Meditation practice in the second sense
As described in the first sense in which meditation practice is used, the training exercises result in some level of recognition; the extent and depth of this will vary according to the kind of interest the practitioner brings to it and their level of ongoing curiosity. Some will be satisfied with recognition of the automatic perceptual processes and the capacity to redirect their attention to an affect/ arousal-neutral mind object and the accompanying reduction in distress. Others will have gained a deeper awareness of these ongoing mental processes and will remain curious to take the enquiry further.
This is meditation practice in the sense of “I’m practicing my profession, having preceded this with an apprenticeship during which I gained competence in the skills it entails, so that I am now able to execute them with expertise" This second sense of practice is often regarded as its original intent, and the many forms it takes are shaped by the culture and traditions within which the person developed their attending skills and also their temperament; factors that are themselves probably not unrelated.
Cognition is the most challenging mental component to recognize clearly since, as I described above, it is intimately and implicitly woven into the fabric of experience and identity. And so, while the most obvious thoughts, such as “Mary is wearing a red dress" or even “I’m noticing a fearful thought" are readily observed and labeled, the more subtle cognitions also become more and more apparent as the enquiry proceeds, including into that of “practitioner” and “observer-noticer"
Experience through practice in this sense also makes apparent the essential translucency of cognitions as mental phenomenon; a recognition that results in attention no longer being automatically captured by their content—what they are about or mean. As a result, attention’s preoccupation with the cognitive processes of memory and imagination, which often prevents us from seeing things and people with freshness and curiosity, is undermined. Recognition of the tyranny that ruminative preoccupation has been exerting over life, perception, and well-being is a great release; cognition can now be engaged with, or not, as the situation merits. The person is using thought instead of being used by it.
Happily, this recognition is a lasting change; lasting in the way a fish’s relationship with water might be permanently changed when, having being taken out of the water for an instant, it is returned to it. The fish has no organ for the perception of water; it was born into it and can only see things within water; recognition comes through its momentary absence, opening the mind to awe and wonder. Some will be satisfied with the greater freedom and enjoyment deriving from this.
Those curious to investigate further may engage in a more penetrating investigation into the “I”-ness of things—the sense of ownership of I-related experience and the moment-to-moment creation of the sense of personal agency. Here a more contemplative approach is required, since every attempt to frame and investigate the question cognitively leads back into the familiar territory of memory and imagination. And instructions, being language-based, inevitably lead into the same cul-de-sac of infinite cognitive regress. Zen literature is replete with stories of teachers attempting to bypass this dilemma as they try to foster the particular kind of interest and curiosity required in their students.
Meditation practice in this sense leaves behind canonical vessels and approaches the pathless referred to in a number of traditions. The direct experience emerging from this kind of enquiry bestows clear, and at times jawdropping, recognition of how the world as we know it is created and that “mind” is the name we give to our interpretive experience. When meaning imbues everything, words like “spiritual” become redundant; even time past and future is recognized as a creation of memory and its partner imagination.
The difference between the two approaches to practice may be summed up in the following way. The first recognizes the principles and rearranges the components of the cycles so that they are more salubrious (less arousal-inducing), even if the cycle is one that assures one that this is passing and you can just “watch it.” The second seeks to undermine even this perceptual cycle by transferring interest to the knowing itself. As such, it encompasses a more penetrating interest and curiosity in addition to the cultivation of attending skills. That which knows begins to become of more interest than that which is known and deep levels of satisfaction and peace integrate themselves into everyday life as a result. Nothing in the world encourages this shift in interest—in that sense it is truly unworldly.