March 13th, 2021

📝 Cultivating the Breath as a Symbol

What grows in the mind when you meditate?

Glenn Wallis wrote the following in his introduction to Buddhist meditation:

The Sanskrit word bhavanā is commonly translated into English as "meditation." But that’s too fancy. It really just means "bringing into being," or even more simply, "cultivation." A farmer performs bhavanā when he prepares the soil, plants seed, and protects and nourishes the seedling. When the sun shines, when rain falls, and when the temperature remains just so, that, too, helps to nurture the seed. Cultivated in this fashion, the seed becomes a beautiful, vibrant, and health-giving plant. This is bhavanā.

I remember hearing this years ago when I was really into Buddhist meditation. It sounds nice: nourishing something, growing vegetables, very wholesome. Reading it now, it seems like a very powerful and interesting metaphor.

Rather, it used to seem like a pleasant metaphor, and now it seems almost like a literal description. The mind is not literally a plot of land, but it is a fertile medium that hosts an ecosystem of growing beings.

I picture it by visualizing the brain as a living neural network. This is not neuroscientific; I just find this imagery useful, probably because the neural network structure is so diagrammatic and spatial.

Let's assume we're doing a simple meditation of the kind that Buddhists call anapanasati, mindfulness of the breath.

At first it's not obvious what it means to focus on the breath. It's a complex messy bodily function, not a pristine symbol. But we begin to make a symbol out of it.

We might use words like "in, out" or counting to ten. These are readymade symbols that we know how to focus on, and so we begin to use them as anchors, forming connections between them and the whole rushing flow of sensations and intentions that is the breath. But we're not overwriting the symbolic meaning of the words and numbers, we're making a new thing, a new cluster, a new nexus. These preliminary anchoring symbols work as training wheels.

I'm mixing all kinds of metaphors and analogies, but whatever.

John Vervaeke explains how the breath in meditation becomes a symbol in episode 35 of Awakening from the Meaning Crisis.

His use of the concept Symbol here is very different from the use in terms like "symbolic reasoning." A symbol for Vervaeke is not just any linguistic signifier or an algebraic variable. It's more like the kind of use in "the lion is a symbol of strength" or the Christian cross.

Vervaeke's first example of a Symbol in this sense is the scales of justice. He looks at that Symbol from an embodied cognitive science perspective, claiming that it's not just a nice metaphor. The Symbol identifies justice as involving balance, and we can use the link to the vivid embodied image of the scales to activate our actual capacity for balance. Physical balancing is associated with the brain's cerebellum, and Vervaeke explains that attuning to the Symbol of the scales is a way to light up these neural circuits to bring our learned sense of balancing to bear when making ethical decisions.

That's interesting. I don't know enough to judge it as a scientific claim.

Meditating on the breath, the breath itself becomes a symbol in that sense. Instead of the associations with balancing, we connect to the qualities of the breath: the way it comes and goes like waves on the shore; the way it's wispy and nebulous; the way it's ephemeral like clouds in the sky; its beauty and wholesomeness. And this whole nexus of symbolic resonance is something we can bring to bear on life and the world.

As we maintain a regular meditation practice, we cultivate and clarify this structure, this circuit, this growth.

Another quote from Glenn Wallis:

One of the Buddha’s favorite metaphors for the practice that we refer to as “meditation” is bhavanā, “cultivation.” He certainly had in mind the ubiquitous farms and fields of his native India when employing this image. Thus, unlike “meditation” or “contemplation,” the Buddha’s term is musty, rich, verdant. It smells of the earth. The commonness of his chosen term—it would have resonated with a farmer—suggested naturalness, everydayness, ordinariness. The term also suggested hope: no matter how fallow it has become or damaged it may be, a field can always be cultivated—endlessly enhanced, enriched, developed—to produce a favorable and nourishing harvest. *

I think the cultivated entity in breath meditation is an example of the Weird Fishes I've been writing about. It seems useful to have this way of thinking about it, as an alternative to thinking about it in the more abstract, transcendental, pure way that meditation is often described.

That's also why I find it interesting to think of meditation as nurturing a Selfoid with certain qualities, rather than as a practice of "no-self." If meditating on the breath creates and reinforces a selfoid, that makes it similar in my little framework to nursing an Addiction.

I mention addictions because that's the example Kevin Simler used in 📰 Hallucinated Gods of a contemporary type of pseudo-demonic agent inside the brain, which I mentioned in 📝 More Weird Fishes: Gods, Languages, Addictions.

We don't usually think of smoking tobacco as similar to meditation, more like the opposite, but it's actually a vivid symbolic practice. Even Ayn Rand viewed her beloved cigarettes like this:

When a man thinks, there is a spot of fire alive in his mind—and it is proper that he should have the burning point of a cigarette as his one expression.

David Abram's 📙 The Spell of the Sensuous describes the pipe-smoking of the Lakota people:

The pipe smoke makes the invisible breath visible, and as it rises from the pipe, it makes visible the flows and currents in the air itself, makes visible the unseen connections between those who smoke the pipe in offering and all other entities that dwell within the world: the winged peoples, the other walking and crawling peoples, and the multiple rooted beings—trees, grasses, shrubs, mosses. Further, the rising smoke carries the prayers of the Lakota people to the sky beings—to the sun and the moon, to the stars, to the thunder beings and the clouds, to all those powers embraced by woniya wakan, the holy air. *

Here, smoking is a meditative practice that cultivates an embodied symbolic attunement quite similar to that of breath meditation, but more vividly related to the interconnectedness of beings mediated by the "holy air." The pipe is a portable device that lets you light up a self that sees the world in a certain way. So it's like incense.

Now I'm thinking that pipe-smoking itself could be an embodied symbol for breath meditation. You arrange the tobacco just right, not too tight & not too loose, you light a match and do some initial puffs to stoke the fire, then you keep drawing steadily and calmly to let the material burn nicely. With every draw of the breath, the glowing bundle lights up and intensifies.

There are a lot of symbols like these for meditation. Looking at a candle's flame is a classic form of meditation. I see them as seeds and roots for cultivating meditative selves.

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