"I believe that reading and writing are the most nourishing forms of meditation anyone has so far found. By reading the writings of the most interesting minds in history, we meditate with our own minds and theirs as well. This to me is a miracle.”
Kurt Vonnegut, Palm Sunday
When Alan Watts asked Joseph Campbell what kind of meditation he did, Joseph Campbell famously said, “I underline sentences.” Reading as meditation requires a sort of intentional awareness directed toward the text. This is the lost art of attention. Cultivating this art yields precious fruit in the gardens of our minds.
So what is the role of attention in the practice of mindfulness? Meditation is the active, intentional directing of one’s attention toward an activity (like one’s breath), an object (like an ice cube in one’s hand), a thought (like loving-kindness), or a sensation (like feeling sand between one’s toes).
Reading as meditation is attending to the text. Meditation, in which we focus on breath, is a matter of attending to our breath – the most complex aspect of which has to do with the dynamism that comes from inhalation and exhalation – from life.
Similarly, attending to the text reminds us that the reader is alive. We begin to intuit a carnal hermeneutic is necessary for reading as meditation. Carnal hermeneutics is a method of interpretation that balances an interpretive approach to the text and the bodily senses experienced by the reader in the act of reading.
“Reading is a dimension of the modern psychism, a dimension which transposes psychic phenomena already transposed by writing."
Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie
In The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos, Gaston Bachelard offers a phenomenological practice he calls the poetics of reverie, an early iteration of carnal hermeneutics. Bachelard explains that reverie is mistakenly regarded as only passive. He maintains that imagination augments reality and when we treat reverie as poetic – literally from the root word poiesis, meaning to make or create – we begin to understand how crucial it is that we are active readers who participate in creating the text.
"Faced with images which the poets bring us, faced with images which we could never have imagined ourselves, this naivete of wonderment is completely natural. But in submitting passively to such wonder, one does not participate profoundly enough in the creating imagination. The phenomenology of the image requires that we participate actively in the creating imagination. Since the goal of all phenomenology is to situate awareness in the present, in a moment of extreme tension, we are forced to conclude that, in so far as the characteristics of the imagination are concerned, there is no phenomenology of passivity." Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie
Phenomenology is a philosophy of lived experience. Regarding a book, the text is the phenomenon, and reading as meditation is a creative practice in which the reader’s body touches the text.
What does it take to read the text so we can touch it? It is a matter of drawing all of one’s cognitive and existential energy of the imagination toward the text.
Despite what you might think, it is not the physical book that the reader touches but the image of thought evoked by the text.
“Suddenly an image situates itself in the center of our imagining being. It retains us; engages us. It infuses us with being. The cogito is conquered through an object of the world, an object which, all by itself, represents the world. The imgagined detail is a sharp point which penetrates the dreamer; it excites in him a concrete meditation. Its being is at the same time being of the image and being of adherence to the image which is astonishing.The image brings us an illustration of our astonishment." Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie
So reading as meditation is an activity that evokes the image of thought. The image of thought is alive and penetrates the reader.
What happens next? Does the reader become one with the text? Does the reader become the thoughts he thinks in the act of meditating?
Maurice Merleau-Ponty carefully avoids both phenomenological traps.
“Bergson's error is believing that the meditating subejct could merge with the object which he is meditating, or that knowledge could expand by merging with being. The error of reflective philosophies is believing that the meditating subject could absorb the object into his meditation or grasp the object upon which he is meditating without remainder, or that our being reduces down to our knowledge. As the meditating subject, we are never the unreflective subject whom we seek to know; but no more can we become entirely conscious, nor reduce ourselves to traqnscendental consciousness." Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception
How, then, does one touch the image of thought while intentionally retaining the two-ness of touch?
Reading is often associated with a kind of escape, and thinking of reading as meditation offers a radically different orientation toward the practice of reading.
This is why appreciating Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the chiasm is crucial when it comes to reading as meditation. It is not just that we extend toward the text when we read, but also that the text extends toward us. We intertwine.
“But the best proof of the specificity of the book is that it is at once a reality of the virtual and a virtuality of the real. Reading a novel, we are placed in another life where we suffer, hope and sympathize, but just the same with the complex impression that our anguish is not radical. Any anguishing book can, therefore, provide a technique for the reduction of anguish. An anguishing book offers anguished people a homeopathy of anguish. But this homeopathy works above all during a meditative reading, one which is stabilized by literary interest." Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie
Reading as meditation is a way to appreciate the cognitive and existential functions of the imagination. When a reader underlines sentences to attend to a text, the exchange is an act of creation. The text is alive, and reading is a dance.
- Henri Bergson on the Cinematographic Mechanism of Thought
- Ernst Cassirer on the Gift of the Artist
- The Muse Learns to Read: Trace the Process of Intellectual Becoming
- Rudolf Otto on How the Fearful and Fascinating Mystery of the Holy
- Gaston Bachelard and Mircea Eliade on the Existential and Cognitive Functions of the Imagination