I’ve just returned from an introductory training course in vipassana (vi-PAH-shu-na) meditation, and it’s helped me tease apart the distinction between theory and practice.
The course teaches a technique which, it is said, can be used by anyone regardless of their religion or beliefs. While most of the course was devoted to the mechanics of meditation, the evening lecture was couched in Buddhist terms. For a while I found some tension between the ostensibly value-free technique, and the extensive philosophical framework in which it was placed. If this were just a technique, why then all the Pali words and extensive taxonomies?
I found it helped to distinguish three distinct topics: (1) the practical technique, (2) the theory that explains how and why the technique works, and (3) heuristics derived from the theory to support practitioners in the technique.
Since I’m a complete novice, the following example is almost certainly inaccurate, but is hopefully still illustrative: (1) Students are taught how to attend to the sensations (or lack of sensations) on the surface of the body. (2) The theory describes the sensations in terms of a four-fold sequence in which consciousness leads to perception, then to sensation, and finally to reaction. (3) Students are encouraged to maintain their equanimity in the face of discomfort by the theory’s explanation of how sensations which are ignored will lead to a reduction in deep-rooted misery. The application of the theory in this heuristic makes the pain bearable because it makes it meaningful; but the pain borne for any other reason would have a similarly beneficial effect.
Since the theory merely sets out to explain the technique, the truth-value of the theory doesn’t affect the efficacy of the practice. The theory could be wrong, and the technique would still work. There might also be other theories that are equally or more plausible explanations of the success of the practice; for example, one might be able to construct a neuro-physiological rationale for the effectiveness of meditation that would appeal more than Buddhist spirituality to a hard-headed scientist. After all, plausibility is in the eye of the beholder.
However, different theories, even if equivalent in explanatory power, will lead to different tips-and-tricks to support the practice. The heuristics that result from different theories may be more or less effective in advancing the practice. Their effectiveness will vary by their sophistication, and plausibility to a particular person. Buddhism has had 25 centuries to hone its stories, but most Westerners find the Buddhist cultural context to be alien.
Technique and theory are more closely linked than this superficial categorization suggests, of course. There is a feedback loop; a technique can lead to a theory, which then suggests further techniques which, if effective, could require extensions to the theory, more new techniques, etc. The model constrains the kinds of practice which are discoverable and observable. The practicalities of technique will lead to emphasis of certain parts of the theory over others, and thus constrains the model. The heuristics are the bonds which tie the two together.
Theory and technique develop jointly. Thus, an explanatory theory isn’t simply a replaceable module which can be swapped out without loss for another theory – though in practice one may use other theories (eg neurophysiology) to explain a practice in part. In this sense, vipassana’s claim to be simply a technique which can be practiced without committing to a theory/philosophy is an over-statement, and Buddhism’s claim to be non-sectarian is a stretch.
On a related note, this taxonomy helps one distinguish words used as descriptions vs. as explanations. For example, after some practice it is said that vipassana practitioners can experience a “vibration” over part or all of their body. This is a description of the sensation. However, the term is also taken as an explanation of the source of the sensation, eg the very rapid coming-into-being and disappearance of sensations; in some cases, this thinking is extended to recruit quantum mechanics to justify the theory. The description relates to the practicalities of the technique; the explanation relates to the theory, and may or may not be plausible.
The three-fold distinction applies in the sciences, of course, and can also be used to analyze other concerns such as software development practices. There are at least two techniques which are successful in creating large complex code bases: proprietary software development within a firm, where coordination happens by fiat backed up by organizational authority; and an open source approach where development is distributed and coordination is more reputation-based. Each has its own theory (myths?) of why its technique works: in the proprietary case it’s traditional economics and organizational psychology, where innovation is considered to be scarce and chaos the natural state; in the open source case it’s the “economics of abundance”, theories of altruism, and a world where innovation happens spontaneously. Either or both theories may be wrong; that doesn’t vitiate their respective practices. Both schools are tied to their theories by the heuristics and lore that has grown up in gap between the theory and the practice.
In all these areas – Buddhist meditation, science, and software development – weakness of a model should not blind one to the effectiveness of a practice. One may find the motivating theories implausible or distasteful, but that doesn’t mean that the technique doesn’t work.