The Varieties of Contemplative Experience and the Meditative Marketplace

By identifying a broader range of experiences associated with meditation, along with the factors that contribute to the presence and management of experiences reported as challenging, difficult, distressing or functionally impairing, this study aims to increase our understanding of the effects of contemplative practices and to provide resources for mediators, clinicians, meditation researchers, and meditation teachers. (1-2)

The Varieties of Contemplative Experience (VCE) is an important and scholarly article that aims to expand public knowledge of Buddhist meditative practice and its range of possible effects.  Willoughby Britton is one of its contributors and has played an active role in the contemplative community.  She will be familiar to those of you who’ve read this article and have heard of Cheetah House, a place where those experiencing the abrasive effects of meditation can rest and recuperate.  VCE is a landmark study and anyone interested in starting meditation, creating a meditation group, or bringing meditation into the workplace should read it.

I have written several times on the broad spectrum of experiences brought on by my own meditative practice.  I have been practicing meditation daily for around nine years, and in that time I’ve experienced things that were life-changing, amazing, and positive.  Other parts of the practice pushed me into an extremely intense and profound dialogue with parts of myself that I had not yet fully processed or integrated.  Pursuing meditation on my own compounded these difficulties, and I lacked both community resources and a context for what I experienced.

That is why studies such as VCE are so necessary right now, especially given the current state of meditation in America and its position as part of a wider consumer culture.  Mindfulness is an example of a meditation practice that has gone mainstream and has been disseminated as a solution to a wide range of problems.  Meditation has therefore settled into an uneasy polarity with the marketplace at large, and is in many respects being bought and sold like any other commodity.  There is unfortunately still a lack of public dialogue and resources around these types of practices.

One of the main arguments of the article is that the “positive” effects of meditation are widely reported and emphasized, while “adverse” effects are little understood or appreciated by the wider public.

While these sources are often assumed to be indicative of ‘the effects of meditation,’ the focus on positive health-related benefits represents only a narrow selection of possible effects that have been acknowledged within Buddhist traditions both past and present. (2)

On the one hand, this is perfectly understandable, since capitalism has brought many esoteric religious teachings into the marketplace at an extremely rapid rate.  There is a public reckoning with these teachings that is similar to what is happening currently with psychedelics.  There is still some debate within various circles as to the merits of these kind of substances, but it seems that there is a general shift of opinion happening in this domain.  However, with psychedelics, the public seems to be much more cognizant of their dangers than practices such as mindfulness.

The situation with mindfulness and meditation is as if psychedelic substances were widely available and popularized without any kind of meaningful guide to the inner territories they explore.  I find it difficult to believe that mindfulness can truly be marketed as a wholly safe practice in light of studies such as the VCE.  The article provides an extremely interesting image in the form of a table of different types of meditation experiences of novice and seasoned meditators.  I have experienced many of these throughout my practice, and information like this table is a good general indicator of what the student can expect as they progress, and will hopefully become more prevalent as the public discourse around mindfulness begins to shift.

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The marketing of meditation and esoteric religious practices to a wider community than they were intended has both profound challenges and opportunities that are still being addressed.  The more I have studied meditation-based texts, the more I have appreciated their power and insight.  I have also come to a subtler understanding of the reservations that many of these texts express with their knowledge coming under wider public scrutiny.  This may be one reason why these kinds of practices were reserved for a select few, in ensuring that the student had the necessary training to use this practice in the most beneficial way possible and navigate the types of difficult terrain the VCE describes.

Maps of this terrain are very useful because they help the student understand these experiences in certain ways, as well as giving the student a basis to weather their many internal storms.  An example of this kind of system is found in the book Steps to the Great Perfection: The Mind-Training Tradition of the Dzogchen Masters A step by step process is laid out, giving the student different nodes to focus on, and giving them different kinds of trainings to engage in throughout.  Examples of some of these practices are impermanence, nonconceptuality, and the Buddha’s virtues (7). The author then proceeds to give different kinds of methods (including some pretty intense visualizations) to more fully understand each of these instructions.

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While I don’t think that a system is necessary for every practitioner,  with them the student is less likely to get lost or focus on the things that don’t lead to a more refined practice.  And even with a practice as seemingly simple and straightforward as mindfulness, any sustained amount of time spent observing our own mental processes is bound to bring up plenty of ancient, hard to integrate material.  The more students and teachers become aware of the wide range of experiences that can occur in any kind of meditation, the more robust our public discourse will be at handling these kinds of situations.

The VCE fills this role admirably and widens the lens of the possible effects of contemplative practice.  I hope that more people who are utilizing meditation read VCE and give it the attention it deserves.  And as someone who in many capacities has gone it alone for almost a decade of meditation – please don’t go it alone.  Find people you can dialogue with and a teacher who can help put things into perspective – until you reach a point that you can decide whether that specific perspective is still needed.

Silence – Our Original Face

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Due to several recent changes in my life, I’ve been able to spend more time throughout each day in silence.  Although this was unintentional at first, I’ve increasingly experimented with moving deeper into this silence and having more time each day where my attention is not occupied with distractions.  Since distraction is such a persistent feature of modern life, we may not encounter the many challenges that arise in silence but that are essential for our personal growth and self-knowledge.

It may be difficult at first to set aside the time that silence asks for.  The initial forays into the silent wilderness can be extremely painful as we learn ways of dealing with the things we find there.  In order to more fully understand this process, I’d like to examine what happens as we begin to immerse ourselves more fully in silent contemplation and start to be more present within ourselves.

When we first begin to give time each day to being quiet and listening, boredom, anxiety, and panic are very common.  Without a constant stream of noise, the mind may substitute its own fantasies and attempt to create stimulation for itself.  I’ve found this to be very similar to a process of withdrawal from addiction, as our bodies metabolize the silence away from a steady input of distraction and entertainment.  An important caveat here is that this process will unfold completely on its own, and in order for it to come to fruition, we need to give the process our undivided attention.  Without any conscious prompting, the mind begins to naturally quiet and enter more readily into silence.  An enormous breadth and depth of experience begins to emerge that was not apparent before.  That breadth hints at a silence that seems to come out of existence itself.

I noticed throughout this silence that my daily regimens of thinking and behaving were often trying to cover up a reserve of painful feelings.  While some of these only become apparent over time, some I realized had been there persistently and I had created ways of avoiding.  Part of these feelings come out of our past and the regular traumas we all endure.  Others seem to be more existential: a great sadness at our moment to moment disintegration, and a desire to solidify ourselves into something seemingly more real and lasting.

All of those attempts at self-creation are things which are part of that silence which does not convey its essence or what it truly means.   And that silence that we are can often be so frightening we don’t look at it clearly.  At every point we are confronted with this vast unknowable thing we are, as well as the dark and bestial side of human existence.  We need time to come to terms with these facts, and our consciousness begins to change the more we delve into these things, and eventually listen to and accept them.

With time, the process has given me an increased ability to be more fully engaged with my own stream of consciousness.  I have noticed this quality in those who have trained in this kind of contemplative practice, a deep settling that occurs the more time they spend being simply themselves.  Advanced practitioners seem to be able to manifest the teachings of their religions more readily through action and speech.  There does appear to be a direct correlation between the amount of time a practitioner has given over to contemplation and quiet and their ability to do this.  This is why silence is so often emphasized in contemplative traditions.

Into_great_silence_ver2I have begun watching Into Great Silence again (now streaming on Amazon), which is based on the lives of Carthusian monks in the French alps.  The Carthusians are a sect of the Catholic church that practice rigorous methods of austerity and solitude.  According to their website:

The Carthusians consecrate their lives entirely to prayer and seeking God in the secret of their hearts. They intercede for the Church and for the salvation of the whole world. . . Our principal endeavor and goal is to devote ourselves to the silence and solitude of cell. […] There is the faithful soul frequently united with the Word of God; there is the bride made one with her spouse; there is earth joined to heaven, the divine to the human. 

The movie is full of rich imagery that helps convey these dimensions of monastic life.  There is barely any dialogue throughout the film.  It relies on a series of poetic images and the minute observation of monks going about their daily activities.  Every rustle of paper and exhalation reverberates out of existence like the bell calling the monks to prayer.

Without anything to distract them from their task, the monks seem to be inhabiting a world apart from normal human consciousness.  The ascetic life is a logical extension in service to this change in consciousness, in which all distraction and worldly concern are removed so that the monk can focus on becoming one with their religion’s teachings.  And once the monks are more  aware of what is inside themselves, they can be more equipped to handle those things in ways that enhance love, compassion, and generosity.

In that sense, being able to fully occupy our silence is a basic component of sanity and self-knowledge.  Without silence, we can’t ever know who we truly are, the pain from our past that may torment us, and the vicious circularity of our thoughts and behavior that readily come up when we are no longer distracted.  We cannot see ourselves without that kind of silence every day. Otherwise we exist on the edge of madness, in which we are in constant motion and cannot stop lest we have to acknowledge our daily movement into tempering flames.

Zazen

There is a Zen koan which asks us to show our original face before we were born.  Like so many Zen stories and parables, it asks us to go beyond the superficial in our desire to deepen our understanding.  Zen is described as having three pillars, which are great faith, great doubt, and great determination.  Like the image of the Carthusian monk in his cell, the image of a Zen meditation hall comes readily to mind.  Here the practitioner utilizes that incredible silence to in order to what they truly are become known.

And once we have come to understand this fundamental level of silence and can more readily rest there, we can begin to see how that silence and that deeply unknowable something is our original face in a way that we had never realized before.