Printed in the Summer 2018 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Mether, Thomas, "Meditation and Logic" Quest 106:3, pg 33-38
By Thomas Mether
Some people assume that meditative practice is meant to transcend the logical mind. This is a misunderstanding. In fact cultivating the powers of logic and reasoning is necessary for developing meditative practice. This truth can be found in a number of esoteric traditions.
Many of these traditions distinguish between two powers of mind. On the one hand is discursive reason, which reflects on what consciousness has revealed to it—what we ordinarily think of as thinking or reasoning. In various traditions this power is called manas, ratio, or dianoia. On the other hand is the power of consciousness itself, which sees directly. In various traditions this power to see directly is buddhi, intellectus, or nous. This power of consciousness to directly see sometimes apprehends an aspect of the Logos, or intelligible meaning structure or archetype of reality. This aspect of the Logos is a noetic idea. The experience of seeing it is a kind of epiphany when a noetic idea is directly apprehended by the consciousness (see Simon, Maritain, and Spruit). The first is a matter of thinking about an experience (say, of an image in the mind); the second is actually experiencing directly, without the mediation of thought. These are ideas in the true, philosophical sense; they are not to be confused with ideas as ordinarily understood. The psychiatrist and spiritual teacher Maurice Nicoll tells us:
We know the experience of suddenly seeing the truth of something for the first time. At such moments we are altered and if they persisted we would be permanently altered. But they come as flashes with traces of direct knowledge, direct cognition.
The description of an idea is quite different from the direct cognition of it. The one takes time, the other is instantaneous. The description of the idea . . . is quite different from the realisation of it . . .
Such ideas act directly on the substance of our lives as by a chemical combination, and the shock of contact may be sometimes so great as actually to change a man’s life and not merely alter his understanding for the moment . . .
We can think of an idea, in this sense, as something that puts us in contact with another degree of understanding and takes us out of inner routine and the habitual state of indolence of our consciousness—our usual “reality.” We cannot understand differently without ideas. (Nicoll, 3–4; emphasis Nicoll’s)
Real ideas are something like Plato’s Forms. They are the spiritual and intelligible dimensions of reality in which we participate both inwardly and outwardly. They are portals by which the consciousness receptively participates in Being, because they are the intelligible aspects of the inexhaustible intelligibility, goodness, and beauty of Being. As such, they initiate us into mystery.
That which experiences ideas (in the sense above) is called nous in Greek and intellectus in Latin. (Again, this is not to be equated with what we ordinarily call intellect.) The English word reason more or less corresponds with the Greek dianoia or the Latin ratio. To a great degree, the distinction between these two faculties has been lost in contemporary thought. Indeed this loss has been blamed for the rise of rationalism in Western culture.
Certainly there is an inflated rationalism present today. The philosopher Jacob Needleman relates it to his experience as an intern on a psychiatric ward. Many patients, he observed, show no lack of reason; in fact, they can formidably deploy reason to justify their pathological forms of experience and to shut reality out. Here reason is a psychological defense formation.
Philosophy can fall into a similar state. Esotericist Frithjof Schuon says that modern philosophy “concerns itself solely with mental schemes . . . From the point of view of spiritual realization these schemes are merely so many virtual or potential and unused objects, insofar at least as they refer to true ideas” (Schuon, 2)..
Needleman believes that if philosophy is no longer practiced as a spiritual discipline and a therapy of the soul, it becomes facile, “easy,” as opposed to genuine philosophy, which is difficult. He writes:
Maimonides explains why the pursuit of metaphysical knowledge . . . is difficult, profound, and dangerous. He who seeks this knowledge, which is equated with wisdom, must first submit to a long and difficult preparation—mental, moral, and physical . . .
With Plato, as with Maimonides, we read that the direct search for wisdom is to be preceded by a certain training of all the natural faculties of man: the body, the emotions, and the intellect.
Note that it is not only wisdom that is so high and so difficult of attainment, and which requires such remarkable preparation. It is also the search for wisdom, the love of wisdom—philosophy, properly so-called—which requires this preparation. (Needleman, 12; emphasis Needleman’s)
For Needleman, present-day philosophy has become “easy” because it has been detached “from the goals of religion, practical ethics, and therapy, it seeks primarily to think well about problems . . . The modern philosopher, in his philosophizing, no longer loves, i.e., searches for a condition of the self, a new state of being.”
Modern philosophy prides itself on its close adherence to empirical experience, but Needleman says that this very fact detaches philosophy from its true role—serving as a difficult spiritual discipline and therapy of the soul:
Modern philosophy sought, of course, to rest itself on the touchstone of experience . . . Common human experience is the touchstone of almost all modern philosophical thought . . .
The Platonic philosophy is exemplary of philosophy as difficult precisely because the appeal to given experience is never the basis for a line of thought . . . In fact it could be said that for Plato . . . man has no experience; or, to put it another way, his experience is not anything like he imagines it to be. Therefore, the education toward philosophy must involve the acquisition by man of the ability to have genuine experience. (Needleman, 13; emphasis Needleman’s)
Since we live in a culture that is used to consuming vast amounts of information, we tend to mistake mere concepts—what Nicoll calls the “description of the idea”—for real ideas. We fail to suspect that the idea is a portal into deeper and more hidden dimensions of reality and ourselves. Even when we have an authentic glimpse of a true idea, it is inhibited by our habit to turn all ideas into conceptual tools. Thus, while a real idea may be conveying a genuine understanding, we are prevented from fully experiencing it.
Nevertheless, real ideas can catalyze inward realization, not only because they are portals to deeper dimensions of reality, but also because they lead to an encounter with the Logos, the divine intellect. All logoi (ideas) are rooted in and united by the greater Logos; each individual logos is a faint and potentially awakening trace of this Logos. Each individual logos, therefore, is also a call and beckoning toward the inexhaustible expanse of Being. Schuon writes: “When speaking . . . of the understanding of ideas, we may distinguish between a dogmatic understanding, comparable to the view of an object from a single viewpoint, and an integral or speculative understanding, comparable to the indefinite series of possible views of the object” (Schuon, 6).
But, I believe, it is misguided to see our present situation as the result of a simple eclipse of intellectus by reason. If we look at the history of human knowledge, we see that there is as much use of reason in the premodern world, before the so-called rise of rationalism, as there is afterwards. It is not so much a question of quantity (how much reason is used) as quality (the manner and way it is used). Instead, the situation may be better described as the eclipse of authentic contemplative experience that perfects the whole person and includes both intellectus and reason.
William Chittick, a scholar of Sufism, tells us that in all spiritual traditions there are two ways of knowing. In an Islamic context, he says there are “transmitted” (naqli) and “intellectual” (‘aqli) forms of knowledge.
Transmitted knowledge is characterized by the fact that it needs to be passed from generation to generation. The only possible way to learn it is to receive it from someone else. In contrast, intellectual knowledge cannot be passed on, even though teachers are needed for guidance in the right direction. The way to achieve it is to find it within oneself, by training the mind or . . . “polishing the heart.” Without uncovering such knowledge through self-discovery, one will depend on others in everything one knows . . .
In transmitted knowledge, the question of “why” is pushed into the background. When someone asks the ulama [scholarly authorities] why one must accept such-and-such a dogma . . . the basic answer is “because God said so,” which is to say that we have the knowledge on the authority of the Quran and the Sunnah . . . Intellectual knowledge is altogether different. If one accepts it on the basis of hearsay, one has not understood it. Mathematics is a science that does not depend on authorities. Rather, it needs to be awakened in one’s awareness. In learning it, students must understand why, or else they will simply be imitating others. It makes no sense to say that two plus two equals four because my teacher said so. Either you understand it, or you don’t. You must discover its truth within yourself. (Chittick, vii–ix, 2–3)
Chittick goes on to write:
Philosophy and Sufism diverged sharply from transmitted sciences by acknowledging explicitly that the meanings of things in the world cannot be found without simultaneously finding the meaning of the self that knows . . . Masters of the intellectual approach recognized that meaning hides behind the “signs” (ayat) of God, that all phenomena point to noumena, and that those noumena can only be accessed at the root of the knowing self. (Chittick, ix)
The philosophical school known as Illuminationism (ishraqiyya; the name is derived from ishraq, light, which is central to its theology and cosmology) included many great Sufis, such as Ibn Sina (also known as Avicenna, c.980–1037 AD), Suhrawardi (1154–1191), and Mulla Sadra (c.1571–1640). The Illuminationists teach that meditative contemplation requires cultivating the analytic and discursive power of reason as well as the intuitive power of immediate awareness.
Suhrawardi, for instance, discusses the mastery of illumined self-consciousness (ana’ iyya) and wakeful awareness. This is an experiential, contemplative knowing by a state of presence (al-huduri) of the subject (basir). It has two integral components: (1) the analytical reasoning power of discursive philosophizing (hikma bahthiyya) and (2) the concentrated power of direct, intuitive seeing. Neither one alone is sufficient for attaining a theosophical participation with the divine intellect (divine theosophy, hikma muta’alliha). Rather, both are necessary for achieving proficiency in illumination (al-qayyim ‘ala’ l-ishraq).
Similarly, the contemplative traditions of Judaism also hold that cultivation of higher states of consciousness is not sufficient. The whole person, including the logical and reasoning power of the soul, must be cultivated and perfected. In Kabbalah the sefirot that correspond to these two powers of mind are Chokmah (the direct seeing part, usually translated as “Wisdom”) and Binah (the logical and analytic part, usually translated as “Understanding”). The eighteenth-century Kabbalist Moshe Chaim Luzzato warns that cultivating higher states of meditative awareness will go dangerously off track if one does not perfect the soul’s analytical power. Thus for his students, training in cultivating meditative states of awareness included training in the ways of reason (derekh tevunos), for which he wrote a textbook titled the Sefer ha-higayon (“Book of Logic”). Initially the objective is to transcend the indirect mediation of ordinary discursive concepts. Once this has been achieved, the analytic and logical power can work directly upon contemplative experience. As contemplative experience becomes more experienced or grows by these two powers working in tandem together, the sefirah Da‘at (Knowledge) grows. Da‘at is realized experience or contemplative experience of God.
The Vedanta too, in all its schools, requires cultivating analytical discrimination (viveka) in addition to concentrative meditation (samadhi). Such a discrimination can discern between lower levels of apparent reality and higher levels of more authentic reality. This analytical process is called badha. Sometimes misleadingly translated as contradiction, badha refers to an insightful discernment that, in a sense, subtracts the less real from the more real. It discerns between reality and appearances that are not as they seem. The appearance has been mistaken for reality because of adhyasa—reified false superimposition. For example, think of the well-known figure that can appear both as two silhouetted faces and as a vase. With adhyasa, perception is frozen into seeing only one possible appearing—seeing only the two faces and not the vase, or vice versa. Except that in this case it is a matter, not of a kind of optical illusion, but of a distorted view of life and its existential situations.
To turn to Buddhist teachings on this topic, we can turn to the famous debate in the eighth century AD between the Indian Buddhist Kamalashila and the Chinese Buddhist Ha-shang Mahayana. This debate was precisely about the role of logical analysis in the path and its relation to the direct realization of sunyata (i.e., nirvana). Scholar Guy Newland summarizes this debate. The point of contention was the Indian and Tibetan insistence that
nondualistic insight into the nature of reality must be founded upon careful and thoughtful analysis of how things exist . . . The Chinese monk Ha-shang Mahayana—having seen this statement that meditative insight involves things such as analysis and differentiation— exclaimed, “I don’t see how this can be a sutra!” In frustration, Ha-shang then kicked the text . . . Ha-shang simply could not believe that any sutra could identify meditative insight with analysis because it was his conviction that we should dispense with all analytical thought and meditate on reality by not bringing anything to mind . . . Tsong-kha-pa [a Tibetan Buddhist sage] argues that this wrong-headed approach will leave Ha-shang and anyone who is like-minded with a great many sutras to kick . . . The liberating insight that will set us on the path to freedom is not “spacing out” or “emptying the mind”. It is a precise, rigorous meditative analysis that breaks through false appearances. (Newland, 101–02)
Ha-shang lost this debate. The Tibetans would follow Buddhist teachings from India rather than those from China.
John Powers, another scholar of Tibetan Buddhism, writes,
Buddhist meditation literature contains many descriptions of meditative trainings that lead to equanimity and insight. An important goal of these practices is the attainment of “a union of calm abiding and higher insight”, in which one is able to remain focused on a meditative object for as long as one wishes and at the same time to analyze its . . . nature. (Powers, 74)
In the early phases of training (including the early phases of mindfulness practice), the practice of meditative stabilization does appear to put thinking and meditation at odds with each other. But this is only temporary. The two were initially at odds with each other only because of the effects of the passions and vices upon them. Later, the wakeful power and discriminating power are fused. Powers elaborates:
Calm abiding is held to be a necessary prerequisite for attainment of higher insight, but meditators must initially cultivate stabilizing meditation and analytical meditation separately. When one has first developed calm abiding, one is not able to remain in that state while performing analysis, and so, one must alternate between calming and analytical meditation. Through repeated practice, however, one develops the ability to maintain the two types of meditation in equal portions at the same time . . . This, however, is not higher insight. Higher insight occurs when one’s analytical meditation itself generates mental stability and is conjoined with physical and mental pliancy. At this point, one enters into a powerful meditative stabilization that is characterized by stability and a wisdom consciousness that understands the nature of the object of observation. The combination of stability and analysis in a single consciousness serves as a powerful counteragent to afflictions and is a potent tool for developing the ability to perceive emptiness directly. (Powers, 79–80)
In this light, we return to Newland’s discussion of the development of insight in order to directly realize sunyata. Here too the purified power of logical analysis and discrimination is crucial for the more advanced levels of meditation.
To meditate on emptiness, we must first identify our most fundamental misconceptions. Through careful practice with a teacher, meditators can learn to locate within their own experience the particular sense of self that is the deepest root of cyclic misery. Once the meditator introspectively locates very precisely the target conception of self, she uses logical analysis in meditation to see whether such a self could actually exist as it appears. Using reason to prove that it does not and could not exist, she realizes emptiness. This knowledge of emptiness, the ultimate reality of all things, is a profound certainty attained through introspective meditation and inferential reasoning. (Newland, 23)
As we have already indicated, at the early phase of beginning to realize emptiness, this analytic component is still a conceptual and therefore a dualistic kind of understanding (Newland, 24).
Some may assume that when Buddhist texts speak of “conceptual constructs dropping away” in more mature meditative states, they mean that logical analysis and the powers of discrimination are no longer operating. This view appears to assume that the discriminative power of the mind only operates with discursive concepts. On this assumption, “conceptual constructs dropping away” is interpreted as meaning that all logical analysis and discrimination have also “dropped away.”
Again the assumption is wrong. The power of logical analysis and discrimination no longer works indirectly, by means of the mediation of concepts (mostly products of memory and imagination). Instead it is now directly fused with wakefulness and works directly on experience without concepts. This is what is meant in many Buddhist texts as “nonconceptual thought” or “nondiscursive discriminative power.”
In the later phase, the conceptual element drops away while the logical power of discrimination fuses with the power of yogic direct perception in meditative stabilization.
Strengthening their analysis of emptiness with the power of concentration, bodhisattvas gradually develop deep insight into emptiness. Through the practice of insight, their experience becomes less conceptual . . . Finally, they are able to know emptiness directly and nonconceptually. (Newland, 24)
Logical analysis thus can work without concepts. It works directly with or on a direct perception. Concepts are left behind, but the mental power of logical analysis fuses with direct awareness itself. And the powers of reason and logic are fused with meditative concentration.
In the Eastern Orthodox mystical tradition known as hesychasm, the logical and analytic part of the mind (dianoia) is also cultivated in order to become fused with the states of concentrated awareness (enstasis) and presence (prosuchi) as the direct power of nonconceptual analytic discrimination (diakrisis). As in the other traditions mentioned, logical fallacies and errors in reasoning are studied as a diagnostic stage on the path to self-knowledge. The kinds of fallacies to which one is susceptible are seen as symptoms of deeper emotional and character issues to be encountered and healed. They point beyond mere errors in reasoning to moral weaknesses of the heart.
In hesychasm, confessional disclosure (logismoi) to a spiritual father has a different purpose from the Roman Catholic sacrament of confession. According to the text known as the Evergetinos, “the purpose of this disclosure is not juridical, to secure absolution from guilt, but self-knowledge, that each may see himself as he truly is” (1, 20, 168–69).
The practice of confessional disclosure is part of the training of the reason to make the right distinctions, analyses, and inferences in the light of conscience (as the template of self-knowledge). It is also to detect hidden moral faults revealed by errors in reasoning and logical fallacies. As author Joseph Allen describes it, this retrospective clarity of confessional analysis slowly endows the nous with the prospective virtues of watchfulness, questioning, and discriminative discernment (Allen, 23–25). It is no longer necessary to suppress thought in order to develop the power of noetic attention. The new level of heightened awareness has become habituated so that thought is no longer a disturbance. Nous and dianoia reinforce and augment the powers of reason at a level that is hardly imagined in the modern world. Instead of being a distraction, the rational power fulfills its proper role within a nondistracted state of noetic presence of the I to itself.
Thus the study of logical reasoning is also a component of a spiritual psychotherapy and pedagogy. The third-century church father Gregory Thaumaturgos writes of another church father, Origen:
Going round and surveying us, as it were, with the skill of an husbandman, and not taking notice merely of what is obvious to everyone and superficial, but digging into us more deeply, and probing what is most inward in us, he puts us to the question, and proposed things to us, and listened to our replies. For whenever he detected anything in us not wholly unprofitable and useless and ineffectual, he would start clearing the soil, and turning it up and watering it. He would set everything in motion, and apply the whole of his skill and attention to us so as to cultivate us. (in Blowers, v)
Allen, Joseph. Inner Way: Eastern Christian Spiritual Direction. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1995.
Blowers, Paul M. Exegesis and Spiritual Pedagogy in Maximus the Confessor. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991.
Chittick, William C. Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul. Oxford: Oneworld, 2007.
Evergetinos. Synagoge. Athens, Greece: Mattharon, 1957.
Maritain, Jacques. The Degrees of Knowledge. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995.
Needleman, Jacob. Consciousness and Tradition. New York: Crossroad, 1982.
Newland, Guy. Introduction to Emptiness: As Taught in Tsong-kha-pa’s Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path. Ithaca, N.Y.: Snow Lion, 2008.
Nicoll, Maurice. Living Time and the Integration of the Life. London: Vincent Stuart, 1953.
Powers, John. Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Ithaca, N.Y.: Snow Lion, 1995.
Schuon, Frithjof. The Transcendental Unity of Religions. 2d. ed. Wheaton: Quest, 1993.
Simon, Yves. The Metaphysics of Knowledge. New York: Fordham University Press, 1990.
Spruit, Leen. Species Intelligibilis: From Perception to Knowledge. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1993.
Thomas Mether (Ph.D., philosophy, Vanderbilt University), has a Boehmist background in Lutheran and Russian Orthodox Sophiology. He has studied with traditional Hesychast, Ishraqi, Tantric, Eurasian shamanic, Neo-Confucian-Taoist, and Vedanta teachers. He is a Life Member of the Theosophical Society, joined the Gurdjieff Foundation forty years ago, and leads the Gurdjieff Work groups and facilitates the Theosophy study group in Nashville.