"Unlearning Meditation" by Jason Siff (review)

Siff’s Recollection Awareness Meditation removes all meditation instructions (e.g. to follow the breath), which make a “practice” of sitting, as opposed to the receptive”process” of a totally open awareness. This eschews focussing on bodily sensations, for example, or asking questions as part of the meditation itself. He calls these generative practices because they are claimed to generate specific states of mind, such as insights. Contrariwise he declines to condemn distractions, since all these enter into bare awareness, as does dozing off, or even drafting a poem “since it is happening in a sitting it is meditative” (p160). But the experience of sitting and thinking may be confused with mere idle day-dreaming. However, what distinguishes thinking in meditation from day-dreaming is that the former “is done with the intention to develop one’s awareness of one’s inner world, while day-dreaming is done to pleasantly distract oneself.” (1)

Likewise the whole conceptual vocabulary which anticipates what experiences you are supposed to have is dismissed, and the emphasis shifted to your specific experiences, outside of a prescriptive context of what you are intended to experience.

The breath and the body are no longer to be privileged over feelings and thoughts, or sharply distinguished therefrom.

He uses the term conflicted instruction to denote all the things which, in conventional meditation, you should not be doing (that is, the opposite of generative instructions, which are those you should be doing). Likewise he condemns all instructions which “feel rigid, pressurised and results orientated”, and rely heavily on the will and persistence. On the other hand, techniques such as bodily awareness he perceives as legitimate (and hence “generative processes”) where they arise naturally, as part of the receptive process, rather than prescriptively.

Thus, your “experience of meditation alone defines what meditation is” (p138) – you no longer define the success of your practice by your ability to follow the breath, or develop a still mind, for example.

Siff employs the term “recollective” because of the emphasis he places on recalling, and reflecting upon, what was actually experienced in each meditation session (hence his extensive use of detailed journaling).

He cautions that his “theory of the meditation process makes no attempt to go beyond what people would normally experience in meditation, and so makes no conjectures about what an awakened or enlightened consciousness is” (p161). Moreover he urges a “levelling of the hierarchy of meditation experiences”, though with little explanation. However, the remarkable “postscript” in the book is illuminating and inspiring, and worth quoting almost in full:-

“Unlearning meditation is an open-ended process so much so that after a while you might find your meditation practice to be so open and free that it is hard to recall what it was like to meditate in a way that felt pressured, rigid and result orientated. As you continue, the meditation practice becomes less well defined, less tangible and less conceptual. It becomes loose and diffuse.

“Its emptiness becomes more and more apparent. Because you are seldom doing anything in meditation, your mind experiences stretches of time of being empty of doing. Because rarely do you add anything to your experience, your meditation becomes empty of instructions, strategies, goals and judgements. Because nothing is being subtracted from your experience [like “Don’t think” – KJ), your meditations include all that would naturally be present in your mind, and, as such, your mind becomes empty of avoidance and self-deception.

“Your mind goes into so many different states of consciousness -- from degrees of wakefulness to modes of sleep – that you can no longer believe that only one state of mind is optimal, true or real.

“And when you wonder if there is some instruction you must do, some state of mind you should generate, or some truth you must realise, you can pause and look into those thoughts without having to realise them. You have developed greater trust and confidence in the meditative process, which is none other than trust in the path of inner awakening…”

All this goes well with the emotional awareness practice of accepting openly whatever experiences come up, and particularly those which may discomfit us.

But as to the meditation itself, in my own practice and teaching I believe it useful to help the stilling of the mind by contemplation and easing of the body, together, if needs be, with “anchors” such as following the breath. We are then better able to observe what lies below the flux of distracted thinking. If attention is not paid to the insight dimension of meditation the mind may become becalmed in this samadhi. Siff, however, maintains that the meditative enquiry should simply be directed at whatever comes up and thoughts should be allowed to die down in their own time, without controlling devices to get rid of them.

At first sight what Siff is advocating may appear to differ little from the ancient practice of “Just Sitting” (shikan-taza in Zen and “silent illumination" in Chan). However these practices do not appear to take just sitting as absolutely as does Siff. Master Sheng-yen, the Chan master, advocated awareness-in-the-body as at least an initial stage of “Silent Illumination”. And Zen master Daido Loori counselled as follows:-

When you’re doing shikantaza you don’t focus on anything specifically or make thoughts go away. You simply allow everything to be just the way it is. Thoughts come, thoughts go, and you simply watch them, you keep your awareness on them. It takes a lot of energy and persistence to sit shikantaza, to not get caught up in daydreaming. But, little by little, thoughts begin to slow down, and finally they cease to arise. When the thought disappears the thinker disappears. This is the samadhi of falling away of body and mind.

There is none of Siff’s relaxed laisser-passer here; the student’s mind is directed towards the exalted prize of kensho – the “dropping off of body and mind”.

Although Siff adopts an extreme view, I believe that his line of argument offers a valuable reminder – and it receives endorsement from such luminaries as Jack Kornfield, Joan Halifax and Stephen Batchelor.

(1) Jason Siff Unlearning Meditation: What to do When the Instructions Get in the Way. Shanbhala, 2010.