Understanding the Meditative Process

A Weekend With Jason Siff

When preparing for my weekend of teaching at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, my initial schedule started with a forty-five meditation sitting  followed by a talk on structured and unstructured meditation practice. Fortunately, the staff reminded me that this wasn’t really a meditation retreat, and that starting off with a long sitting with no context might not be the most appropriate thing to do. As the participants began arriving, it became clear that many had never been on a meditation retreat before, though most of them had prior meditation experience and were interested in understanding the meditative process. Such is the unique beauty of BCBS. With a combination of sitting, reflection, and group study, depending on the inclination of the teacher, I was able to focus more clearly on how to adjust to meet the background and needs of those attending.

The retreat began with a practical talk on structured and unstructured meditation practice. In it I gave the option to do a structured meditation practice, and even presented one that I have found works well for people new to meditation. This is simply the instruction to be aware of one’s body sitting, and to allow one’s thoughts and feelings to be as they are. With this instruction, there is no need to continually bring one’s attention back to the body, but rather to be gentle and accepting of one’s thoughts while having a slight preference for the body, and only occasionally bringing one’s attention back to the body if one is lost in thought for a long time. This is a minimal amount of structure. By not being too heavily structured, as are practices which require someone to constantly return to a primary subject of meditation, it allows for a natural transition to a less structured meditation practice.

For those who already have a defined meditation practice, I allow for them to do that practice or not do it. Everyone in the group has the freedom to do—or not do—any meditation practice, even the one I am teaching. This creates a sense of independence, opening up many more possibilities for new directions and perspectives to arise in meditation sittings, for the student feels empowered to do whatever practice he chooses at any time. He is even free to discover and try out new practices, and he may find himself at times not doing any definable meditation practice.

Now this may sound a bit confusing for the student, and complicated and bewildering for the teacher. For here you have people doing all sorts of practices and also meditating in less structured ways. What is the thread that ties it all together and makes teaching and learning (not to mention “meditating”) possible? Recollection.

“I have difficulty with getting sleepy. There are all kinds of big dust-storms floating around in my mind and I am not in a state of relaxation, and it’s like insomnia. I can’t yield to the tiredness and fall asleep, and I am not alert or relaxed either; it is kind of like a war-zone. So it was driving me crazy this morning to be in that state again and I thought it was all right to ask myself what was beneath the heaviness, and it became clear what the issue is for me personally and (then) it was all right for me to sit with that heaviness.”


Bringing back to mind one’s experiences in meditation is a way to become aware of what occurs during meditation. When the meditation sitting is over, a recollection of it is done from a vantage point that is outside of the sitting. One can get a broader picture of how the sitting began and progressed, how things shifted and changed, and how one related to one’s experiences. So no matter what kind of meditation practice someone does, when it is recollected, it can be looked at and examined. In this way, awareness is not only brought into what one experiences in meditation, but also to the way one meditates, the habits of mind formed in any given meditation practice, and to the kinds of identification and ownership that naturally develop with any meditation technique or theory one applies.

Beginning on the first night and throughout the weekend, participants reported in depth about their meditation sittings. This was done in a group, using a format I have developed over the years, which provides an atmosphere of safety and trust. It is not just about sharing one’s sittings with others in a group, but rather about a person going into great detail with me concerning what he experienced and did in his sittings. As people in the group listen to one of their own speak openly and honestly about meditation sittings, they learn about meditation from each other. They hear how someone else articulates experiences that they may have had, using descriptive language that is mostly free of jargon, technical terms, and concepts. They begin to shed that feeling of being the only one who experiences certain things in meditation when they hear that others also go through similar things. Meditation becomes less isolated, less idealized, and more down-to-earth.

Everyone entered the seminar on the meditative process the first morning having already heard people’s meditation sittings during two previous reporting sessions. The meditative process was not an abstraction the participants were going to learn about, but a lived experience found in their meditation sittings and subsequent reporting on them in the group.

Spring05_JS1The Meditative Process(es)

“At first I was aware of feeling comfortable (sitting on the meditation bench).
And then aware of the ambient air, of a breeze flowing through, and that felt very comfortable. I was aware of people coming in, but the sounds of people coming were like they were happening at a distance….
And then there was a feeling, a sensation, of sort of sinking, of settling. That is all I can say: it was like going down. Then it was quiet, and then I would go off on a train of thought. As soon as I became aware of thinking about this, it stopped, bam! It just stopped like that. And there was another period of quiet. Then I started off on another train of thought…. Then a long period of quiet. Then thoughts would come up, but it was very different. It wasn’t a whole train of thought. Thoughts just popped up and disappeared…. And I became aware of a sort of heaviness and tingling in my hands, and in my feet, and again this feeling of ambient air as the breeze would flow through. My mind felt pretty quiet. And the last, I have no idea of the passage of time, but certainly the last segment of the sitting was pretty quiet and I was sort of aware of the air, of the sound if somebody coughed or moved around, and then the bell rang.”

What do I mean by the “meditative process” here? The dynamic and relational aspects of what occurs in meditation as opposed to the content of a person’s meditation sittings. The content is what is commonly identified as the experience, while the process often eludes awareness. For example, when a person is meditating with a mind filled with anger what is often noticed in the experience and reported afterwards is that the meditation sitting contained a long period of being angry (or being with anger). The anger, as the content of the meditation sitting, is then believed to be “all” that went on during that time. But that is not the case when one looks at how the meditator related to it. The anger could have been related to in a variety of ways. The person could have been wrapped up in it, regurgitating particular events connected with the anger and/or planning to take some kind of action based on it. Or the person could have experienced the anger as a particular physical sensation, without a scene or story attached to it, being with it in just that way. Or the person may have become settled and calm around the experience of anger, finding it dissipate and vanish, only to reappear on occasion throughout the sitting. These are just a few of the ways a person may find himself relating to his experience of anger in a meditation sitting. That is how we can see that even though the reported content may be the same thing, i.e. anger, the process one goes through with it is not always the same.

This is my thinking behind breaking down the meditative process into six distinct processes. I always begin by presenting four basic meditative processes, which all meditation practices and techniques are based on. Though that is not exactly true, for the first process I present is one which is found a high percentage of the time in people’s meditation sittings, but is universally deemed non-meditative. I call it the “conflicted process”.

Conflicted process

In the conflicted process the meditator is generally in conflict with what he is experiencing: he is trying to make it go away and have some other kind of experience. This is often the case when he is having a great deal of thinking go on in meditation. He does not want that thinking, it is getting in the way of his idea of what meditation should be, and so there is “conflict” with “thinking too much”. But he may not be in conflict with what he thinks he should be doing in meditation, so he may, with confidence and certainty, continually stop his thoughts and bring his attention back to a primary subject of meditation, such as the breath or a mantra. Experientially, however, this way of working with the conflicted process will often create more conflict, even though in time one’s mind may comply and stay with the meditation subject for longer periods.

Connected process

What most meditation teaching advocates are ways to surmount the conflicted process by either connecting with a subject of meditation or by generating another state of mind. These are the two main meditative processes practiced by meditators and found in the literature on meditation. I call them “connected” and “generative”. A connected process is in operation when the primary subject of meditation, the breath, for example, is connected with for a period of time. This kind of connection is intentional, purposeful, and meaningful for the meditator. He has decided to focus on the breath. He believes that some kind of benefit or understanding will occur through prolonged connection with the breath. And being connected with the breath all the time is what he may define as the truest or purest form of meditation.

“I was just in a nice quiet place for just about the whole time. I decided I wasn’t going to try any of the techniques I had tried before. I decided earlier in the day I would just go with the flow. All I did was remain aware of where I was and everything around me, and tried not to think about anything else, I guess. And it was easy this time….There were thoughts coming in but it was almost as if the volume was turned down and I wasn’t really connecting with them that much. They were there but I wasn’t really invested in them. And then after about half an hour I had this song that was driving me crazy this morning, in my head; it was tormenting me this morning, and it was sneaking back in there. But the volume was down again and so it was nice and low, and it really wasn’t bothering me this time. I just kind of let it be there in the background. But then I started to get kind of tired and I really didn’t feel like being aware anymore, so I just… I don’t know where I went. I was just listening to the music and I closed my eyes and I could see swirls behind my eyes and just kind of float around in that for a little bit. It felt kind of good. Then I got this kind of floaty feeling in my body that I used to get a lot when I used to meditate a lot more a long time ago. I’ve been trying to get that back. It wasn’t really working, so it is funny that I decided earlier today that I wasn’t going to do any of the stuff anymore to get that back and it just kind of came.”


Generative process

The generative process is similar to the connected process, and there are several meditation practices that make use of both of these processes. The generative process in its most distinct form is when a meditator intentionally generates a particular state of mind, such as mettā. By reciting phrases of loving-kindness or picturing people being happy, the person practicing mettā attempts to generate that state of mind, usually as a replacement for an existing state of mind which is less desirable. This is different than connecting to a single subject of meditation, such as the breath, for it involves actively conjuring and creating another type of experience, one that is different from one’s current state of mind and is generally not found in one’s present awareness. This same kind of process is used in hypnosis, guided imagery, and directed contemplation (and inquiry), for the practitioner is either being led or leading oneself to create some kind of real experience around an idea one has.

Receptive process

While the connected and generative processes are intentional, in that they involve an effort to do something in particular, the fourth process is one of “non-doing”, which I call “receptive”. It is the process upon which I base my meditation teaching. Since it is a receptive process, you cannot “do it” in an ordinary sense, for if one were to meditate with the instruction “try not to do anything”, one would find oneself “doing not-doing”, which would be a type of generative practice. So meditation instructions have to be presented in an entirely different way, as “conditions” rather than as “instructions”.

I speak of three conditions for an independent meditation practice: gentleness, permission, and interest. These conditions lead to being receptive to the wide range of one’s inner experience in meditation by first permitting the conflicted process to be an integral part of one’s meditation practice. Conflict is thus not to be eliminated, suppressed, or denied, but rather is treated with gentleness, allowed to be there, and is eventually something of interest, piquing one’s curiosity. This receptivity is imperfect much of the time when a conflicted process is present, for one will most likely be drawn into the conflict. But instead of trying to stop the conflict by bringing one’s attention always back to the breath (a connected practice), one may learn to tolerate the conflict by sitting still and being gentle and accepting of the thought process one is drawn into.

I call this initial level of receptivity, “non-resistive receptivity”, for the resistance to being with one’s thoughts and feelings as they manifest and develop in any given meditation

“I started off today thinking about what we had talked about before lunch and realized that I say I focus on my breath, but I don’t. I breath-count. There’s a comfort to that because I know within a small range how many breaths it takes for twenty minutes. I didn’t realize I had been doing that. So a few minutes into it I gave that up and then went through a period of disjointed thoughts that would come and be recognized and then rapidly let go. And then I began to think more about my breathing because I noticed at that point I was breathing a bit different, much slower than what I had done before. I thought that this is interesting. I will focus on my breathing. So most of my time was spent actually getting in touch with my breath, which I hadn’t done before. That was interesting and fascinating because I felt some discomfort in one part of my body. I noticed that as I would breathe my ribcage didn’t feel the way I wanted it to. It was kind of odd and I began to think about it more and where did that come from and was actually able to pinpoint a spot that causes discomfort when I breathe. Other thoughts would come in, more visual pictures: thinking about going back home, a building I am thinking about buying. A slide-show going across, just more visual images than anything else. Because they are mostly visuals I was to recognize that is what it was and then come back and return to the breath.”

Explorative process

Two more advanced processes develop out of the receptive process and I often present them as sub-categories of receptivity. The first of these two processes (the fifth process), I call “explorative”. This is when one is able to be with one’s experiences receptively with the added ability to look at them, see into them, and begin to examine them. Someone in this explorative process may find himself thinking about something he is going through, wondering about how it came to be, what supports it, and whether he is being skillful with his experience or unskillful with it. He may find himself pursuing a philosophical train of thought, questioning his held assumptions and views, and exploring new ideas or teachings to aid in his understanding of his experience.

Or, conversely, he may find himself more psychologically oriented in his investigation, looking at segments of his life, seeing actions and decisions performed with confidence and now seen with regret, for example. But instead of trying to solve problems or come up with a new way of being, in the explorative process one may find that simply knowing and looking at these things is enough to produce greater awareness and wisdom. The exploration is thus open-ended and eye-opening.

Non-taking-up process

The sixth process, by its position and attributes, might mistakenly be taken as the final goal. In developing this model of the meditative process I decided early on not to go into the area of “transcendent” or “fully realized” meditative states and experiences. My purpose is to provide a map for “ordinary” types of meditation experiences and practices, and to place those in a framework that is not about a linear progression from lowest to highest. These six processes are not stages of meditative development, and yet the two advanced processes will most likely only occur later on in one’s meditation practice and are dependent upon the earlier processes being matured and developed.

This sixth process I call “non-taking up.” It is when one’s experiences in meditation are not taken up as “I, me, or mine.” But it does not mean that there is no anger, for instance; only that the anger one experiences is tolerated, accepted, and is not taken up as something to act on, to own, or as a reflection upon one’s character. When someone is in this process during a meditation sitting, there is a quality of looking on peacefully at what one is experiencing. This is often arrived at through having been extremely tolerant of such experiences and having explored them over and over again. By having known something so thoroughly, the ability to become embedded and controlled by it has been temporarily abandoned. Non-taking up is thus a taste of being free from something, like one’s anger, before it has vanished for good. Often, it is believed that it is the anger that must vanish for one to have a sense of what freedom from it is like. But that experience may be one of suppressing anger. What I am saying here is that the relationship to anger changes to one of being peaceful with it, and from that, the taking up and rejecting of anger begins to lessen and subside. The process of non-taking up is one of peacefully abiding with the full range of one’s inner experience, to be peaceful in a storm just as much as being peaceful in a clear blue sky.

“I had, I think, the best sitting I had so far. And it was very much a sense of relaxation, a sense even of joy. I started looking at my belly, my breath a little, but I didn’t have to do that very long. Nonverbally, I could just feel myself going into a cave that seemed to be getting bigger and bigger and bigger. And what I was especially aware of was my ability to observe it simultaneously. I was so clear that I was observing it and it was happening, and the two were both going on and one did not threaten the other. One didn’t get in the way of the other. Even the thoughts that would occasionally come up did not feel like interfering thoughts or distracting.

And I would stay with them a little bit, play with them a little bit. The idea of self came up a little bit. Being, the word ‘being’ I kind of started repeating in my head. Somehow that helped me to expand further. I was kind of aware of the bird sounds and had a kind of loving-kindness experience.”

Flexible Skill

Spring05_JS3Whenever I present this seminar on the meditative process, I feel compelled to offer a few cautionary words about using this “interpretative model.” First of all, it is not my purpose to have people prove the truth and validity of these processes in their meditation sittings, but rather to use this model to sharpen one’s awareness on actual meditation experiences. So instead of looking at your sittings and breaking them into any of these six processes, what I suggest is that you just do what you do in meditation, recollect the sittings afterwards, describe your experiences in your own language, and then see if any of these processes may be going on in your sittings. Some sittings may have one process dominating much of the time, while other sittings may change from one process to another, and in no particular order.

I see that each of these meditative processes are of great value and need to be cultivated and matured in one’s life-long practice of meditation. When one of these processes is considered to be the only legitimate form of meditation or meditative experience, then one’s meditation practice is in danger of becoming one-sided, narrow, restrictive, and rigid. Through allowing movement from one process to another, one attends to the conditions that are present in one’s meditation practice, and is able to be flexible enough to make skillful and knowledgeable choices on which directions to pursue at any given time in one’s sittings. One is then also able to be with one particular process when it arises naturally, and do a meditation practice based on it, such as focusing on the breath when a connected process is present, or allow focused thinking and looking into one’s experience, such as when an explorative process has arisen. In this way, this description of the six meditative processes can be used holding it lightly, referring to it only occasionally; and when it gets in the way, or is no longer of use, it can always be dropped.

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