Discussing one’s meditation: reflections from an M – 1 Course

Last week we started an M-1 course at the Acem House in New Delhi. The course is an advanced course for those who have done the Beginners’ Course (M-0) and would like to understand the psychology of meditation further. It is the 3rd time I am part of such a course, and the 1st time as a co-leader. Each time the main challenge that the course leaders have faced is to make the participants reflect on their own experience of meditation rather than only discuss what is theoretically correct or incorrect. In the first M-1 course I attended, I found that it was one of the first times I deeply thought about what I really do when I meditate. Many others in such courses have the same experience, being able to see that there can be many different ways of repeating the meditation sound, many different ways of coming back to it and many different responses to the times when the stream of consciousness is uncomfortable. A fact that becomes clear to the group very soon is that there is more to the meditation than telling ourselves “just repeat the sound and let all thoughts come and go.”

The participants may be highly educated but the kind of discourse that is required in the M-1 is of a different kind than what is taught at school or the university. To be in such a group, on the one hand, means to look within and remember moments in one’s meditation, trying to feel one’s way into whatever memories remain of the meditation experience. “How do I act when the flow of thoughts is so intense that coming back to the sound feels like a great effort?” “How do I use my awareness when I realise that my sound is accompanied by a movement in the body?” This is a process of stepping into those areas of the mind in which there is little light on how we act. By stepping into these areas, we illuminate them gradually, sometimes leading to clarity, sometimes to more questions. At times the participant does not remember anything but a tiny fragment of the meditation. But as the associations flow, the tiny fragment becomes a more elaborate picture of the person’s meditation which may be a reflection of his psychological structures.

Discussing one’s meditation

On the other hand, one is trying to convey these dim memories of pre-verbal meditational experiences to the group, trying to find appropriate words and analogies to bring to the outside what lies inside. “Repeating the sound feels like dragging a heavy rock.” “There is a sense of immediacy in the way in which I take my awareness to the sound. No,impulsiveness is what describes my attitude better.” The meditator often does not know what his next sentence may be. He has put aside, at least to some extent, questions of what is right or wrong, and is letting his associations on the subject flow freely.

Discussions such as these open a channel between the inner world of the meditator and the group outside to which he is talking. Even if the focus of the discussion is meditation technique rather than emotions, the discussion may activate the same process in other members of the group, in whom something that is beneath the surface level of consciousness may now seek to be expressed. Some members respond by talking about their own meditation in a similar manner, some are more comfortable with maintaining status quo.

This manner of talking reminds one of the technique of free association in psychotherapy. However, the focus in the meditation group, more or less, is on how the meditator acts in the face of the ups and downs of the stream of consciousness. It is not just feelings and fantasies that are being discovered, but the acting self. By exploring and verbalising the nature of the acting self in varied inner conditions – pleasant and unpleasant – we come to a greater awareness of the acting self, and a greater opportunity to use capacities of it that we may have not been aware of without this process of sharing.

Over the years of meditating and discussing my meditation, I have come to feel that what is more significant for me is not what I experience but how I act when I experience it, both in meditation and in life. Perhaps one of the most important lessons from the course for many of us is that discussions of one’s meditation technique, initially seeming pedantic, can be a process of discovering newer aspects of how we act and being able to use ways of acting that were so far undiscovered, not just in the meditation but also in outer life.

6 Comments

  1. olego

    Interesting! When one talks about the unclear aspects of one’s own meditation, there is always something fresh and new. For the talking to be interesting one has to try to explore something one does not understand. Then one goes into the unknown. To try that again is not to repeat oneself.

  2. Kaif

    I agree. In Indian philosophy there is a notion that a person who has reached a considerable level of introspection is ‘abhinava’, or forever new, in the way he speaks, acts and is. That is supposed to be so because reality in itself is always changing, always renewing itself and manifesting anew in a continuous flow, according to this world-view. To go within oneself deeply is to be in touch with this ever new reality, without covering it up. Perhaps a bit like always accepting all the spontaneous activity that emerges from the unconscious, without controlling it according to how we wish things would be.

  3. Halvor

    I think many of us have had the experience you talk about as “discovering” that the simple act of meditation can be performed in so many different ways, and that your way of doing it reflects the way you relate to other things in life. It is very far from just repetition indeed. Such discoveries often lead to a kind of optimism, a sense of being able to relate anew to problems in one’s life, of having more choices than you originally thought. And even if this optimism is sooner or later buried in the humdrum of daily life, it may and often does initiate a move in a new direction.

  4. Kaif

    For me such “discoveries” often come when I have a chance to talk about how I meditate. It is difficult to understand what is going on in my meditation just on my own. Even though I do make some changes in my meditation without talking to anyone, basing them on my intuitive grasp of what is going on, I think things are much clearer when they are verbalised.

    I used to talk to a friend every month about my meditation technique. He passed away a year ago and I haven’t found anyone else to discuss my meditation with. After attending the meetings of the M-1 course I realised that I was really missing something by being lazy about finding another meditation guide, or meditation friend. I have done that now and look forward to regular discussion and new insights.

  5. olego

    Also, I think there are many potential meditation ‘buddies’ around. Two see more than one. And another person does not need to be a better or more experienced meditator to help one reflect a little bit more about one’s experiences with meditation. Another person always has the big advantage of not being the person one is talking about, and therefore not subject to the meditator’s defense mechanisms. Of course, an experienced mediation guide is important from time to time. But for the more steady and daily need to keep reflecting upon one’s meditation practice, there may be more potential help around than one realises.

  6. Kaif

    Yes! Visually speaking, I think the community of meditators is a bit like a pyramid. The ones above – the ones with more understanding – are fewer. So it is much easier to have ‘horizontal’ relationships with people with the same level of experience and understanding rather than ‘vertical’ ones with experienced instructors or initiators.

    Perhaps these ‘horizontal’ relationships with “meditation buddies” are not merely a compromised substitute for having a real meditation guide. It seems that when we read about introspective traditions the role of the guru and his misdeeds are often highlighted but people speak lesser about these horizontal relationships. In a Buddhist tradition I met in the UK, there was a high value placed on what they called “spiritual friendship”. I don’t fully understand what this entails but I think that the fact that the other can give you a view of yourself that is other than your own view is an important element of this, as you say. It seems that it is very easy to feel certain about our way of looking at life. A friend can often show us our blind spots and of course, give encouragement and support. I suppose this applies to blind spots and tough phases in meditation too. Then, what one needs is not long years of meditation but empathy and an interest in self-understanding.

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