Unlearning Meditation: What to Do When the Instructions Get In the Way

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.

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tricycle1's picture

I always wanted to know about this, where can i found more to learn myself?

Sophia's picture

Here are two websites where you can find more information about this Meditation Practice, as well as further resources for books, retreats, classes and teachers.

www.unlearningmeditation.com

http://www.skillfulmeditation.org/index.html

Deep Bows,

Sophia

Jason Siff's picture

Thanks Cliff for offering this perspective on developing beneficial qualities in meditation. What we are looking at are indirect means of developing qualities rather than the direct means found in most meditation techniques. I would say that we indirectly develop patience and tolerance by staying with our thoughts and emotions in meditation, instead of doing a practice to create patience or greater tolerance by using words, images, metaphors, or strategies. The same holds true with metta, which I prefer to translate as “friendliness.” By being gentler with yourself in meditation, friendliness will emerge of its own. You don’t need to practice metta in order to develop the quality of metta—you just need to be aware of how you are relating to your thoughts and emotions and those of others, and to be gentle with yourself and others at those times when harshness, impatience, or any of the other “aversive” attitudes present themselves. The idea is not to get rid of harshness or impatience, but to be with it as it is. This too is a shift of attitude towards our experience—one of getting to know what it is going on instead of trying to control what is going on. The gentleness I am advocating is helping us to get to know our experiences, not turn them into something else or to replace them with a new “gentle” state of mind. It is the wisdom from being with what we are experiencing that is going to change things in the long run, while the gentleness and kindness will help make that process more tolerable and interesting.

When talking about how people change through meditation, it may be best to do as you describe with the inmates you are working with. You don’t need to come up with a narrative explaining what it is about the meditation practice you are doing that is creating the positive changes one sees. That narrative is usually a story of direct identifiable means, such as doing a practice of metta and becoming a friendlier person. There are many conditions for the changes in our ways of being, and I wouldn’t attribute any changes that occur through meditation to a single cause, because meditating itself creates several conditions, each of which may be contributing to some kind of identifiable change in someone. Conditions such as sitting still, the environment in which you sit, the length of the sitting, the different instructions you use during your sittings, the thoughts and emotions that you experience and how you relate to them, changes in the way your body feels, etc. are just as much a part of what goes into the changes one experiences over time as the purpose of the primary instruction you use.

Cliff Wilkie's picture

Hope Jason has more to say about his post of Dec 18 in which he broached " the topic of developing beneficial qualities in meditation." To me meditation is first and foremost a method of personally developing awareness in which beneficial qualities seem to just happen. In other words people began to relate to other people, including themselves as well as the rest of the planet, in more beneficial ways. It just seems to happen without any prompting, so I was curious about Jason's comment of methods of helping the process along.

I have been leading meditation groups amongst inmates at our local jail for almost six years so this is obviously a concern to me. I find working with inmates in a jail to be very liberating as they are generally concerned primarily with meditation as a tool to help them with personal problems they have with various types of addictions and anger management rather than meditation per se. They often have the clarity of vision to ask what meditation is, why they should do it and what is it going to do for them. They can be quite blunt and ask how meditation will help them with perhaps something like heroin addiction. They often are not people who follow rules. That usually has something to do with why they are in jail. So meditation rules I provide are not always followed as much as I would like. An interesting perspective for me. Yet beneficial things happen anyway.

Meditation and other rehabilitative services we provide make a difference in the way inmates relate to themselves and each other. In fact it is quite amazing. It seems to just happen, and I would be curious to know what one could do to make that process work better.

Cliff Wilkie's picture

Upon reconsideration of some of the comments on this blog I now think it an accurate assessment to say that the approach presented in Unlearning Meditation is in fact the anti-thesis of what most meditators consider meditation. As Jason explains, following instructions does set up a tension between what one does when one is assiduously following the instructions and what the mind wants to do anyway. There is an implied goal even if it is simply to watch for what happens rather than to achieve anything or get anywhere. So I suppose Unlearning Meditation is the “anti” part as contrasted to the “thesis” portion of whats going on in the mind. It’s the part that comes flooding back in anyway, like it or not. Even towards the end of a Seshin or ten days of Goenka style bodyscanning, unwanted thoughts are still arising and come flooding back in after it’s all over. After years of shunting these thoughts aside, I finally decided to embrace them instead. I realized the futility of fighting the tide. Letting go makes the picture complete, and releases the tension. Letting the “anti” portion flood into the room with the “thesis” does make for a complete picture and allows the waters to arrive at a point of equilibrium. T’is rather more peaceful that way, and ultimately what you do up there is, your call.

Jason Siff's picture

I would like add to what Cliff has written, which is very well stated and worth contemplating. Unlearning meditation appears to be the opposite of most meditation practices. But that is really not the case. It utilizes a receptive meditative process rather than a generative process. That is, it begins by allowing all of one’s thoughts and emotions instead of trying to generate an awareness of something else, such as the breath, a mantra, etc. If it were the opposite, then you would be told not to do your current meditation practice. Instead, you can do your current meditation practice, for how else will you learn about what has gone into doing that practice and the habits it has created?

Another point that Cliff makes is that when doing a meditation practice that pushes away thoughts, or allows them to stay while wishing they would leave, the thoughts come flooding back when one is not meditating. The truth is, in those practices of trying to bring one’s attention away from thoughts, there will be more tension around thinking. What people are learning is to get rid of or “get beyond” thinking, not how to be with thinking. It is hard for us to get our heads around the notion that a gentle, peaceful way of being with thoughts will lead to having less unwanted thoughts and emotions. Developing that gentle way of being with thoughts may be fraught with difficulties, such as meditation sittings taken up by one’s thoughts, periods of confusion about what to do in meditation, and negative self-judgments regarding one’s ability to meditate. But, that could just as easily be the case doing a traditional meditation instruction that brings awareness away from thoughts. The choice is whether to face thinking in meditation squarely, or just do a practice that promises to quiet the mind and diminish negative thinking by redirecting one’s attention away from thoughts.

Jason Siff's picture

This week I am introducing the topic of developing beneficial qualities in meditation.

There are particular methods used to generate qualities such as friendliness, loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy, and other beneficial states of mind. These methods often require the meditator to have the right idea for the quality he wishes to generate, for what if instead generating loving-kindness, one generates affection, or even lust, for another person?

In an open, receptive approach to meditation, such higher qualities are cultivated from more easily accessible lesser qualities. You don’t need to have the right idea of what loving-kindness is before you can practice it. All you need is to be able to access a related quality that leads to it, such as gentleness or kindness.

Start with gentleness and kindness to yourself, but not as words you say or as an attitude you try to carry with you--rather as a reminder to be gentle with your mind when it gets harsh, pressured, worried, sad, or lethargic. Your gentleness and kindness is a way of relating to thoughts and emotions that are unwanted, distracting, troublesome, or annoying.

quentintarantula's picture

Mr. Wilkie’s experience suggests that this technique may be more appropriate for beginners than for veterans. Mr. Wilkie, an experienced meditator, “gave it up” after a year. Maybe experienced meditators cannot overcome their beliefs about what meditation is, or that a certain outcome should result.

I began meditating because of this technique. I have few expectations for it, no “destination” to reach, and no religious beliefs to validate. So far the technique is useful and engaging. I don’t think it’s “throwing out the rules” like Mr. Hancock; it is following different rules and, happily, not “tedious work.”

Jason Siff's picture

Cliff’s narrative came out of his own experience of trying this approach, giving up on it, and then returning to it. In the process he found greater confidence in his own way of meditating. This is what I would hope someone gets from “unlearning meditation.”
I have heard the argument that this approach is not suitable for beginners hundreds of times. Then why have so many people begun meditating in this way and have found it to be so satisfying?
There seems to a common misunderstanding regarding unstructured approaches to meditation, which is, that they are truly without structure. As human beings, we bring structure to chaos. The question here is how much structure and what kind of structure is useful for our meditation practice. What I a teaching beginners is to start with a minimal amount of structure, just enough for them to sit with and learn to be with the chaos of their mind. That structure is found in the initial instructions at the beginning, which anyone can do, whether they have meditated for decades or just started today.

tomhancock's picture

Mr Wilkie's letter lends evidence to my initial impression: this is a technique for people who have experience meditating, not for beginners as some have said. Look at another skill, like hitting a baseball (stealing your metaphor). You learn the fundamentals first, and then when you've learned enough, you know when you can throw the rules out. No one would teach the swing of Ichiro Suzuki (a veteran, highly productive hitter) to a 12-year-old. Throwing out the rules is for veterans, not novices, who need to put in the tedious work first. Sorry, I know it's a bummer. What concerns me is that people will think that this anti-technique will be a shortcut; the Buddha discovered the Middle Way after experiencing a life of wealth and one of austerity. Without those experiences, would he have come upon it? Practice the time-tested techniques first because they have been around a long time for a reason. Then keep what works and toss out what doesn't. Continue to reflect and re-evaluate.

Cliff Wilkie's picture

I very much like the approach presented in Unlearning Meditation. It contains the most liberating instructions I have ever encountered relative to meditation, and even included the near obligatory infinitely looping paradox of instructions for throwing away the meditation instructions. I listened to a talk by Jason Siff about seven years ago after a meditation session he led. I was quite taken aback by his suggestion to let go of following the breath or in fact letting go of following much of anything else such as a mantram, body scanning, koan etc. Simply letting the mind go where it wants to without any guilt induced by abandoning instructions. As I recollect he said, "Sort of follow where the mind goes rather than dismiss the wanderings and return to following some instructions". I had been with various meditation groups and methods for quite a while and no one had ever said anything quite that audacious. I commented to him that it was a totally radical suggestion. I tried it for about a year then gave it up. Like others on this blog I felt it wasn’t meditation, was perhaps even its antithesis.

I bought the book a few months ago and tried his approach again, this time with a bit more knowledge garnered from reading the book. It took this time. It’s quite an amazing and truly radical approach. Something of jumping off into the abyss or letting go of your ultimate fear; the fear that maybe the meditation instructions you have been following for years, delivered by a venerable roshi, are wrong, they don’t work or are ultimately a complete waste of time. Even absurd or "unreasonable" fears happen. Why use a filter imposed by instructions or our sense of "reasonableness". Just let the mind go and follow it where it will. I have often had a fear that going certain directions would be a waste of time, but what is "wasting time"? What time is there to waste? See what happens. Go back to other instructions, or not, and spend some effort on recollecting where the mind wanders to rather than simply dismissing the wanderings as hindrances to the process of meditation.

It is quite radical, but I’m older now, and really don’t care so much for instructions anymore. I follow my own muse nowadays and as the years pass my confidence in “doing it my way” grows. I love his definition of meditation as whatever you’re doing when you sit down with the intention to meditate. It has a ring of absoluteness to it. Actually Unlearning Meditation presents pretty much the approach I have come to thru my own experiences anyway. At some point I realized it was my meditation, part of my life and I could and, in fact, should do whatever I wanted with it, follow whatever the process led me to in response to my own personal life experiences. It seems to me that Unlearning Meditation is fundamentally about being kind to yourself and having confidence in yourself. Who throughout time really has the authority to say, in an absolute sense, what meditation “is” or suggest its “goal”? Actually, I do, at least for me, and so do you for you. I am really more concerned with the impact of my totally personal meditation on how I relate to others and the world about me than the mechanics of the process. I view meditation in much the same way we did baseball practice when we were kids, the practice is necessary, but what matters is when the lights come on and the game begins. In my view that happens when I leave the meditation hall.

Breathe on brothers and sisters, the air is out there just as it was in Buddha’s day, the sun still rises and sets, the sky is blue the wind blows and we interact daily with all the other sentient beings on the planet. It’s all here right now, and I no longer want to be held back by instructions that may have outlived their usefulness.

Sam Mowe's picture

Here's a video of Jason discussing Unlearning Meditation:

 

tomhancock's picture

Thanks, Jason, for putting this technique together. I'll have to give it a try. It may be something I want to add to the toolbox, although journaling hasn't worked for me in the past. I would put in a word for also learning concentration, however, which wouldn't seem to be a natural result of this technique. Remember, too, that all techniques (and 'anti-techniques') are empty.

Jason Siff's picture

Reviewing your journals with a teacher can help your meditation practice in a variety of ways. There are aspects of one’s experience in meditation that either don’t get written down or are glossed over in one’s journal entries, and a teacher may be able to help a student bring those experiences to light. Also, the language used to describe certain experiences may sum them up too quickly or put them into broad categories, which would be picked up by a teacher, who would then help one go into more detail and explore those experiences in depth. But working with a teaching is not absolutely necessary in this approach—just writing down one’s meditation sittings can improve one’s memory, awareness, and discernment. So it can be useful to work with a teacher, and one can do some important work on one’s meditation practice that way, but if that is not possible, just keeping a journal on occasion is enough.

Sam Mowe's picture

Here's a blog post by Jason explaining what to do with impasses in meditation. It also has guidelines for recollecting what is difficult to recall.

http://www.tricycle.com/blog/impasses-meditation

a. reed garner's picture

The first couple of tries I couldn't recall with any depth, but today it seemed to come together. How important is it to review the journaling with someone else, how often and ??? I'm partway through your book and it seems maybe important for this method that your students are sharing their writing with you. Apologies if this question is already discussed in your book.

Jason Siff's picture

Your comments speak to how a meditation practice can lead to both calming the mind and a way of becoming aware of one’s mind. The more common notion of first getting calm through awareness of breathing and then looking at thoughts and emotions makes logical sense, but it in practice it has some drawbacks. The calmness is often achieved by directing one’s attention away from thoughts and emotions with the intent to stop them or, at the very least, not get caught up in them. Then when one is in a calm, more settled state of mind, one may find that many of thoughts and emotions that one would want to explore are not present.

In recollective awareness meditation, one gets calm and settled while allowing thoughts and emotions to be present throughout. The kind of calm states of mind that are achieved tend to tolerate the thoughts and emotions (they are not suppressed or avoided). One is then able to calmly explore those thoughts and emotions and what arises from them. The exploration of those experiences may then go in a variety of directions, such as looking into dependent arising, the nature of awareness, or questions such as, “What is this?” Such explorations are often open-end, without seeking a result, and can include periods of contemplating one’s experiences as well as going into them more deeply.

aliceh2's picture

Hi Jason,
I would like to discuss a little further the question, "What is meditation?" From my point of view, it is a method of looking into "the mind." To learn what it is and how it works. In order to work at that, one's mind has to become relaxed and open to see what's there. This is where your instructions have become very useful for me. Like nathanrc, I also had a lot of trouble with the instructions for quite some time. How was I supposed to be doing this?! But, finally I realized that all of one's experience is mind - so, that's what you look at and work with no matter how mundane or exciting. It's all there to look at and wonder about. With journaling, I began to see the patterns, what was skillful, what wasn't. And, all of the questions: what is "memory," and "Present moment awareness?" And there are moments of understanding:"Oh! That's what "dependent arising" is!" Much of meditation for me revolves around the Zen question of "What is this?" "This" is one's experience that they are in the process of understanding through meditation.

Jason Siff's picture

I pursue various questions surrounding samadhi in chapter 16 of my book. I am not sure what type of samadhi is being referred to in this comment, but no matter. The gist here seems to be that having a definite idea of how a particular samadhi should manifest will get in the way of experiencing it. Those who speculate as to what samadhi is, without having experienced it, may be comforted by the idea they have of it, but only to that extent is the idea useful. It may not lead to samadhi in one’s meditation sittings. If that accurately re-phrases what the comment is about, then, for the most part, I would agree with it.

But there is something I would like to add. It is useful to reflect back on one’s experiences of samadhi (or any calm or tranquil state) and attempt to describe those experiences in greater detail. I give examples of this in the book, in chapters 13 to 16.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Thank you for your response. I'm referring to meditation as understood by people unfamiliar with Buddhism. A calming of the mind, spiritual contemplation. The surface of life rather than the deeper reality of life itself.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Attempts to neatly explicate the concept of samadhi in modern English seems to block people from experiencing it. Talking the talk rather than walking the walk may cerebrally comfort some folks but it still confines the practice of Buddhism to speculative conjecture.

Jason Siff's picture

In the absence of a response, I will conjecture that “true meditation” is not only the right way to meditate but is something more than that: meditation that leads to experiences and realizations of “the truth.” It is a serious meditation practice, one where the practitioner knows what precepts to follow, what beliefs to foster, and what meditative states are worthwhile. The approach I am advocating may seem too loose and aimless when compared with such meditation teachings—it can be thus seen as a “beginner’s step toward true meditation,” but is not true meditation. That is fair enough.

Here is a quote from the first chapter of my book:
What we are concerned with here are realistic experiences of meditation, ones that feature conflicts, doubts, and desires, as well as peaceful states, profound insights, and deep internal changes. Each person’s meditation experience is a story with many dimensions to it – it is never an account of following an instruction perfectly and then someday achieving the promise of that practice. It just doesn’t happen to real people that way. At least not to anyone I know.

Jason Siff's picture

I wonder if you would be willing to describe what you mean by "true meditation." It would help me frame a reply to your post. Thank you.

KIMBERLEY's picture

This, to me, seems more like reflection than meditation. I am reminded of reflection assignments I had in high school, in which we let our minds wander then journal, receiving an "A" upon completion, which I referred to as a "feel-good" assignment. This type of meditation seems like a "feel-good" meditation, in which you receive an "A" for the attempt.

I'm not sure how I would define meditation, but I do know that I disagree with using the word "meditate" in the definition of "meditation." If I had to describe meditation to someone who had never heard the term before, this would not help them comprehend the idea. I believe there are many different types of meditation, but I see what you have described as a beginner's step toward true meditation.

Jason Siff's picture

The question “How is this different from daydreaming?” comes up quite frequently. I am glad to read the distinction you are making, drawn from your own experience. When we are daydreaming outside of meditation, it can go on in much the same way for a period of time until we stop it. In meditation, you may find the same kind of daydreaming starting up, but since your intention is to meditate rather than have a good daydream, you find there are periods when you are less caught up in it and more able to notice or pick up things about it. This type of “watching,” as you put it, may not be some detached neutral observer, but rather can be just a way you are staying with the experience without getting completely lost in it.

gaelfoord's picture

Jason, when I try the Unlearning style and my mind gets relaxed I become
aware of the thoughts, feelings, and images that are floating through. A part of me is watching these things come and go rather than getting lost in them as I do when I'm simply daydreaming. Is this sense of watching helpful, or not so?

Jason Siff's picture

There is a point Nathan makes that I would like to expand on here. He says, “Through an openness to investigation of my experience, I began to understand ‘techniques’ which worked for me more than others.” When teaching meditators who already have a meditation practice, I suggest that they do that practice with permission not to do it if they don’t want to. How could you really learn about the meditation practice you are doing without doing it? And then again, how could you get some perspective on that practice if that is all that you are doing? So, for instance, if your meditation practice involves awareness of the breath at the nostrils, then meditating doing that practice will provide you with information as to how you approach it or hold it. Then if you stop doing that practice after a while in your meditation sitting, and bring your attention to other parts of your experience, such as your body or emotions or thoughts, you may learn something about your practice of being aware of the breath that you couldn’t see while you were doing it. Like Nathan’s experience, you might notice some aggression in the practice of trying to be aware of the breath while doing it, and you may notice the anger behind the aggression when you stop that practice and bring your attention to your emotions.

Jason Siff's picture

In chapter 17 of the book, I do discuss the question: What is meditation?
This is a question everyone asks. It is also one of those questions
you can forget to ask after some years of meditating, when
it has become quite obvious to you what meditation is: It is the
meditation practice you use. If you sit and watch the breath, then
meditation is sitting and watching the breath. It is that simple. But
what about all those “other” meditation practices where people
don’t watch the breath? Are they also “real” meditation?
Instead of working on a narrow definition of meditation, I
worked on one that would include all meditation practices (in truth,
as many as would fit in the definition). What do all meditation practices
have in common? The intention to meditate. The definition
“meditation is what happens when you act upon the intention to
meditate” is one that could be applied to almost every meditation
practice that people learn. But then, there are always those questions
that irk most traditional meditation teachers, ones like, “When I listen
to music, I go into a meditative state. Isn’t that meditation?”
Here’s a case where the definition of meditation as “what happens
when you act upon the intention to meditate” might not
work. The person is intending to listen to music, not meditate, and
since he or she happens to go into a meditative state while doing
so, the person thus rightly wonders if that is meditation.
There has to be some way for the definition of meditation to
include both the intentional application of a technique or method
and the experiences of a meditative sort that come about unintentionally.
This distinction relates back to where I began this book,
with the tension between meditation instructions you use and the
mind as it is. That our mind can find “meditative” states and understandings
without doing an intentional practice is certainly within
the realm of people’s experience. We could then say, “the experience
of meditation defines what meditation is.” I would personalize that
definition, since meditative experience is individual, inward, subjective,
and relative. So what we then have is the definition that has appeared
on my Web site for the past decade or so, “One’s experience
of meditation defines what meditation is (for oneself).”

nathanrc's picture

I've meditated using the approach outlined by Jason Siff for about 7 years and have been moved by its results. I think that the issues raised by Kirk_1 earlier in the discussion are good catalysts for conversation. I also know I found the definition of meditation as "meditation is what you experience when you sit with the intention to meditate" to be frustratingly circular when I first encountered it. In fact, I can say that many aspects of "Unlearning" frustrated me at first. What do I focus on? What do I work on? I found over time, however, that these qualms faded as I began to understand the effects sitting in this way had.

First, I found that I did encounter naturally many things I associated at the time with "meditation". I encountered calm states, luminous states, moments of powerful insight, and a significant change in my day-to-day mindset. Through an openness to investigation of my experience, I began to understand "techniques" which worked for me more than others. However, most importantly, I feel that this practice was valuable to me in that it allowed its own deconstruction (something I think that many practices lead to, but perhaps some more reluctantly). For example, perhaps I was focusing on the breath in a meditation but then found that I was being extremely aggressive in doing so. Instead of pushing harder and harder into such a focus, the openness of this way of sitting allowed me to take a step back and look at what I felt to be the "real" issue in my mind at the time: the anger (perhaps stemming from fear or hurt) causing such an aggressive mind state. I've come to trust that this process will lead me where I most need to go.

This technique has given me a curiosity regarding my mental landscape and, through its focus on free investigation, journaling, and discussion with teachers, the tools with which to learn more about it. The gentle awareness it cultivates has been an agent of genuine change in my life.

Jason Siff's picture

This approach to meditation instructs the meditator to do the opposite of what most other meditation techniques teach, especially at the beginning. Where the majority of meditation practices ask the meditator to focus on a particular part of one’s experience, such as the breath, this approach asks the meditator to allow and stay with the ongoing flow of inner experience, whatever that may be. And usually that happens be to thoughts and emotions—the parts of our experience that the majority of techniques are asking us to merely notice and then return our attention to the primary object (the breath).
Regarding the experience of going towards sleep and seeing images, scenes, or hearing sounds or words, what is often referred to as hypnagogic imagery, I do see these states as a feature of meditation no matter what practice one is doing. It can be a part of someone’s experience of getting very relaxed and tranquil. But meditators are often instructed to wake themselves up (stop their mind from drifting off) whenever this happens. What I suggest instead is to allow your mind to drift in these hypnagogic states. The occasional image or light or patch of color will draw your attention in a way that will provide additional wakefulness within the state (without waking you up completely). I discuss these experiences in detail and elaborate on these instructions in chapters 13 through 16.

Jason Siff's picture

I’m glad to hear that you have been meditating in this way for some time and have found it to be relaxing. But this way of sitting doesn’t seem to fit your definition of meditation, “whose goal is to still the mind” and “learn about the absence of self.” I do find it surprising that you have not had experiences of your mind becoming tranquil and still when you have found this approach leading to a very good kind of relaxation. Perhaps you are so accustomed to arriving at a particular still state of mind from having done the same meditation method again and again that you do not recognize a similar still state of mind when you stumble upon it through an unstructured and open approach to meditation. Let’s just suppose that a calm state of mind is not a product of doing a particular technique to calm the mind, but is a state of mind that can arise at other times as well—and so we may not recognize it when it arises in some other way. Seeing how meditative states arise through conditions rather than by intentional means is one way of learning about the absence of self.

kirk_1's picture

What I found from following your technique was that the "mind wandering" led to a lot of hynagogic images - which are certainly interesting, as being relatively benign hallucinations, but don't seem to me to be meditation. When in that state, I find that the images carry me along, rather than allowing me to distance my "self" from them.

It is certainly relaxing - in fact, I've long done what you suggest as a sort of relaxation - mid-afternoon nap. I'll get into a comfortable position, and just let my mind wander, until I almost fall asleep, then I stretch and go back to work.

So I guess what I'm getting at is that the definition of meditation as I know it is not what I experience using the technique you propose. This said, I'm not convinced that there is "one" definition of meditation, and perhaps, over time, your approach leads to the same end. My goal of commenting wasn't to suggest that you're ideas are wrong, but simply that they don't fit with what I understand meditation to be.

But I would love to hear more from you regarding my specific experiences. Again, I find your technique interesting, and far less rigid than most meditation techniques. I'm just not convinced that it is going to the same place.

Thanks for your reply.

kirk_1's picture

After listening to the author on a podcast, I ordered this book and read the first half. I think what he is proposing is interesting, but I don't think it's meditation. (In my oh so humble opinion.) The "mind wandering" thing is a great way to relax and let creative ideas arise, but I think it's the antithesis of meditation, whose goal is to still the mind, and, by doing so, subtlety learn about the absence of self.

Obviously, the author has heard this before, and has arguments as to why he disagrees, and I respect that. But I'm not sure that this type of "meditation" offers anything other than relaxation - and a very good kind, at that; I've done this for many years to relax.

I do think that focusing on the body rather than the breath - something static, rather than something moving - is interesting, because it allows one to not get wrapped up in the cyclic nature of the moving breath.

Jason Siff's picture

Here are meditation instructions for “recollective awareness meditation.”

Basic Meditation Instructions
Listed below are the basic meditation instructions I give to beginning meditators. If you already have a meditation practice, you can try these instructions, or you can meditate in the ways you are accustomed.

  • Find a quiet spot to meditate where you most likely won't be disturbed by others or by the phone. Decide how long you are going to sit for (anywhere from 10 to 40 minutes) and either set an alarm or have a clock nearby to peek at on occasion.
  • Sit in a comfortable posture, one that you feel you will not change for the duration of the sitting, either on a chair, couch, or on a meditation mat or cushion. But if you do need to move during the meditation sitting, try to move slowly and quietly into a more comfortable posture.
  • Close your eyes and bring your attention to the touch of your hands resting one on top of the other in your lap. But don't hold your attention there. Instead, allow your mind to go where it will. If you are drawn into thoughts, feelings, memories, or fantasies, let your attention go there. Your attention may at times also be drawn to sounds, bodily sensations, fragrances or odors, or your breath.
  • When you feel that you have been away from the contact of your hands for several minutes, you can remind yourself to come back to the hands and stay there for a few seconds before allowing your mind to wander again.
  • If you feel restless, bored, confused, discouraged, elated, sleepy, upset, anything, it is okay. You don't have to do anything about it, or, you can bring your attention back to the touch of your hands. But if you do, just stay with your hands for a little while, and then, if your mind wants to go back into the feelings or thoughts that you left, you can let it. If something else draws your attention, you can let it.
  • When the meditation sitting is over, take a couple of minutes to mentally recall what you can of the sitting. If you would like to journal your meditation sitting, just try to write a description of what you remember.


Instructions for Journaling

  • Before writing down the sitting, write down the date and time that the sitting took place. This is helpful when referring back to the journal entry.
  • There are two basic ways to begin writing it down: to make a list or write a narrative. If you decide to make a list of the events you recall from the sitting, I suggest that you use longer descriptions than single words. You don’t need to write down the sitting in chronological order. You can start with what you remember most easily, and once you have that on paper, you can write down the other things that start to come to mind from the meditation. For those who like to have journal entries in chronological order, you can always rewrite the journal entry afterwards, putting it in order, or mark entries in some way to give a picture of when they occurred.
  • Your descriptions do not have to be exact. They just need to be truthful. If a description doesn’t feel accurate, that is fine, as long as you are being honest. We can’t hold ourselves to a high standard of precision and accuracy in this endeavor.
  • Try to keep your journal entries focused on what went on during the meditation sitting. In the course of writing things down, you might have some thoughts about an experience. You may write down your afterthoughts, but mark them in a way that shows they did not occur in the sitting (such as by putting them in parentheses).
  • You will only remember a fraction of what goes on in many of your sittings. That is perfectly normal. Just write down what you can recollect. That is enough. Some journal entries may be many paragraphs long, while others may just have a couple of sentences.