Meditation: a Conversational Model
Some thoughts in progress, in preparation for a practice seminar in Edmonton. Perhaps the skeleton of a future book. Any and all feedback from meditators is most welcome.
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]f I don’t count the cathedral daydreams of a very Catholic childhood, I began meditating in 1995, when I was twenty-four. First with Tibetan Buddhists, through lam-rim (beginner) and then kye-rim (Tantric initiate) forms. Then I meditated with a charismatic Course in Miracles group, which was a total trip. After that there was a lot of mantra meditation while I was studying Ayurveda and Jyotisa intensively. Next came vipassana training. I’ve also done a lot of reading in zen, which like many traditions might be cool if a person gets lucky with a non-creepy teacher. But by the time I picked up Suzuki and Dogen I wasn’t a joiner anymore.
So under the auspices of several religious traditions, I’ve cycled through the four meditation categories that researchers in clinical psychology and neurophysiology have broken down for distinct study: “focused attention”, “open monitoring”, “self-transcendence”, and “compassion-based”. These days I sit almost every morning: never for too long, liking it, not liking it, and not quite sure of what I’m doing or where it’s taking me. Feeling like a beginner pretty much always.
This essay is my shot at laying out the most general, bottom-up, non-denominational, open-ended outline of what meditation seems to be about, and how it seems to work, if and when it does. I’ll start at what I think the beginning might be and draw on a mash-up of my experience plus the bibliography of meditation, neuroscience, phenomenology, language theory, developmental psychology and psychoanalysis listed below.
It will be a terribly reductive and highly flawed presentation. There’s an old shastra that says: “One’s knowledge is like one grain of sand in the Ganges”. I don’t care about “enlightenment” nearly as much as nurturing that acute feeling that comes when the hard limit on one’s learning stands as vibrant proof of one’s utter dependence upon others.
If you don’t have time to read this whole thing, here’s the summary:
It can be helpful to view meditation as the gradual process of improving numerous layers of internal conversation between the “feeling-self” and the “conscious-self”. The practice may not be attainable or appropriate for those recovering from traumas that have left these selves distrustful of each other, or that have forced the conscious-self to dissociate from the feeling-self to remain safe. For those privileged enough to practice, improved conversation may be felt physiologically, psychologically, and psychodynamically. Meditation enhances the flow of internal and external intimacy: a comfort and resilience with the otherness of others, as well as one’s own mystery.
Improving an internal conversation can be directly influenced by the same conditions, attitudes and techniques that improve interpersonal communication. These include physical comfort and support, equality and justice, receptive listening, curiosity, softened reactivity.
Meditation-as-conversation is not an “enlightenment model”, which is akin to debate. In the enlightenment model of both philosophy and meditation, opponents try to vanquish each other. Internal debate, in which one part of the self strives to overcome others, can too easily replicate external power dynamics.
It’s helpful to remember that the best conversations end in radiant aporia – an impasse of language and thought brought about through empathy and interconnection. When conversants exhaust their content and fall silent in an awareness of the world that conjoins them, they enact socially what meditators have always sought in private yogic experience.
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]here are three things I should say about myself that clearly influence where I’m coming from in all this. Firstly, I’ve been a compulsive writer since about the age of fourteen. So I’m very attuned to internal conversations – often at the expense of real relationships – which means I’m interested in seeing how these areas of experience might be related.
Secondly, my earliest “spiritual experiences” were all stimulated by conversations had or overheard. The first one, which dovetailed with my growing obsession with writing, was being up at 1am one night in 1987 listening to the radio. CBC host Brent Bambury was interviewing Leonard Cohen about the writing process and the album of his songs that Jennifer Warnes had just released. Then Bambury played Warnes and Cohen performing “Joan of Arc”, a mystical dialogue between Joan and the fire that consumed her. I was listening in on a conversation about a conversation between a man and woman singing about the conversation a saint once had with the world. I couldn’t sleep for the rest of the night. I don’t think I’d ever seen a meditation posture before, but I sat up straight and cross-legged and hovered in a glowing space.
Thirdly, as I whittle away here, my toddler son is exploding with language day by day. Words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and full stories pour out of him into our expectant hearts, and through them my partner and I watch the edges of his personhood form around the pulse of curiosity. He converses with us and with himself, and in the questions and answers of his hours we can see the world behind his eyes deepen, fold inward, and complexify. So when I think of the voices of meditation – voices that observe, ask, announce, describe, and wander – I can’t help but think that when we sit down and straighten our spines, we are revisiting that primal chorus of verbal learning by which we came to feel ourselves as selves.
I’m reminded that the first category of Indian wisdom literature – containing the Vedic mantras out of which the world’s richest meditation traditions have evolved – isn’t written. It is called śrúti – “that which is heard”. It’s so not-written that even if the sounds are written down on scrolls or in books, it is said that they are dead except for the moment in which they are recited and heard.
In the kitchen, I listen to the bright and inquisitive sounds of my son becoming a self. In meditation, I listen to the eternally hopeful, exhausted, cynical, loving, conflictual, maudlin and defensive sounds that make up my selfhood. I also try to listen for something like my son’s bright speech beneath it all, as well as the silence that might have come before.
In the beginnings
Conversation is between two.
Awareness emerges through the dyad. Embryologically, there is sensation of the womb, and then response to sensation. The womb both carries and constrains. The first ripples, oscillating between “with” and “against”, trace the rhythm of a primal conversation between existing flesh and new flesh: mother and child. If this pulse could etch out language, it might say:
What is this? Oh it’s movement! How lovely!
Is it outside? How expansive!
Is it inside? How cramped!
Where can I go? Am I an “I”?
Movement becomes language. The feeling of here illuminates a there. A basic syntax of subject and object frames space. As Merleau-Ponty observes, becoming conscious means becoming conscious-of-something. Awareness is awareness of. The conscious mind we explore through meditation attends, reflects, directs, interprets – what? The life-long echo of a first relationship with and against the womb, with and against the other, with and against the other that provokes a self to form.
Through birth, the womb-as-other is exchanged for the body-as-other, which also seems to contain awareness and all of its attending, reflecting, directing, and interpreting impulses. The first object of the emerging conscious mind is the body it depends upon. This body is not a bubble, but the transitional space between self and world.
I realize that in describing consciousness as “emerging” from “the body it depends upon”, I begin to occupy a Darwinian materialist position. Not because I or anyone else can disprove divine origins to consciousness, but because honesty demands parsimony, and meditation is nothing if not great experiment in complete honesty.
My direct experience of emergent consciousness is obvious every time I wake up from a deep sleep: my conscious-self arrives on the scene to find a feeling-self already there. It seems to go there to find the always-already feeling-self. The conscious-self seems to be seduced into being by the feeling-self. It is the product of the feeling-self. My anecdotal report seems coherent with evolutionary biology, which holds the conscious-self as a supplement – some say “epiphenomenon” – to organic life.
So Many Conversing Dyads
The supplementary conscious-self drives a common and constant experience: in so many we regularly feel that we are two. How does this happen? We wake up and remember who we seem to be, and what we, as selves, have to do. Or we suddenly become aware of our body in mid-conversation. We catch a glimpse of our face in a mirror, and realize we are simultaneously subjects that see and objects that can be seen.
When we study our language closely, we can see that in the simplest intentional statements of conscious life, we are fundamentally split, not only once, but twice. Consider the sentence:
I’m writing this essay.
Split #1 depends upon the “I”-subject being thrown (cf. Heidegger) into a world where language exists, where writing is possible, where there is a field of literature and literate readers. One is thrown into a body that can execute the writing according to the wishes of the “I”. This first split seems largely ignored by contemporary Buddhist and yogic analysis. I’m not a philologist or historian, so I don’t know whether it’s addressed in the literature, but I haven’t heard of it.
Split #2 puts distance between the “I” that is observing and the “me” who is writing. The distance is spanned by the verb “to be”. A seer emerges, distinct from the actor. This second split is well-studied as the target of meditative inquiry in many traditions. The distance is affirmed from the Upaniṣads through the Gita to Patañjali and beyond.
So how many conversing dyads have we been, and are we? Uterine lining and embryo. Womb and fetus. Mother and child. World and flesh. Outer and inner. Here and there. Silent and speaking. And within speaking: the syntax of subject and object. The subject and her context. Then the subject observing and objectifying a part of herself. Feeling and thinking. Thinking about thinking – and the infinite number of voices that split off from this. To have a conscious-self is to carry around an entire chorus deep in the brain.
The conscious-self awakens every morning – or while eating, urinating, or walking a forest path – into a sharp awareness of the feeling-self, with pressures, temperatures and savours that colour awareness and drive agency towards refining these experiences. This initiates the “primary circularity” that Varela, Thompson and Rosch (1991) describe as the nature of self-inquiry and argue should be at the centre of cognitive science. I place this primary circularity at the heart of meditation: the conscious-self gazes upon the feeling-self, which responds. Engaging the qualities of that response is the project of sitting. The gaze and its response feels itchy, luxurious, or banal as it forms its frictious, auto-erotic, or dissociative loops.
Across many traditions, the most basic meditation instruction is that one sits comfortably and sharpens the objectification of the feeling-self by directing attention to the sensations of breathing, cardiovascular or digestive movements (interoception) or surface sensations of air flow or temperature, or the pressure of clothes or body parts touching each other or the floor (exteroception). Even the shortest amount of time spent here discloses the basic rhythm of internal conversation. The feeling-self either announces itself or is “found” by conscious attention, and then the conscious-self amplifies, ruminates, drifts, and even overwrites the data that the feeling-self presents. One’s history, training, and internal attitude of the moment govern the tone of the exchange. You can never know what will come from the feeling-self, or what the conscious-self will find, or how they will change each other. Sensitivity to newness and an abandonment of expectation always seem useful.
The voice of the conscious-self seems to roll on the deconstructed syntax of dreams. At times it breaks into full sentences in a self-fascinated drift away from attention upon the feeling-self:
So here I am again.
Breath is a little stuck.
Hairs of nostrils are cold and dry with the morning air.
Blow my nose or breathe around that booger?
House quiet in the morning. No-one else awake for several hours.
Dark winter mornings. I remember being cozy somewhere.
[There really is a space between thoughts.]
What about breathing? It’s more relaxed.
[Also space between exhale and inhale.]
Warm blood into the fingertips.
Ache in the knee. My knee. That’s my knee.
My friend needed knee surgery from doing too much yoga. Shit that incision was so ugly. I really don’t want that to happen. Knee is aching a little more. Should I shift or study that pain? What would that guy say? Suzuki. Why are there two famous Suzukis? I like his stupid zen answers. Maybe I should read Trungpa again. Part of me likes that Trungpa was an alcoholic. I bet his knees hurt all the time. Prolly had gout. Maybe that’s why he drank. Maybe I should drink more. Booze made the gout feel better until the next day. Or maybe he just didn’t give a fuck. A flying fuck. Flying fuckety fuck.
What am I, twelve years old?
Shhhhh. Not supposed to be thinking.
That’s thinking too. Fuckety.
There’s the breath.
How long have I been at this?
Breath doesn’t care.
Still morning, a little later.
A little lighter. This is how time passes.
All of this is happening through a voice that has no access to how it is doing what it is doing. The conscious-self, even if it were to train itself in neuroscience, learn to use fMRI machines and read their outputs, will never have direct insight into how it is carrying out its most banal and constant functions. External conversation is the same. Conversants can go as deep as they are able with each other, but neither will ever fully know the mechanism by which the other speaks.
The feeling-self is always-already present, a parent to the toddler of the conscious-self, who wanders off, exploring, exercising its ongoing social construction through language, abstraction, memory, aspiration, and Fear Of Missing Out. But the feeling-self can always be returned to as a bulwark of inscrutable otherness that holds the conscious-self up (or holds it hostage). The feeling-self gives the conscious-self its meaning-making task.
The feeling-self is autonomic. It exists prior to and without thought. The next breath and heartbeat simply arrive. Hunger, sweet-cravings, a twitchy reach for caffeine, a pulse of libido – all rise on their own as unbidden epiphanies that the conscious-self can act upon, ignore, resist, or run away from, like a toddler.
When the Feeling-Self Is Not a Safe Object
But the “primary circularity” also suggests that the perpetual movements of the feeling-self might provide kinetic energy to the conscious-self. To what extent is our thinking and our thinking about thinking running on cortisol, parasites, our microbiome, or digestive peevishness? We remember Dickens’ Scrooge hallucinating the ghost of Jacob Marley. He cries out: “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” When we sit down to meditate, we imagine we are watching, reading, and reflecting upon the object of the feeling-self. But perhaps this is grandiose. Perhaps the feeling-self, through a crumb of cheese, is driving that very watching activity and its many colours, forcing the conscious-self to look in certain ways, specific ways.
More seriously: what if the entire mode or habit of the feeling-self is coloured by trauma? What about the case of the feeling-self that is so broken and quivering that it provokes a constant flurry of conscious anxiety taking complex or chaotic verbal forms in the conscious-self?
All over the world, salesmen for the new commodified mindfulness murmur the mantra: return to the breath, return to the breath. They are advising the conscious-self to redirect attention to the feeling-self. But what if the feeling-self only wants to hide? What if the breath is broken because someone choked you? What if you cannot feel settled into your sitting bones and relax your pelvic musculature because of rape? What if your adrenaline spurts chaotically, unprovoked, disordered by hypervigilance, vagal exhaustion, by countless silent embodied memories? What if the conscious-self has been hanging on to coherence by its nails? What if the person has made dissociation from the feeling-self into a workable solution for intolerable stress? Will it work to ask them to aim the conscious-self at a fractured feeling-self? The conscious-self is excellent at mirroring. When it mirrors an electrical storm, what will it do? What shall we have it mirror?
If we eavesdrop on the ongoing research of neuropsychiatrist Willoughby Britton at Brown University (Rocha, 2014), and the increasing number of clinicians bringing underreported problems with mindfulness-based mechanisms to light, it is immediately clear that meditation has strong contraindications. A stable and nurturing internal conversation requires safety and equality. Some people may not be ready – and may not ever be ready – to have it. Proponents of meditation, especially if they claim to be serving the best interests of all their students – not just the easy ones, the safe ones, the privileged ones – have to be okay with the likely limits of their art.
Those Tibetan Preliminaries
I remember quite clearly from my travels in Tibetan meditation culture that all meditative techniques were said to make a practitioner vulnerable to lung, which translates roughly as “excess wind”. The symptoms could be both acute and long-lasting: surges of anxiety, groundlessness, cognitive disorientation. Extreme cases feature psychosis. Most problematic was the fact that such breaks in psychic health could easily be interpreted by the naïve practitioner as the sensations of mystical insight. I remember stories of meditators on retreat barging out of the retreat hall, tearing off their clothes, proclaiming their enlightenment, replaying scenes from Buddhist myths. At the time I wondered aloud to a mentor: “So how do we know that that’s not what enlightenment looks like? I mean – if you suddenly realized that reality was not what you thought it was…”. She stopped me with her eyes and said very simply: “Realization makes you feel more at home, not less.”
The general consensus in the community was that those who fell prey to lung had been poorly prepared for the intensity of meditative practice. They hadn’t done their ngöndro (preliminary practices) well enough. Preliminaries consisted of grueling repetitions of intentional movements: 100,000 prostrations towards an altar or an auspicious direction was a famous technique. In Dharamsala I watched hundreds of monks, nuns, and laypeople circumambulating temples and stūpas and prostrating full length with every step, wearing huge leather knee pads and what looked like hockey mitts to protect them from the gravel, and surgical masks against the dust. Less austere were the dozen wooden planks in every monastery courtyard – door-width, about eight feet long, where generations of monks polished body-shaped grooves into the wood. The prostrations made them burly and ripped.
There were a number of other preliminary possibilities as well, and in some lineages, practitioners were required to complete all of them. There was the practice of making one hundred thousand “maṇḍala offerings”, in which the practitioner used a copper plate, a bucket of uncooked rice, gold-coloured coins, and shiny stones to play-act the offering of all things bright and beautiful to the Buddha – the earth, the sea, the wish-giving jewel, the cow of plenty – all in one sustained act of gratitude. Or you could prepare, at your own expense 100,000 butter lamps to light the local temple.
What strikes me now about these preliminary exercises is that they are embodied, and seem to be developing the brain for a future task with far different stakes. It reminds me of Mr. Myagi’s instructions to the Karate Kid: car-waxing swipes and paint-brush strokes on the white picket fence became calm and collected deflections of chops and punches.
With preliminaries, a general attitude of hopefulness and commitment is encouraged, but there’s no philosophy involved and no complex mental instructions to carry out. If meditation is a conversation between the feeling-self and the conscious-self, it would seem that the Tibetans nurtured several very elegant ways to build and test the stability and resilience of the feeling-self – through exercise, ritual play, and simple, rhythmic service. The incredible rigour of doing 100,000 movement-based, non-cognitive repetitions of anything could be a way of proving that the constancy of the practitioner’s feeling-self could then be safely taken as the object of conscious-self attention.
The preliminaries form a ground-up approach that I also imagine could expose a traumatized feeling-self very quickly, and either allow the practitioner much-needed space and time for restoration, or weed her out as a candidate for meditation altogether. How the practitioner or her teacher would be able to navigate that fork in the road would likely come from a combination of long-term individual and cultural experience. The system definitely would need some way of reducing the possibility that these movement-based practices could have a calming effect upon a traumatized autonomic nervous system that meditation would then retraumatize. It would have to make provision for that segment of the population for whom the preliminary practices would be an end in themselves.
And – it would have to do all of this with its pre-scientific understanding of neurophysiology and cognitive function. In a modern setting, my mentors at least had a biomedical out. “If you get lung,” I remember one of them saying matter-of-factly in a bucolic Connecticut retreat house, “we’ll call an ambulance and they’ll have to pump you full of drugs to bring you down.” The subtext was: you really don’t want to get lung.
By and large, there are no preparatory practices in global meditation culture today. Folks just sit down and dig right into themselves, taking the instruction of pretty much anybody who rolls into town with shaved head or a robe. If the purpose of the preliminaries is to stabilize the feeling-self, the asanas of Modern Postural Yoga might provide something comparable to the series of Tibetan prostrations, but only up to the point before which asana becomes its own fascination, fraught with consideration, baroque theory, and self-conscious selfies. If the feeling-self can be explored through rituals of devoted play, what should a secular person play? The maṇḍala offerings are quite culturally specific – par for the course in a Tibetan monastery. As far as I could tell, the monks were not embroiled – as I was when I abandoned the maṇḍala-offerings after maybe a thousand repetitions – in the conscious-self tension of making something up. But maybe something artistic and ephemeral would do. How about making 100,000 balancing rock piles at the local beach? How many years would that take? Would it be enough?
Perhaps the most plausible option for preliminary practice would seem to be service work – something analogous to the butter-lamp offerings – something simple, soothing, aesthetic in nature. People who have a natal religious culture from which they are not too alienated might have a few more options available than most. The preliminary practice should yield material sensations and material results – something that someone else would be grateful for. Something that would model a very gracious way of initiating a conversation with someone you do not know, and may be a little intimidated by, but you hold in reverence nonetheless.
What Makes For an Improved Conversation?
We vibrate with multiple dyads all the way back to the womb. Conceive of it in any way you like – body and spirit, self and other, puruṣa and prakṛti, individual and collective, animus and anima, Śiva and Śakti – we are in constant external and internal conversation. So is there something to learn about good meditation from what we know about how good conversations unfold? I think so.
A good conversation is easier to have in a safe space. Physical comfort and support are foundational. But the broader aspects of comfort and support – the socio-economic – would also be implied. A conversation is easier to have in a containing milieu of equality, justice, and the sharing of power. Who can meditate if they are oppressed? People who are oppressing others might feel free to meditate, but all meditation traditions that I know of teach that it won’t work out so well for the oppressors in the end. But this might be wishful thinking.
Of course, in contemporary/commodified mindfulness discourse, which is largely indistinguishable from the neoliberal aspirations of the corporations it is being groomed to serve, the ethical bedrock of meditation is regrettably overlooked. Frank Jude Boccio (2012) digs back to find the broader implications of the Pali terms that have inspired so many today. He argues that it’s only in the present age that “mindfulness” has been equated with the individualistic pursuit of peace in the immediate moment, with no concern for context and circumstance. Boccio’s erudition is worth quoting at length here:
The Pali word that we generally translate as mindfulness is sati, which is a form of “recollection” and “non-forgetfulness” which includes: retrospective memory of the past; prospectively remembering to do something in the future; and a present-centered recollection as the unwavering attention to a present reality. This kind of mindfulness may be used to sustain bare attention, but nowhere in the basic texts do we find mindfulness (sati) equated with bare attention (manasikara).
Indeed, for “right mindfulness” to be present, sati requires the concomitant presence of “clear comprehension” (sampajanna) which is a form of introspective awareness that includes: precise knowing (a knowing of discrete moments of experiencing); complete knowing (seeing impermanence, the not-self nature of phenomena; the ultimately unsatisfactory nature of phenomena; liberation); and balanced knowing (the observation of all phenomena with sati). In the Satipatthana Sutta (a key text on the practice of sati), the three factors of recollection (sati), clear comprehension (sampajanna) and ardency (atappa) together make up “appropriate attention” or “wise reflection” (yoniso manasikara).
Sati is understood as a wholesome mental factor that clearly distinguishes between wholesome and unwholesome mental states and behaviors, and is used to then cultivate and support wholesome states and behaviors and to counteract and diminish unwholesome states and behaviors. Nothing “impartial” or “neutral” about that!
In this rich presentation, “mindfulness” and “meditation” are inseparable from relational life. How could it be any other way? Can we expect to generate internal equanimity when our external models for relationship carry the weight and wounds of injustice? Those who evangelize for the benefits of meditation without seriously engaging the political concerns that foster improved interpersonal relationship might be merely helping people achieve an isolated down-regulation of nervous tension to better cope with – or worse, accept – an unjust world.
Qualified Lessons from Parenting, Suzuki and Non-Violent Communication
A good conversation benefits from receptive listening, curiosity, low reactivity, and an intimacy that expresses good boundaries. Given how difficult these things are to achieve between people, we might expect the conversation of meditation to have a steep learning curve. Ground rules can be helpful to work against the grain of stressful interpersonal habits that are the vestiges of the individuation process in child development: speed, interruption, assumption, and a general discomfort with the “otherness” of the other, which, in the conversational model of meditation, would be analogous to the meditator remaining intolerant of certain internal voices, or of the very feeling-self.
One of the most difficult things for families to learn is to create a developmental environment in which children are not rushed, in which they are fully heard, and their ideas are reflected back to them in a relaxed and accepting conversational manner. Translated into a meditation context, we might say that the feeling-self and the conscious-self must learn to receive each other’s feedback fully, slowly, without interruption, allowing for a natural exploration of themes. For those of you who grew up with an impatient or intrusive parent who could not seem to isolate their needs from yours, or who seemed to need to control your non-harmful behaviours or perhaps even your thoughts: imagine how the internalization of this dynamic might generate perpetual stress in the conversation of meditation.
Despite his shifty use of the word “control”, Shunryu Suzuki speaks eloquently of the need for space in introspection in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:
The best way to control people is to encourage them to be mischievous. Then they will be in control in its wider sense. To give your sheep or cow a large, spacious meadow is the way to control him. So it is with people: first let them do what they want, and watch them. This is the best policy. To ignore them is not good; that is the worst policy. The second worst is trying to control them. The best one is to watch them, just to watch them, without trying to control them. The same way works for you yourself as well. If you want to obtain perfect calmness in your zazen [the zen word for “just sitting” meditation], you should not be bothered by the various images you find in your mind. Let them come, and let them go. Then they will be under control.
Parent and meditator share the same challenge of fostering open and receptive communication.
In addition to this basic premise of allowing for space in dialogue, certain bits of advice from Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication strategy are interesting to consider. While the ambitious claims of NVC culture might in themselves be as hyper-idealizing as those we find in the mindfulness industry, and its failure to address structural inequality can easily make it another feel-good tool of neoliberal propaganda, some of NVC’s basic observations about the nature of conversational aggression could have deep relevance to meditation strategy.
Rosenberg and Sherts (2005, 2009) begin their exposition of NVC by identifying the “disconnections” of typical conversation. They claim that the object of any speech act is to communicate an emotional valence. If the listener does not indicate receptivity to that emotion valence – if they can’t “hold space for it” – the communication will fail. Worse than this, NVC proponents identify several standard methods by which they claim many listeners violently encroach upon or close the necessary space for communication. They claim that listeners shut down speakers through a range of strategies, some of which – quite strangely – seem to mimic empathy.
Example: a person comes home in the evening and says to their partner: “Honey, I’ve had such a rough day.” In NVC terms, violent responses to the announcement would include the following (note how some seem entirely innocuous):
“Tell me about it. Do you have any idea what happened to me today?” (Self-referral.)
“Really? So what exactly happened?” (Ignoring the emotion by digging for facts.)
“Aren’t you ready to quit that job already?” (Giving advice instead of holding space for the feeling.)
“Maybe you should learn some better coping skills.” (Ditto.)
“It’ll be better tomorrow, honey.” (Consoling with a false promise.)
“You don’t deserve that shit!” (Reducing empowerment by taking sides.)
“It’s alright, honey, I love you.” (Disempowering through flattery that invites dependence.)
Each of these responses share a fundamental impatience, intolerance, and ignorance of interpersonal transference and countertransference. Translated into the terms of meditation-as-conversation, these are precisely the conscious-self habits that would hierarchize our multiple internal voices – privileging some, disparaging others. It is hard to listen to an emotional-self or the feeling-self and not want to correct, advise, or console it. It is hard to listen to strange thoughts emerging from the darkness of unconscious life, and not push back at them in some way. But the basic principle of spaciousness – “Big Mind” in zen terms, ösel in Tibetan – is fed by precisely this refusal to indulge reactivity and the need for control. When you feel this permissive refusal take over, whether in conversation with a person or within yourself, a sublime relaxation can pervade. The emotion of the person – or the feeling-self – is understood to be a fleeting invitation to love each of them more.
Meditation Techniques as Types of Conversation: A Mostly Personal Whirlwind Tour
The vipassana techniques that emerge from early Buddhism and which are now collated and psychologized under the term “Insight” instruct that first, simple level of conversation between the conscious-self and the feeling-self. When the advice moves from concentration upon breathing or internal sensation to the “open awareness” of the conscious-self upon its own thought, the project moves into metacognition territory. The conversation to be attended to occurs between an array of internal voices, each enunciating thoughts that come and go.
In metacognition-land, open awareness techniques are often replaced by focused attention techniques. The meditator might be asked to train a gentle gaze upon a candle flame, or to generate an internal visualization of the same. Or to consider one of the Upaniṣadic “Great Sayings” (mahāvākyāni) such as “I Am That.” In this case, a twofold conversation begins: between the conscious-self and a proposition, and between layers of conscious-self that waffle between wanting and not-wanting to learn a new perspective. “I Am That? Really? What are you talking about?”
With my Tibetan teachers, I learned that a brief period of “open awareness” meditation was a good “pallet-cleanser” for sinking into a concentrated conversation between the conscious-self and one of many philosophical principles. They called it “analytical meditation” (chegom). This primary technique in Tibetan monasticism is little-known in global meditation culture. I was given the stages of a philosophical argument and asked to contemplate each point with great attention and feeling. For instance, “the inevitability of death” meditation consisted of generating acute feelings of bodily vulnerability – imagining it decomposing layer by layer, down to the bone, realizing that this process was already underway and could accelerate catastrophically at any moment. It was important to be open to the emotions elicited by the contemplation. Then I was to meditate on the Seven Disadvantages of not keeping these facts foremost in my conscious-self as I made my way through life.
The conversation of this technique is at least threefold: between the conscious-self and a tradition, between the conscious-selves that want and do not want to ponder these things, and between the conscious-self holding these morbid ideas and the feeling-self, which would often tremble with fear and loathing. This is one of many techniques that should really require that dedicated preliminary practice.
Later in my Tibetan Buddhist training, I was taught an empathy meditation called “giving and receiving” or tong-len. In tong-len, the conversation of meditation became fantastical. I was instructed to visualize a person sitting across from me, to attune first to their existential condition, and then whatever I imagined their particular suffering was. I was to fantasize this suffering into the visual metaphor of the person’s body being filled with black smoke. With each inhalation, I was instructed to incrementally pull that smoke out of the person’s body and into my nostrils, directing it to sink down into my heart, where it would be incinerated in a blaze of light. My exhale was to carry that light back out across the imagined space between us and watch it gradually fill the person’s body. Though wordless, the whole scene is conversational, therapeutic even, sitting across from the other, sharing pain and joy.
Probably too soon after this, I was initiated into the psychedelic Vajrayana practice of kye-rim. “Kye-rim” means the “path of creation”, in which the meditator literally recreates themselves in the image of a Tantric deity. My lineage practiced the kye-rim of Vajrayogini, which meant that I spent several years visualizing myself as a naked sixteen-year-old Indian goddess, sexually aroused, drinking the blood and brains of my butchered old Matthew-body out of a skull cup. [Sic.] That was just for starters. I also was instructed to meditate upon her (my) palatial maṇḍala, writhing with numberless dancing deities. There were also instructions to meditate on the presence of numberless Vajrayogini deities dancing in every part of my own body – joints, chakras, the very cells. So here the fantastical conversation of meditation exploded into a baroque conscious-self/feeling-self tango of visualization, auto-suggestion, mantra, hand-gestures, and community ritual.
This was definitely the most complex internal conversation I’ve ever engaged. Insofar as it was a real chore to memorize the sādhanā in Tibetan, which I was struggling to understand, it was anxiously performative. But it was also harrowing, exhausting, and extremely difficult for me to integrate into everyday life – perhaps because it exercised wild idealizations that had very little to do with my interpersonal condition. In many ways, I think it allowed me to avoid some rather pressing life questions. I don’t blame the practice for this: I’m sure I wasn’t prepared adequately for it, and I’m quite sure that many of the instructions and their meanings were either lost in translation, or were simply untranslatable between the medieval Tibet in which they arose and the New Jersey temple of the late 1990s in which I was given them.
But for a few chance meetings in my twenties, I could well have wound up practicing a much simpler form of Tantric visualization and embodiment-meditation. Perhaps too late, I picked up Dharana Darshan and other books from the now-scandal-plagued Bihar School of Yoga. These briefer meditations (a full practice of Vajryogini kye-rim took more than an hour) described simpler internal conversations: listening for primal sounds, visualizing radiant colours at various chakras, watching the breath metaphorized as light, inhaling down and exhaling up the space in front of the spine, tickling and tugging at the nerve plexes. If I’d had direct teaching in these techniques and a practice community to support me, this conversation might have been more sustainable than the baffling chant in the mandala.
Last fall I co-published a book of letters about family life that I had exchanged with my friend Michael Stone, who has been practicing zen meditation for many years. The letters themselves were a meditative process for me, but Michael also gave me a lot of insight into the interpersonal dynamics of his tradition, and how meditation is stimulated or even actualized by distinct conversational encounters between students and teachers. In Michael’s zen culture, he is asked to work with koans – whimsical and paradoxical questions – in isolation, to then be tested on them in a private interview with his Roshi. In a passage that shows the folding of multiple layers of conversation into each other, Michael writes:
I’m working on the famous koan called “Mu.” It’s not the first time I’ve struggled with this. It’s from a story that took place in China more than a thousand years ago:
A student asked Zen Master Zhaozhou, “Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?” Zhaozhou said, “Mu.”
The word Mu means “no.”
The method with Roshi is that she wants me to sit down face to face with her and show my response. No explanations. “Just show me Mu,” she said, while her face lit up. I presented it to her. She smiled. Then she said, “Let’s keep going. Now tell me: How old is Mu?”
I stumbled. I paused. I looked to the left then back at her and suddenly I was in my head again, thinking around for a response. She shook her head. “Maybe next time.”
Then she told me to go home and when I am with the baby or with Carina, to ask myself: “How old is Mu?”
The koan can go in many ways. Does life have an underlying nature? Do all sentient beings have an essence? Do I? If so, what is it and how do I express it? And how old is that nature? Or, perhaps there is no underlying nature, as the literal translation suggests. Then, how old is the nature of something that has no nature, and how old is the nature of that something which is me? How old is Jacob Cale? How old or young is this moment in time?
I don’t want to share all the details of my process except that I’ve been meditating on this koan throughout the day. I say to myself: Mu or No. Then I say: how old is this? The question relays again and again in my mind throughout the day, like one pool ball hitting another. What I’ve started to believe is that the attention I bring to the question is really a form of love. The koan process, for me, anyways, is bringing love to each moment. Who ever thought that turning over a question again and again could bring love about?
A Social Model of Meditation for a Socially Constructed Self
Considering meditation as a conversational art seems to deftly conjoin the private and interpersonal spheres, which might be the long-term goal of the activist-minded yogi. The analogy forces the discourse into a highly practical realm in which the division between personal and social concerns is porous at least, irrelevant at most. According to the psycho-social neuroscience summarized by Churchland (2011) and Hood (2012), it may no longer be possible to consider the emergence of conscious life apart from its social contexts. Hood is one of many who go so far as to say that the feeling of the private, individually-owned, unitary self is a phenomenological mystery with no neuroanatomy correlates that we can identify so far. Moreover: every bit of evidence points to the strong possibility that this conscious-self – carrier of identity and agency – is an interpersonally-generated illusion. In other words, the conscious-self, that primary agent of meditative intentionality, is the literal creation of discourse between a network of conscious selves.
If Hood and others are correct, meditation theory can with renewed vigour turn back to the outward-in mechanism that the Pali cannon, the Yoga Sutras, and Tibetan cultural praxis all seem to share: meditation is prepared by one’s interpersonal behaviours and attitudes, because there is no conscious-self for the meditator to work with or work on outside of the conscious-self that has been constructed through interaction. Therefore, ethics and the capacity for intimacy – both in the home and macro-politically – are neither simple preliminaries to meditation, nor beneficial side-benefits of practice. In the conversational model of meditation, they would be both the means and ends of practice itself.
So, here at the end of a too-long post, the Buddhist-centric bias of my map is given a full reveal. The general Buddhist claim that a central subjective organizing agent, executive homunculus, or essential self is impossible to find seems to presage the strange intuitions of contemporary neuroscience, as well as the psychoanalytic claims of a century before. Personhood in all of these discourses is presented as a shifting constellation of many conversing parts – the “multitudes” Whitman felt within – orbiting an open space of possibility. Meditation in this light would be about soothing and examining the space between internal speakers, and listening to the silence between their sentences. It would not be so concerned, as the Vedantic-Hindu strains are, in establishing the essential and eternal nature of any one of the conversants. Buddhism and contemporary neuroscience burn their gaze through the ephemerality of the conscious-self, leaving nothing but white ash. They somehow have to make their way forward in that most counter-intuitive stream, knowing that this core human feeling of having an “I” at the centre of things – the centre of one’s head, usually – an “I” so strongly bound by history and identity that we cannot imagine ourselves without it, is an efficient fiction we assemble to nourish a sense of continuity within a greater chaos.
I certainly don’t think that the not-self phenomenon probed by Buddhism, neuroscience, and a truly conversational meditation is the right path for everyone. There are definitely people for whom using meditation to find or connect with the “True Self” is an important and grounding if not essential therapy. To me this suggests that the Vedantic-Hindu paths emerging from the “I am That” psychology of the Upaniṣads might be an critical step in meditation from which many practitioners may never wish to stray. In the same way that the human needs to individuate in order to really discover her interdependence, perhaps the conscious-self must gain a certain confidence before it can question whether it really exists in way it thinks it does. But the question of whether one is seeking the Self or emptying out its illusory charge might itself be just another focal point for the hopefully relaxed conversation of meditation.
My first meditation instructor advised:
“On the inhale, ask yourself ‘Who am I?’ And on the exhale, give the honest answer: ‘Don’t know’.”
Feeling-self and conscious-self, matter and ghost, child and man: the part of me that asks and the part of me that answers are still hanging out together, and getting to know each other, shyly.
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