The yin and the yang of it

Although the meditation training exercises are relatively simple and straightforward in themselves, the act of practicing them does not appear to be of interest, or accessible, to all. Patient samples in my clinical trials of meditation- based programs are predominantly relatively well-educated white women. Likewise, women regularly comprise the majority of the courses I teach for clinicians. I’ve wondered why this should be. What makes it seem so less immediately attractive to men and other groups, and how could it be made more initially attractive? No doubt the sign on the door determines to a large degree who enters and is introduced to meditation. In this sense its portrayal in popular media of people sitting on cushions with their eyes closed has something to do with the very term meditation invoking an aversive impression of passivity and implicit receptivity, an image the ubiquitous sitting Buddharupa does nothing to diminish.

Interestingly, when I began practicing meditation some 40 years or so ago, interest was more evenly divided across the genders. In fact Zendos had quite a martial air that emphasized sitting through pain and discomfort, and getting by on less sleep. And some Burmese vipassana retreats included encouragement for retreatants to make a “firm resolve” not to move a muscle for increasingly long periods of sitting practice; as those periods went on, the silent air in the hall became increasingly charged and tense. And while metta practices were a part of other vipassana retreats, it was increased interest in Tibetan traditions and the centrality they placed on relationships and the feminine that has been largely responsible for the present emphasis in meditation programs on compassion and connection, and the introduction of terms such as tenderness and healing into the process. The veneration people feel for the Dalai Lama is no doubt related to that. On the other side of this emphasis on connection run the attempts to use meditation for what is referred to as the “spiritual bypass”; seeing it as a way of avoiding the complexity, ambiguity, and uncertainty these feminine qualities represent, and bypassing the necessity of resolving uncomfortable preoccupations that develop when internal conflict is present.

This situation refers back to the first part of this chapter and the discussion of the mind as a needs-meeting apparatus where the internal narrative functions as part of the cognitive apparatus serving that end. It is essential that the narratives through which we live our everyday lives are coherent, functional, and integrated with those of others in order to fulfill our obligations, and that they are seen as leading to goal satisfaction. Conflicting themes in the narrative and its surrounding life circumstances mean that attention becomes inordinately preoccupied with them as we attempt to find an internal coherence recognized as leading toward the satisfaction of important needs, be they for relationships, status, or power. Attention, in its role of vigilance for opportunities for resolution, repeatedly returns to the conflicted narrative and its distress in such a way that it is unavailable for anything else.

While meditation can provide some necessary stability in the process of exploring and living through this, attempting to use it to bypass these interactive life tasks results in withdrawal into relentless concentration practice as an emotional analgesic that does not address the underlying problem. It becomes the role of something like psychotherapy to unveil the conflicting elements of the narrative and find some resolution. With its conflict reduced, the narrative no longer needs to preoccupy attention in such a compelling manner and interest is sufficiently available for other activities such as meditation practice.

It is the sense of seeking to undermine the very root of the internal narrative that most clearly distinguishes meditation from psychotherapy, which is generally aimed at altering some feature of the internal narrative, or resolving conflicts embedded within it that are perceived to be preventing the person from fulfilling their goals. As such, psychotherapy may at times be an essential adjunct to the process of enquiry.

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