A Taxonomy of Meditation

I once dug up a paper by James Moffett, philosopher of education, teacher of teachers, entitled Writing, Inner Speech, and Meditation (College English, Vol. 44, No. 3. (Mar., 1982), pp. 231-246). In this paper, Mr. Moffett suggested that meditation is good for writers. He argued that the “inner speech” or “internal monologue” that continuously goes through our mind like a ticker tape provides raw material for writing, and that writers would benefit from learning to harness that inner speech.

Then Mr. Moffett gives a taxonomy of meditation. I adapt his figure below (hmm, I may need to re-capture the figure to make the text a little clearer; I don’t know how to make those arrows in HTML):

Moffett's Five Categories of Meditation

Moffett's Five Categories of Meditation

In his book How to Meditate, psychologist Lawrence LeShan gives two systems for classifying meditation practices (Chapter 6 of the book). In the first classification system, there are two types of meditative practice: structured and unstructured. In structured meditation, one’s meditative practice is precisely defined. LeShan gives as an example a simple breath counting exercise, wherein one counts one’s breath up to four and then starts over; any time you notice your thoughts straying from the exercise, you gently but firmly bring them back into line. In unstructured meditation, one allows one’s thoughts to wander on some selected topic, and merely observes thoughts, feelings, and memories one has on that particular topic; in essence, it is developing a thought chain on the topic. Thus, there are two components: (1) the topic itself, and (2) one’s feelings about it. LeShan warns that it is not just lazily musing or daydreaming about some topic, but instead involves an active act of will. LeShan’s structured meditation seems to map to Moffett’s “focusing inner speech” category; on the other hand, LeShan’s unstructured meditation seems most like Moffett’s “witnessing inner speech” category, but restricted to a particular topic.

LeShan’s second classification system divides up meditative practices into three classes: inner, middle, and outer ways. In the inner way (a.k.a. the way of expression, or the way of surrender), you just observe your own stream of consciousness; this seems to be the same as Moffett’s “witnessing inner speech” category. In the middle way (the way of emptiness), one strives towards an emptiness of the mind. It is not a trance-like, drowsy, or “spaced out” state of mind, but exactly the opposite: an alert mind with no conscious thought. This seems to be the same as Moffett’s “suspending inner speech” class. LeShan states that in the Byzantine desert Christian mystical schools, i.e. the Hesychast tradition of Mount Athos, it is known as “the way of the man with a silent mind”; and he warns that this is a difficult way, fraught with hard work and certain “traps” which he doesn’t specify (I once wrote him a letter asking him to elaborate, even going so far as to enclose a S.A.S.E., but unfortunately I got no response). In the outer way (a.k.a. the way of forms), one focuses on some externality such as an object, word, image, or event, and explore it actively with the eyes in as nonverbal a way as possible. This doesn’t seem to fit easily into Moffett’s classification system; an externality is involved, so on the one hand it seems like “focusing inner speech”, but it is to be done in a nonverbal way, which on the other hand sounds like “suspending inner speech”.

I found the bit about the middle way very interesting, because it sounded extremely familiar: I believe I’ve been practicing this method since high school, without realizing it was “meditation”. To me, it was just a challenging mental exercise, a sort of fun game. It is very difficult to maintain your mind in an alert, awake state, but clear of any verbal content for prolonged periods; try it and you’ll see. An interesting exercise is to take a walk and pay attention to the things you see as you’re walking, but maintain your mind in a nonverbal state. You see a car coming at an intersection, and you don’t cross the street because you don’t want to be hit; but don’t allow the words “car” or “accident”, e.g., to pass through your mind.

Maintain inner silence: very difficult.

One thing that I have learned is that it is possible to suspend inner speech, but in a way that you’re not really alert; you’re more “spaced out,” which is exactly the opposite of what you want. I was stuck in this dead end for about a year before I realized that it was probably the wrong thing to do. Perhaps this is one of those middle way “traps” that LeShan hinted at.

Just this past year (2008), a scientific paper by Lutz et al. from the University of Wisconsin appeared, entitled Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation (Lutz A et al., Trends Cogn Sci. 2008 Apr;12(4):163-9). Lutz recognizes that there are different meditative practices, and stresses the importance of distinguishing between them. He writes:

The term ‘meditation’ refers to a broad variety of practices, ranging from techniques designed to promote relaxation to exercises performed with a more far-reaching goal, such as a heightened sense of well-being. It is thus essential to be specific about the type of meditation practice under investigation. Failure to make such distinctions would be akin to the use of the word ‘sport’ to refer to all sports as if they were essentially the same.

(I heartily agree; if a group of scientists are going to study something, they need to make sure that they’re talking about the same thing.) Lutz then proposes a binary classification of meditative practices. Lutz calls the first type of meditation focused attention (FA), which maps readily to Moffett’s “focusing inner speech” and to LeShan’s “inner way”. The second meditation type in Lutz’s system is open monitoring (OM), which seems to be the same as Moffett’s “suspending inner speech” and LeShan’s “middle way.”

I think an interesting study for somebody (Lutz?) to do would be an fMRI study with the following conditions: baseline condition in which subjects are allowed to engage in the inner dialogue, then different sorts of meditation (e.g., FA vs. OM, or inner vs. middle vs. outer ways, or Moffett’s classes). Then do a 1-way ANOVA with planned comparisons, making sure to do a correction for multiple comparisons.

In summary, meditative practices seem to be concerned with practicing and exercising the ability to control one’s attention: to simply be aware of it, and to direct and focus it. Control of inner speech seems to be distinct but closely related. I think it is no accident that Lutz’s scientific paper has the word attention in its title.

P.S.: I suppose I should have used the plural and entitled this TaxonomIES of Meditation, since I have discussed more than one system of classification. But A Taxonomy of Meditation sounded better!

P.P.S.: Interestingly, a paper by H.S. Kim entitled We talk, therefore we think? presents evidence that Asian Americans don’t use inner speech for thinking as much as European Americans. And from the abstract of a paper by Pagnoni et al. entitled “Thinking about not-thinking”: neural correlates of conceptual processing during Zen meditation, we read:

While behavioral performance did not differ between groups, Zen practitioners displayed a reduced duration of the neural response linked to conceptual processing in regions of the default network, suggesting that meditative training may foster the ability to control the automatic cascade of semantic associations triggered by a stimulus and, by extension, to voluntarily regulate the flow of spontaneous mentation.

Regulating the flow of spontaneous mentation sounds like regulating the flow of a thought chain.

P.P.P.S.: Has it ever occurred to you that suspending inner speech might be useful in the case of an alien invasion? Suppose telepathic space aliens invaded the Earth and were able to track down humans by listening for their thoughts. If you were able to keep your mind silent, you might be able to evade the aliens! 🙂

Along the same lines, I recall a scene from The Empire Strikes Back. Stalking Luke Skywalker with a drawn light saber, Darth Vader mocks him, saying, “Your thoughts betray you.” This indicates to me that Luke hadn’t yet learned how to suspend inner speech! Maybe Yoda didn’t have time to get to that lesson.