Meditation, mindfulness, and spirituality are terms that we encounter a lot these days. All of them can mean different things to different people. What I want to do here is to look at them in relation to two forms of meditation: Transcendental Meditation (TM), which was brought to the West by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (1918-2008), and Buddhist meditation.
I chose these for several reasons. One is that they are both familiar to Westerners, with large followings. Another is that I have personal experience of both of them. A third, and perhaps the most important, is that both attract some who think that they are compatible with naturalism—the view that there is no spiritual realm and this world is all we have. This is the angle from which I shall look at them here. (I use the term “spiritual” for lack of anything better but with full recognition of its vagueness.)
Part of the appeal of both the meditation systems I am writing about is that they are often claimed to be “scientific.” Maharishi described his meditation in spiritual terms when he first came to the West, but later he went on to call it the Science of Creative Intelligence. (Not all the long-term meditators found this an improvement.) As for Buddhism, its characteristic form of meditation, known as insight meditation, has now become detached from its root and is being marketed as mindfulness, in which form it is supposed to have all kinds of benefits for health.
Both TM and Buddhist meditation have been studied by neuroscientists, some of whom have concluded that there is evidence for specific brain states compatible with what is claimed for meditation. This can seem impressive, although the scientific credibility of some of this work has been questioned. In any case, that isn’t what concerns me here. I am interested in the claim that meditation, of any kind, can lead to enlightenment.
What is Enlightenment?
This is a term that we often hear in connection with meditation, but in other contexts it has a quite different meaning, which can cause confusion. In its historical and secular sense it denotes the intellectual and philosophical movement that arose in Europe in the eighteenth century and advocated reason as the primary basis of authority rather than revelation. But the word is also used to mean spiritual or mystical illumination, in which case it usually refers to Asian religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. These two meanings are almost diametrically opposed to each other, but I shall need both of them here.
To make it clear when necessary which kind of enlightenment I am talking about, I shall use enlightenmentsecular and enlightenmentspiritual.
Enlightenment in TM
TM is based on the Advaita (nondualist) Vedanta. This is an ancient Indian metaphysical system which, in its present form, is largely due to Shankara (8th century CE). It holds that your individual self or atman is identical with the supreme Universal Self, known as Brahman. Enlightenment (moksha) consists in realizing this truth—not just intellectually, but as a living experience. This is what TM is supposed to bring about. That’s a pretty impressive claim.
Most Indian sources give the impression that reaching enlightenment is a slow process requiring many lifetimes. One of the startling innovations introduced by Maharishi was the claim that it could happen in a single lifetime, and quite quickly at that; when pressed he suggested seven years. This was thanks to the remarkable effectiveness of TM, which he had received from his guru.
The meditation process worked as follows.
You meditated twice a day for about twenty minutes each time, using a mantra—a special syllable or sound which you repeated mentally. This allowed you to experience progressively “finer” or “subtler” states of awareness, culminating in a fourth state of consciousness additional to the three ‘ordinary’ states: waking, dreaming, and deep sleep.
Maharishi described it as pure awareness, meaning you were awake but not conscious of anything in particular. It was supposed to be blissful, hence it was also called bliss consciousness.
Repeatedly reaching pure awareness was expected to cause it to begin to spill over into waking, dreaming, and deep sleep. Eventually this would become permanent, giving what Maharishi called Cosmic Consciousness.
This wasn’t the final goal, however. Cosmic Consciousness would in turn provide the foundation for a further two higher states, which Maharishi called God Consciousness and Unity Consciousness. So Maharishi’s scheme comprised a total of seven states of consciousness, three ‘ordinary’ and four ‘higher.’
It wasn’t essential to know all this or to believe it in order to meditate—the meditation was supposed to work automatically, independently of one’s expectations—but practically everyone who became seriously involved with TM accepted it, because it made sense of what one was doing and because many, although not all, had been ‘seekers’ for spiritual enlightenment for a long time before coming to TM.
But did it actually work?
It was a TM axiom that it was impossible to know how far along the path anyone else was. (At least, perhaps Maharishi could tell, but we couldn’t.) All you had to go on, therefore, was your own experience. Clearly this allowed for a huge amount of self-suggestion.
My Personal Impression of TM
I can’t say that I had much evidence of success myself. I practiced TM regularly for eleven years but during that time I hardly ever, or perhaps never, reached the state of pure awareness that it was supposed to produce.
In almost all cases, when I meditated I fell into a deep sleep. This was not supposed to be a bad thing; Maharishi said that if it happened it was because you needed the sleep. I have always had a tendency to drop off at inopportune moments, so it isn’t surprising that it happened when I meditated, but still it was disappointing.
On a couple of occasions, quite early on in my TM career, something happened that may have been what meditation was supposed to bring about. Both times I “came to” (not from sleep) to find myself looking at a blank expanse. As I watched, the surface began to ripple and break up, until it turned into my normal consciousness. I found this interesting, but also puzzling.
Was this emergence from a state of pure awareness? Perhaps, although there didn’t seem to have been any awareness at all before the rippling began. It certainly didn’t have the blissful quality that pure awareness is supposed have; it was quite neutral, neither pleasant nor unpleasant, though certainly intriguing. Anyhow, whatever it was, it never occurred again in all the years I meditated.
The other event happened after I received one of the “advanced techniques” that we were given after we had been meditating for some years. This one replaced the mental repetition of the mantra with a more lengthy repetition of a Sanskrit text. Doing this was supposed to allow one to stay longer in the “subtle” states of consciousness without reaching pure awareness (which I didn’t reach anyway).
I didn’t expect anything to happen but to my surprise it worked. For a couple of weeks, each time I meditated it was genuinely blissful. I could remain for forty minutes or more, conscious and aware of my surroundings but in a happy tranquil state which I had no inclination to leave. However, it didn’t last; it stopped happening and never came back.
This illustrates an essential problem I find in evaluating TM. Such subjective phenomena are not self-validating. They are what they are; one may interpret them in line with what is supposed to happen, but they don’t really confirm the metaphysical scheme on which TM is based. They don’t come with subtitles; many other explanations are equally possible.
In a way, this didn’t matter. We were supposed to meditate for the beneficial effects on our lives, not for what happened during meditation.
But what were these effects?
While practicing TM we were not supposed to modify our behavior or make any attempt to live a more virtuous life; the meditation was meant to produce these changes itself. But I was not sure that it made you a wiser or a better person. At least, I don’t think it did for me, and my impression of the people in Maharishi’s entourage was that they exhibited the same competitiveness and self-importance as you would expect to find in any secular organization.
It’s true that I knew many people in the TM movement whom I liked and admired, but I’m not convinced that they had become like that because of TM; it was simply how they were.
This may correspond with something reported by John Horgan. Kenneth Wilber is a philosopher with a large following who has written extensively (and to me impenetrably) about enlightenment. When Horgan interviewed him he claimed to have attained a considerable level of enlightenment on a more or less permanent basis. Not even the Dalai Lama, Wilber said, could maintain self-awareness during sleep as he, Wilber, could. This sounds like Cosmic Consciousness. Horgan found him impressive but was disturbed by his apparent pride in his own spiritual attainment.
There is also a disquieting possibility that Cosmic Consciousness, or something that sounds like it, may sometimes be pathological. Horgan says that John Wren-Lewis also reported permanent self-awareness even in sleep. In his case it followed recovery from poisoning. If this was Cosmic Consciousness it was apparently caused by brain damage, which is difficult to reconcile with Maharishi’s view of it as normal “evolution.”
Of course, Wilber’s and Wren-Lewis’s states of mind may not be identical with Cosmic Consciousness, even though they sound similar. But that is just the point. It is the problem that confronts all descriptions of “mystical” states. They are subjective and we can never know if the descriptions all refer to the same thing or, indeed, to anything real at all.
Are All Mystics Ultimately Saying the Same Thing?
The late John Hick, who has been described as perhaps the most significant philosopher of religion in the twentieth century, thought that there are genuine differences in what the mystics report, because what they describe is always shaped by the religious traditions in which they live.
Hick believed that all of the world’s religions are “masks” or “faces” interposed between us and what he called the “Real,” which can never be known directly. He also said that the universe is “ambiguous” meaning that it is equally reasonable to believe that the Real doesn’t exist as that it does.
I can go along with this. In my early TM years I was fascinated by ancient Indian ideas and believed that they held the key to how we should understand ourselves and the universe.
But as TM began to change its character in the 1970s and 1980s, with the advent of Yogic Flying, ayurvedic medicine, and other (to me) unwelcome innovations, I started more and more to question the underlying philosophy. Finally, it lost its appeal for me, and I let it go—not regretfully, but with a sense of relief, similar to what I had felt when, much earlier, I let go of Catholicism.
Looking back, I see that I have always had a leaning toward naturalism, but that this was partly held in check while I was involved in TM. Admittedly, Maharishi insisted that what he was teaching was scientific, not mystical; but that was true only within certain limits. Scratch a little deeper, and TM was difficult to reconcile with any seriously naturalistic position.
The Advaita Vedanta is an astonishing and impressive intellectual edifice, in which one would easily lose oneself for a lifetime—people do. Perhaps it is, as claimed, based on what we could call mystical experience. But does that make it true, or is it rather a superb example of what the psychologist William James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, calls an over-belief? Like Hick’s ‘Real,’ the Vedic vision of identity between atman and Brahman is ambiguous.
I was interested in Buddhism long before I heard of TM. Maharishi was dismissive of Buddhism, which he said merely offered Cosmic Consciousness, and lacked the two higher states offered by TM, but after I ceased to practice TM, I began to look into Buddhism again. By now I had moved a considerable part of the way towards naturalism as my preferred view, and Buddhism seemed as if it could be compatible with that.
By this time there were several Theravada Buddhist monasteries in Britain and I got in touch with one of these, where I learnt the method of insight meditation (now familiar in a secular context as mindfulness) and also did a couple of meditation retreats. Nothing much happened when I meditated, but then it wasn’t supposed to, so I wasn’t disappointed. More to the point, I found the general tone of the place mostly congenial.
On one longer retreat I become quite depressed, which is unusual for me. In fact, I was on the point of leaving, but I went to see the monk who was leading the retreat, an American of my own age who had spent many years in a forest monastery in Thailand. I told him what had happened and that I thought I should leave. In response to a question, I said that the hardest thing for me was not reading (we had been told to refrain from reading). He advised me to read and not to leave; I followed his advice and the depression lifted at once.
Westerners who are otherwise indifferent or even hostile to religion, particularly Christianity, sometimes say that they are well-disposed towards Buddhism because it is more naturalistic than other religions. But as Owen Flanagan, a philosopher who has made a detailed study of Buddhism points out, this ‘sanitized’ view of the religion doesn’t correspond with how it actually exists in predominantly Buddhist countries.
There you find an abundance of gods and demons, as well as rebirth, heaven and hell realms, and numerous other things that are excluded on even the most basic and tolerant version of naturalism. Some say that these beliefs are later accretions on the original ‘pure’ system taught by the Buddha, but this is difficult to prove; we know little about very early Buddhism.
Yet is it right to strip all this non-naturalistic stuff out? It can be objected that you are then left with a bowdlerized version of the real thing, and that what would remain is hardly Buddhism at all. But Flanagan, who is not himself a Buddhist, is unrepentant:
My answer [to the question of what remains] is that what would remain would be an interesting and defensible philosophical theory with a metaphysics, a theory about what there is and how it is, an epistemology, a theory about how we come to know and what we can know, and an ethics, a theory about virtue and vice and how best to live.
Flanagan is not a Buddhist, and his version of Buddhism is intended to appeal to those who, like himself, are analytic philosophers. But most Westerners interested in Buddhism are not professional philosophers, and their reasons for studying and practicing it will usually be different from Flanagan’s. In at least some cases they are looking for enlightenment.
Enlightenment in Buddhism
Buddhism differs from Advaita Vedanta in that it denies atman (no permanent self) and has nothing to say about Brahman. In general, Theravada Buddhism is intellectually austere compared with Tibetan Buddhism, which may make it easier to accommodate in a naturalistic setting.
Even so, one cannot study Buddhism of any kind without encountering nirvana, which is the Buddhist term for enlightenment. Whole libraries-full of books have been written about this. Westerners interested in secular Buddhism, such as Flanagan, often find difficulty in knowing what to say about it.
Part of the problem is that in standard Buddhism nirvana is closely bound up with rebirth, which is clearly out of court for naturalists. Nirvana is supposed to be where you arrive after a long series of rebirths. When John Horgan interviewed Flanagan he asked him if he believed in enlightenment. This elicited a grimace. “I might as well have asked him if he believed in Bigfoot.”
Still, in his book on Buddhism Flanagan does say something about nirvana. He finds three different conceptions of the state in the Buddhist scriptures, the Pali canon, which he calls N1, N2, and N3.
N1 is equivalent to the secularists’ idea of death—simple extinction. N2 is a state of freedom while you are alive, in which you are no longer controlled by egoism, anger, avarice and other undesirable emotions that result from ignorance. You feel extreme tranquility and, perhaps, are happy. N3 is the same as N1 (extinction) but it happens after you achieved N2 while you were alive.
I started writing this piece with the aim of clarifying my thoughts about meditation and enlightenment. After innumerable rewritings, I think I have taken this as far as I can, at least for the moment. Here are my conclusions.
- I know many people who have found great benefit from TM and I don’t want to dispute that, even though my experience was different. But I am not persuaded that any altered state of consciousness (which is what TM is supposed to produce) can be taken as proof of the validity of a metaphysical system such as Advaita Vedanta, and I no longer look to the possibility of reaching a state of enlightenmentspiritual, with TM or any other system.
- I have no difficulty in believing that some of the Theravada monks I have met have achieved at least a degree of enlightenmentsecular (Flanagan’s N2). But it’s important to understand that there is more to Buddhism than meditation. (Few people, including monks, meditate in predominantly Buddhist countries—something that apparently astonishes almost all Americans when they hear of it.)
What is equally important, if more prosaic, is to observe the Buddhist ethical precepts. I have heard a respected Theravada monk end a retreat by saying that unless you observe the precepts you may as well forget about meditating. (A difference from TM.)
- Should everyone meditate? Well, on the basis of my own experience, I don’t think so. That doesn’t mean I regret having tried; as they say in the military, negative information can be as valuable as positive. But I doubt that everyone is suited to meditation. Your mileage may vary.
The philosopher Galen Strawson is sympathetic to Buddhism and has tried to meditate, without much success. He finds that, as a means of altering his consciousness, doing philosophy is more effective:
I think philosophy really does change one over time. It keeps one’s mind large, in some peculiar manner. It seems to me that the professional practice of philosophy by itself is a kind of spiritual discipline, in some totally secular sense of “spiritual”; or at least that it can be and has been for me.
Flanagan is not a Buddhist but has found much that is valuable and wise in Buddhist philosophy and ethics, as do I. The Buddhist precepts are not divinely ordained; they are quite compatible with rationalism, and are broadly comparable to those we find in many secular forms of Western philosophy as far back as Stoicism. That may be as much as some of us need or want.
 Wikipedia, “Advaita Vedanta.” <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advaita_Vedanta>.