So, in many ways we are playing a game similar to Peter Sloterdjik; we are attempting to explore practice from a fresh perspective, and claiming practice more broadly as a part of our very rich, very wide human culture. Buddhist practices and notions thus become explicitly a sub-set of human culture and our task is to return them to that wider sphere of meaning so we may orientate ourselves more effectively. Thus we begin again with practices that resonate with familiar forms, but those same forms become far freer and agile because their home is not located solely inside Buddhism, but within the wealth of human culture within which Buddhism itself is situated.
We can see Buddhism as a sort of cultural sphere located within a wider sphere of religion and spiritual practice, which is located in yet another wider sphere of human transformation, desire, hope and fear. It overlaps with philosophy and its many spheres, and psychology and its plethora of stories and methods, and certain sciences with increasing or decreasing resonance and critique. Seeing this way is not about trying to get the best Buddhism possible, or secularising Buddhism so it might be free of its cultural weight: It is really a movement towards placing Buddhism, its history and present, within a context that is far larger and richer. Buddhism is not deprived of its parts; there is no dissection or plastic surgery. To use a concept so common in Buddhist discourse, Buddhism is seen more clearly for what it is, and so it remains integral. It continues to exist as a realm within which you can deep dive, yet hopefully do so more consciously of the wider worlds in which it is located and has been since its inception.
A Buddhist practitioner could make a gesture towards this observation thus:
“Breathing in, I expand my imaginative framing of Buddhism out beyond its borders into the world where it must brave the winds of critique, and engage forms of knowledge that may be alien; breathing out, I return Buddhism into the human hands that crafted its thoughts and forms of practice, and find meaning in their creators’ struggles.”
This way of relating to Buddhism is both a practice and an intellectual discipline that cuts grooves in pathways of inquiry. With time, we can gaze into all human cultural creations that have clear traditions and histories in the same light, and gazing for long enough, we might begin to appreciate the complexities, beauty and struggle of our fellow humans across disciplines. This might even be an inevitable outcome from ceasing to hold to the principle of sufficiency as a viable possibility in any field of knowledge.
The concept of spheres is also helpful for appreciating the idea of interdependency, inter-being and interrelationship without folding the many things into an indistinguishable mush: A mush that will inevitably be arranged within one’s own narrow, limited perception and conceptual resources. Spheres can be seen and experienced as both containers, and as porous forms, and as forever mutating, slowly or quickly, depending on the historic moment and interacting spheres. They have a certain integrity, yet expand and contract, receive and give, influence and are influenced; not unlike the human body. In a globalised world of human cultures, this movement and exchange is tangibly faster today, and more noticeable, and the porosity is more pronounced. This condition is part and parcel of our own human condition in the 21st century. Retreat from it is thus a poor choice for the savvy practitioner; better to immerse yourself in many spheres and embrace the current moment as a condition in which you already exist. Once this recognition is owned as a personal memory, immersion within forms becomes the acknowledged landscape within which any given personal practice takes place. We are, in a sense, creating an imaginary landscape within which we respond to the spheres that we are located in, come up against, and to which our imagination and actions travel.
Viewing Buddhism within this way does not imply that Buddhist traditions be downplayed or demoted either, but simply that they be placed within a wider family of human practice. This is not perennialism either. There is no flattening of all things into any kind of unifying, total vision. Spheres are merely spaces of human practice, vision, and culture. To journey into more of them is to expand our awareness of, and experience with, the richness of human culture and struggle that our species has and is engaging in. Ceasing to order them hierarchically in any kind of absolute leads to the democratisation of thought that Laruelle speaks of. Democratisation does not make all parties equal in what they do; it merely allows them to participate in the game of politics because they exist. Seeing the forms and traditions of Buddhism like this sets aside discourse rooted in hierarchy but is not anti-hierarchical necessarily. Rather both are the products of humans attempting to make sense of the world and are sites of meaning making and practices.
When we talk of meditation, we are often talking or thinking of an abstract. We may also be operating within a therapeutic or self-management sphere within the larger sphere of a given form of Buddhism, within the larger sphere of contemplative practice traditions. So, when a person says they are meditating, it may be useful to ask what is it they are actually doing and what their idea of practice is pointing to. What are they actually doing with their body, attention, breath, posture, and all the extras that surround a practice?
In truth, the materials of meditation and practices are the materials of us. Obvious but easily forgotten. Even the word meditation may be to pronounce too much. We are breathing, perceiving, feeling, relating creatures: Practice starts and ends with these fundamental facets of being and to return what is actually taking place to these fundamentals can help loosen up the tendency to isolate the idea of practice from the wider world and to make practitioners into special folks operating outside of the world. To point this out may seem excessive to some, but the obvious is so often hidden from our gaze that it’s worth risking a word or two more on it. Inviting your practice into spheres which offer alternative takes on a tradition’s interpretation of the basic materials of being can be enlightening to say the least and disrupt many of the problems that emerge from being absorbed into one sphere’s narrative about the world, the practitioner and the role of practice.
I will try to stick to fundamentals in what follows.
A core idea associated with meditation is that our thinking is a problem. Discursive thought becomes an obstacle to insight or the experience of something along the lines of pure awareness. One problem that dogs so much of the world we inhabit today circles around the enduring notion of absolutes; we have pure consciousness, fully-awakened mind, universal compassion and so on, or no such thing is ever, ever possible. Ideals that may be sweet to aim for, or intellectually satisfying, but in practice often end up confusing practitioners and lead to unrealistic expectations, or cynicism towards practices that have great potential to lead to meaningful transformation. It might be better to simplify and cultivate a less demanding expectation of meditation, not eliminate goals, but redimension them. There are umpteen potential goals of any single meditative practice and a given teacher or tradition may have authority over what is most likely and expected. It is inevitable that we complex creatures often fail to live up to such expectations, or end up in terrain quite different from that laid out, especially in a globalised world where traditional practices are usually operating in different contexts.
If we accept a simple distinction here to address the issue of discursive thought, we can carry on without getting bogged down any further. We can all likely agree that a major feature of consciousness for us humans is a discursive component. We tend to experience an ongoing dialogue inside our heads. For many, if not most, it is more or less incessant unless disrupted by action, or strong emotions. It is often most apparent as a running narration of events. Concentrating on what we are doing, engaging in action that demands all our attention, or strongly absorbing experiences of pleasure of pain tend to silence this running dialogue without any particular meditative or contemplative practice being carried out. Meditation as a category of practice, a pretty big sphere itself, is often harnessed as an intentional means of addressing the compulsive and habitual nature of discursive thinking and the emotional habits that tend to go along with it. Minus the absolutes, to suggest that we can disrupt the impulsive, compulsive character of discursive thought and that there may be immense benefit in doing so seems pretty uncontroversial. Although I am retreading what should be familiar ground to many of you, clarification is necessary so we all avoid slipping into lazy categories of agreement or disagreement. This is also part of the process of returning to fundamentals.
As a general principle, if we can extend the amount of space between stretches of absorbing, compulsive internal dialogue, ease off the running commentary, relax knee-jerk associations with points of reference all too familiar, then we can allow space to emerge, and then increase, between stretches of discursive thought. For convenience sake, we can refer to this as the discovery/cultivation of spacious awareness, which is preferably embodied and environmentally situated. A great variety of meditation techniques have this as their outcome and there are clearly depths to it, or degrees of competence, which for some come easy, while others struggle. Thought is not lost, or rejected, but calmed or relaxed out of for short periods of time. From this, with practice, you can develop the capacity to relax out of thought at will, or engage with thought quite differently; typically in a contemplative manner. This embodied awareness and relationship with thought is thus a qualitative shift in how we relate to the content of our mind, rather than a pursuit of some kind of transcendent escape from thinking.
Invocation and the dialogical approach explored below are far more effective when following this initial step of taming discursive thought.
For those who would benefit from a practice structure for going further with this, the following steps might be worth exploring. This process constitutes a pretty reliable approach that most folks can get started with. Many more instructions could follow, refinements given, tweaks made, context given, doubts discussed, challenges met. If you have meditated long-term without doing any of this, you might want to seek out someone to give you a hand with adjustments, challenge, and so on. If you are new to meditation or have only dabbled in mindfulness, you might want to stick with what works and perhaps use this as a short-term experimental addition to what you are currently doing. If any of you want a non-traditional approach to taking this and what follows further, feel free get in touch through my coaching link above.
Initial Procedure for Taming Discursive Thought
- Sit comfortably in an upright posture; rest your palms on your thighs.
- Look straight ahead and connect to your surroundings; then relax.
- Keep your eyes opened or closed; relax the muscles in your face either way. It may help to touch, stroke or massage your face a little.
- Breathe in for four using a steady rhythm.
- Hold for four.
- Exhale for four and relax your body further as you do.
- Hold for a moment then breathe back in for four again.
- Keep going for a while; 1 minute, 2 minutes, 5 minutes, 10 or more if it helps.
- Stay connected to your body throughout, include the space you are in if it’s relatively easy for you to do so, and make sure not to force your breathing.
- Think of the whole exercise as rooted in; connection relaxation, aligning attention with the count.
Intention Plus Questioning
The procedure above creates a reset for you to engage with this next step, which starts by using questions to engage with doubt. This is a form of dialogical practice not dissimilar to what you might experience in a counselling or coaching session, or from a decent dharma teacher. It is useful to shift between maintaining dialogue as an avenue of exploration, and experiencing as fully as possible the feelings associated with doubt that come up. Different questions may invoke feeling or thought, image or sound, a response or nothing. The meditative component is really all about allowing things to emerge without forcing anything. Some will find the whole process intuitive and easy to navigate, others may need a helping hand.
Questioning comes best after achieving a certain degree of spacious awareness and grounding in your physical body, and situating yourself more fully in the physical context you are located in as suggested in the practice above. This is partly because you are allowing for the opportunity to be surprised by the answers that might come.
Intention setting gives direction to your actions and is established through your own formulation of a given theme, in this case doubt. The following is a fairly decent all-purpose one to get started with:
“I will work with doubt during this session. May I see clearly, feel clearly, and know the experience of doubt (as a disruption to my _______) .“ Fill in the blank.
The next step simply involves you introducing a question to the spacious awareness developed with a preparatory meditation practice of the sort outlined above. It may be that you realise in doing so that you need to continue with the above technique for a little longer first. Here are a few question options for exploring doubt. If they don’t work for you, you can make your own.
“What knowledge do I hold onto too tightly too often?”
“What ideas maintain the experience/idea of me (as _____)?”
“What intellectual position do I cling to that I identify with perhaps a little too much?”
“What lies on the other side of my over-confidence in belief X?”
“What will happen if I suspend a good amount of what I am so certain about for a while?”
“How do I react to being wrong?” “What purpose does that reaction serve?”
“How is my identity maintained by living within the role of the one who knows in situation x, relationship y, role z?” “What might happen if I were to give up that role even for a short while?”
“To what degree could I free up my attachment to idea x and be more creative in my relationship with it as a result?”
Questions and answers are best experienced rather than grasped abstractly if they are to have the possibility of bringing about some small form of transformation, or breakthrough. It’s a cliché for some but the simple formula of mind + body + heart is pretty good. If a question and its answer can resonate across and between these three fields, it will usually have a greater impact. If this is hovering too close to the words of a guru and it bothers you, just think of music, which has its greatest power when it possesses all of you: mind + body + heart. The problem with remaining only at the level of thought is that so often our feelings act as gate keepers for what we will be honest about. Some will find all this a little tawdry, but without the context of the individual, what is presented here is necessarily general. These are starts not journeys or endings and we need each other eventually if we are to progress through our murky innards.
Then it’s on to this.
Using dialogue, or a good question, is a decent avenue to head down when working with doubt or any other practice item. It resonates with the Socratic tradition and modern counselling too and is part and parcel of the pedagogic endeavour. For some though, it is better to start off within that odd world of human subjectivity known as feelings and emotions. The world many of are caught up in and spend much of our life trying to grapple with, manage, and understand. For those aware of the enamoured way with which many spiritual folks use feeling as the great door of truth, I am not proposing emotions and feelings as magical gateways to the true you, or the recovery of your authentic self, which your parents, society and Capitalism fucked up. Rather, emotion and feeling are really a kind of language, and therefore are, fundamentally, a form of communication. Emotions and feeling can entrap us, or liberate; maintain a subjective norm, or seduce us into patterns of dysfunctional behaviour. Seeing both as dialogue renders this approach similar to the path of questions above.
The simple idea, taken from Buddhism, is that there are practice doors that may open more easily for some rather than others. Your practice may be better served through language, invocation, intention, feeling states or something else. At some point, they can all make friends, but that’s usually something you have to work at it for quite a bit.
Here’s an idea on how to work from feeling.
Repeat the procedure for taming discursive thought above, reconnect to feeling in the body and the physical context you are situated in, and then follow the procedure. You can go for 1) first or start with 2).
- Bring up a memory of a time in which you had a significant experience of doubt. Reconnect to the memory through invoking the experience and the associated feeling.
- Locate a familiar feeling of doubt in your body. Feelings tend to have tangible locations. Decide if it is a feeling you can work with or if it is too much, leave it. Breathe into the feeling so that it expands and get to the point where it feels uncomfortable. Sit in the discomfort for a while, longer than you might normally. Intensify the experience by using your imagination and breathe to expand it or root it more fully in your body.
- Add in the following question or something similar that speaks to you: “What does avoiding this feeling keep me from?”
- You can take two directions following the previous step; sit with the feeling or shift that is triggered by the question, or reflect on what comes up for you and even consider a move into dialoguing with it.
- If you wish to turn this into a process of dialogue, you can use the questions from the previous section to go further.
- Finally, if things get too much, just stop. You can write everything that’s in you on paper as a sort of clearing out. If you then need help, reach out to someone able to help you.
For many, the real value of all this comes from sitting inside feelings that we avoid, or control, or over-manage. In doing so, we destabilise the habitual experience of the feeling, thinking self. This then has reverberations in other areas of our subjectivity that will then affect how we relate to the world. All practices find their meaning and value within the individual or group relationship to them, not in value and meaning assigned by some authority. Meaning emerges through your relationship with a given practice, or it doesn’t; in which case you will hopefully move on to something more appropriate, and not give up and carry on behaving as you normally do. For some, that might be thinking with humility; which will be the last in this series.