Seeing for Yourself What Works

Excerpt from “The Problem with Meditation Instructions,” by Jason Siff,

Although we are not often taught this, the most skillful way through an impasse in meditation is to become aware of it and of what holds it together and keeps it running. To do this, you need to keep doing the meditation instructions that have gotten you to this point, but instead of following them “harder,” try approaching them in a softer, gentler manner. Do them loosely, and don’t do them all of the time. Instead, try doing them when it is easy to do them, or, when you feel you need to. But also be willing not to do them every single time you feel the need.

By adding flexibility and choice to a meditation practice that has become rigid and restrictive, we move our attention away from a narrow focus on doing the instructions correctly to a broader awareness of how we are doing the instructions. We discover that sometimes we are using the instructions to get to some desired or anticipated meditative state and other times we are using them to avoid certain feelings, memories, or thoughts. Then there are those times when we would otherwise feel lost and confused in our meditation sittings and need the instructions as an anchor. There are many ways we have held onto the instructions we have received, so by giving more space around them and giving ourselves permission not to follow them, we can begin to see what they are actually doing for us.

There is a middle way here between the extremes of rigidity and passivity, one that offers a more legitimate form of meditation. The beginning instructions I have given for nearly two decades provide just enough of a grounding in the seated body for the meditator to develop a capacity to be with thoughts, feelings, and sensations as they arise. These suggestions are loose and open, but you can make them tighter if you need to. The instructions are as follows:

Sit in a comfortable position, one that you would not need to change during the sitting. If you do need to change your position, do so slowly and consciously. You may also lie down, but try to adopt a position that you would not normally sleep in.
Bring your attention to the touch of your hands resting in your lap or on your thighs. But do not try to hold your attention there. Allow thoughts, feelings, and sensations to arise, and let your attention go with them.
If your attention leaves the touch of the hands for a long period of time (several minutes), you can gently bring your attention back. Otherwise, just sit with what comes up. If you encounter an experience that is hard to tolerate, after a while of being with it you can bring your attention back to the touch of the hands. But only hold it there long enough to feel grounded or relaxed, and then, if your mind goes into that kind of experience again, just let it.

People have made rules out of these instructions, and you might too. That is fine. At some point, hopefully, you will become aware of those rules. But, for now, it is enough to know that there is no way to do this wrong, as it is not about following an instruction as much as about allowing your experiences to unfold. Seeing for yourself, from your own experience, what works and what doesn’t is what meditation is all about.

Siff, J. (2010). Unlearning meditation: What to do when the instructions get in the way. Boston: Shambhala. (publisher, library)