Negotiated Interpretations of Meditation Diaries as Sources of
Understanding Religio-Scientific Pilgrimage Experience
Dr. Adrian Cooper. Independent Scholar c/o Dept of Geography,
Birkbeck College, University of London W1P 1PA. England
Presented to the Pilgrimage and Complexity Conference, at the Indira Ghandi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi, January 5-9 1999
Negotiated Interpretations of Meditation Diaries as Sources of Understanding Religio-Scientific Pilgrimage Experience
Pilgrimage experience is often untidy. The motivations for participation are frequently mixed and even confused. Negotiation characterises every step of the way. In the end, if there can ever be an end to any pilgrimage, unanswered questions invariably remain, all of them haunting pilgrims. Challenging them. Confounding, beguiling and tantalising their spirit and intellect. Confirming again and again, that pilgrimage must surely rank among the most complex and dynamic of all human activities for partic ipants as well as critical researchers.
As a contribution to understanding the labyrinthine complexities of pilgrimage experience, I offer a series of case studies and analyses with reference to self-organising systems theory. As with all case studies, these discussions do not pretend to be a sample. Instead, they afford an opportunity to examine in considerable depth the changing details of comprehension and insight, dilemma and awakening, revelation and delight which the individuals in this paper have experienced.
The pilgrims who participated within this research are ten scientists, each with post-graduate research agendas in the ecophysiology of tropical forest canopies (see Table 1 below). But in addition to their identity as qualified scientists, each of the se individuals has a personal spiritual faith which informs, and remains informed by, their scientific enquiry. Indeed, appreciating this religio-scientific reciprocity between spiritual themes and those pertinent to ecophysiological analysis is an impor tant first step in understanding these individuals' experiences when they journey to tropical forest areas. In other words, those pilgrimages to tropical forest areas are
Table 1: The Research Group
Pseudonym YOB Faith Present Domicile
Geoff 1958 Christian Denver, Colorado
Grace 1976 Christian Norwich, England
Hannah 1973 Jewish Hamburg, Germany
Jessica 1961 Buddhist San Francisco, California
Louis 1973 Jewish Munich, Germany
Martina 1959 Taoist Billings, Montana
Neil 1960 Buddhist San Francisco, California
Pauline 1973 Buddhist Newcastle, England
Rudi 1973 Jewish Frankfurt, Germany
Steve 1961 Buddhist San Francisco, California
prayed over, and meditated upon, as seriously as they receive appropriate scientific preparation concerning analytical technology, survival equipment, expedition logistics, procedures, team roles and leadership responsibilities. For these ten scientist s therefore, their journeys to tropical forests are thought about as pilgrimages. They are also discussed and reviewed as pilgrimages, privately and publicly.
My analysis of these pilgrimages, which will highlight the possibilities of using meditation diaries as a significant data source, will be presented in four parts. First, I will review the themes within post-structuralist linguistic theory which are pe rtinent to the religio-scientific pilgrimage experiences of these scientists. In particular, I will show how Richard Rorty's analysis of irony is an important foundational theme here. In doing so, I will also offer a brief comparison between the opportuni ties offered through this form of linguistic analysis alongside the facilities of self-organising systems theory.
The second part of this paper will discuss the method that I used in my research with these scientists' meditation diaries. At the heart of this method is a critical discourse analysis of transcripts taken from one-to-one and small group interviews rec orded between 1985-1996. However, I will also consider the particular ethical implications of this research, given the intimate information and personal reflections contained within meditation diaries.
The third element of this paper will explore a selection of substantive themes contained within each meditation diary used within my research with these ten scientists. At the foundation of these substantive themes is a prevailing and dynamic tension b etween traditional, orthodox, doctrinal realism and the scientists' differing insights into personal forms of mystical non-realism and poetic apologetics. This prevailing tension therefore offers an important role for Rorty's discussions on irony within a n understanding of these pilgrimage experiences.
Finally, I will present a concluding review of the theoretical, methodological and substantive themes in this paper.
1 LINGUISTIC ANALYSIS
Linguistic analysis is becoming an important contributory theme in the development of religio-geographical and related disciplines (eg Mohs 1994, Kong 1993, Cooper 1997a, 1997b, 1998). In all these cases, linguistic data, gathered in the form of interv iew recordings and transcripts, are treated by the researchers as individual and shared models of understanding. They are interpretative resources through which interviewees make sense of their thought, action or experience. In this way, the language whic h interviewees use is a form of public expression of their social selves. It tells part of the story of their lives: part of the collection of stories which form their endlessly-becoming, ever-growing selves. These linguistic data present researchers with challenging opportunities to confront the uncertainties of interpretation which pervade the development of experience, within a pilgrimage for example, as well as the further uncertainties of interpretation when this language is expressed within the cont ext of small group interview meetings, or within a similarly focused one-to-one interview.
The religio-geographical realities that become evident through the analysis of linguistic interview data are clearly a battle ground. They are confronted and contested, jostled and modified, agonised and often recognised as being only provisional. As P eter Winch (1989) has correctly observed in his seminal biography of Simone Weil, the rivalry between competing stories and voices is endless. Meaning develops through a progression of forms, rarely if ever in simple successions. But despite this complexi ty, it is possible to suggest three principle ways in which religio-geographical and all other kinds of meaning form and grow, notwithstanding the complexities of idiosyncrasy in individual experience.
First, there is the endless inter-play between continuity and discontinuity, with both those elements being necessary in every narrative's development. Examples of this interplay might be the changing constraints of urban land use effecting the constru ction of synagogues that Shilav (1983) identified. Another example of religio-geographical continuity and discontinuity is Lewandowski's (1984) analysis of sacred symbolism in Madras during colonial and post-colonial experience. In each case, the language used to construct and express, maintain and challenge those cultural subjects progressed in complex, dynamic and fragmented ways.
The second way in which linguistic data is important for religio-geographical research is through its expression of individual and group consciousness concerning time. That is, language reveals how the past is constructed and understood. It shows how t he past is also reappraised and almost continually revised and re-written. Within Lily Kong's (1993) work on Singapore for example, her examination of contemporary government land use policies suggests an official subordination of the value given to sacre d places in the past as well as in the present, replacing them with a brave new world of concrete and steel in the future. Kong's work is therefore valuable in showing how the construction of time is given direction: language forming time's bow and arrow.
A third principle here may be illustrated from within my work on the sacredness of mountains (Cooper 1997), where I often encountered pilgrims who define their past with reference to their mountain pilgrimage experiences. In other words, the visual and other sensory memories of those high slopes exemplified the meaning of those past experiences as they become re-constructed with hindsight and subsequent debate. Equally, other constructions of mountain meaning served as exemplifications of pilgrims' pre sent experiences, activities, dilemmas and other anxieties. In each case though, their language that described those mountains made the past, present and future visible and memorable for them. Language made time visible and therefore comprehensible in per sonally meaningful ways. Past, present and future are set in relation to each other in the form of individual and group sequences of meaning through the mechanism of words used by those specific people as well as others who influence and become influenced by these pilgrims.
Given these principles of linguistic theory, it becomes clear that the meaning of any pilgrimage experience, at any point in time, can be defined through the intersection and interaction of narratives. Pilgrimage meaning is fixed through the plausibili ty of these narratives, before they become challenged and amended when they encounter alternatives. And of course, influential alternative narratives are everywhere. They are also diverse. Within my earlier work on sacred interpretations of tropical fores t canopies for example (Cooper 1997b), I discussed influential narratives which, in character, are psychological, social, political, economic and cultural. It is therefore essential to recognise that the analysis of pilgrimage meaning must not be restrict ed to pilgrimage narratives alone. Instead, critical attention should be given to the broader diversity of influential narratives which serve to inspire, create, shape and refine the interpretation of pilgrimage experience. In that way, we will learn how pilgrimage narratives variously satisfy the individuals involved in specific journeys. We will learn how those seemingly diverse collections of narratives meet a need within the minds of those individuals to form persuasive methods of understanding their pilgrimage. In doing so, we will also learn how those collections of narrative never completely satisfy any individual. In the face of so many competing and distracting narratives, the restless search for forms of words that express what pilgrims often fe el intuitively is a continual accompaniment to the physical journey across landscapes. Consequently, in order to achieve a comprehensive understanding of pilgrimage experience, it is necessary to address this psycho-spiritual journeying in search of illus ive language as well as the physical journeys of pilgrimage. They are always close, complimentary travelling companions.
The stories of any pilgrimage tell of a continual struggle into existence of important dimensions of self. They tell of transformed meaning as well as ways of understanding insider/outsider relationships in all their complexity and frequent inconsisten cy. And it is at this point in recognising that logical inconsistencies exist within pilgrimage narratives that Richard Rorty's (1982) concept of irony becomes a valuable addition to theoretical debate. Specifically, Rorty is interested in the constructio n of cultural meaning within the post-modern world. In doing so, he identifies the fact that whilst some fundamentalists might talk in one circumstance about the unchallenged monopoly of truth which their doctrines contain, they may, under different circu mstances, accept the existence of alternative belief systems as, for example, when they recognise a world map showing the distribution of their faith alongside others. At one level therefore, the fundamentalists express their belief in the uniqueness and exclusivity of their faith as being absolute, unchanging and clear. On other occasions, there is the irony that this absolutism becomes transformed to a form of relativism.
Critical linguistic analysis therefore has a distinctive contribution to make within an approach to pilgrimage which is conducted using the facilities of self-organising systems theory. The analysis of language reveals that pilgrimage systems can be va riously open, and on other occasions, for specific individuals, they may be ironically closed. The language which individual pilgrims use shows significant elements within the constant flux of meaning given to a journey or sequence of journeys. At the lev el of individuals, their language reveals their motivation, their dilemmas and their manner of questing toward understanding their journeys. Equally, at the analytical level of group interpretations of pilgrimage, contrasting narratives identify the chang ing meaning given to complexity in space and time, the value of ritual and symbolism, the influence of secular social themes as well as differing responses to the meanings attached to the passage of time through a day, week, month, year or life time: at e ither or both the microcosmic level or the macrocosmic.
Each of the scientists who contributed to this research (see Table 1) volunteered their participation after they had contacted me by expressing an interest in my other academic publications and/or my broadcast radio-talks on the BBC World Service. In r esponding to this opportunity for research work with these individuals, I align this paper with Billig's (1988) preference for research which responds to spontaneous opportunities, which accommodates 'hunches', and which also addresses surprises and a 'qu irkiness' within the data it seeks to analyse (ibid., 200). Similarly, in Van Dijk's (1993) discussion on the form of critical discourse analysis which I pursue within this work, he acknowledges that the researcher will only produce a persuasive and suffi ciently comprehensive discussion if he or she is able to accommodate a plausible range of themes, suggestions and forms of participation which the interviewees introduce to the research from their particular initiatives.
At the same time, there remains the necessity to maintain a serious attention to the ethical implications of this research (Mitchell and Draper 1982). Attention must be paid to the issue of interviewees' integrity and sensitivity. Given the amount of p ersonal data arising from such projects, it is therefore necessary to remind contributors that pseudonyms do not grant them complete anonymity. Finally, attention to individual sensitivity during the research also serves to reinforce the sense of active c ollaboration between all project participants.
On the basis of these foundational principles of theory and method, this research began in August 1985 when I first met the five older scientists together in a room at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. They are Geoff, Jessica, Marti na, Neil and Steve. The younger members of this research group joined more recently. Initially, we began discussing personal experiences of mountainous regions: interviews which have been analysed elsewhere (Cooper 1997a). However, since each of these sc ientists has other shared interests, apart from mountains, regarding the plant physiology of tropical forest canopies, the tape recorded interviews included extensive discussions of the ways in which their spiritual faith mediated in their understanding o f those problems and opportunities pertinent to that body of ecophysiological science. The logistics of organising these meetings has been discussed in detail elsewhere (Cooper 1997a, 1997b, 1998).
Having produced confidential transcripts of those interviews, I have been able to develop a critical content analysis of these scientists' contributions at each meeting. In particular, I have been interested in the problematic boundaries between their motivation to visit and study tropical forest canopies in their capacities as scientists, and their simultaneous identities as committed individuals regarding the details of their spiritual faiths. The critical discourse analysis used in this paper there fore sought to unravel the ways in which these scientists' research work has served the dual, and often conflicting, purposes of satisfying academic terms of reference whilst also identifying fresh insights and questions regarding the alignment of their f aith and sense of pilgrimage with that scientific work. Significantly, I sought to involve all the interviewees in examining their discourse in order to actively minimise any misinterpretations I may have placed on those discussions. Specifically therefor e, this involved me in stopping conversations, and asking individuals to explain more fully the sense in which they used key words or phrases such as the Taoist Way, the Hebrew word dabhar, or the Christian concept of panentheism. I would then invite othe rs to comment on the construction of those definitions, before inviting the conversation to continue. On at least one occasion in every interview meeting, one of the contributors would illustrate his or her spoken discourse with reference to the written w ords within their meditation diary. Where the conversations were lively, energetic and directed, I refrained from interrupting until a suitable moment when I felt the conversation ease down in pace. This attention to group dynamics was therefore essential to the long-term commitment of this group. If I had interrupted too often, the speakers would have become frustrated. However, their long-term commitment was built principally during the earlier weekly meetings, and was developed and enhanced further thr oughout the research period.
3 SUBSTANTIVE THEMES
Substantive discussion here will concentrate on my use of meditation diaries that have been kept by six of these ecophysiologists. In doing so, I will reflect upon the opportunities and limitations of their application within the analysis of pilgrimage experience within one-to-one and small group interview meetings.
Quite simply, a meditation diary is a personal record of meditations. In each of the six examples encountered in this research, they were written within hardback books of blank pages. The individuals who kept these diaries were Grace, Louis, Martina, P auline, Geoff and Neil. Each meditation record is annotated with the appropriate day and date. Frequently, the notes in each diary are accompanied with sketches, extracts from the words of published authors, poets or writers of scripture. Sometimes, each diary entry may only be a few lines long. On other occasions, I have found entries up to five pages in length where each page was roughly equivalent to an A4 size sheet of paper. With each of the six individuals, who keep a meditation diary, they review t heir diary entries, usually on a monthly basis and find within that review further inspiration for subsequent meditation experiences. By bringing these diaries into a public forum of our small group meetings however, an additional facility became identifi ed in being able to compare their spoken words within the group meetings with their written words which they had recorded, purely for their own interest, at the time of making the pilgrimages as well as subsequently. Equally, these meditation diaries corr oborated certain details which were asserted within our interview meetings. Finally, I did not ignore the value of these six individuals' use of sketches and other diagrams within their diaries as a further source of discussion.
Given the intimate details recorded in each diary however, they only became used in this research at the suggestion of these six individuals. In addition, throughout their use, they controlled the use of their diaries, withholding some intimate details when they felt they were either too personal for open discussion, or not relevant, preferring instead to talk about those specific issues within a one-to-one discussion with me alone.
A meditation diary is therefore an important historical document of intense personal experience. As such, it is also a document of geography, psychology, social interaction and ecophysiology. Since each diary was written over periods between five and fifteen years, they also record how each scientist experienced change in their lives - within their science, their spiritual faith as well as within their broader life experience. And it is in recognising this facility to offer researchers an opportunity to study changing constructions of pilgrimage meaning within these broad as well as intense contexts, where meditation diaries become identified as being important data sources for pilgrimage analysis, including the further alignment of that analysis with the principles of self-organising systems theory.
Meditation diaries are also valuable in addressing Rana Singh's (1995, 89) challenge for geographers of religion to explore in more detail both the theoretical as well as the substantive connections between earth sciences and spiritual interpretations which those sciences can inspire. Others too, such as Berry (1992, 128) and Skolimowski (1992, 257) have challenged scholars to consider more deeply the interaction between earth sciences and religious experience.
Throughout the research period of this paper, which took place between 1985-1996, the dominant theme for discussion concerned the ways in which these scientists variously reconcile the physiological energies of canopy water transport and photosynthesi s with their simultaneous appreciation of what six of them have called the "spiritual energies" (Grace, Louis, Martina, Pauline, Rudi and Steve) or the synonymous "creation-centred energies" identified by the remaining four interviewees (Geoff, Hannah, Je ssica and Neil). Among the meditation diaries of Jews and Christians in this group, this energy was described most frequently using the Hebrew word dabhar, which may be translated as the creative energy of God: the energy with which God is believed to hav e created the universe, as well as the energy with which He maintains that universal order. In each of the six meditation diaries, dabhar appears. This frequency echoes the 3817 times in which dabhar was used within our interviewed meetings.
The first time dabhar was mentioned in our interviews, Grace turned to the first time she had recorded it in her meditation diary, and used that first use as a personal aid memoir, as she described how dabhar offers her a facility to reconcile her und erstanding of what she calls the sacred energy of tropical forest canopies alongside their ecophysiological energy systems. The following extract from one of Grace's contributions to our interview meetings illustrates this reconciliation of the sacred and ecophysiological clearly. It also aligns her spoken words within the interviews with the corroborating data contained within her meditation diary:
Grace: ...I remember some years ago coming across the idea of dabhar as the creative energy of God at the time when I was working on stable hydrogen isotope concentrations in xylem sap. And that was the big turning point for me. There's absolutely no r eason at all to divorce plant physiology from God....It was the dabhar energy which put the physiology into being... And looking back over my diary here, you can see that this idea's really stuck with me for more than ten years now, since I was just into my teens. My science has changed a lot. Obviously. But dabhar has always meant a lot, and still does.
Following this contribution, Grace went on to identify and discuss further detailed associations between what she calls her eco-pilgrimages to tropical forest areas in South America and South East Asia and her research interests: science and faith reco nciled through the facilities offered by the dabhar concept. Significantly, this is a multi-faceted and dynamic reconciliation between science and faith which found clear and sustained consistencies within Grace's spoken and written words.
For Louis, a Jew from Munich, Germany, her interviewed discourse and meditation diary entries also made direct reference to her appreciation of dabhar, as the following illustration of her work shows clearly:
Louis: Dabhar will always be a mystery in this life since we can only put it in human terms. And whether you want to talk about it in Hebrew, English or German, the final truths about dabhar will always be difficult and illusive... And you can look and see in my diary all these question marks and arrows I've often put around dabhar. I've always seen it as important. But, I don't know. It's also always just beyond my reach... So I can see its importance, but the details of that importance always esca pe me...
As with Grace's subsequent discussions, Louis gave a long series of examples taken from her research journeys to tropical forest areas in Africa and South East Asia in her capacity as a researcher, which she too called pilgrimage journeys.
These references by authors of meditation diaries to their problematic encounters with dabhar add significant support to Lyotard's (1986) concept of an unpresentable nature within contemporary experience. In other words, meditation diaries are no diff erent to any other form of linguistic expression in that their authors remain embedded within the language they use. There is no escape. No one can control the language they use with sufficient power in order to extend its meaning to accommodate that whic h cannot yet be said. The unknowable always lies beyond the limits of our language, even when it is expressed in the most sublime poetry. This point is made clearly within the following extract of interview discussion which concerns the most frequently qu oted of literary sources within the meditation diaries or interview meetings. This quotation is the following verse by Baudelaire, cited in Bly (1980, 44):
We walk through forests of physical things
that are also spiritual things
that look on us with affectionate looks.
The following discussion is provided by Geoff, one of the first scientists to work with me in 1985 on this research.
Geoff: When I first read those three lines, when I'd first bought the Bly book, I totally leaped for joy! ...And although Baudelaire doesn't actually use the Hebrew word dabhar, it's as clear as glass that that's what he was thinking about. So that 's great. But, and it's a big 'but', I still find myself staring up at a canopy, or thinking about it when we're all making our way out to those places, and I still feel unable to immerse myself as fully as I want in what I know dabhar represents. And tha t's not for the want of trying, because you can look at my diary. It's full up on dabhar speculations and sketches. So I'm still not home on that one.
Although Geoff's meditation diary offers a valuable opportunity to corroborate his interview contributions, it is still clear that nothing finds full meaning beyond the undeniable limitations of his written text. No part of Geoff's pilgrimage experienc es in travelling toward, or working within, tropical forest canopies are able to offer him meaning beyond the facility of the words he uses.
This fundamental point on the limitations of all language, inevitably limits all understanding pilgrimage experience. It is therefore a major reason why so much of the meditation diaries used within this research were agonised over so intensively by t heir authors. And that agonising and intensity spilled over into our interview meetings as a reason why some of these individuals worked with me for the full ten year period of this research so far. Consequently, it should be no surprise that the interpre tation of pilgrimage experience is so mobile, while pilgrims search through their constantly changing selfhoods as well as through the continually changing selfhoods of fellow travellers, and non-travellers too. How ever long they may search, along the ph ysical journey of the pilgrimage itself, or within the inner journey of reflection, language will always limit these pilgrims: it will baffle, confound, anger and distract them from their pilgrimage experiences.
4 CONCLUDING REVIEW: THEORY, METHOD AND THEMES
The principle conclusion to draw from this discussion concerns the reconciliations made by this group of ten scientists between their ecophysiological research work devoted to tropical forest canopies, their pilgrimage experiences and personal religio us commitments. In trying to analyse this reconciliation, meditation diaries offer us a valuable contribution in developing our understanding of their authors' understanding. Equally, written meditation diaries can be used as a source of linguistic info rmation which can corroborate the contributions given in spoken interviews. Meditation diaries can also be used by the interviewee and interviewer to illustrate questions and answers as they probe together into the deep meaning of key words, phrases and t he experiences they seek to describe and interpret. Both these facilities of meditation diaries recommend their use within the analysis of pilgrimage experience and other forms of religio-geographical work.
However, alongside their clear recommendations, meditation diaries also carry limitations and undeniable problems. First, like all other forms of linguistic expression, meditation diaries are limited by the language they contain. They are also limited by the language that their authors use when they discuss them within research interviews of the type considered here. Further, the ethical questions of using meditation diaries cannot be over stated. These diaries contain intensely personal and intimate i nformation. They should therefore be respected throughout the period of research. Even though I know each of the six scientists who keep meditation diaries very well through my extensive and intensive work with them, I always ask them if I could look thro ugh new pages in their meditation diary even if it is on a table beside our chairs. But attention to this reasonable and essential standard of courtesy does not simply satisfy the requirements of good ethical research practice. It also contributes to the development of long-term loyalty among the interviewees. From a strategic perspective, this point concerning loyalty is essential. Even though interviewees might be passionate about the pilgrimages they have made, their motivations for making those journe ys and their reflections which follow those journeys, they would not give up their time freely if they felt their experiences were being exploited simply as just another academic exercise or if they were being disrespected as individuals who have profound anxieties as well as insights on pilgrimage journeys which weave together themes from science and sacredness.
Even with the facility of meditation diaries as a contribution to understanding this science/sacred reconciliation, there is nothing unproblematic about an alignment which often causes alarm and confusion to the majority of scientists, scholars and spi ritually committed individuals. Nevertheless, for the ten individuals considered here, their negotiation of that alignment continues at the time of writing. More often than not, these ten individuals seem to encounter profound challenges to their beliefs : both scientific and spiritual. Undeniably therefore, the details of these individual and shared reconciliations echo the first sentences of this paper: pilgrimage experience is often untidy; the motivations for participation are frequently mixed and eve n confused; negotiation characterises every step of the way. In reviewing the pages of these six sets of meditation diaries, it is also clear that linguistic and cultural purists would probably not approve. Can a Taoist really draw convincingly from Zen h aikus? Can the Hebraic concept of dabhar really be compared seriously with the Latin word humus: the source of our modern words humble and humility? Of course they can. These surprises are all part of the successions of eclectic improvisation which charac terise so much of cultural understanding during these post-modern times. None of these surprising reconciliations between dabhar and humus, Hebraic and Latin, were approached or discussed naively among these individuals. Consequently, it is clear that, fo r these interviewees, the boundaries between Hebraic and Latin theological concepts are not sufficient to prevent their comparison where pilgrimage experiences and their memories suggest that their employment is plausible. It is equally important to refle ct upon the fact that these Hebraic and Latin alignments were made independently by these scientists before they met together to take part in this research.
None of these recommendations, limitations or problems preclude the alignment of this discussion with the opportunities offered by self-organising systems theory. Clearly, the experience of these modern pilgrimages to tropical forests has been sufficie ntly valuable to these ten scientists for them to repeat these journeys and to reflect upon their deepest meaning from scientific and sacred perspectives. Clearly too, by the very nature of their expression through spoken and written language, these inter pretations of pilgrimage experience are for ever in a state of flux. They are fleeting, mobile, constantly illusive, always beguiling, always compelling and profoundly valuable. It would therefore be fascinating to learn from other researchers who employ meditation diaries as a source to examine science and sacredness being reconciled, and to learn how language is formed and developed within that research. Certainly, the opportunities for such new scholarship abound, all over the world.
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