By: Rev. David Shen-Xi
A serious meditation practice, over time, may move beyond elementary awareness of body-mind techniques alone. Mindfulness meditation is the stepping stone to a deeper perfected meditation practice when one has mastered the ordinary-mind state and has accomplished the ability to sit in silence and listen without following our thoughts. We learn to follow the breath and move beyond the internal chatter characteristic of a mind not use to being quiet. Zazen can be a multi-dimensional experience for those that are ready to engage other meditation discipline by extending our meditation practice to the next level.
We can begin to engage a reflective meditative mind-state by incorporating a specific objective focus on a very specific subject. The driver for this deeper practice is often given over to our contemplative reading and analytical reasoning skills. In other words, we begin to open up to controlled thinking beyond the ordinary sense-based awareness where generally our life-filters our employed to inform us of specific action-based intentions. We practice to disengage these filters that are not helpful at all in a deeper meditative state awareness. This reflective meditation practice is where the major Buddhist meditation forms take place. What is interesting about this is that for the lay reader of Buddhist meditation texts, this point is almost never made very clear, especially in the beginning of us picking up meditation as a practice. So, most individuals may never move beyond simple mindfulness meditation techniques and focused breathing exercises. Although there is great value in a basic mindfulness meditation practice. When advanced meditation is spoken of, it sometimes takes on the language of metaphysical notions that sound a lot like mystical states of consciousness.
But for those ready for the next level of engaging rational analytical thought, they almost immediately understand what is expected from this deeper thinking process. It is somewhat intuitive. We jump in because we are already wet, so the deeper water is never an immediate shock. But this can be misleading. The next thing that happens is that our mind almost immediately encounters doubt and questioning because turning on the analytical engine is not intuitive after all, and finding the switch in the dark is harder then we first imagine.
Reflective experience focuses not just on the thing before us but on the complex relation between my mind and the thing. This is why choosing what to contemplate, and what source to use, is critical. “The thing, the object” must not be obtuse. We must grasp the core concept of what it is we are contemplatively engaging in order to recognize that as we bring in our experiences we search for how they relate to this abstract subject in order to make it real for us to contemplate. This is a complex process for higher analytical thinking. Without a deeper ability to engage higher reasoning, we just flounder around hoping that something will cause a spark that makes things clear. Remember that all our experiences are now just thoughts. So we are engaging a ready notion of a thought, and trying to relate it to new ways of thinking about it. This in turn re-describes our reality, or at least, acknowledges the reality we have already adopted as real. This must be a process of reevaluation. If we assume that what we already know is correct, we may miss important nuances that will lead us to consider a new perspective, and we are left with the same beginning thought. A reality for sure, but a reality that can trap us in mental realms that are barriers to awakening to the larger unified picture of universal realities. Which is the point to a perfected meditation practice.
We learn to think critically, questioning the way things make their appearance to our mental awareness. Be aware of the path we use to reach something that seems to be very satisfying to what we think we are searching for. Become aware of the relationships we come to recognize and know that we have the power to ask ourselves whether what appears to us in immediate experience really is what it appears to be in our analytical mind’s eye. We should not dismiss out of hand something that has potential for changing our mind. This is where our ability to manage doubt becomes critical for self-discovery.
Going one step further, the meditators attempts to describe and classify mental experience, which is called phenomenology, or dharmas, which are moments of awareness. We are challenged to find lessons of the various realities that are being presented to us (self or other) and to consider if they are worthy of cultivation in a positive or negative sense. This is where a guide is most important. This is where advanced self-study begins to reap rewards too. In the beginning, this style of meditation is very studious. It may seem like ordinary thinking, but in a perfected mindfulness state of awareness this meditation technique borders on the extra-ordinary human thinking capability.
Advanced meditators teach themselves to be profoundly aware of mental change. Recognizing a particular mental state is key. To what extent do we observe and evaluate our moods, or do we simply suffer them unconsciously? This is one aspect that we are advised to bring into our meditation session when we contemplate our daily activity. Keeping a journal is helpful as it gives us a chance to later bring these thoughts on the cushion to our focused contemplative practice.
An interesting characteristic of reflective meditation and these styles of phenomenological contemplative techniques is that they help form the basis on which Buddhist ethics could develop as a conscious mental processes. In a way, this is what we are trying to instill in our novices and those in precept study. This is Dogne’s idea of Zazen and the practice of studying the self in order to know the self, and in turn influences our intentions to not only do good in our actions, but “finding the good” in our deeper conscious state relative to contemplating universal realities. Because these realities are good in their very natures. When we try to assigning value to them is when we run into trouble, and may miss the deeper lessons in Buddhist ethics. Contemplative thinking cultivates thinking in the service of enhanced awareness and wisdom, which is a good definition of Zazen, really.
I often speak about the importance of reading meditatively. It is an excellent skill that goes beyond just the printed word. It entails working an idea or set of ideas carefully through the mind with the intention of internalizing them, or coming to embody them. It is reflected in the model R2A2 – Recognize, Relate, Assimilate, Act.
Another relevant concept to be considered here is that of meditation on altruism. Which is about finding the lessons of interconnectiveness and interdependence. Finding the lesson of looking beyond the individual to find the unity of the greater realities all around us. Meditators simply work the teachings through their minds, over and over, until their impact begins to be reflective in how we interpret everyday experiences. Which is an element of a spiritual practice.
When considering meditative readiness, Dale Wright said, “…this form of engagement differs from the typical modern activates of readying or thinking in that it is not a pursuit of information or knowledge. This requires that the practitioner join the spirit of the practice through full involvement and some degree of self-abandonment.” 1 What is interesting about this is that in the beginning we adopt a position of believing what we are reading is in order to arrive at understanding and then we move on to be transformed in the reality it points to. All this depends on the readiness of the reader. Moving a student to fast into this phase of meditation can cause problems. This is because our reading and study influences our emotions, and in turn influences are intention to act. It is like going into hyper-drive to fast without the proper preparation to aim safely. We are moving from the conditioned consciousness to the un-conditioned conscious mind.
Our emotions function to give an overall orientation to our experiences. We must learn to catalog our experiences. When we do that, as humans, we also tag them with mind-facts. In other words, we assign value to the experience we store for later reference. Humans have a short memory. So, when we recall an experience, we are also recalling the emotional value we have also assigned to it. Because we might have totally forgotten the experience until it’s recall, we have no way now to determine if the assigned emotion is valid. We just go with the memory and its value. This is why we should practice to be very clear as to what value of emotion we assign to memories.
Dale Wright does a good job of giving his definition to my R2A2 model when he says, “The point of contemplative meditation is to give direction to emotions so that emotional inclinations are cultivated along lines that we have chosen.” This is the R2 component. He goes on to say, “They need to be cultivated through mental disciplines in order to make their spontaneous emergence at the right time more and more likely.” This is the A2 component. When considering the teachings from the Six Perfections, the perfection of energy and meditation comes before the perfection of wisdom, because we cannot forget that any meditation practice has the objective to get us to act spontaneously honed by the readiness we are achieving though cultivating self-awareness. So, spontaneity and simplicity are among the long term goals of a reflective meditation practice.
1 All quotes: The Six Perfections by Dale S. Wright pg. 192-196