Years ago I gave up attempting to learn to meditate. I’d tried it many ways and decided that meditation must call for some special talent that I lacked. Then my wife Judy and I met Shinzen Young at a conference — and decades later I’m still meditating regularly, even teaching a basic webinar on meditation and mindfulness occasionally. Shinzen and his students offer monthly telephone conference call style meditation retreats for both beginners and advanced students, and he’s recently published a brilliant book, The Science of Meditation, which I will review when I get a chance. Meanwhile, these notes, as a peek at the kinds of things that I, someone who once gave up meditation for lack of talent, am playing with on one of these telephone retreats. Not that I’m an “advanced” meditator by any means, but it’s gotten quite interesting… 😉
Pure Awareness and Expansion/Contraction:
Reflections on Shinzen Retreat 10/14-15/2016
Charles T. Tart
Basic instruction from Shinzen: Don’t focus on the ongoing content of experience, as in most practices of meditation, let the (specifics of the) content go (not suppress, just don’t focus on) and be aware that you are aware. When you lose awareness that you are aware, (gently) come back.
Various observations I made and took notes on during the practice:
– Practicing “pure awareness,” I exist. There are many particular sensations that comprise me. I don’t mentally and explicitly say “This is me” to any of them, but this ongoing flow is what I attend to when I think about “I” am experiencing.
– I can selectively direct my attention and tune into some sensations more than others, and I can get lost in those sensations.
– In this deliberate practice, it’s only intermittently that I tune in to being aware that I exist. I tend to get lost in particular content and drift off into it.
– When I try to go deeper into what it means to know I exist, I usually just have some particular sensation(s) become more intense, I haven’t been able to find an “independent” quality, independent of sensations. The mental thought “I am aware” is a quasi-sensory experience of hearing rather than some “abstraction” beyond sense experience. Intellectually I can always reason that I exist as a basis for experience, but that’s not a separate, distinctive I exist quality. Or maybe there is such a quality but it is so pervasive and common that I don’t notice it.
– When I get sucked into some simulation that’s created, it’s like the total amount of my consciousness gets squeezed down to less than it was before the suck in, as well as consciousness becoming almost or totally wrapped up in the simulation*.
– It seems to me that noting, and especially labeling, are designed to prevent full absorption in ongoing experience. “Noting” and “labeling” are here used as Shinzen uses them.
Going on to Expansion/Contraction Practice:
– Noting that something is both expanding and contracting at the same time is a complicated pair of words and mental operations. It would be helpful if we had a word that indicates morphing in general, flowing in general to use, that included mixtures of expansion and contraction. I experience such complex morphings at numerous times, part of an ongoing experience is contracting, e.g., while part is expanding. I use expansion and contraction as Shinzen used them in this guided meditation to include not only changes in spatial extent of an experience (bigger, smaller, leftward, rightward, etc.) but any perceived changes, such as amplitude, color, intensity, etc. Using “expanding-contracting” as a single phrase to promote noting or, especially to verbally label, takes attention away from the phenomena per se for a longish time compared to some single, simple word label, so things can be missed.
– I think now that a useful distinction in my consciousness that can be made moment to moment is am I consciously present, with or without various sensory experiences going on? Or not? And are there experiences going on that are “tugging” at me, to absorb me into a world-simulation that has been created? Or am I completely absorbed into whatever world-simulation is being created at the moment? Actually there is a continuum of degree of absorption here, rather than simply all-or-none.
– Simply knowing that you’re part of a system (Buddhist meditation in this case, but any spiritual/psychological development system), that you’re practicing a system that you believe will make you more effective, is likely to increase your competence and self-worth, and produce a certain amount of happiness and crowd out some unhappiness all by itself. Lots of ways to cut the pie, as it were, but knowing that you are actively cutting it, exerting more conscious observation, appreciation and control is ego syntonic.
* I say “simulation” here as shorthand for a technical term I used in my writings, “world-simulation process,” to indicate that the (my) mind produces, well-night instantly, one world of experience full of various qualities, which slowly or suddenly dissolves to be replaced by another simulated world, etc. Normally the simulation is of ordinary reality, what the room behind me looks like even though I’m not looking at it just now, e.g., etc. This can be elaborated at length from my articles…
End of notes
Shinzen Young’s instructions are very much like what some Non Duality folks would suggest. In Non Duality, we are trying to notice that there is one thing (that isn’t a thing) that doesn’t change while everything else changes. That one thing that doesn’t change, that’s what you are, what you are trying to notice, that which is the noticing itself. You are that awareness. It’s always been right here and right now. It can’t be anywhere or anytime else.