a Hegelian meditation

This is a breath: in and out.

That sentence is true; if the mind knows anything, it’s the reality of a breath.

By the time that thought has formed, it is false. This is not a breath—that thing is gone; it does not exist. Perhaps there is a new breath, and the sentence is true again, but it has a new object. It is true and false that “This is a breath.”

The mind turns to an abstraction: breath in general. Surely there are many breaths, all exemplifying one concept. In contemplating that concept, the mind can only think of a breath, and by the time it has that thought, that breath is gone. It is false that this is breath and that there is breath.

Nevertheless, a new breath comes. This one has a certain sound, familiar since the cradle. This breath has a certain feel, swelling the chest. The sound is not the feeling, yet the breath is one thing. Its aspects are distinct because of the nature of the one who perceives them.

The mind perceives the one that hears and feels the breath. It finds a subject that perceives and forms the sentence: “I perceive my breath.” That sentence is false. The ‘I’ is what perceives the breath, but that breath no longer exists. The ‘I’ that perceived the breath is no longer. The ‘I’ that perceived the ‘I’ is no longer. What no longer is, is nothing.

Surely there is a very general concept, thisness, of which this breath and this I are examples. In considering this concept, the mind can only think of this breath and this mind, and the concept that this mind forms of this breath is false by the time it forms it. That mind, too, is gone by then.

The mind conceives a mind in motion, a restless mind, a mind detached from the things it perceives and from itself, yet always compelled back to them. The mind had sought to calm itself by reflecting on its breath, but close inspection of its own experience has opened a whole box of things, none of which stays still when examined separately. Experience has revealed itself as something complicated, which the mind somehow already knew and which it cannot ever quite grasp. It strives to embrace and accept this manifold complexity, of which it is part.

These words are about a mind; a mind has been the subject of many of these sentences. Yet that mind is not the subject that reads these words. That subject is you, the reader. When you read the words “I perceive my breath,” they are not about your breath but somehow about a writer’s thoughts.

What you directly perceive is a string of words. I, the writer, had thoughts that I wanted to convey and had motives for writing them. You are entitled to question my motives. (Self-promotion? Self-indulgence?) But my motives are gone now, and so are your thoughts about my motives, like the words above the ones before your eyes right now.

You may have new thoughts, and they may happen to look identical to your previous thoughts; but they are not the same thoughts, because each thought occurs in time. You can form the idea of thought in general, but the only way you can think of that idea is to form a particular thought, which occurs in time and is then gone. You both have a thought about me and you do not have that thought about me.

I presume that I know who I am and what I think. Since this text is published on a public website, I don’t know who you are and may never have even heard your name. For your part, you know who you are, but not much about what I am thinking, except for whatever these words may mean to you. Yet in reality, I do not know what I think until I express it, trying to make meaningful sentences for a “you” that I envision in vague ways. And you do not know what I have written except insofar as you make your own sense of these sentences.

You may chafe at my control. I chose and arranged the words that might influence your mind. Yet I would not write at all if not in hopes of being read. The writer needs the reader as much as the reverse–as much as the mind needs its objects and the objects need the mind. You know that I need you. I know that you know that I need …

The topic of this text is meditation on the breadth, anapanasati. That practice is widely prescribed to address a restless, unsettled, unhappy mind. If we ask why it is recommended today, one kind of answer cites its effectiveness. Perhaps people teach and practice anapanasati because it works. In that case, the test is to try it, as we do here. The results will depend on what specific thoughts the specific mind generates.

Another kind of answer is a long story that could involve Californian beat poets who turned into Dharma bums after encountering GIs home from Japan, and General Tojo meditating in Zen monasteries while conquering China and attacking Pearl Harbor, and Dosho bringing Chan to Japan as Zen, and Bodhidharma bringing Buddhism to China, and the Buddha teaching breath-mindfulness in the Anapanasati Sutta, and people teaching Siddhartha Gautama the words and ideas that he used as he became the Buddha, and people teaching those people. We know just tiny fragments of this story, to which unsung thousands have contributed, both for good and for evil, yet it is inherent in the fashions of our moment.

Each mind recapitulates the work of countless minds, from which it derives all its words and ideas. A mind without history would be empty. For example, “This is a breath” is a sentence in English with thousands of years of thought embedded in it.

We can say that the Buddha already knew everything under the Bodhi tree, but to say what he knew requires explicating the various schools that have analyzed experience into its components, and then declared the components also to be illusions of the consciousness, and then declared the consciousness to be an illusion, and then analyzed negation, and so on, in a logical progression like the one accomplished by stoicism, skepticism, and their successors. To explicate the truth requires excavating this “conceptually grasped history” (begriffne Geschichte), these successive turnings of the Wheel that constitute the present.

Although my topic here is anapanasati, my method and structure come from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Why? Because I studied that text in a seminar at age 20. Rereading it 35 years later, I find that I had forgotten most of it, although certain familiar phrases signify that it has been there all along, even when I was reading Shantideva or focusing on my breath. Perhaps you know Hegel better than I. Perhaps you have never heard of him, but his mind has already influenced yours by way of Marx and Dewey and Martin Luther King, Jr. and the tangible structures that those three, and many others, have inspired.

Each mind, all minds, and nature are one.

That is a vacuous cliché and false, in just the same way that “This is a breath” is false. It is also true, in the same way. To know it requires unfolding what the mind already knew and can never fully know, one stage at a time, recapitulating the work of many minds with many objects, which are also one mind with one object.

Sources: GWF Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. & ed. by Terry Pinkard (Cambridge University Press, Kindle Edition, 2018), especially the Preface (sec. 72) and sections A.I, B.IV.A-B, and DD; and Shantideva, The Bodhicaryavatara, translated by Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton, especially chapters 8 (on meditation) and 9 (dialectics among the Buddhist schools). See also: Philosophy as a Way of Life (on Pierre Hadot); Foucault’s spiritual exercises; the grammar of the four Noble Truths; on philosophy as a way of life; my self, your self, ourselves; Buddhism as philosophy; freedom of the will or freedom from the will? (comparing Harry Frankfurt and Buddhism); how to think about other people’s interests: Rawls, Buddhism, and empathy; compassion, not sympathy; “you should be the pupil of everyone all the time”; and the sublime and other people

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.