BG 185: Unlearning Meditation

Episode Description:

“Meditation instructions that disallow thinking, reflection, or being open to the full range of experience usually imply a distrust of the mind.” – Jason Siff

We’re joined by meditation teacher and author Jason Siff, to explore what happens when meditation instructions and techniques get in the way. Jason explains that meditation instructions and rules contain within them certain limitations, that can lead to impasses in our practice. We explore Jason’s approach, Recollective Awareness, as well as discussing the role that both trust and intention play in untangling these unhelpful meditation habits.

This is part 1 of a two-part series.

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Vincent: Hello, Buddhist Geeks! This is Vincent Horn, and I’m joined today by Jason Siff. Jason is the head teacher of the Skillful Meditation Project and he leads retreats and workshops throughout the US and also in Australia. And he’s the author of a book that recently came out from Shambhala publications called Unlearning Meditation. Jason, thank you again so much for taking the time to speak with the Buddhist Geeks.

Jason: Oh, you’re welcome, it’s my pleasure.

Vincent: So I found it really interesting that when I picked up your book, “Unlearning Meditation,” basically it was describing this process that I’d found myself going through over the last several years of meditation practice, where there would be periods where I’d use a particular method, for instance, one that you’re really familiar with, the Mahasi Sayadaw noting technique of vipassana. And I would use that for years and years and I would do long retreats where all I did was this noting practice from the moment I got up to the moment I went to bed. You know, it’s this heroic effort of noting everything that arises and noticing the three characteristics and all that.

At a certain point, I had gotten so much benefit from that technique, and then I’d find that it just wasn’t really working anymore for me. It felt stale, it felt dead, and it felt like I needed to shift directions in a really radical way, and so I was really excited to see in your book you’re describing this process, really, of unlearning certain meditation techniques, or unlearning certain hidden assumptions about what meditation is supposed to be about. And I wondered if you could say a little about just that in general, how people find themselves getting stuck or spinning their wheels with a particular meditation technique or particular instruction.

Jason: Ok. What I would often say about this at retreats and workshops is that any meditation practice that we take on may have a promise to lead somewhere around some goal or realization around the instructions, but our doing of those instructions in that practice we will get to a place where we get stuck. And there’s something about how we do instructions that’ll keep us stuck, that we probably get very rule-bound or rigid around instructions, or we feel that confined and limited, that we need to only focus in those particular areas like the breath or noting our experience and not to look any further. So instructions also have this characteristic of defining meditation for us and limiting our range of experience, even though at first you may find that an instruction points you to a part of your experience that normally you don’t look at. So, for example, someone who really hasn’t observed his or her body or breath all that much in meditation may find that instruction to open up quite a bit at first. But over time the experiences around that, the way of doing it, the feelings of failure and success around it, are just going to lead to a pattern that’s going to feel a bit stuck. And many students at that time get advice around it which would be often to do the practice harder, to apply a little more effort to it and to break through in some way, or to try a different strategy, to work around it. And what I’m really suggesting here in the book is to look at your practice, look at how you are meditating and include that kind of stuckness, and the feelings that are coming around that practice; the self-criticism, the doubt, confusion, the conviction, the disappointment and look at that process.

So what I have people do at the beginning is feel that they can meditate with permission to do the practice they have been doing, and also not do it, so that there starts to be a choice within your sittings instead of feeling like you just have to do that practice exclusively or not do it at all. Instead, if you have permission around it, you get to look at how you’re doing it.

Vincent: And that ties into this idea that you also presented, that most of us when we try to start a meditation practice we’re often crippled by the sense of “meditator’s guilt,” like I should be practicing every single day and if I miss a day, if I skip a day, if I don’t practice for a week or two, something like that, then I’m not doing it correctly.

Jason: Right. And that’s what seems to happen when a practice is driven by a sense of discipline, where it’s taken up as an exercise or with a belief that if you keep doing it again and again, you’re going to get better at it, certain things are going to happen. And yes, that may be true for a while, but there are times when that effort turns into pressure, turns into driven-ness. It turns into or locks into some of your own self-criticism and you start to find that what was helping you with your practice now is actually getting in the way. And it also takes the focus off of what you’re meditating for. Maybe your purpose of meditation is just simply to have less stress. Well is adding pressure by trying to do a particular instruction correctly actually helping you in that direction? So you can self-assess it. And also, say your direction and practice is to develop awareness or greater self-knowledge or understand your emotions or things like that, how is doing that particular discipline really leading in that direction? And so these are questions you can ask yourself—and that kind of shifting your sense of what meditation is for you may actually help you work with the particular kind of impasse you’re in.

Vincent: And you mentioned several different kinds of impasses (in your book). While I was reading, I noticed a couple in particular that I’ve been through myself, where there is a sense, especially of worrying about or getting caught with these ideas that I’m not doing something correctly. I’m not practicing right. If I were practicing right, I’m not doing the right practice right now. Really questions around “am I meditating correctly” hidden beneath this worry “am I going to get to where I am trying to go.”

Jason: That’s, I think, a predicament most meditators are in: that the instructions that are given usually have a promise in them of something happening once you really start to master the instructions. And so much of the emphasis becomes on, “well how do I do these instructions correctly so I have this promise,” instead of what is my experience doing these instructions. How is this (form of meditation) actually affecting me? And many meditation instructions we get say “always bring your attention back to your breath if your mind wanders.” This is filling our meditation sittings with reminders to do that, with trying to correct our experience so that we are more with our breath instead of with our thoughts. There’s a way in which our sittings become populated with reminders and intentions. And so what is actually going on in us, our thoughts and feelings, are being interrupted by the instructions themselves. And that’s why in subtitling the book “What to do when the instructions get in the way,” the instructions are kind of going on automatic for awhile and not necessarily putting you in touch with some of what you are experiencing in terms of thoughts and feelings. They may help you look at your bodily experience, but they’re not necessarily bringing you into that arena of seeing what is going on inside of you that’s probably having much greater influence in your life and relationships.

Vincent: As your describing that process of being aware of how I’m meditating, it sounds almost like a kind of a meta-approach to meditation where there’s room to be flexible in how I’m doing what I’m doing, not just doing something correctly. Am I reading into that right?

Jason: You’re reading it correctly. Part of this whole approach is how we look at any practice we take up and see how it’s functioning. So even the practice I teach, Recollective Awareness, and the instructions I give, which really have minimal reminders, minimal intentions, that is a practice that people look at too. I think one of the main differences is that the instructions I give allow your thoughts into your sitting, allow things just to more or less go as they will, and do not try to control your experience so much. At first this doesn’t sound like meditation to people and so it’s easier to question those instructions. They don’t seem to have the same kind of power or sense of authority as an instruction to always sit with your back straight or always bring your attention back to the breath, which I believe are a bit harder to come around to question. And we’re not going to question a practice that has been working for us. We’re mostly going to start to question it when it doesn’t seem to be working. So, if a practice doesn’t seem to be working for you, you may start to see that it’s not just the instructions themselves, it’s how you are applying them, and how they’re affecting you while you’re meditating.

Vincent: That is such a great point. As you’re describing that I was just thinking back to a time where I started a business with some friends and we had consultant and he said, “You’re going to do certain things and they are going to work and then you’re going to get really attached to that particular way of doing things and it’s going to be really difficult to question the assumptions behind it. So, if I can tell you anything right now it would be to really pay attention to the assumptions you have about what works in your business, and to really be open to challenging those constantly.” That sounds like a similar of the thing, but in this case, it sort of applied to the exploration of our human experience.

Jason: Right. Well, part of it is that we are looking for something constant and fixed within our experience. We’re looking for something to rely on. I think meditation instructions serve that purpose for people when they meditate. It may just be hard to start to sit without that kind of reliance. What then do you trust if you don’t trust instructions? And the way I see it is you start to trust what it is you know of your actual experience while meditating. You learn where meditation goes from your experience of meditating and start to see how it develops. And that’s actually quite realistic, there isn’t an ideal of where I’m going to get. There’s more of a sense of recollecting back or reflecting back on what I’ve actually experienced and seeing where it does lead.

Vincent: Interesting. And one thing I was struck by was that, you really approached thinking, and the thought process in particular, in a totally different way. You call it “the personal narrative.” You completely allow people, are suggesting to people, that they give themselves permission to go into that when it arises. And that’s completely different than many of the techniques I practice, where it’s more of a process of noticing what type of thinking is happening. Okay, there’s judging thinking, or there’s comparing thinking, or there’s planning thinking, or fantasizing thinking. There’s a sense of I’m a little bit distant from it because I can see it. And in this, it sounded more like people actually would sort of follow threads of thought, in some cases, and that as a result, there would be a sense of inside or understanding that would come that wasn’t related to just seeing the thought process arise and pass away. Could you say some about that?

Jason: Yes. I mean, first of all, I don’t really see it as useful separating the content from the process when it comes to thinking or feeling, in that you really may not be able to see where a thought goes unless you look at the content, what you’re thinking about, how you’re concerned about it, how important it is or where it’s leading you. In order to observe thinking, in order to really start to become aware of your thinking, thinking needs to occur. And it needs to be able to go on, to have its own momentum and its own trajectory. If you allow your thinking to go on in your meditation and start to be able to tolerate that a bit more, you’ll start to see that there’s something about the process, about how you’re drawn into things, about maybe a certain driven quality in it, or certain things around the narrative, the narrative voice in the thinking. You can start to pick up a bit more of what’s going on within your thinking process.

That will shift your orientation to thinking in meditation. Instead of feeling like thinking shouldn’t be there, or it’s a problem or distraction, you might find that it’s actually something to develop knowledge of, and that you start to have interest in it. It seems as though certain threads of thought or things that come up for you, maybe just some memory or just a simple reflection, may actually start to put your attention in areas that are really worth going into. You have choices in your sitting. You don’t need to always make the same choice, to follow a particular line of thought. You may find something unusual comes up, or something you that haven’t looked into. Say, maybe, your confusion or doubt or a dull state of mind. And you find you can start to look at that a bit more instead of always trying to get past it to something else.

Vincent: There’s one quote in your book that really struck me, and it seems like it’s summing up exactly what you’re saying. In the book, you write, “Meditation instructions that disallow thinking, reflection, or being open to the full range of experience, usually imply a distrust of the mind.” Could you say more about trust, because it seems to play a really important role in the way that you’re approaching things, that somehow we can inherently trust our own mind and our own experience, and there’s something in us that almost knows how to do this whole thing.

Jason: Yeah. Well, there’s something in this where, I think, we can learn how to do this. I don’t think we actually know it so well, that’s part of the problem of going into our inner world and just allowing our mind to, more or less, be as it is, to go into thoughts and feelings, memories, wherever it goes. And that the trust aspect is that you start to see that you’re not just thinking, you’re also developing certain qualities around that process of being with your thinking. The way you’re relating to your thinking maybe more patient, more tolerant. You may have a bit more interest in it. So, you find that it then shifts into not just thinking that your mind is always going to lead you down the wrong track. But that, there’ll be various qualities or moments where you start to see, “Oh, I am able to hold these thoughts in a kinder way” or “I’m able to reflect a bit more deeply on this particular dialogue I have with this person, and see some of the cravings or things that were driving it that I couldn’t see before.” So, there’s a way in which a quality of awareness or investigation is also coming up around those experiences. And qualities like this maybe actually quite subtle. They’re not something you’re trying to make happen. There’s something that’s kind of happening by the way you’re sitting with things.

So, along these lines, I would just like to say that the way I would define meditation, in this case, is the intent to meditate—the fact that you’ve decided to sit down or lie down or adapt a meditative posture, that you’re going to be in that posture for however many minutes you’ve decided. During that period of time, whatever comes up and whatever you’re going through I would say is meditation, it’s your experience of meditating. If you look at meditation defined in that way, it’s not limited to a particular instruction. It’s open to whatever goes on when you sit.

Vincent: It sounds like there’s a key distinction in there somewhere around intention. You mentioned that you don’t use a bunch of strong intentions in the way that you teach.

Jason: Yes.

Vincent: And yet, it’s part of it so that there’s still attention between my mind as it normally is, if I’m not having an intention to notice anything. And then, this sort of strong rigid intention around a lot of practices like I have to come back to my breath. It sounds like there’s a tension in there, that you’re trying to find something in the middle there.

Jason: Right. I call it loosening of the tension, so that you feel that instead of doing a technique, say of bringing your attention back to the breath, you might find that your attention goes back to the breath on occasion. You’re doing the practice of being aware of the breath—you might notice that you stay with the breath for a few minutes. Or, you notice something about it, and then your mind goes on to something else. So, instead of relying on these intentions that will keep coming up in your sitting to remind you to do a particular practice, you can trust in a very minimal type of intentionality. Just an intention to sit for a period of time, to maybe be with whatever your experience is. That intention will be enough for it to be meditation. It’s enough to shift the focus from being caught up in a thought, or say, you’re caught up in planning something you’re going to do outside of meditation. You’re thinking about it and you’re coming to all these decisions and you’re working on it to accomplish it. Inside of a meditation sitting like this, you might find similar kind of planning. But, your orientation to it is going to be to notice how you’re planning, or notice some of the things you want in it, or some of the people you’re talking to. To notice a bit about what’s going on in the planning, and not just to do it to accomplish the thing, you’ll find that there are ways in which you’re looking around that experience. That’s going to be something that you’ll start to see is more characteristic of what happens when you meditate allowing your thoughts to be there as opposed to when your thoughts are just normally coming up during the day.

Vincent: I know this question maybe going back a little bit, but I feel like the way we’re talking, it’s a bit cyclical anyway. There’s one sort of objection that arises when I think of doing this method as a beginner. Like, when I think back to the way that I started. I imagine it being challenging because when I just opened to the fullness of my experience, at least when I was first starting, often times, what would happen, is very quickly, a lot of confusion and just being kind of completely lost in the stream of experience. And like 60 minutes later, getting up and going, “What the hell was that? What was I doing?” [laughs] Is this something that people run to when they start to open to something in a bigger way? Do they run into this issue of sort of just being overwhelmed by experience?

Jason: Actually, if someone hasn’t meditated before, or really done anything serious around meditation and tries this approach, generally, it’s more relaxing. And there actually is less confusion. The major issue comes for people who have a practice and have done that practice pretty diligently and have got very good results—they may feel as though something has been taken away from them in a way by doing this, or they’re highly skeptical of it, and so, they are only doing it halfway in the sense saying “Well, I will let my thoughts be in my sitting and go on only so much. And then I am going to come back to my breath or doing another practice I do.” So there is that difference.

I think for people who already have a meditation practice though, this is actually can be quite startling once you get into it because you start to see that your practice was doing so many things that you didn’t think it was doing. That all the times you may have been bringing your attention back to the breath, there could have been several instances where you were doing it because you didn’t want to feel certain feeling or go into a certain kind of thought or experience. There were times when you were holding on to the breath in order to manage a particular emotional state or that you felt that you had to be on the breath and that anything else was kind of completely off the mark. There were ways in which you might have not really paid attention to experiences around being bored in meditation, or drifting off more in meditation, and continually stopping it. So this can open up to quite a few areas in meditation that actually have been… they have been exiled. They haven’t been able to get included in one’s practice.

The question would be, “Well, what’s going to happen then? Am I just going to be sitting and thinking all the time? Is it going to be really chaotic?” And so we generally may have fears around what this may mean and instead of saying the fears are just fears and maybe just imaginations, to really look at the fear being genuine. That there was something about the practice I was doing that really contained my experience in a certain way. I needed to have a certain amount of control and a sense of a task, and that was useful. So just to loosen up around that, to have that permission to do the instructions when you want, or not to do them—to let yourself just go with whatever comes up is a good middle ground here.

And I see that the unlearning process is one of making bridges in a way. You are going through a transition. You can’t just drop everything. That wouldn’t be unlearning. Unlearning is noticing what you have been doing, and seeing some of the ways you have been doing it that might have been harmful or are not working so well right now. And getting some sense of not being as embedded in that or drawn into that. And you’ll notice some gradual shifts in the way you are sitting.


Jason Siff