification borne from the realisation of a shared biology.

If this were not the case, no composer would ever be able to calculate the effect of the deep piano bottom note with a soft tam-tam and tubular bell (as in the opening of Britten's War Requiem) as being sufficiently universal to be not only recognised by a group of people as 'art' but whose emotional intention is successfully communicated.

But if prayer is fundamentally social, if it is the moment of deep identification not of the individual but of the species, doesn't that also mean it is political? 


Scott said...

I do meditate occasionally, and am also slightly surprised that it works!

I wonder if one of the characteristics that makes it useful is "separation from thought"; that is of becoming aware of thinking as something you do rather than something you are - getting some respite and detachment from your own thinking is quite a relief! Also being aware of thinking as just one of the many things our body does. A very useful thing, but not necessarily he thing that defines what "you" are.

I wonder if, by putting our rationality in perspective, it actually makes it work better for us.

I wish I made more time for meditation; I find it slightly embarrassing for some reason!

Mark Johnson said...

The embarrassment is fear. Mindfulness is an absenting of fear. I wonder what is it about our fear that makes us fearful of absenting it?

Mark Johnson said...

Maybe.. George Bataille makes the point that "it was the observance of prohibitions, not the use of reason, that gave men the feeling that they were not animals."
There may be a prohibition against losing one's ego. Bataille would say this is sexual in origin (Ego is also lost in sex). Is there a sense where acknowledging meditation in rational academic discourse is in some way transgressive? That might explain the embarrassment...