An Ontology of Meditation

(~590 words, ~3 minutes)

There are some important facts about meditation that I did not appreciate for a long time. I think I didn’t because most meditation instructors and instructions have an agenda: to guide you in a specific meditation path. What happens if you don’t get immediately fixated on a specific path, but instead get a view of the landscape first? That is what I will try to show here.

Meditation from First Principles

When you meditate, you put away the distractions of busy life and adopt some specific (or not-so-specific) mental posture. Generally speaking, you will “concentrate on” or “attend to” or “center” something. There are two broad classes of things you can concentrate on: (1) incoming impressions from the periphery of your nervous system (or just “body” if you don’t want to get too scientific) and (2) impressions produced by the dynamic internal activity of your mind. The first includes things like body scans and the second things like metta. Some things may be a combination, such as the breath, which delivers impressions via the felt sensations in the airway and diaphragm but which is also produced by your mind.

The possibilities for meditation are endless. You can meditate on any patch of skin, of any size, on any of your joints, on sound, on light, on smell. You can meditate on specific thoughts, on memories, on emotions, on literally anything you can willfully conjure or that your mind can dependably conjure for you. The breath is one extremely specific thing to concentrate on out of the entire universe of your experience. The breath may not necessarily be the best thing to concentrate on, but it is dependable (you are always breathing) and pedagogical (every student breathes).

So clearly there are many concentrations that are available to you. Some of these, however, are more available than others; they are easier to start and to maintain. Every meditator starts with a specific landscape of concentrations that are available to them with specific levels of difficulty for each.

The Central Dogma of Meditation

[My] Central Dogma of Meditation is this: if you do any specific concentration long enough, the landscape of concentrations available to you will change. This isn’t a priori true. It’s possible that it could have been different and that the concentrations available to you never changed and that those were simply an enduring fact of your psychology. Empirically, however, we have discovered that that is not true and the Central Dogma is correct.

So if you do a concentration long enough, new concentrations will become available that weren’t before (or just become easier). If you do one of the new concentrations, even further new concentrations will open up, and you can steadily leapfrog from old ones to the new ones.

A meditation path is a specific sequence of concentrations that has been discovered by a community of practitioners over myriads of hours of practice. The paths that have been discovered by different communities have different degrees of generalizability to all humans. Whether any specific path, as it was discovered, can be taken by you is an empirical question that depends on your specific psychological background.

The Eigenconcentration

What if there were concentrations that violated the Central Dogma? That is, what if there were concentrations that, once reached, can be dwelt in indefinitely without producing further evolution in the landscape of possibility? That is one of the principal approaches that many communities have taken in their discovery of meditative paths. They have explored the branching possibilities of concentrations and found destinations that are, in a sense, the “end”. I do not know whether all of these ends that different communities have found are the same End, but I would not be surprised if they are.

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