questioner: Thank you for putting the letter from Liza and your answer on your website. That was an upsetting time for me, since the same person who did that to her tried it out on me too, and I was tempted because I wanted to advance spiritually, but fortunately did not act on it. I also was sexually abused as a child and have been feeling guilty for years about not forgiving [my abuser], so reading what you said about not forcing forgiveness was very welcome. I saw the truth in it right away.
I was sorry that your last talk was canceled, because I really wanted to hear about the two types of meditation which you said you would take up in the final talk.
I've asked other yoga teachers about the two types of meditation, but no one seems to know what that is about. Could you say more about it please.
---[name withheld by request]
[The writer is referring to a series of talks on the psychology of yoga and meditation given at a workshop for hatha (physical) yoga teachers. The last talk was canceled when the workshop ended early.]
dr-robert: Yes. In this space I cannot cover the entire content of the fourth talk, but I will say something about the two kinds of meditation. First, it is important to distinguish between meditation practice and a meditative state. Meditation practice is a directed, intentional activity with rules, procedures, and methods, while meditative states are naturally occurring mental-physical-emotional rhythms which arise spontaneously and disappear spontaneously like the wind in the trees. A meditative state may arise while one is "meditating" (the practice), but such a state may arise at any time at all, and really is not connected to "meditation" (practice). Conversely, one may practice meditation exercises for a long time without such an authentic meditative state ever arising.
Meditative states can be noticed subjectively as a change in point of view, and also may be measured objectively as changes in brain waves and in brain chemistry as well as other physical changes. In other words, they are very real states, which are felt inwardly, and also can be verified scientifically.
These naturally occurring meditative states seem often to be associated with a kind of relaxed and open awareness which is both wider-seeing than normal, and also nonjudgmental. This kind of state has been described as choicelessawareness, in which it is felt that things simply are as they are and cannot be any different. In other words, the usual attitude that one manages life by choosing between one thing and another disappears, and everything is seen as already perfect (not necessarily perfect in the sense of "good," but rather as inevitable and connected to everything else). For many people, such moments are experienced as highly desirable, valuable, and liberating, or possibly even as sacred. For our purpose here, it is important to notice that these states arise spontaneously, and that intending them does not cause them to occur.
Thus, meditative states, which are normal states of mind, have little or nothing to do with meditation practice, which is not a normal state of mind, but a kind of medicine or treatment. To be clear about this, in the same way that you as a hatha yogi might decide to practice the hands to feet pose for twenty minutes in the morning in order to restore spinal elasticity and improve blood flow to the brain, a meditation practitioner might decide, in order to attain a deeper spiritual awareness, to gaze at the flame of a candle while attempting to empty the mind of all thoughts. And just as the hands to feet pose is not a natural posture, but a kind of medicine for the body, the meditation practitioner regards candle gazing as a kind of medicine for the mind.
Now one does not take medicine unless there is some level of disease, and so if I am not troubled by spinal inflexibility or impaired circulation, I may not need to practice hands to feet. Instead, I will simply go through my ordinary day, moving naturally, enjoying my flexibility and good circulation, quite probably without really noticing them. And the very same thing is true of the medicine called "meditation practice." If, in my ordinary life, I am relaxed, and present, in other words if I am "at ease." then there is no dis-ease, and I will not even think about practicing meditation. Instead, I just enjoy the sense of presence, allowing things to be as they are in this very moment, probably without even noticing that I am doing so.
It is only when one feels some dis-ease, fear of death for example, or a longing to be free of suffering, or the nagging of some spiritual ambition such as wanting to be reborn into a better life, that one will think of taking the medicine called "meditation."
Now if medicine is needed, taking it is a good idea, but one ought to be careful first in deciding that medicine really is needed, and second, assuming it is needed, in choosing the right kind of medicine to take. The right medicine at the right time may help, but the wrong medicine may cause harm, perhaps a great deal of harm.
And this is where we arrive at the two types of meditation (practice). One type aims at stilling the mind, attempting, that is, to tame the wildness of the so-called "monkey mind" (always jumping from one thought to another). This is the type of practice typified by candle gazing, chanting, controlled or strenuous breathing exercises, repeating mantras, etc. The other type aims at cultivating the kind of choiceless awareness which characterizes naturally occurring meditative states. Normally in this second type of practice, the instruction is simply to watch without judgment whatever arises, both internally and externally. In other words, one does not try to calm the monkey-mind, but rather to notice its movements with bare attention (neither approval nor disapproval).
I imagine you can see that these are two very different kinds of medicine. The first kind involves a kind of self-hypnosis in which the focus of awareness is narrowed more and more until one becomes absorbed in the object of concentration (the flame, the mantra, the breath). The second type, when practiced with intelligence, favors a kind of awareness which is extremely unfocused. It is unfocused because it has no intent, no object, no goal, no ambition at all except to notice what is.
In my experience, the first type of practice encourages escapism, delusion, and trance states. Since self-induced hypnotic states can feel "special" and out of the ordinary, this kind of meditation may deceive the practitioner into imagining, without any basis, that he or she has attained something special, something "spiritual." Then the ego is really off to the races, and all kinds of harm, such as the sad events you mentioned, may ensue. This is not to say that concentration exercises should never be practiced, but rather that they are a very strong kind of medicine, deceptively so, and should, in my opinion, be practiced only under constant, experienced supervision. This potential for delusion was always known, and the older sources on meditation practice stressed it, but when meditation hit the mainstream in the 1960s and became another item in the spiritual supermarket touted as a panacea for all ailments, the dangerous potential of such practices was swept under the carpet.
The second type of practice, which stresses calming down, and simply noticing whatever arises, is a gentler, less dangerous kind of medicine. This practice, which is called "insight meditation," requires neither special sitting nor any special circumstances. It is a kind of open-eyed, accepting, broadened attention which may be practiced anywhere no matter what is happening. For example, while standing in line at the post office, or having dinner with friends, one simply notices ones current emotional state or physical posture without judging as to "good" or "bad." To be clear, there is nothing esoteric at all about this medicine, and one is not seeking a meditative state or seeking anything else* one simply notices, in a completely ordinary way, as much as possible about what is in the present moment.
Nevertheless, even insight meditation is medicine, and when the dis-ease is cured, one ought to stop taking the medicine. If I imagine that there is some future "advanced" state of consciousness, and that I must keep practicing in order to arrive at it, then I will never stop taking the medicine. I will have become addicted. Like the horizon which recedes as fast as one approaches it, and so can never be reached, the "advanced" state can never be reached either. As soon as that becomes clear, no more medicine is needed.
*If one is practicing "meditation" in order to attain any goal at all besides simple insight--for example freedom from suffering, a better rebirth, saving the world, gaining merit, or finding God--then genuine insight becomes impossible. Ambition itself precludes nonjudgmental bare attention, since everything will be judged in comparison to the future ideal one desires to attain. If one is not ready to abandon ambition, it may be better to seek accomplishments not in meditation, but in the outer world where accomplishments are not so easily fantasized, where others may resist you, and where disillusionment quickly follows attainment of desires. Then, when the futility of living for the future becomes more apparent, one might take up meditation practice from a more useful perspective.
return to ask dr-robert archives
This page last modified: February 28, 2006
copyright robert saltzman 2004 all rights reserved