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Meditation

In the last decade, there has been a lot of attention given to meditation in the psychotherapeutic community. Much of this attention has been focused on Mindfulness meditation, in which attention is given to any object of awareness that enters the mind, with full acceptance, and without effort or discrimination. This practice, taken from the Buddhist tradition, has added to our ability to help our patients (and ourselves) to accept our experience without struggling against it, or judging ourselves for it. But, this is not a new discovery in the psychotherapeutic community: forty years ago Arnold Beisser, a Psychiatrist and Gestalt Therapist, wrote “The Paradoxical Theory of Change”, in which he posited that change can only truly happen when we stop struggling to not be what we are, and when we fully accept our experience. Once we can accept what is, the natural process of change can re-establish itself. Forty years ago, I was taught a different approach to meditation. This approach came from the Vedic tradition of India. In this approach, the mind does not observe thought and experience. Instead, it is allowed to let go of this focus. It neither “engages” in thought (our conscious waking experience), nor does it stand back and observe it. It simply allows it to pass unobserved, while allowing the attention to be drawn to a mantra (sound) which is “heard” mentally. As the thoughts fade to background and eventually become faint, and then absent, the mantra tends to become faint as well. At some point we are left with awareness, but no thoughts, and no mantra. We are left with bare awareness with no object of awareness. This is a difficult experience for the Western mind to grasp. Even in traditional Gestalt Therapy, it is thought that awareness only exists when there is an object of awareness. And yet, in this ancient system of meditation, experienced meditators have just that experience: awareness with no object. This “discovery” stands much of our thinking on its head. It brings us back to an awareness (not just a cognition, but an actual experience unmediated by cognition) of who or what we are. But, I will get back to the implications later. For now, I’d like to spend a little more time with the meditation itself. Meditation in this tradition is devoid of effort. There is no concentrating: the sound of the mantra is such that the attention is drawn to it, and the energy derived from this experience draws us in further. There is also no contemplating: thinking about, may be uplifting, but it is still thinking, and as such does not allow us to experience awareness in its bareness. There is not visualizing, of a beautiful beach, a loved one, the planet Earth from outer-space, or whatever: this again may be relaxing or inspiring, but is still keeping us in thought, and still maintains our identity and experience in relation to fixed objects of experience. So meditation is actually much simpler, while also much more profound – both in its experience and in its implications. We let go of our identifications, without having to first engage in them. We sit in the silence, without noticing or commenting on the silence. We let go of the forms that we take, without a conscious or effortful letting go. We allow our experience to draw us to “no experience”, because it is not experience of, it is just awareness. The implications of this are greater than I can write in this blog entry. Here, I will just identify some that come to my mind, without presently expanding on them: * If each person meditating finds his/her way to bare awareness, what makes one person’s bare awareness different from the other’s? And if there is no difference, then what are the implications of that in regard to who we are in relation to each other? * If awareness exists when there is no content, then how does that speak to, support, and magnify the Gestalt Therapy notion of the fluid self? * How does this translate into an experience of continuity for ourselves and our patients, and how does that effect the basic sense of fear/anxiety that accompanies uncertainty and/or change? One more point: the purpose of meditation is not to dis-engage from life, it is to “clear the palate” so that we can more fully, more vibrantly, and more fearlessly engage in living.