Snazzy Free Newsletter:

"Caveat Meditator"

excerpt from The Mind Field by Robert Ornstein


For many people, the first experiences of an extended consciousness have come from newly organized groups. Some of these groups are resolutely commercial, others clannish and secretive. In considering both types of groups, we encounter, again, the difficulties of understanding and conveying an advanced knowledge of human capacities. In observing how these "franchised mysticism groups" promote and maintain themselves, we can note how the original knowledge seems to shrink to fit commercial requirements.

Many people have been associated with both psychotherapy and parapsychology for many years. The advent of trademarked, franchised mystic cults, however, is a more recent development. Some people seize upon them as the latest stage in their own continual self-preoccupation and indulgence; others seek new "experiences" for themselves. Such forms of meditation, and of awareness-training, have usually met with immediate and continued disdain from professional psychologists and educators, sometimes justified, sometimes for the wrong reasons. That these pop cults and organizations exist and thrive is in large part due to the same lag in mainstream awareness that has allowed the psychotherapeutic disciplines to extend their rightful role in our affairs. Along with our cultivation of intellectual skills, and the increasing prominence of those skills in education and professional life (with attendant specialization of function, there has been an almost complete abdication of teachings regarding the person and what could be called wisdom and self-knowledge. The trademarked awareness systems have, therefore, moved into an area of "applied psychology" in disuse within the academic and educational professions.

The systems offer either one special technique or a synthetic amalgam of techniques drawn from many sources. These techniques, in spite of the opinion of most academics, may not be entirely worthless. The "systems" do continue the fragmentation and degeneration of an authentic mystical tradition. Although the piecemeal benefits of these cults may be of scattered and transient use, such benefits are often perverted to the perpetration and dominance of the system, or to the personal service and material benefit of the leader. The process is similar to the bureaucratic encrustation of a new and perhaps useful government program: the original impetus is lost. If quite important traditional teachings about the person and conscious evolution have fallen into the hands of the contemporary guru-superstar industry, then both the organizers of this industry and those responsible for our education share responsibility. After all, if one is denied normal food one will search out alternatives, even food that makes one sick.

In our society, where is one to learn how to calm one's mind in times of stress, how to improve personal relationships, attain a measure of responsibility for the direction of one's life, and come to terms with one's own creation of experience of the world, let alone an intuitive wisdom of the purpose of life? The existence of "instant-weekend" and simpleminded meditation-training systems tells us more about what is missing from contemporary education, even at a rudimentary level, than any amount of professional criticism could do - we are a society of spiritual illiterates, suckers for a quick answer. Many have turned to the showmen/salesmen and to the recycled Indian dropout to make up for the basic shortcomings of our education - and at great, and often unnecessary, cost.

We are lax in the training of personal knowledge. We may spend years perfecting our tennis stroke, yet precious little training is offered on the nature of our bodies or on the personal dimensions of our own experience. Much modern research, for instance, shows our ordinary consciousness to be a construction of the world, a "best guess" about the nature of reality. Yet rarely, if ever, in psychology or education classes is this fact brought home to students and made part of their experience. Rarely are students acquainted with procedures that might allow them to realize the benefits of this understanding. "Academic" learning is rather determinedly kept in one sphere, with its own professionals and hierarchy, "applied" training in another: rarely does the academic become involved in training people, and rarely does the "applied" psychologist or educator make any dent in mainstream academic thinking.

The new, franchised self-improvement courses are neither the instant self-transcendence-fantastic-enlightenment panaceas that their followers resolutely contend, nor are they, as most academics contend, entirely lacking any phenomena of interest. Most self-awareness programs provide some of the rudiments of a once-complete technology of consciousness. In the absence of anything more highly developed, such programs impress their followers, and yield great benefits to their leaders - after all, a simple tape recorder might be enough to convince a primitive tribe that the bearer was a representative of the deity. From one system, one can learn to relax; from a second, to relate; from a third, to respond. Converts are often attained by classic methods: program leaders offer either a minor service to the inexperienced in the meditation/relaxation system, for example, or they offer a severe initiation/conversion experience, as in the large-scale awareness-training systems. Particular systems come and go, inspired, perhaps by a given site or the particular style of a leader or a particular technique, yet their successes and excesses remain fairly constant.

Consider one such reduced example of a complete tradition: the practices of meditation as developed in various cultures of the world and in various cultural eras are quite diverse. The practice may involve whirling, chanting, singing, or concentration on the movement of the beat, on specially posed questions, or on an internal sound. It may consist solely of ordinary activities, imbued with "mindfulness"; it may involve prayer in the church, in quiescence, or in unison. There may be an attempt to deliberately separate two coexistent streams of consciousness. Other, more advanced techniques may involve the control of various "centers" in the body, as in early Christian mysticism, and receptivity to communications beyond the norm. Meditation practices have many, many diverse functions, depending on the nature of the students and of the society.

The primary function of the diverse techniques of meditation is to begin to answer the basic questions of life, such questions as go unanswered in ordinary social or educational interaction. For instance, one might ask, "What is the purpose of existence?" or "What is death?" in the same verbal analytic mode as one might ask, "What is the size of that building?" Most of us are trained to ask questions in this manner. But those of esoteric tradition contend that personal questions about the nature of existence cannot be answered in the same rational, verbal manner as can questions about the nature of the physical or even social environment. Meditation, then, is "a-logical," intended to defeat the ordinary sequential and analytic approach to problem-solving in situations where this approach is not appropriate.

Questions are sometimes given that have no answer, for the purpose of showing, simply, that not all questions that can be posed can be answered. A Zen Master might ask, "What is the size of the real you?" - then instruct a follower to return with the answer, an answer obviously impossible to express in words or in rational thought. On koan, as such questions are called, is the following: "If you say this stick is real, I will beat you with it. If you say this stick is not real, I will beat you with it. If you do not say anything at all, I will beat you with it." Obviously, this is a situation in which there is little one can say, since the appropriate response lies in another realm.

A Japanese academic who wished to "understand" Zen more fully went to a monastery to submit himself to the koans. He was asked "What is mu?" - to define, that is, a word which has no meaning in Japanese. As a good scholar, he proceeded to look up the syllable in Japanese and other Oriental dictionaries to determine a potential root meaning and habitual usage. He presented his findings to the Master, who repulsed him and immediately sent him away. Our scholar next thought the question to be more subtle and tried to analyze the tonal component of the syllable in every language of the Chinese group. He again presented his findings to the Master, who now thought it was time to convince this poor scholar of the seriousness of his situation, that it was not a question of another academic excursion. "I will give you one more chance," he said, "and if you do not solve the riddle, I will cut off your leg." Now, even in the most extreme arguments or thesis examinations of the academic world, thing usually don't become this rough. But the threat did frighten the scholar "out of his wits," so to speak. He completely concentrated upon the syllable itself, trying to puzzle out the meaning, and in the process of concentration itself he achieved the result. The question had a nonanalytic effect, and a nonverbal result as well. Those who are not privy to the extreme concentration brought about by the Zen Master's exercise, or the scholar's reply, might not realize that many of the most important and compelling questions that face us cannot be looked up in an encyclopedia or dictionary. There is no place where the meaning of one's life is "written up."

Chanting, whirling, and other exercises are concentration techniques, exercises whose primary effect is mental, not confined to mere relaxation or to a highly promoted "fourth state of consciousness" involving deep relaxation. That we become confused when considering meditation is partly due to the fact that many of the undeveloped esoteric traditions come to us mixed with their Indian, Japanese, and Middle Eastern backgrounds, with their particular medical and cosmological systems and other cultural trappings. It is again a problem of the container and the content - we cannot sufficiently distinguish those aspects of esoteric tradition which can be important for the development of our own consciousness from the less importable foreign aspects of cultural style. Vegetarianism, for instance, is widespread and is functional in India due to the short supply of meat (which, when available, is often of poor quality, or even dangerous). Similarly, speaking Japanese, or using soy sauce (or, better, Tamari) is no more "spiritual" than consuming hot dogs, ketchup, or beer. Not useful either is the wholesale adaptation of a particular system of Indian medicine or cosmology, when in these areas the West has developed beyond the East. As we often encounter them today, the ancient esoteric traditions are accidental conglomerations of useful techniques and outmoded cultural trappings. In such an atmosphere, a reduced form of meditation can be mass-merchandised.

And for many, their entire association with the techniques of meditation has been with the most rudimentary and minor form, that of a concentrative repetition, divorced from any cultural background, and divorced from other techniques that are organically associated with it. It is like learning how to spell, without ever learning how to read.

Continual concentration upon any object produces certain biological results. Among them is a loss of contact with the external world - which may be interpreted differently by a person merely amusing himself by staring at a crack in the wall, or by a person in a psychological experiment, or by one who performs these actions at the beginning of serious practice in esoteric tradition. One particular form of this concentrative meditation, known by its trademarked name as "Transcendental Meditation," is in fact the most elemental and least transcendent form of meditation of all. Indeed, Transcendental Meditation, quite popular in the United States and Western Europe, has offered many their first idea of what these traditions are about - unfortunately, too often in the form of a giggling, smiling guru and a highly developed program of scientific "validation." Descriptions of the efficacy of Transcendental Meditation are displayed in brochures and on posters stuck on laundromats and pizza parlors from Spokane to Boca Raton: "Improves levels or rest, aids natural changes in breath rate, cardiac output, relaxation, restful alertness, brain wave synchrony, faster reaction time, increased perceptual ability, learning ability, academic performance, productivity, job satisfaction, job performance, self-actualization, inner control, mental health, psychology," and so on. Indeed, it is claimed by the proselytizers of "TM" that it is the "answer to all your problems." Nowhere do we see reference to the major mental purpose of meditation; we are given only the reduction. Common to many of the franchised systems are these commercial claims to improve every aspect of human life. This is a mark of a cult system. Participants believe they have in their grasp a technique good for everyone at all times - not one that might have selective benefits and detriments.

In the case of TM, the bulk of its claimed scientific "validations" are usually marked "submitted for publication" - or are published by the movement's own Maharishi International University Press. TM is promoted as a synthesis of East and West - which means, presumably, that Western science is at last considered able to investigate practices of the East. If there is a synthesis here, it is an unfortunately comic one - the lack of scientific rigor in the East joined with the lack of spiritual advancement of the West. Such claims constitute a debasement of both science and meditation. Here, science is employed to document improvements in personality, or bodily changes, with no consideration given to whether such changes are in fact due to meditation, and what the significance of the change really is.

For instance, the mere report of an alteration in the electroencephalogram means almost nothing by itself. The EEG alone is quite an unstable measure, and rigorous controls must be maintained to ensure that it actually relates to significant brain activity. Recording an EEG might be compared to placing a heat sensor over a computer and attempting thereby to determine the computer's program. The innumerable brochures and posters which promote the TM movement often go beyond scientific evidence. "Increased synchrony" of the brain, for example, which connotes to those versed neither in meditation nor in brain research a measure of the mind's "increased harmony," that both hemispheres are working together, is often claimed as a result of TM. In truth, such "synchrony" (a finding largely unrepeated) derives from the fact that the brain may produce more alpha rhythm in times of quiescence, and thus the correlation of the two hemispheres of the brain is increased. Similarly, a time-displaced frequency (fourier) analysis is sometimes displayed. The implication here is that mind is "calm" during meditation, since the graphs have an appearance of regularity. This is merely the use of undigested technical vocabulary to impress the credulous. The pattern of an epileptic seizure might well look, to the uninitiated, as a coherent pattern on a frequency analysis. And thus with the relaxation measures, and the various additional studies. The fallacious and promotive scientism here seems to be: if any psychological or physiological measure alters during their practice of the concentrative "transcendental" meditation, then
a. it must be due, exclusively, to this wonderful practice; and
b. the change must be "good."

The studies continually barrage one with measures of increased Goodness and decreased Badness, during and after the practices.

Note how the process works. Herewith a proposed physiological experiment which will yield positive results, and which could be repeated (or, rather, performed for the first time) in any physiological laboratory in the world. I will also draw the same conclusions as do the TM merchandisers from their experiments (A and B). Suppose we assume that reading were not developed in our society. I might claim that reading "sacred" literature, such as the Bible, not only leads to increased Goodness, but that it actually causes physiological changes. Imagine the following experiment (C): physiological measures are taken on selected subjects before reading, while reading, and after reading: eye movement is chosen for the physiological validation of our experiment.

We could naturally conclude that before reading, physiological activity was at a low level, but during reading it dramatically increased, and returned to baseline afterwards. If we wanted to continue the research, we could undoubtedly record alterations in Regional Cerebral Blood Flow (RCBF) to the left hemisphere, changes in Galvanic Skin Resistance (GSR), etc. However, our experiment would not explain how an arbitrary measure, such as eye movement, relates to the supposed benefits of reading, or whether, for instance, other types of reading would show similar effects on the eye-movement measure.

Several points need to be raised about research attempting to validate meditation. This kind of research tends to be promotive and exploitative; it uses science to sell a product. This promotionalism is rather like drug-company television commercials that show one product entering the bloodstream faster than others. The essential question should be: what is the real effect of meditation? Popular forms of meditation are, most likely, a quite reduced and sanitized form of a more advanced exercise, no more useful than repeating the world "Coca-Cola" or "money" over and over for relaxation. This exercise is not at all useless in itself, especially in cases of stress, but as it is packaged it is no quicksand to someone seeking extended knowledge.

The problems of promotive hucksterism are to be expected when so few people are sufficiently acquainted with the intention, possibility, and range of esoteric traditions. Certainly, relaxation of habitual thought patterns, and internal control, as developed in esoteric tradition, can be of help to many people, especially those prone to anxiety and worry. It may even enable "normal" people to stabilize their health and achieve a more flexible repertoire of thought strategies, as a prelude to involvement in esoteric traditions. However, the primary purpose of meditation is not physiological. No one meditates to attain "synchrony of electrical activity of the brain hemispheres" or "a long period of pure, high-amplitude, single-frequency theta waves." Meditation is undertaken to increase one's capacity for experience and self-understanding.

The mental "emptiness" achieved by the concentrative forms of meditation is not a mere lapse in attention but an alteration in one's basic approach to the world, a glimpse of a potential consciousness. Other exercises, such as the "mindfulness" rituals in Zen, are intended to yield in the observer a notation of habitual sequential patterns of mental activity characteristic of the individual. There are a myriad of potential consciousness-alteration techniques. As our culture is opened up to the East, various immigrant have entered with techniques borrowed piecemeal across cultures.

However, although there are many techniques available, most people are not in a position to choose which technique is most appropriate for them. There is, after all, no indigenous cultural tradition to draw upon. "Experts" who have little experience of the unity and coherence of spiritual techniques offer instant-weekend self-improvement courses which promote the particular amalgam chose by the expert himself. They often involve a little meditation, a little indoctrination, a little scientology, and a little "validation," with the audience softened up (as in the best of brainwashing) by fatigue, fasting, and insults. Such courses bear the same relationship to a consistent, spiritual developed teaching as the techniques of a sex manual have to the experience of love. (* Note: "I once received a form letter (with a computer address label) from one West Coast instant guru that ended with "I love you.")

The instant-enlightenment weekend approach can be produced by several means. One could duplicate the results by techniques as diverse as the proper use of jewelry, or by fasting, by dancing to exhaustion, by sensory deprivation or overload, or with drugs. Such an upset of ordinary activities and consciousness yields a "first experience" that the world is different from what one had thought. Yet, as a "first experience," we are likely to misinterpret its significance, just as people often overvalue their first sexual experience. We often find any real benefit to the student plowed back into service to the organization.

If, for instance, you had never heard of an automobile, you might be excited to be offered, for $50,000 a vehicle that actually ran on gasoline. Such a vehicle might be comprised of the fenders of a 1921 Ford, the engine of a 1926 Hispano-Suiza, the transmission of a contemporary Mercedes, seats from a Chevrolet pickup truck, the rear body from an Austin. You might be further impressed by the sacrifices and the submission you and many volunteers would need to keep such a vehicle on the road. If no one else of you acquaintance, however, had ever heard of an automobile, you might well become famous as the person "who gave it all up for the vehicle that could move itself." Yet even the most humble contemporary economy car would be an improvement.

The franchised weekends take just such an advantage of the gap in our education. Popular mysticism claims "converted" adherents for techniques which should be part of our basic education. Its enthusiasts take a partial aspect of esoteric tradition, such as an exercise meant for one community, and generalize it to everyone, and offer the same mass indoctrination or initiation to everyone. The initial "experience," then, is often channeled, not into the individual's personal development, but into the service of the system. Since the systems are synthetic and artificial amalgams, they must be kept going with much infusion of effort and activity. Thus, social gratification begins to substitute for the development of consciousness, with parties, mixers, investment clubs, phone solicitation, uniform dress, and jargon designed to create an elite in-group. Continual reminders are given to stragglers, by mass mailings, letters and phone calls, Christmas gifts, solicitations of service to the head of the organization, all consequence of the artificial nature of the system. The question is not only whether the constellation of techniques has any effect, but also whether in the long run the usefulness of the experience of the technique is outweighed by the benefits of the system itself, whether people seeking to develop themselves are ultimately exploited by those who confuse the container with the content.


The noncommercial, secretive, esoteric cults are unfortunately similar to the well-advertised consciousness systems. The degeneration of a true religious tradition in the West has left those high-minded "metaphysical people" prey to those who substitute an ancient fragmentary teaching for a unified whole. David Pendlebury describes the current situation:

""Sobriety" and "intoxication" are of course not intended literally; nor are they merely flowery metaphors: these are technical terms denoting twin poles of human awareness, each in its own way indispensable to balanced development. A man has to see the true reality of his situation; he has to take a very sober look at him self. Equally, though, he needs a taste of another condition in which his latent possibilities are recognized. Taken on its own, either pole is sterile, developmentally speaking. There are plentiful examples all around us of such imbalances. Perhaps you too had a Calvinist great-uncle who died heartbroken, having succeeded in convincing himself, a) that "the grace of God" was essential, and b) that such "grace" had been withheld from him. Perhaps you, too, have friends whose Ouspensky-oriented understanding of Gurdjieff has left them eternally bewailing the (obvious facts that "man is asleep," "man cannot remember himself," "man cannot do," etc.) Or other friends who have chosen to "freak out," to "blow their minds"; and are astonished, in rare moments of lucidity, to find themselves inhabiting a "behavioral sink" or terminal sewer." Or other friends, perhaps, who inform you in and out of season that: "I was hopelessly at sea, until (name and address supplied) showed me the answer."

Pendlebury mentions the Caucasian "mystic" George Gurdjieff, whose followers unfortunately have come to represent the fragmentation of much of contemporary esoteric studies. Although by many accounts Gurdjieff was a man who personally could awaken a sense of life and action in his associates, his work has become the captive of his most doctrinaire and severe followers, who seem to cherish their incompleteness and merely shout "I must wake up" while reading obsolete doctrines. A fragment of a coherent approach has become honored among those who look to each new teacher for the secret that will allow them to turn away from their morbid self-preoccupation and experience the wholeness of life.

This kind of esoteric school serves to promote the abnormality of those involved. Thus, the continuous search for "true teachers" of mysticism often leads enthusiasts to an examination and popularization of the past, of teachings inappropriate for our time and culture. Outmoded books on alchemy, ancient mysticism, commentaries on Gurdjieff and other mystics are all scoured by the devout in their hope of finding "the key" which will unite all. One of Gurdjieff's teachers describes this process to one who sought out the teachings of the East: "You are scrabbling about in the sands, looking for bits of mica to piece together to make a mirror, not realizing that the sand itself is capable of being transformed into the purest glass."

Here, then, is an essential distinction between the obscurantist esotericizers, who continually proclaim to "search the heavens" and the "depths of their souls" for isolated bits of knowledge, and a potentially viable contemporary spiritual teaching. Reductionism, or inflation, can exist on all levels, including the metaphysical. Merely writing in effulgent and self-denigratory terms about an outmoded cosmology is no more relevant to the real development of human knowledge than are psychiatric theorizing or the double-talk of commercial awareness-training groups. That the dead hand of a cold, sterile Metaphysical Inflationism should have touched the students of Gurdjieff - a man, for all his shortcomings, who always sought genuine development - is a great irony.

If there do exist so many difficulties in popularizing the fragmentary remains of esoteric tradition - a meditation technique that is sold for everybody, a man screaming for hours effectively brainwashing an audience, or a turgid "metaphysics" - then what might currently be useful in preparing the ground?

Most of the contemporary fragmentary systems suffer from a confusion of the essence of mystical tradition with the original system itself. They often confuse the system with the knowledge, mixing up mistranslated ancient descriptions of "sight" and what can be "seen" with the technical details of an operation designed, say, to remove occlusions. A blind person accustomed to hearing inflated exaltations of the joys of sight may not be prepared when someone introduces technical procedures that are actually useful in an eye operation. "What are these cold hard things I touch?" he may exclaim of the surgical instruments. "What is their relationships to the grandeur of green grass, or to a sunset, of which I have heard so many wondrous descriptions?" Why many people of differing specializations may need to be involved in the task of surgery; why there is a need for antisepsis, for someone to have studied the physiology of the eye (or brain hemisphere, in the case of hemianopia), would entirely escape those who have become diverted from the attempt at seeing into a mere interest and expertise on "the dimensions of spiritual experience," "techniques of mysticism," "traditional approaches to the mind," or "the wisdom of the East." Such a person wishes for more availability of effulgent and high-minded descriptions of sight: the fragmentary substitute.

This is a continuous difficulty: the confusion of the vehicle with the objective, of the hard technical knowledge available in this area today with romantic descriptions of the universe, "spiritual experiences," "beings" of all orders, a "cosmic law." However, current literature, travel writings, and scientific facts all can serve a valid and reconstructive purpose: if properly presented, they can convey to the interest student the rudiments of "sight," and can aid in developing a more comprehensive awareness of himself and of life. This can occur even though the literature may not directly mention cosmology, God, mysticism, or any of the things most usually, romantically and traditionally, associated with mystical experience. Many of the most important books, then, do not appear in "metaphysical" collections, nor are they used by mystical societies. They may not contain one word of reference to this area, or be labeled "metaphysical." They are present but are "invisible" to the hemianopic, or to the blind slave of tradition, or to the devotee of the current cults.


Yakoub of Somnan, explaining the function of the literature that he used, said:

"Literature is the means by which
things which have been taken out of the community, such as knowledge, can be returned.
The similitude is as of a seed,
which may be returned to the earth long after the plant from which it grew is dead,
with perhaps no trace of it remaining.
The learned may be millers of the grain-seed,
but those whom we call the Wise are the cultivators of the crop.
Take heed of this parable,
for it contains the explanation of much irreconcilability of attitudes in the two classes of students."

- excerpt fromThe Mind Field by Robert Ornstein


Related Articles:

Modern Spirituality: What's Hot and What's Not

What is "Enlightenment"?

What is "God"?

Who are you?

Why are we here?

The Search for "IT"