By Jason Siff
Jason Siff will be leading Thoughts are not the Enemy: An Introduction to Recollective Awareness Meditation at Shambhala Mountain Center from August 29–September 1.
We spend much of our time with our thoughts. The thinking mind will not just turn itself off, become empty and still, once we start meditating. In fact, trying to stop thoughts, or empty the mind, may actually produce more tension and stress around thinking, while fully allowing thinking into meditation may paradoxically lead to peace and tranquillity. But this can only be known through one’s experience. If you like, you can try out these instructions:
• Sit in a comfortable posture
• Close your eyes and bring your attention to your hands touching, one on top of the other, or resting on your thighs.
• Be aware of the external contact of your hands touching, but do not hold your attention there—just come back to it on occasion.
• Allow your thoughts and emotions into the meditation sitting. Be kind to your thinking mind. Let yourself think the thoughts, be carried by them, and if you get overwhelmed, just bring your attention back to the touch of the hands.
• If you start drifting off toward sleep, let yourself go toward sleep. If you feel restlessness, boredom, or physical pain, it is okay to adjust your posture, lie down, or stop the meditation sitting.
• Try this meditation practice for 15 to 20 minutes at first. Anything that happens in meditation is part of your experience of meditation. Nothing is wrong.
On my retreats, people share their meditation sittings in a group. Everyone in the group listens while one person talks about what went in his or her meditation sittings. A few years ago, a middle-aged man on one of my retreats reported feeling intense rage toward his ex-wife. Normally when he experienced this rage in his meditation sitting, he would try to bring his attention to his breath to calm his mind. That didn’t work this time. So he focused on the sensation of anger in his chest. That helped a little at first, but then he had memories of how his wife had treated him and his hatred surfaced again with even more force than before.
He tried to step back and observe the thoughts as passing clouds, but however much he tried to get some distance from them, he soon found himself immersed in one angry scenario after another. After all of these worthy attempts, not only did he still feel rage, but he also felt like a failure for not being able to transcend it. At this low point in his meditation sitting, he remembered that I said he could fully allow thoughts and emotions into his meditation sitting. He was ambivalent about doing that, fearing that if he allowed the thinking to go on, it would get worse, and he would never get free of it. At this point, what did he have to lose?
He let himself think about his ex-wife. He wanted to hurt her. He imagined various ways of making her life miserable. And, as he let these truly unacceptable and reprehensible thoughts into his meditation sitting, he felt more connected to himself. Though this was the honest truth, he knew he would never carry out the revenge scenarios he had so ingeniously crafted. Something else began to emerge, which couldn’t arise when he was battling his rage.
From being kind to his rage, which included understanding himself with compassion, he began to see more of his role in their relationship; for if he could be so rageful and vengeful, then what was he really like to live with? How was he pushing her away, disregarding her, not feeling any friendliness or kindness to her when they were together? As he explored this new direction in his thinking, compassion for her arose in his heart. By the end of the meditation sitting, he no longer felt like a failure, having gained trust in his own meditative process.
Thankfully, most of our experiences of thinking in meditation are not that dramatic. We mostly have issues with thoughts that distract us and needlessly repeat themselves. But even with those thoughts, when we allow them in and let them run their course, we may find that they die down on their own and we learn a bit more about ourselves in the process of being with them. When we take away the intention to stop our thoughts, we reduce our tension around thoughts, and can become more relaxed overall. Many people have reported that when they have allowed thinking to go on in meditation in this way, they have fewer thoughts, less involvement in certain thoughts, and may even experience long stretches of time where they are with their breath and bodily sensations.
This approach to meditation is called, “Recollective Awareness Meditation.” I started developing it when I was a Buddhist monk in the Sri Lanka in the 1980s. It is a form of Vipassana Meditation, as is Insight Meditation and Mindfulness Meditation, but differs from them in these basic ways:
1. Meditators learn to recollect their meditation sittings as the primary way to develop awareness of what happens in meditation. They then write about their meditation experiences in greater detail and share their meditation experiences with a teacher or a group of fellow meditators.
2. Meditators learn to become familiar with their mind in meditation and begin to trust in the meditative process to lead them further. They learn to make their own choices as to what to attend to in their meditation sittings and develop less dependence on a teacher (or tradition) and thus greater self-autonomy.
3. By allowing thoughts and emotions fully into their meditation sittings from the very beginning, they break down the artificial boundary between how their mind is in meditation and the way it is outside of meditation. The good qualities that arise in meditation then tend to be more accessible to them at other times.
4. Instead of trying to see their experiences as impermanent, they learn how to explore their experiences as being dependently arisen (coming about through causes and conditions). This way of “seeing things as they have become” is at the core of Buddhist philosophy and practice.
On this retreat, I will introduce this approach to meditation, give talks on it, and conduct group and individual interviews. This retreat is for people new to meditation as well as those who have an established meditation practice.
Please feel free to contact me prior to the retreat. I hope to see you there.
Jason Siff is the author of Unlearning Meditation: What to do when the instructions get in the way and the upcoming release, Thoughts are not the Enemy: An Innovative Approach to Meditation. Learn more about this teacher by visiting skillfulmeditation.org.
Also, check out this Tricycle online retreat form September 2013: Thoughts Are Not the Enemy: A Mindfulness of Thinking Meditation Practice