The provocative title of Jason Siff’s brand-new book “Thoughts are not the enemy” summarizes an unorthodox approach to meditation. During a recent workshop at the Van Hanh Temple in Santee the post-modern Vipassana teacher simply told the participants to sit with whatever comes up. In contrast to traditional meditation instructions, he also encouraged everybody to follow thoughts into the past or the future without redirecting one’s attention to the breath or some other object. This stands in contrast to most approaches to meditation, including the modern mindfulness movement.
A large number of books and research articles suggest that “mind wandering” is the source of human distress, rumination, and delusion. In line with this idea, the implicit goal of meditation is to strengthen one’s ability to re-direct attention away from obsessive thoughts and as a result to become better equipped to regulate one’s inner experience or to move away from the notion of “self” tied to inner narratives. However, at the workshop Jason argued that for many meditators this doesn’t work. Even if we are told to “gently” move our attention back to the breath during meditation there is a high likelihood that thoughts become considered an “obstacle” that needs to be avoided or overcome in favor of some transcendental state of consciousness. I resonated. This had definately kept me stuck for a while.
After a sitting period, there was time to write down what came up during the meditation. Having relatively unspecific instructions gives the mediator the freedom to choose where to go or what aspect of experience to attend to. Thus, the participants were asked to reflect upon and journal about the choices made during meditation. This is an integral part of “recollective awareness”.
I was glad that Jason mentioned “choice”. For me Recollective Awareness seemed to be a rather passive process in which the meditator is asked to drown in a flood of restless and automatic thoughts. But as the critique of mainstream meditation pointed out, “it’s not about choiceless awareness but about becoming aware of the choices we make.”
The recollective reflection period gave me the chance to become more aware of how I want to relate to my inner self-talk and its content. First, it became pretty clear that I don’t want to beat myself up for having thoughts of any kind during meditation. Second, to follow uncomfortable thoughts gave me more insight about where they might come from in my own life. Third, I felt that some thoughts may be more helpful than my judgmental mind tends to assume. Rather than to cut them off, they are something to cultivate. Finally, I figured that once I become more aware of the choices I make during meditation, I may become more aware of the ones that come up in everyday life.
The awareness of the fact that there are choices at all makes a huge difference. Since the Recollective Awareness approach does not tell me where to go this makes me responsible for making sense of my experience and of choosing what seems to be right and appropriate for me at the moment. This individualized approach is highly contextual and lacks the prescriptions given by both traditional Buddhist approaches and the secular Mindfulness Movement. It is more complicated because choices seem to become more self-determined within the meditation process. Although some of my questions were left open, I resonated with a notion of change that takes into account meaning and narrative.
Recollective Awareness is interested in what Jason called “transformative conceptualization”. By exploring thoughts, their causes and contexts one may find that the categories, labels, and stories through which we think about ourselves and others may not really fit our experience. He pointed out that in the process of giving a fuller description of what is going on in the mind one starts to “crack down” the language through which we perceive our worlds.
We may become more aware of multiplicity and the need to come up with new conceptualizations that better fit our personal experience, an experience that cannot be fully grasped by any religious dogma or meditation teacher. From this perspective, meditation is not about a transcendental state without thought but about a more experience-near labeling of thoughts that is open to reconceptualization. Instead of getting away from thoughts, if I understood this correctly, it is about getting away from concepts that categorize us in habitual and unhelpful ways and be open to new ones that are more beneficial and in line with our personal struggles and aspirations.
As somebody who was exposed a lot to Narrative Therapy during my training as family therapist, I was pleased to hear Jason Siff’s perspective. There is an approach to mindfulness that seems to encourage the deconstruction and transformation of stories rather than to cut them out as residual “mind wandering” that can be reduced to rumination and ultimately overcome through some universal experience of stillness. But don’t get me wrong. Although Jason criticizes conventional approaches to meditation and mindfulness I did not feel that I have to give up “directive” practices after the workshop. They will continue to be part of my meditation practice.
I will continue to enjoy the moments of stillness when they come up naturally; and I will actively create them – probably with a bit more awareness of why I feel the need to do so.