Qualities of Reflective Meditation


Green River, July 21,2013

Green River, July 21,2013

Several months ago I received a paper called “Fundamentals/The Ground,” which was written by several teachers in reflective meditation. I would like to use some of these ideas to further explore what we mean by the term “reflective meditation.”

The first question to consider is this new name of reflective meditation. What do we mean by reflective? There are several implications. It’s a word that invites curiosity, meaning to ponder, meditate, turn, or consider. Also the image of a mirror comes to mind.

In reflection practice then, we are encouraged to consider and reflect on our meditation period, both its content and processes. We can do this by writing about it, discussing our experience, or some other way that we find meaningful. We are learning to meditate by these various processes of reflection—about thoughts and feelings that occurred during and after our meditation.

This can be difficult for some of us who are uncomfortable with the aspects of our meditation that are chaotic, confusing, or personally unacceptable. We may prefer neat, organized stories, with more immediate relevance. Instead we get deep, oftentimes surreal images and strong contradictory feelings, or banal thoughts about our jobs and daily interactions. For those of us who came to meditation for peace, or an exalted state, these experiences often contradict our expectations. And this is exactly why we are encouraged to reflect, because if we don’t, we’re likely to disregard our meditation as meaningless, the way most of us dismiss our dreams. But reflection helps us to increase our awareness, not just of our confusion and chaos, but of the endless variety of conditions that make up our lives.

You may wonder if the Buddha taught this. It’s a good question. I think once you know what to look for you will see examples in the suttas of a thoughtful, reflective approach to meditation. For instance, in the second sutta of The Middle Length Discourses, called All the Taints, are these statements regarding restraining the taints:

“Bhikkhus, I say that the destruction of the taints is for one who knows and sees, not for one who does not know and see. Who knows and sees what? Wise attention and unwise attention. When one attends unwisely, unarisen taints arise and arisen taints increase. When one attends wisely, unarisen taints do not arise and arisen taints are abandoned” (p. 91). So it is through developing wise attention—perhaps reflection– that one follows the Path.

There is also the instance in sutta 63 of The Middle Length Discourses, The Shorter Discourse to Malunkyaputta. “Then, while the venerable Malunkyaputta was alone in meditation the following thought arose in his mind.” Here he has thoughts and feelings of frustration about the Buddha not declaring a position on several speculative views, such as whether the world is eternal or not eternal. He goes to the Buddha and presents these questions, describing first that they arose in his meditation. The Buddha then responds to the question; he recognizes what the monk had been thinking in meditation and he addresses it. He doesn’t say something such as, that’s just a thought, let go of it. The Buddha uses the monk’s memory, his reflection of his meditation, to teach the dharma. I see this as an instance of valuing our and others’ reflective thoughts in meditation, and it is not very different from the Buddha encouraging us to become aware of and perhaps work through these ideas.

Much of the time in meditation– and afterwards–we are seeing the dukkha or dissatisfaction of our lives. I suggest that this seeing is oftentimes the same as reflecting, and it’s one way we can learn the Dharma and more importantly, to reduce the causes of our suffering. By looking at all aspects of our experience—things we like and don’t like, things we understand and don’t understand, things we accept and don’t accept—we are able to see through our dukkha. We are able to see more clearly.

Calm States

Yesterday I attended a dharma talk by a Theravadin teacher and at one point she said, “Meditation is more than just being calm.” I both agree and disagree with this. I’ve heard similar notions expressed many times and to me, this view seems disparaging of calm states. There’s an implication in her statement that just achieving a calm state is not a very advanced practice, or that there are many other things that meditation is about. Maybe so, but I think if someone achieves a calm state in their mediation practice it’s a pretty big deal. As a therapist I meet a lot of people who would be happy to have this happen more often in their lives.

I suppose it depends on how you look at “calm.” For instance, when we’re upset, then meditate and achieve calm, we’ve somehow been able to resolve the problem. We may have become more accepting of something we can’t change, or we may have decided on a solution and feel somewhat at peace with our plan. Or we may have had an insight about the nature of the problem. The point is that during meditation we often are engaged in a process of thinking and feeling about an issue and subsequently reach a place where our suffering has (temporarily) abated.  The result is that we may feel more clear, less angry or hurt. If the point of the Buddhist path is to move from suffering (stress) to the end of suffering, then being calm can be an important sign that this has occurred. I would venture to say this is exactly why most people take up meditation; it certainly isn’t to learn more teaching or become “advanced.” We often meditate to achieve peace and calm.