Musement and meditation

When you make your mind one-pointed through regular practice of meditation, you will find the supreme glory of the Lord.

Bhagavad Gita (Easwaran 126)

How do you make your mind one-pointed through meditation? Religious and spiritual disciplines answer this pragmatic question in as many ways as there are disciplines. Some of them amount to a kind of self-hypnosis for the purpose of attaining some projected state of mind or belief. Others practice for the sake of the practice itself.

In his study of ‘the psychology of optimal experience’ (Flow), Csikszentmihalyi found that the optimal experience is autotelic – ‘an end in itself. Even if initially undertaken for other reasons, the activity that consumes us becomes intrinsically rewarding.’

Teaching children in order to turn them into good citizens is not autotelic, whereas teaching them because one enjoys interacting with children is. What transpires in the two situations is ostensibly identical; what differs is that when the experience is autotelic, the person is paying attention to the activity for its own sake; when it is not, the attention is focused on its consequences.

Work done in that spirit feels more like play to the one engaged in it, because she is focused neither on herself nor on her purpose, but on the practice. The same is true of the optimal experience of art, according to Gadamer (1960, 102):

the work of art is not an object that stands over against a subject for itself. Instead the work of art has its true being in the fact that it becomes an experience that changes the person who experiences it. The ‘subject’ of the experience of art, that which remains and endures, is not the subjectivity of the person who experiences it but the work itself. This is the point at which the mode of being of play becomes significant. For play has its own essence, independent of the consciousness of those who play.

In his 1908 essay on ‘A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God’, Peirce described a meditative practice which is similarly autotelic and playful.

There is a certain agreeable occupation of mind which, from its having no distinctive name, I infer is not as commonly practiced as it deserves to be; for indulged in moderately,—say through some five to six per cent of one’s waking time, perhaps during a stroll,—it is refreshing enough more than to repay the expenditure. Because it involves no purpose save that of casting aside all serious purpose, I have sometimes been half-inclined to call it reverie with some qualification; but for a frame of mind so antipodal to vacancy and dreaminess such a designation would be too excruciating a misfit. In fact, it is Pure Play. Now, Play, we all know, is a lively exercise of one’s powers. Pure Play has no rules, except this very law of liberty. It bloweth where it listeth. It has no purpose, unless recreation. The particular occupation I mean,—a petite bouchée with the Universes,—may take either the form of aesthetic contemplation, or that of distant castle-building (whether in Spain or within one’s own moral training), or that of considering some wonder in one of the Universes, or some connection between two of the three, with speculation concerning its cause. It is this last kind,—I will call it “Musement” on the whole,—that I particularly recommend, because it will in time flower into the N.A.

The N.A. or ‘Neglected Argument’ which Peirce refers to here is an unusual one because it doesn’t try to prove anything, not even to oneself.

One who sits down with the purpose of becoming convinced of the truth of religion is plainly not inquiring in scientific singleness of heart, and must aways suspect himself of reasoning unfairly. So he can never attain the entirety even of a physicist’s belief in electrons, although this is avowedly but provisional. But let religious meditation be allowed to grow up spontaneously out of Pure Play without any breach of continuity, and the Muser will retain the perfect candour proper to Musement.

— Peirce, EP2:436 (the entire essay is online here)

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