What Most of Us Get Wrong about Meditation and Society

We are imagining a future in which we as a society find ways of mon­i­toring the development of a number of key issues that pertain to the inner growth and existential wellbeing of all members of society—then offer­ing support to all citizens during key transitional periods of their lives in acc­ordance with their needs and longings. This will lead to significantly less social and economic fallout of peo­ple’s periods of crisis, and it will seriously boost the number of highly func­tional and men­tally healthy people. In a similar vein Existential Politics should work to develop the medi­tation skills and the level of introspection and meta-cognition in society at large, as well as raising the average inner “subjective state” experien­ced by people in everyday life.

The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘Nordic Ideology: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book Two’. This is the second book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications. 

So basically, it should be a long-term goal to train everybody in con­templation, self-observation and meditation, starting from early child­hood when our brains are especially malleable. If we transform not only the content of people’s minds and the nature of our human relations, but the very base structure by which our minds function, we transform soci­ety.

Meditation and society. There are two different ways to think about this, one of them wrong and the other correct and productive. As so often is the case with these things, almost all observers and practitioners think about it in the wrong way.

Let’s start with the incorrect, stupid way of thinking about this. It goes something like this: “Because meditation is good for you and has a bunch of benefits, people should do more of it, and if we get everyone to do lots of it, then all things will be much better.”

There is some truth to this statement—indeed, if one advanced society has every­one above age nine meditating for 20 minutes per day and ano­ther society doesn’t, all things equal, the first is likely to be somewhat bet­ter off in terms of how people feel and behave—but that really is just a piss in the Mississippi, and there are no guarantees. The pro­blem is that we’re view­ing meditation as:

  1. a specific, delineated activity,
  2. as a binary question of either-or,
  3. as a static “thing” that can be “added”, and
  4. as some­thing to instrumentally do for the sake of other benefits.

With this kind of thinking, meditation so often becomes an unexami­ned prop taken to have semi-magical properties, or it is scor­ned as a cheap trick, or subjected to a one-time evaluation trial and then either rejected wholesale or used in other, unrelated contexts.

The reason people think this way about meditation is of course that they have limited knowledge of and/or experience with it, or that there is some kind of seduction to the idea of this black box fix-it-all. But while under­standable and forgivable, this way of thinking about meditation simply is not what can and will transform society.

The second and correct way of viewing meditation-in-society becomes apparent once you zoom in on the phenomenon—experientially, analy­tically and scientifically. Meditation turns out not to be a convenient black box or a nifty add-on, but a whole continent.

Think about it, how huge isn’t your inner landscape? It truly is a vast con­tinent. When we talk about meditation and the inner work of consci­ou­sly examining and affect­ing these inner landscapes—are we looking at certain techniques for con­cen­tration, or inner familiarization with which emoti­ons arise and how, or direct inquiries into what consciousness itself is, or tech­niques to calm or quiet the mind, or techniques to increase the subt­lety and sharp­ness of our perceptions of sensations throughout the body, or the practice of not reacting negatively to unpleasant sensations but only res­ponding with equanimity, or the per­ception and work with subtle inner experienced flows through our guts, or the deliberate efforts to shift to alter­nate mental states, or the contemp­lation of deep mysteries or koans, or star­ing at white walls, or walking or moving our bodies very mindfully, or look­ing very mindfully at a certain ob­ject of beauty until all thoughts fade away, or meticulously studying one’s thought structures and their phenomen­ological underpinnings, or cult­ivating certain attitu­des or emo­tions like loving-kind­ness and com­passion, or contemplating our greatest fears to try to get over our aver­sions towards them, or con­tem­plating our most eager desires to try to tran­scend our att­ach­­ments, or trying to remind ourselves of some pro­found truths to guide us, or are we just sitting down with no expect­ation, or doing some­thing else that has to do with wordless relations beyond any and all “tech­niques”, or the liste­ning to a sooth­ing sound, or the visualization of a peaceful place, or a radical dive into the very moment of Now, or the subtle exploration of the topology of the inner horizon—i.e. how our inner lands­cape is shaped as space—or using self-suggestion and mantras, or lying down and exploring the edges of sleep and being awake and the possibilities of “lucid dream­ing” (when we dream but we know it), or actively using our breath as a mood regulator, or trying to purify our minds from old mental toxins by means of processes of identifying with the things we don’t like and see that they were really parts of ourselves all along…

You see where I’m going. Each of these forms of meditation and count­less others I didn’t mention are, in turn, not singular “things”; each of them is a rich process with trapdoors and potentials. Each of them can take a life­time to learn and ex­plore. Simply: Since the inner world is vast, when awareness and attention are brought to operate upon consciousness itself, there are thousands or millions of actions that can be taken, milli­ons of mental events that can occur.

Add to this that each of these forms of meditation can be 1) taught and explained in different ways, 2) practiced for different lengths of time and at different times of the day with different intervals, 3) practiced in very diffe­rent social cont­exts and situations, 4) used for different age groups or other forms of calibrations, 5) used or learned in any sequence or combi­nation of different techniques, 6) studied empirically and evaluated and spread in accor­d­ance with best practices, 7) evaluated by different criteria of success or fail­ure, such as preventing mental illness, reducing stress, in­creasing subjective state or successfully integrating traumatic experiences, and 8) interacting with any number of psychological, neurological or psy­chiatric variables, inclu­ding possible risks and adverse effects.

All things said and done, it should be understood that “meditation and society” is not a straightforward relationship. It is a rich field which holds many subtle but profound possibilities of societal trans­formation.

A good comparison can be made to other basic skills, namely reading, writing and arithmetic. If you teach a kid to read and write, it doesn’t nec­essarily make them much smarter, and it doesn’t in itself guarantee a good life. It all depends, of course, on what this person will be reading and writing. If they read Nazi propaganda and poorly spelled snuff porn all day, only breaking off to write hate emails to members of their local min­ority population, they would perhaps have been better off without lit­eracy after all.

The point is that literacy is a whole world, a whole continent. It’s not this “one thing” that can be “implemented” and should or should not be done 20 minutes per day.

And yet, literacy is fundamental to our society. To metamodern soci­ety, meditation—contemplation, introspection, phenomenological ex­plo­­ra­­tion—is that fundamental. The human mind is running haywire and diving right into a global super-nano-robotics-AI-bio-digitized eco­nomy galore, and you want to leave our minds unchecked, unexamined and without pro­per tools for self-scrutiny and self-knowledge? That, my friend, would be as crazy as trying to run a modern society without lite­racy and arith­me­tic. Meditation is that fundamental. It’s self-observation and self-reflection, a higher layer of self-organ­i­zation.

If we had told a peasant in the 1700s that their children should stop wor­king the fields to go learn something called “chemistry” and “phy­sics” by looking at letters and numbers, this would indeed have seemed very abstr­act and as a waste of time. To the modern mind, investments in dev­eloping the inner world necessar­ily appear wasteful and frivolous in a correspond­ing man­ner. Not only is the modern mind focused on outward progress and achie­vement, but its very sense of reality is built around intersubjective verifi­cation. Hence, turning inwards to what cannot be seen and shown in the inter­sub­jective realm appears as a way of turning away from reality itself.

There are some promising beginnings in the work of secular Buddhists such as Robert Wright and Sam Harris, just as there is plenty of research, neuro­logical and other, in prominent scientists such as Richard Davidson, Tania Singer, Olga Klimecki, Daniel Siegel and others who would deserve men­­tion­ing—many of whom work with experienced meditators and do indeed con­firm they have un­usually happy and healthy brains (and even vagus nerves, how about that). Long story short, meditation is a real thing.

One obstacle to getting anywhere in terms of meditation-in-society is that it deals with a hypercomplex entity: the brain, or our nervous system as a whole with interacting physiological systems. As such it is difficult to generalize knowledge about it: I may experience bliss and healing doing one type of meditation, but you might find the same exercise boring or even harmful. (Whatever theories, models or metaphors we can glean about the nature of meditation and inner experience, these must, for the foreseeable future, remain pale “shadows on the wall”, recognized facets of surface phenomena, as compared to the actual intricacies of what is actu­ally going on.)

Too often people will have a very good experience with one technique and then try to evangelize it to the world; “oh, if only everyone did exactly this one thing, in this particular sequence!”[i] But in reality, patterns of inner growth and experience are very hard to generalize, even to our­selves over time. We are so, so far away from an exact predictive science in this field, even if there are certainly compelling research results. And the same goes for psychology, really. All psychological theories and tradi­tions are in fact pale shadows of the complexity and depth of the actual mind.

This, of course, leaves plenty of room for Existential Politics to pool con­siderable resources into learning how the inner landscapes of humans can be developed, and which practices can be taught and how, when, where etc. Research, implementation, professional roles, countering ad­verse effects of training, ethics… We need a real, in­stitutional platform for the adminis­tration of long-term inner develop­ment. We require an on­going process in society to take meditation as ser­iously as reading and writing.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.

[i]. That’s by the way what has happ­ened to pretty much all of the traditional religious paths.