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Unlearning Meditation: What to Do When the Instructions Get In the Way

1 rating: 3.0
A book by Jason Siff

“A creative and illuminating approach to meditation practice.”—Joseph Goldstein, author ofInsight Meditation    “A radically illuminating book for practitioners to newly understand their meditation through … see full wiki

Author: Jason Siff
Genre: Health, Mind & Body, Religion & Spirituality
Publisher: Shambhala
1 review about Unlearning Meditation: What to Do When the...

Drifting off can wake us up (4.5 stars)

  • Jul 18, 2010
If "nothing arises in isolation" for Buddhists, why not let thoughts, images, and moods filter and float into one's meditative mind? Rather than resisting stories as tied to the ego, a receptive process allows practitioners to integrate narratives and reactions into their sitting. This increases gentleness, and eases pain, as tolerating one's experiences replaces suppressing or overcoming their influence. "Drifting off" can even help us "wake up."

This, Siff proposes, means "unlearning" meditation practices that stress silencing the voices and emotions within us. For a meditator facing inevitable impasses, he shows how "transformative conceptualization" can draw us patiently to examine "mental constructs" as a way towards non-conceptual understanding. This challenges the norm that such a non-conceptual realization comes only when the seeker has attained the goal of a purer sense-experience. This can be a tricky "concept" to comprehend, admittedly.

Siff takes his time in a couple-hundred pages to relate his own evolution from Tibetan and especially Vipassana training into a more fluid, open-ended direction. While grounded in the Theravada traditions, and using a lot of the samatha (calming)-vipassana (discerning) as the foundation for his path, he advises the meditator not to become attached to any one form, if that form becomes too "grounded" so as to discourage the seeker, or ossify the spirit. To me, this seems like a commonsense, slightly but subtly radical, existential attitude I like. He returns, softly, to the Pali texts, as does Batchelor, to revive the force of the earlier Buddha's impact, one concentrating upon ethical action and not dogmatic codification.

After all, he reasons, if we regard the Buddha's dharma doctrines "as concepts," well, "none of the teachings are true." But they remain self-improving narratives. This resembles Stephen Batchelor's "Buddhism without Beliefs" in its agnosticism, and his new study, "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist" (both reviewed by me), which complementing Siff mix reflection with autobiography and textual explication. Siff advances a meditative "Recollective Awareness Training" as a dharma-based response based not on beliefs or theism but "experiential knowledge."

He devotes the second part of his book to impasses and calm states. He looks at "samadhi" (conventionally "bliss," but here applied to being drawn towards tranquility), and how this state might be dipped into as the meditator does not resist "daydreaming" or even drifting off into semi-slumber. He intersperses journals kept by his students that illustrate well a variety of reactions to meditating. Instead of polished assurances of masters that usually provide the sole texts by which students can judge their own progress or shortcomings, reading average meditators record their struggles reveals much more accessible material by which a beginner or advanced student can compare his or her own situation.

This is not a primer on Buddhism, and Siff expects that even if a beginner, one has familarity with basic teachings. He uses a running analogy with being snowed in to show how sometimes we need to be patient, yet alert, for opportunities to succeed. The more meditation can link to the rest of one's life, and not be apart from it, the more its insights can smooth rough edges for ourselves and others. He lacks platitudes, luckily. His presentation shares suggestions, not prescriptions.

It's not technical, and not inspirational in the pat sense. It's suited more for those open to therapy and journal-keeping as compatible methods by which Westerners choose to confront (and make friends within) themselves. A couple of points, in my opinion, rushed by. While the whole book's an elaboration of the concept, I wish more space had been devoted to "dependent origination," simple to sum up if hard to grasp deep down as "When one thing arises, so does another." I was left uncertain about how Siff's approaches might work within Zen, and how "just sitting" might contrast or compare. Also, the half-paragraph distinction between the "connected process" of beliefs as this differs from wisdom as or as not originating in "unified states of mind" compressed this vast, phenomenological topic. I realize that for a short text, this may be recondite, but the discussion stimulated me enough to want more. Although accessible for those from any mindset, Siff tilts far more towards non-theism than theism for those pursuing his "unlearning" model; similar to Batchelor, he leans towards existential rather than faith-based philosophies or mentalities.

Siff touches on hypnagogic states intriguingly. These happen usually as we drift off into sleep. This "drop off" during reverie from awareness to inner peace, he suggests, matches the Buddha's own embrace of lights or images as perceptions not to be fought off but to be encouraged, for those so inclined. Siff favors fragmenting and wondering as positive passages towards a mental focus and deeper connection.

Contrary to the usual interpretations of meditation as an austere avoidance of distraction, Siff allows the aware meditator to "float off" towards a parallel entry way that aligns with our mind's constant movement as its own inescapable experience. Moment by moment, our minds change. As the fundamental Buddhist teaching of impermanence, Siff figures it's a less defensive, more accepting manner that we can take to ease our wayward minds into meditation.

Finally, he urges meditators not to get too attached to any one process. If it works, great; if not, let it go, mix it up, move on, blend, experiment. He compares this inventiveness to adding new ingredients to a favorite dish. He orders into three primary categories-- generative, conflictive, receptive-- and three developed ones (explorative, non-taking-up, connective) the goals of a looser, flexible, and forgivingly humane taxonomy of a meditative quest suited (it seems to me) for reluctant, restless, skeptical, and/or creative folks.

He concludes with the hope that this more accepting, less ascetic stance might loosen up practioners who tire of one approach, who feel guilt over one way not working, or who give up in frustration after not getting the big breakthrough promoted to the striver if forever delayed for many everyday seekers. What this does is empower the individual.

This book might supplement a student working with an innovative teacher, or enrich those meditating on their own. Siff impressed me with his ability to condense decades as a practitioner who does not preach. That is, he reduces thousands of his own "sittings" into advice that convinces you of his own authenticity even as his own story does not call attention to his own recommendations. Somehow, Siff exemplifies his profound advice without promoting himself as a role model or his suggestions as the only way to incorporate his example into one's own practice.

He does show, instead, his own convictions, based on the dharma rather than self-aggrandizement. He wraps it this steady, brisk (but never superficial or pandering) guidebook by boosting the confidence of those often kicking themselves for not meeting the exacting standards of master teachers. "You have developed greater trust and confidence in the meditative process, which is none other than trust in the path of inner awakening, otherwise known as the Dharma." (200)

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November 01, 2010
Yes, no method, no system, take what is usefull and throw away the rest. Makes sense to me.
November 04, 2010
Check out the Skillful Meditation Project online, the site Siff is a part of; also the Jupiter: Buddhist training for modern life site which I wrote about and link to here: http://fionnchu.blogspot.com/2010/04/juniper...ddhism-for-secular.html
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