What is Recollective Awareness?

Why do we call this practice recollective awareness instead of vipassana or mindfulness? Is there a significant difference in this practice that justifies this new term?

I believe the term recollective awareness is meant to remind us of certain broader aspects of practice beyond vipassana, or even mindfulness. According to Jason Siff’s website the term recollective awareness comes from the Pali word anupassana. It’s interesting that anupassana does not mean merely mindfulness, as one might  expect, but actually encompasses mindfulness within a broader context  of practice. I have found a helpful discussion of anupassana in an article by Thanisarro Bhikkhu. In it he states that mindfulness is “one of three qualities you bring to anupassana.”  The other two qualities to practice skillfully are alertness and ardency.  So it seems the term anupassana means something quite different than the word vipassana, and is actually the preferred method of meditation.

So, in recollective awareness we are not just noting our experience, as is often suggested in vipassana practice. We are not being aware of our wandering thoughts and bringing our attention back to an object of concentration, such as the breath. Instead, the practice of recollective awareness, or anupassana, teaches us to follow our “wandering” thoughts with gentle awareness.  We are encouraged to get to know more of our experiences by following our thoughts, especially those that we usually turn away from.

We might object that recollective awareness meditation will not provide the proper training or discipline that the Buddha taught and that apparently we need. It also seems that the line between meditation and thinking becomes very blurred if we accept our thoughts, as this approach recommends. Where’s the discipline, the “taming of the mind?” This is a valid concern, and one that Siff has addressed in a recent article in Insight Journal. It is my understanding that Siff believes many of the Buddha’s instructions on meditation were descriptive, rather than prescriptive. In other words, the Buddha was not suggesting a technique for meditation,  but describing a process and events that the meditator would encounter. For instance, in my own practice, I usually begin the sitting with lots of thoughts about the day, and as I allow the thoughts to arise, and I even follow some of them, in time I drop into a more concentrated experience of my breath or some other object. This occurs rather naturally without sitting with the initial idea of having this concentrated experience. In fact, in times when I’ve tried to produce a concentrated state I usually cannot, and this may be why Siff approaches the Dharma the way he does.

All of this is just a partial picture of recollective awareness meditation. Sometimes all that one hears about recollective meditation is that thoughts are OK, and it becomes easy to misinterpret this instruction as the primary teaching; however, there is much more to this practice than just allowing thoughts. The reason thoughts are allowed is for us to be able to understand how we are creating our experience, and what we can do to reduce our suffering. So we ask questions of ourselves and our experiences as we meditate, as well as afterwards: How am I fueling these thoughts? What impact are they having on me? What is their nature? Do I want to continue with these thoughts? Can I reduce my suffering?

Working with these questions is a far cry from just allowing thoughts; it’s a far cry from daydreaming.