The Meditation-as-Conversation Sutras


It was impossible to get a conversation going. Everybody was talking too much.

– Yogi Berra


A while back I posted this article about meditation. It suggested that if we think of meditation as an internal conversation, we can stop wondering about the best techniques or the true self or ultimate states, and start asking about what kinds of conversations are useful, and what good conversations feel like. I argued that the tension between our private practice and our social reality might be softened if we model our internal dialogues upon what we desire from our relationships.

But the article was terribly long, and terribly long articles can feel like one-sided conversations. So I thought this shorter and (I hope) more conversational version might help. It’s still in beta mode.



  1. Who told you that you wanted to meditate?
  2. Why did you believe them?
  3. Did you tell yourself? Where did that voice come from? Where do any voices come from? Would meditation help you find out?
  4. You’ve heard a voice that advises meditation. You start to wonder what meditation is, and how you would go about doing it, and what it would be like. But how do you know that you’re not meditating already?
  5. If the idea that it would be good for you to meditate came from a book, or a friend, or a teacher, or even this post, did it make you feel anxious? Hopeful? Both?
  6. It seems that there are always voices asking you to do something.
  7. They seem to come from the past, from parents and teachers, priests and nuns, bullies and senators, people you idolized, characters in books and commercials on TV.
  8. The voices enter, and bounce around inside, echoing. They congeal into parts of ourselves that inspire, make demands, tell jokes, distract, criticize, threaten, or punish.
  9. In time we come to think of them as our own. Although it might be more true to say that these voices own us. This is part of the problem that meditation might help resolve.
  10. There’s an old yoga book that calls these voices “fluctuations”, and suggests that if we can pause them through meditation, their momentum will slow down and eventually stop.
  11. The old book says that focusing on a single thing, regardless of what it is, is a path towards this stillness. It says you can try focusing on your breath or a sound or an idea of God. The book doesn’t care about your preferred content.
  12. The book says that somehow focusing on a single thing will narrow the voices down until all that’s left is a silent listener.
  13. What happens after this silent stillness falls isn’t clear, since it seems like human life is defined by an endless conversation with others and with ourselves – and with the others inside ourselves, the others that have become ourselves.
  14. Perhaps the complete silence and stillness described in the old book and many other meditation traditions is a way of making death tolerable or even attractive.
  15. In any case, meditation would seem to begin with listening to all the voices.
  16. But that would mean that we’re always already meditating. That can’t be right.
  17. Maybe it’s about listening to all of the voices, and not reacting to them.
  18. But is that possible? Isn’t listening an act of dialogue? If you don’t listen to your inner voices, don’t they just start shouting? It would be nice if the shouting stopped.
  19. The inner listener, no matter how non-reactive, is always feeling something. That feeling is a response.
  20. All voices that impact you, that you remember, that you love or hate – they’re all in there, echoing and blending as parts of the self.
  21. A voice emerges because it wants to be heard.
  22. It is out of this chorus of external/internal voices that thoughts about meditation arise.
  23. If you hear a thought about meditation, it is already part of the internal conversation that meditation is meant to listen to.
  24. This is ironically true for meditation instructions. Meditation instructions cue the meditation process, before they even tell you how to meditate.
  25. You might know this is happening if the instructions make you feel inadequate.
  26. It doesn’t matter if the instructions come from Tibet, India, Thailand, Bali, Japan, or Cleveland.
  27. It doesn’t matter if the wisdom comes from Dr. Seuss: “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.”
  28. It doesn’t matter if the instructions tell you to watch your breath, visualize yourself with four heads, or imagine that you’re in love with all of humanity.
  29. The voices you hate, voices that oppress you or that want to discipline you or change you – even these voices can show up to give you meditation instructions.
  30. The thing that unifies all instructions is that they are instructions. They suggest that you do something.
  31. From wherever it comes and however you hear it, the first thing that happens with a meditation instruction is that it confronts the listening self with the idea that the listening self should change.
  32. The meditation instruction, therefore, provokes a simple tension that could become the first object of meditation, if we pay attention.
  33. So let’s say the meditation instruction asks you to meditate on the sound of a mantra. But before you even get to the mantra, you must navigate the feeling of needing to do something.
  34. How that feeling unfolds is the starting point of meditation and will likely influence the sound and meaning of that mantra.
  35. Jason Siff says, “The tension between the meditation instructions you use and your mind as it is in meditation leads to tightening or loosening around the instructions.” He goes on to suggest that this tightness or looseness in regard to the instructions determines the general flow of the meditation.
  36. So really, we’re talking about encountering an external voice that says You should meditate like this, or an internal voice that says I should meditate like this, and then seeing how the listening part of you responds in any given moment.
  37. So really, we’re talking about a conversation. Getting good at meditation – if that’s a worthy goal – may be about becoming a better conversationalist.
  38. A good conversationalist knows that no single voice is more important than any other.
  39. Oscar Wilde said: “Conversation should touch everything, but should concentrate itself on nothing.”
  40. This would seem to contradict traditional advice about cultivating “single-pointed concentration”, unless the focus of that concentration was the quality of conversation, and not its content.
  41. A meditation/conversation could be about God or your breath or social justice or particle physics. What matters is what that conversation feels like, how open and receptive the conversants are with each other.
  42. The more open and receptive your internal conversation becomes, the more integrated you may feel.
  43. Some traditions say that this is the whole point.
  44. But there are some traditions or interpretations that are so interested in helping you find the One True Voice inside you that they advocate one-sided conversation.
  45. A good conversation is never forced. If one voice doesn’t want to be in conversation after several attempts, there’s no point in them staying. This is really important for people who feel immediately claustrophobic in meditation.
  46. For some people, the pitch of internal voices is so acute that trying to allow them to converse is retraumatizing. It might be much better to go swimming, and let the breath rate converse with the heart rate.
  47. A good conversation doesn’t involve invasive eye contact. Or platitudes.
  48. It doesn’t pursue conflict, nor does it expect agreement. It’s just happy to be there, learning.
  49. Fritz Perls’ Gestalt Prayer applies nicely to internal voices: “You are you, and I am I, and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful. If not, it can’t be helped.”
  50. There are too many instructions about physical posture in meditation to cover here. They’re useful to the extent that they allow you to feel like you’re sitting with a friend.


With bows to the insights of Jason Siff, and the research of Bruce Hood and Willoughby Britton.

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