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with Jason Siff
During the month of December we'll be reading Jason Siff's Unlearning Meditation: What to Do When the Instructions Get In the Way at the Tricycle Book Club. Pick up a copy and join the discussion below. For more information on the book visit www.unlearningmeditation.com.
I would like to welcome you to this four-week course based on my book, Unlearning Meditation: What to Do When the Instructions Get In the Way. I will be providing you with articles, meditation instructions, and most significantly, an opportunity for you to journal your meditation sittings and look more closely at what happens in meditation.
The first week I will post a short article about “unlearning meditation” (below) and the basic meditation instructions for “recollective awareness meditation.” The second week will feature an article on impasses that occur in meditation, along with some further guidance on recollecting one’s experiences in meditation. The third week will focus on looking at beneficial qualities that have arisen in one’s meditation practice and how they may cultivated, and the final week will include an introduction to my theory of the meditative process, and pull together the various threads of the previous weeks.
Unlearning Meditation is Positive
The “un” in “unlearning meditation” is sometimes taken negatively as criticism of the various meditation practices that are currently being taught. I have had to counter that criticism with a clarification of my intention of teaching unlearning meditation: this is about seeing into the habits of mind that create obstacles and impasses. People practicing unlearning meditation have permission to continue doing the meditation practices they have been doing, though they are asked to reflect back on their experience of doing those practices and “learn” about how they have been doing them. The unlearning comes about through the learning of what has not been beneficial in their meditation practice. Seeing that their meditation practice has been dominated by forceful means, adherence to rules and techniques, or strategies to exclude or avoid certain states of mind, can lead to a questioning of those methods and to disentangling from their hold.
How can anyone unlearn a meditation practice without becoming aware of what he has learned as that meditation practice? When people try to adopt a meditation practice without unlearning the previous practice first, all they really do is substitute one practice for another. The same habits of mind that have shown up as obstacles and impasses in the previous practice will most likely emerge in the new one. That is because these habits of mind are ingrained and inform most of an individual’s undertakings, not just meditation. At this level, unlearning meditation is using meditation as a tool to see into what sustains many of one’s unsatisfactory ways of being.
In unlearning meditation the meditator develops positive qualities, though not in a linear, directed fashion. I have already mentioned greater awareness of, and discernment into, the existing habits of mind found in their meditation practice. But there are other equally important beneficial qualities that are touched upon and cultivated through unlearning meditation. A very noticeable quality at the beginning of this practice is that of gentleness, of kindness to one’s self and others. This quality is supported by a meditation practice that allows the meditator’s attention to go to anything that draws his attention—by surrendering control over where the attention goes in meditation, a meditator can learn to meet each experience in a softer, kinder manner. And gentleness is most effective when someone is not gentle, for by being kind to one’s harshness and aggression, the hard edge can soften and become gentler.
When meditators have unlearned many of the strong habits of mind that have created obstacles and impasses in their meditation practice, they might find their meditation practice moving less in the direction of unlearning old meditation practices and more in the direction of being able to sit with what comes up in meditation and trusting in their own meditative process. This may sound like a minor development compared to the notions of “enlightenment” that occupy the popular imagination. But it isn’t a small thing in one’s life. For some people it is a revolution in their ways of seeing, being, or doing. It may show up as a feeling of relief, of freedom, of finding a path or it may be a connection with their inner worlds in meditation that is vital, focused, and creative. While for others it may be all of these things, things I haven’t mentioned, or none of the above. For with unlearning meditation there are no promised results—there is what you experience from having undertaken it.
Jason Siff is the head teacher of the Skillful Meditation Project. He teaches meditation and leads retreats throughout the United States and in Australia.