When it comes to meditation, it sometimes might seem as if different techniques and schools of thought contradict each other regarding their approach to the practice. Do we have to concentrate or do we have to let go? Is it about figuring something out or is it about just being open to whatever might spontaneously arise in our awareness? Since it can be challenging to make sense of the seemingly paradoxical nature of meditation, I want to clear up the confusion by integrating these opposing characteristics in a bigger picture.
The Different Types of Meditation
I divide all the different practices into three categories: concentration meditation, open awareness meditation and contemplative meditation.
This distinction is just one way to differentiate between the variety of meditation techniques. Yet by understanding each of their purposes, we can see more clearly how the seemingly inconsistent instructions are actually all interconnected.
Regarding open awareness and contemplative meditation, it can be difficult to intellectually grasp how to approach them and how they fit in the bigger picture. It is quite an abstract, paradoxical territory and will probably be confusing for most people that are new to this topic. Have in mind that this blog post is not meant to go into every nuance of these techniques, but only to give you a brief overview.
The deeper we go into this domain, the less sense it might make on a conceptual level. It is hardly possible to communicate something that goes beyond theory and into the realm of direct experience. Therefore it is important not to take every word too literally, but to see what they are pointing to and to always empirically validate it for ourselves.
If you want to learn how concentration meditation works, you can read a detailed explanation in the previous post “An Introduction to Meditation”. For now, it is enough to know that it uses our ability to focus to calm our minds and thus be more aware of the actual nature of our experience.
We usually make sense of ourselves and the world by listening to our thoughts. We tend to just blindly believe whatever our minds tell us is true. However, we can become conscious of the fact that our thoughts are no more than an imaginary story. A commentary that constantly tries to label our experience, yet never fully encapsulates it. In fact, we can even realize that by their nature, they will never be the truth, but only, if at all, represent it. They are nothing but symbols that point to something else. They can describe it, but will never be it. Or as Alan Watts famously said: “The menu is not the meal.” This is one of the biggest obstacles on the path towards a deeper awareness of the actual nature of our reality, which is beyond any conceptual understanding. The only way to realize this is through direct, first-hand experience. Through observing the meal itself, instead of just reading the menu.
This is where concentration meditation comes into play. Its purpose is not necessarily to bring us to the deepest truths, but to allow us, by improving our focus, to reduce the number of thoughts and the level of control they have over us in our natural state. By grounding ourselves in our anchor, we can observe whatever arises in our awareness in a more detached and unbiased way. Instead of just letting our thoughts describe what is happening, we can become conscious of the pure experience in itself.
At some point, maintaining focus becomes so effortless that we no longer need any willpower. We can just fully relax and let everything be as it is, while at the same time having a naturally quiet mind. This is the perfect foundation for practicing open awareness and contemplative meditation. It allows us to realize what is actually true within us.
Open Awareness Meditation
There are many names that all point to this same practice. Some might call it: do nothing meditation, letting go meditation, true meditation, pure awareness meditation, open monitoring meditation, non-dual meditation, non-directive meditation, or awareness of awareness meditation. And the list goes on.
The paradoxical aspect of this “technique” is that it is about not using any technique in the first place. We could call it the effortless effort. The practice with no direction, no guidance, no boundary. It is about completely letting go of control, about fully surrendering to the present moment. It is about being, instead of doing. This means that even having the intention to focus or contemplate on something is already one step too far.
You might wonder: but what do I do then? Do I just sit down and do nothing?
The tricky thing here is that even asking what to do, or how to do nothing, is coming from the mind and thus already rooted in the realm of doing. There is really no way to do it. The only way is to go beyond doing, and into a state of being. A state of open awareness.
For many people this might make no sense. How should we approach something with no idea of what to do or how to do it? To comprehend this paradox, we first need our own direct experience of what it feels like to just be. It is impossible to get there intellectually.
When we have no prior experience with other forms of meditation, like concentration meditation, we often lack the reference of what these words really point to. And when we do this practice without having a calm mind, without being grounded in the present moment, we probably just get lost in our thoughts without being conscious of it at all. This is the reason why it is sometimes referred to as a more advanced technique.
Although it is not really possible to explain in more detail how we can approach this practice, there are still certain things we can do to at least create an environment in which this state of open awareness occurs more naturally.
Since our minds somehow need an intention to start with, the first thing we can do to initiate this meditation is to fully relax our attention. Allow every experience to arise, with no interference, no judgment, no resistance. Let your awareness rest on whatever it naturally wants to rest. Free yourself from any internal resistance against the present moment. If you become aware of any intention to control something in your experience, drop it. Just let everything be as it is. Let whatever happens happen. Ease into a state of pure acceptance, pure awareness, pure being. Be the openness, the emptiness, the silence. Be the container of all your experiences. This is where the duality we use for the concentration meditation, between the observer and the observed, collapses – and we get into a state of union.
This all might sound too abstract or esoteric for some people. However, I do not want you to just believe those words, but to be open to the possibility that they point to something everyone can experience for themselves.
Just try it out, instead of only trying to grasp it intellectually. If you also want to do some further research, a good place to start could be the book “True Meditation” by Adyashanti, which elaborates on this approach in more detail.
As the name suggests, this form of meditation is about contemplation. Although some might associate an intellectual activity with the word contemplation, this practice is actually closer to open awareness meditation than to any form of mental effort. Instead of thinking or doing, it is about receiving or listening. It is a form of inquiry in which we do not generate the answers ourselves.
Contemplative meditation is like giving a certain direction to our state of open awareness. This direction usually gets triggered through a question, yet it is essential that we do not expect or even intend to get any conceptual answer. Its only purpose is to direct our awareness to a certain facet of our experience. It might seem absurd to raise questions we do not expect an answer to. However, just the question in itself can already lead us to an insight into the true nature of whatever we are inquiring. The “answers” reveal themselves in the form of direct experience, without us doing anything.
The number of possible questions are endless and we can contemplate on any facet of reality. Some examples could be: “Who am I? What is happiness? What are thoughts? What is suffering? What is love? What is awareness? What is existence? What is the difference between doing and being? What can we know for sure?”
Regardless of which question we raise, it is essential to first ground ourselves in a state of not knowing, a state of genuine curiosity. We sometimes assume that we either already know the answers to the existential questions, or that it is not possible to find an answer in the first place. Yet it is crucial for this practice to first open our minds to the possibility that we actually do not know, that we do not have the answers. If you want to learn more on how to approach this, I recommend reading “The Book of Not Knowing” by Peter Ralston, in which he explains this concept more in-depth.
Some people might still find it difficult to fully comprehend this technique. The borders between contemplating and thinking are blurry, and it also seems like we cannot really do anything to get the answers. In the end, the only way is to create the right foundation and to have the patience and the trust that the truth will reveal itself over time.
The Relationship Between the Different Types of Meditation
Comparing the three categories to each other might seem confusing. How can different types of meditation have such conflicting characteristics? To make sense of the counterintuitive nature of this domain, it is essential to look at it from a bigger picture perspective.
We usually go through our lives completely identified with our minds, which constantly try to control our experience. This need to control is the origin of our resistance against the present moment and thus the reason for all the suffering in our lives. Instead of just fully accepting what is, we always want to change something to improve our situation.
Many people might approach meditation intending to reduce their resistance. This also works to a certain degree, since it is mainly triggered by our thoughts. If we learn to calm our minds, we can indeed be more at peace with the present moment. However, this approach is limited.
At some point on our meditation journey we might realize that the intention to focus or to quiet our minds is, in the end, also a form of control and thus also creating more resistance. Instead of letting our attention move as it naturally wants to move, we force it to stay on one specific object and thus limit its natural flow. The point here is that we cannot truly be detached and unbiased as long as we have the objective to manipulate our minds. This means that if we want to fully transcend our resistance and reach a state of pure acceptance, we also have to fully transcend our intention to change something in our experience.
The counterintuitive part here is that most people actually have to first quiet their minds to be able to fully embody this insight. Because if we just stop working on our resistance while still always being lost in our thoughts, we will most probably be stuck in it forever. As long as we operate from the identification with our minds, we will still have to exercise a certain degree of control on ourselves until, one day, this need to manipulate our experience might vanish by itself. In other words, we need to reduce our resistance until we realize that we actually have to stop trying to reduce it and instead fully accept it. This is the ultimate paradox of the spiritual path.
It shows why concentration meditation is usually the first step that builds the foundation for practicing open awareness meditation. It allows us to withdraw from the activity of our minds and thus to ground ourselves in a state of being, a state of pure acceptance. So, although the two practices seem so contradictory, they are eventually deeply interconnected.
The question that still remains is: how does contemplative meditation fit into this picture? In the end, it is almost the same as open awareness meditation. However, since reality is like an infinitely faceted diamond, it is unlikely we understand every aspect in one go, in one revelatory moment. Just fully letting go with no direction can clearly reveal deep truths, yet it still is only one perspective, one way to experience the boundless nature of existence. The direction that we give to our contemplation allows us to get a more holistic and nuanced understanding by also exploring any other perspective, any other facet of this infinite diamond.
How to Make Use of the Synergy
Depending on where we are on our journey, we need to use and combine the different techniques in different ways. If you are still in the beginning of your path, it might be best to only start with concentration meditation. Just have in mind where this journey is ultimately going. It can still be helpful to at least be aware of the other types of meditation and to know where to place them in the bigger picture.
If you are already more experienced, I would recommend alternating between the three of them. I always start every meditation session with focusing on my breath to reach a certain degree of calmness and stability before I transition into open awareness or contemplative meditation. Regardless of where we are on our path, the ability to concentrate will always be an essential foundation for going deeper into any other practice.
As always, there is no right or wrong and we can only find out for ourselves which combination works best in our specific circumstances. Just remember that meditation has many facets and that this path of self exploration can be paradoxical and counterintuitive. There are numerous traps along the way and it is easy to become the victim of our own self delusion. So be diligent with this work, while still having the trust that our intuition and our deepest instinct for the truth will, in the end, always lead us the right way.
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