Nondirective Meditation (“Do Nothing”): Initial Thoughts
Last week a conversation began in the comments section of the Types of Meditation post when Malik asked what my views are on something called “nondirective meditation”. I had never heard of this practice before and there was some exchange of ideas where we tried to figure out exactly what it is, with some input from Arpan, too. A lot of links and information were exchanged and I’ve waded through it in order to bring the main points to you in this blog post.
So, here are the notes.
In all meditation I’ve practised up until this point, I have always used an object to anchor the mind to in order to stop it from wandering. This could be the breath, or a candle flame, or a sound, or whatever. The point is, I always gave the mind something to “latch onto” to maintain concentration. The idea of having no object was completely foreign and frankly unbelievable to me. Yet this is exactly what nondirective meditation is.
The way I have been practising it the last week is as follows:
- Sit very still with eyes closed. In fact, staying very still is the only “direction” I give myself. I also use the dhyana mudra, pictured above.
That’s it. You can let the mind wander, go into verbal thoughts, have feelings and visual thoughts and memories arise, notice things about your experience such as being uncomfortable or feeling rotten or wanting to get up, make little egoic plans, and basically do everything you would’ve been doing anyway except you are sitting very still. Then, something amazing happens. The comments on this link describe it well:
After about 30-40 minutes, it felt like my mind “cleared” and my attention settled on my breathe quite naturally, although i did nothing to keep it there. The pure bliss this practice gave me is hard to explain. It’s heavy, thick and extremely consistent – i get teary eyes from happiness several times a week after doing this. Any kind of stress or anxiety about something just drops. It’s replaced with pure relaxation and inspiration. The effect seems cumulative so far. Yet i do nothing. No focus, no mantra, no sounds, no counting, no anything.
The reason that non-directive meditation works so well is, i believe, because it doesn’t involve doing anything but rather just being which is a very rare state in our fast-paced society. When you just are, the mind can naturally unravel it self.
This meditation is fully jhana capable. In fact, the willingness of jhana to arise entirely by itself has triggered a thought process in me whereby I am now evaluating whether things like using an object, constantly manipulating attention so it points towards that object, and suppressing verbal thoughts and other distractions, are actually a hindrance to meditation. I never thought I would be thinking those words, let alone writing them here.
When you use an object (as in directive meditation), the purpose of that object is to suppress the monkey-mind by taking attention away from the monkey-mind and sending it towards the object. It is like you are saying firmly to the monkey-mind, “NO. Look over here at THIS instead” (repeatedly taking attention back to the breath or whatever your object is). Whether you do this lightly or strongly, with narrow or wide focus, with short intense bursts of concentration or longer periods of broader mindfulness, in directive meditation you are always trying to steer attention away from the monkey-mind and towards the object, with the goal of the monkey-mind eventually “giving up” and the mind becoming still and unified around the object.
In nondirective meditation however the total reverse approach is taken. The goal is not to control the monkey-mind, but rather to let it burn itself out on its various ponderings and schemes. Whether it takes 10, 20, 30, 40 minutes or longer, what I have found is that, reliably, at some point this will happen: the monkey-mind will eventually give in to the stillness and total bliss will arise.
Now, I don’t want to get ahead of myself as these are early days. However, I am very excited about how this is looking so far. Rather than drawing conclusions at this point, I will instead just tell you what happened over the last week during these sessions.
On my first session, I sat and immediately found myself slipping into my existing pattern of conscious suppression of verbal thoughts, with attention becoming very narrow on the breath at the nose (and the tension that arises as a result of such directive action). I consciously had to break this pattern and go into verbal thoughts, and I did this by noticing what I was doing and having a little internal dialogue with myself about it. It has been a long time since I have allowed myself to do this. Anyway, I found my attention naturally going onto my breath at various points which was interesting. I also found that allowing myself to speak in my head was very liberating (which probably suggests something about the wrongness of the way I was doing it before, i.e. with continuous suppression of those thoughts).
I would find that my mind would notice little lights and swirls in the dark stuff behind my closed eyes and would make little commentaries on them. I just let the mind go towards whatever it wanted, whenever it wanted. I noticed that while doing this there was a bigger sense of awareness growing in the background, kind of like a great big soft cushion. At times my breath would appear to pause and there would be something like an anxious tension in there. At these moments, when I didn’t know what to “do”, I simply said the words in my mind: “Do nothing.” Then, breathing would spontaneously restart and the tension would fall away.
At around 10 minutes into this, something very special happened. The verbal thoughts started getting slower and more effortful, and finally it seemed like they were being sucked out of me and into that great big soft cushion of awareness that had been growing in the background. That awareness cushion began to take centre stage and all my thoughts began flowing into it, seemingly fuelling its growth. Indescribable bliss and gratitude arose, along with that “full”, satisfied feeling of first jhana. I found that my awareness had come quite naturally to be upon the breath, and the “awareness cushion” was now completely linked to the breath. My eyes had also come to rest looking at the third eye position. So, my mind had found its own “objects” in its own time completely by itself. This level of jhana would normally take me 20-30 minutes to reach when using the breath as an object, so the fact I got there quicker with no object was very exciting for me. Unfortunately my alarm went off and I had to go to work. I nearly said “fuck it” as I wanted to sit there forever but I got up and went to work. The next day I set aside a lot more time for my meditation.
On the second day I set things up exactly the way I had the day before. On this occasion however the bliss did not arise so easily, though there were definite windows where it was shining through. After around 20 minutes I found my verbal thoughts had naturally disappeared, but that I was in what Mayath and I have been referring to as a “dead jhana”, a state where the mind is still but dull. I stayed another 10-20 minutes in this state and the bliss of the previous day did not arise. However, later in the day, I was walking around a shopping centre near where I work, and usually I consciously tune into the sense field, especially the far edges (e.g. my peripheral vision, or the sounds of the environment) to get some “present moment absorption” which leads quickly to mindful bliss but requires ongoing conscious effort. On this occasion however I just said to myself, “Do nothing.” Suddenly bliss rushed in and I absorbed instantly into the present moment, with the veil between this side (“me”) and that side (“the world”) temporarily disappearing (it is the goal of meditation to have this barrier permanently removed). The verbal command to simply do nothing deactivated the processes that in fact prop up that veil. It is a way of letting go, and is coming directly from this nondirective meditation practice.
During the third day’s meditation bliss was arising quickly, just a couple of minutes into the meditation. However, I found myself “grabbing” for the bliss which would cause it to retreat. It is common for the monkey-mind to try to subvert a working tech in this way to try to grab the bliss from it while avoiding the “bad” bits. The key here is to realize that this itself is just part of the meditation. It is the mind going through its motions on its way to unravelling itself. You just have to “do nothing” and eventually it will pass. On this occasion the heavy bliss began to coalesce again once I let go of the need to control it. However, the alarm went off again and I had to go to work.
The fourth and final session was last night, before going out. I set aside around 30 minutes, though I wish I’d gone for longer. I have this annoying habitual mental process at the moment which has been going on for the last several months specifically concerning going out to socialize. The process goes something like this: “Because I’ve been meditating so long and experienced all these wonderful states, I should be able to sit and access them before going out to put me in a great mood so I can go and get what I want from the world.” There is a huge tension surrounding this presumption as it is a kind of performance anxiety with a lot of attachment to outcomes — exactly the sort of thing you should be letting go of in meditation. I had reached the point where directive meditation, e.g. trying to force concentration on a breath object, was actually fuelling this tension, making me even more tense before going out. By sitting and doing nothing however I found myself going through various motions, my feet tapping nervously, thoughts racing, chaotic emotions swirling, and so forth. But, eventually, the stillness came. This was spontaneous like the first session. I wish I had allotted more time for the sit because it was just getting into the good stuff when the alarm went off and I had to go to meet my friends. But this was a significant improvement in approach, with a tangible mental stillness I had not been able to generate before going out for some months. This made me very hopeful for the future.
My goal now is simply to give more time — a LOT more time — to these sits. One of the best things about this new approach is that by specifically having no method the tension surrounding the need to perform within meditation has disappeared. This vastly increases the capacity for bliss and stillness to arise naturally. The major shift in my mind is that I have now started really, really looking forward to meditation again, because I now know that I don’t have to do anything during meditation but sit, and the mind will naturally unravel itself. I predict that I will be increasing my session times vastly going forward, perhaps to two hours minimum. I have already started waking up earlier each morning in anticipation of these sits which itself is a noticeable change.
It’s still way too early to say for sure, but my feeling is that this is meditation the right way, the natural way — that the mind wants to fall into states of stillness, and you just have to give it the time in which to do so. Nondirective meditation may well become the standard meditation I teach here on PPM.
I phoned Aldous in the week to tell him about my experiences with nondirective meditation and he said, “Ummm yeah, I’ve been meditating like that for ages. Many people meditate like that. It’s how Alan Watts always taught it, too.” I am just surprised with myself that I never thought to meditate without an object before, and that doing so was so easy and powerful. But, let’s see where this goes!