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Meditation: A personal view using the language of Gene Gendlin.

Michael R Finch

Gene Gendlin is a philosopher who deserves to be better known. His philosophy of the implicit provides a framework for thinking about, and from, bodily meaning and human living. He has derived Focusing and Thinking at the Edge from this philosophy. I wrote this essay after a meeting with Gene in April 2008 at which we discussed my interest in meditation.

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0 - Introduction

Gene has an analogy for distinguishing focusing from meditation: As you descend in an elevator, you meet the felt sense half way down, which is where focusers focus. Meditators descend further, past the felt sense into a relaxed state where the body no longer forms a felt sense.

This essay explores another possibility: that having descended down past the felt sense, you can turn up and be aware of it from the underneath.

 

1 - Meditation Agenda

I have been meditating as a committed daily practice for forty years. During most of that time, I meditated as I had been instructed by a succession of teachers or book authors. In the last few years, I have been attempting to escape from under all the belief systems either imposed on me or that I allowed to be imposed on me, and to evolve a meditation style both from myself and for myself.

As a result of this recent evolution, my meditation agenda is now something like this:

Meditation is a process, not a state

The thinking behind most meditation styles is to get to a place, an end point (Enlightenment, Awakening), just as it is with Religions (Heaven, Paradise). The meditator might use a process (eg following the breath) to try to get to that state or end point; but I think meditation is fundamentally a process, how to move from birth to death in as beautiful, loving, and efficient manner as possible.

The belief that you can branch out of this birth-to-death process into some other end point - nirvana or similar - is a belief system that meditators are often spoon-fed, and that I want to put aside. The only certainty is the end point of my physical death, my only choice how I move towards it.

Any meditation teacher must be spelled with a small 't'

I have no problem learning from small 't' teachers in any area. Each one of us has skills that others do not have, and the talking and teaching of those skills is a very human activity. This applies to meditation teachers as well. But as soon as a teacher, of any kind, becomes a Teacher (upper case 'T') then I have a huge problem.

It does not matter whether the teacher becomes a Teacher in their own eyes, or it is projected upon them by others. Once they are elevated even on a one-inch high pedestal, that is too high.

I accept that this stance of mine might be due to my thirty-year history with one particular guru (see this website). So be it.

If you do not know what I mean by the teacher/Teacher distinction, then either you are very fortunate, or you think Teachers are fine - and in the second case you won't like this essay anyway.

Meditation needs my own life context

If I have no context or framework for my meditation, then I meditate in a vacuum with no connection to life as lived - it is a purposeless activity, for if I do have a purpose for it then by definition I have a context.

So I need a context - a philosophy or worldview - within which to meditate. If I meditate in such-and-such a way simply because guru X, ajahn Y or swami Z tells me to, then I am meditating in their context. I have two choices: either make their context my own, or develop a context for myself. I spent thirty years trying to follow the first option, and I now dismiss it. I thus have to follow the second option of developing my own context.

This has far-reaching consequences, since once I start questioning why I meditate, I will also start questioning guru X or ajahn Y, and also myself. They (including myself) will either answer me satisfactorily, or not. In either case, I make the decision which it is, and so I find myself having to stand on my own two feet.

In other words, I need a worldview, philosophy or purpose within which to meditate, and within which I can think about my own meditating. And if I reject faith in any worldview, belief-system or purpose that is simply dumped on me (as I do), then I have to do some work and fashion my own, and be precise about what I believe and why I believe it.

What is my own life context?

Two of the most difficult questions for a meditator to answer are:

1) Why do you meditate?

2) What is meditation?

I find these to be deceptively simple questions, yet I am wary of being at either end of the spectrum of how I answer them.

One end of the spectrum is to have certain answers. My certain answer one day ('to become peaceful', 'to become enlightened') seems pale and inadequate the next. I am suspicious that having certain answers to questions like these means I am living from an unexamined belief-system.

The opposite end of the spectrum is to dismiss such questions as irrelevant and uninteresting, or even to be painful.

I like being in the middle between these two positions: I love the questions, and I love trying to answer them, but I am happy to have the answers continually develop and morph, and be informed from my current situation.

In other words, these questions both need a context to be answered, and yet they also define a context in the attempt to be answered.

After reading much philosophy (eastern and western), I have come recently to use Gene Gendlin's language and concepts in which to express and explore such a context.

Day-long effect

A final point: meditation for me needs to be ongoing throughout the day. It must change my workaday behavior for the better.

I don't care what amazing insights and cosmic experiences I have on the meditation cushion, if when I get up off that cushion into my routine everyday life I am no more loving, no more kind, no more steady and relaxed in myself, then it is not worth a bean.

And my meditation must be enjoyable. It may well lead to deep insights, but it must certainly be an activity that I enjoy doing now, on a daily basis, that will help me embrace my day to day life.

 

2 - Reasons for meditating

I itemize a few common answers to the type of question I posed above: specifically, I see these broad reasons for meditating:

1) Meditation can be religious or ritual (gaining merit, going to heaven, getting a favorable reincarnation). This class of reasons has no interest to me.

2) Relaxing or getting rid of stress. This is always nice to do, but it has been shown that meditation is no better than many other easier techniques to relax. The most efficient is a flotation tank, but even doing the yoga corpse pose is better (which in fact I do daily, as a relaxation method).

3) Fulfilling a belief. I have touched on this above. The main question for myself is this: If concepts like void, enlightment, sartori, emptiness, universal love, Tao, insight, awakening etc etc sprinkle my meditation, are they there because I have learned about them and I am trying to shoehorn myself into what I understand them to be; or have I an unnamed experience and these kinds of words seem to fit it? It can be difficult to tell, but I have a nagging suspicion that the former is more often the case.

4) Enhancing self, or losing sense of self. Although these seem opposite, they are both concerned with the 'self', the core of identity. Whether the self 'really' exists or not, it certainly seems to exist. I have practiced both ends of this spectrum, trying to expand self to include all beings (Buddhist metta) and trying to see all phenomena as absent of self (Buddhist anatta). My tentative conclusion now is that, for myself, the sense of self is too central a fact to be tinkered with (although Susan Blackmore's take on this is interesting). Any expansion or lessening of it is temporary at best. Certainly most people I have met that claim to have no self or be beyond self, or who others claim to be beyond self, appear to me almost without exception to be full of self, if not outright narcissist.

If I put aside these four (admittedly loose) categories, then what is left?

Gene has shown that our bodies-from-within can hold the wholeness of a situation, a total meaning, a felt sense. When approached from above, with serial thought, the felt sense can both furnish us more thoughts, more precisely, and new; and is itself transformed or shifted by the interaction with the thought. He calls this focusing.

My contention is that the wholeness of bodily meaning can also be approached from below, from a stillness, that is best described by the word 'meditation'. This suggests both a reason for meditating different from the four above; and also a method or approach to meditating.

These days my reason for meditating, my context, my purpose, how I explain it to myself, can be summarized thus:

My certainties are that I was born, and I will die. The engine that moves me from the first to the second is my body, as lived from within, and its interaction with others and this world.

Focusing is one way of fine-tuning this engine, helping me to live through it more efficiently, with more humor, with more love, with more kindness, and with more understanding - carrying forward, or living forward, in Gene's phrases. Meditation, as I mean it in this essay, is another.

 

3 - Method of meditating

Following Gene's analogy of the descending elevator, and my extension of it, I can divide my approach to meditation into two phases: the descent in the elevator into stillness, and the turn up to the felt sense from the underneath.

Finding stillness

There are many meditation techniques used to become still. However, the kind of stillness I am interested in is accompanied by expanded awareness (Buddhist mahaggatam cittam), not diminished. Most people can 'zone out' by concentrating on an object, say, or a mental event (eg mantra), but the key here is to become still with increased awareness.

Following the breath is one such method to expanded stillness. However, there are many styles of breath meditation, with a large range of instructions for them, and the breath can be used to create a narrow stillness just like any other technique.

My starting point for how to use the breath in meditation is taken from the Pali Canon, the Theravada Buddhist scripture, reputed to be the most authentic recording of the Buddha. Scholars have questioned this, of course, and following Mark Twain's quip about who wrote Shakespeare, you can say that the Pali Canon is either a record of the Buddha's own words, or the words of someone else with the same name.

So following my own agenda of trying to keep assumptions to a minimum, and rather than pin my faith on any scripture, or even on whether the Buddha was a hstorical figure, I take the Pali Canon as a coherent work in itself, and look for any inspiration from it as an internally consistent worldview. And as I say, I only consider it a starting point anyway.

The Pali Canon talks of stages of meditation (the jhanas - not the high-octane version in the commentaries and unfortunately taught commonly in the West), and the first stage is to become sensitive to the whole-body, whole-body awareness, coupled with the intention to calm the body and mind. The best-known description in the Pali Canon of how to do this is anapanasati, mindfulness of the breath in a certain way.

This 'certain way' is not so much a set of techniques, but simply the intention to be still with a few basic understandings in place. Just like we do not have a technique to walk, or to speak - we have the intention to say something, and the body-mind produces the words - in the same way, the body-mind has an innate disposition to be still; we need to have the intention and then get out of the way of ourselves to allow it to happen. This needs training and practice, in the same way that we needed to discover and learn how to walk and talk, but the training and practice are, I believe, achievable by anyone with a modicum of commitment and understanding.

I can summarise this approach using the concept of 'somatic koan' (Will Johnson's phrase). A koan is question which has no obvious answer, or at least not obvious to the rational mind, and is used in several Zen schools. Well-known koans are 'What is the sound of one hand clapping?', 'What is your original face?' and 'From where have you come?' A 'somatic' koan is a question you ask the body when in the same way the mind has no answer.

For example, a common meditation instruction is to sit with spine upright. Another is to be relaxed in your sitting. For many people these are contradictory. So you could treat the two as a koan, asking the body how it can sit upright and yet relaxed. To begin with, you will approach it as one of technique, trying to work out which muscles to relax and in what way. But there comes a point when you get beyond any technique, and you find one day that you are sitting with an upright spine and yet at ease. An analogy is learning to ride a bicycle, which consists at first of instructions and frequent falls off the bike. But there comes a time when you just 'get' it, and not only that, but once you 'get' it you can never 'unget' it. Once the body and mind have collaborated to produce the skill of balance on a bike, then any instructions needed to have got there can be discarded for ever.

I have found that a fruitful way to learn to breathe so as to create whole-body awareness, ease, and stillness is likewise to assume it is a bodily skill, and ask the body simply to do it for you; just like you give the body or unconscious mind the top-level instruction to say something, and usually the appropriate words just come. Technique and training are necessary at first, but they are less, and less daunting, than might be supposed.

Turning point

It is often assumed that the more still and concentrated one is, the less reflective one is. But this is not even true in everyday life. Consider the musician enraptured in her playing, reaching peak performance, and yet still able to reflect on her playing so as to make it even better next time; or the athlete 'in the zone' whose body is just running with exhiliration, effortlessly and efficiently, yet he can be aware of and can note his functioning and his surroundings.

In writing about the stages of meditation and becoming still with expanded awarenes, the Pali Canon often has the image of a sitting man reflecting on a lying-down one, or a standing man reflecting on a sitting one. In fact, the Pali 'man' here can be translated as referring to the same person, so I read the Pali as saying: when you get to a level of stillness, as if lying down, sit up as well and reflect on yourself lying down; and bootstrap that also so as to then stand up (metaphorically) and reflect on yourself sitting.

Here is where the right words are hard to find. Let me try a few different formulations.

As I am still, and reflect on my body, I find meaning in it. There can be a creative partnership between the stillness and the meaning. I know they are separate things, because I can, and often do, have the one without the other. So there can be an interaction. I can say I am touching the bodily felt sense from the underneath.

Another formulation: In using my breath to become still, I trust it to be my friend. There is an analogy here with focusing (but I think only an analogy). In focusing I will feel something like an unclear wholeness, to which I take my thought or emotion, and trust that the unclear wholeness, the felt sense, is my friend and will move the thought or emotion in a direction it needs to go. So in breathing to be still, I can trust my breath to be my friend, almost talk to it, and ask and allow it to take me to a stillness, rather than barge my way in there through my clever meditation practice.

But whatever stillness the breath takes me to, the breath itself is more than stillness, and being my friend - my lover even - will move me with my stillness in a life-enhancing direction.

A third formulation: Stillness is very beautiful, and I am sure can be entered into much deeper than I have. But by virtue of having a body, I must move, on many levels, and I believe that to try and escape from that fact is useless at best and dangerous at worst. So I see meditation as the art of not only stilling motion, but of moving stillness.

Yet another formulation: It enables me to love. Nothing is more efficient than love for moving forward. Love is the encompassing of two things, each totally within the other, and each totally accepting the other. The stillness and the motion, or bodily meaning, I refer to here are both capable of encompassing and enfolding each other. Making the turn (as I title this section) is like introducing them as two guests one to the other, and allow them - stillness and meaning - to embrace each other as lovers.

 

Conclusion

This is a work in progress, and much is unclear to me. For example: is the meditation style I describe in this essay quite different from focusing? Or do they share the same spectrum, where one can become the other? Certainly I find myself sometimes in meditation actually focusing, but I usually then think of it as something quite different.

It helps me stop worrying about things that there is no need to worry about, and be aware of those things I should be concerned about. It gives me something of an anchor in myself that lessens a little the anger, the hate and the petty fretting of life, and makes me a little more aware of what is going on, both in myself and in the people and the world around me. It makes me friends with my body and with my breath, from which I can learn much and can develop skills to deal with what has to be dealt with, but with a little more humor, relaxation and emotional intelligence - that, to me, is efficient living.

I can both love myself, and love others, for I can only love others when I feel safe and am loved myself. And I can only feel safe and loved within when my body, breath and mind are friends.

I started this essay by saying that meditation (as I mean it) differs from focusing in that rather than take serial thought to the bodily meaning, I take stillness or breath to it; and from below rather than from above. I end by saying that it is a process of forging a friendship between body, breath and mind.


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