Meditating with Chaotic Inner Conflict

This is a short selection from my upcoming book, Thoughts are not the Enemy, which will published by Shambhala Publications in the northern hemisphere Fall of 2014.

Sitting down to meditate and having a slew of thoughts rush into your head, and then doing nothing about it, when you know you can settle your mind a bit first, may seem crazy and unreasonable. What is the advantage of letting thoughts and emotions build and consume you at the beginning of a meditation sitting? Why not first calm your mind down with a practice of following the breath, using a mantra, reciting some phrases, or any means by which you can get settled?

Over the years I have met several people who have had difficulty with Recollective Awareness meditation precisely because of this point. Often, they do not stick it out to see where sitting with all this chaotic inner conflict and intensity could lead. The reasoning goes, “If I can get myself into a calm and equanimous state of mind at the beginning of a meditation sitting, then I could observe my thoughts and emotions without getting caught up in them. And, along with being a calm observing witness to my experience, I would also find that the thoughts and emotions vanish and leave me with a clear mind to be aware of the breath or body sensations.” And some people take this even further, adding, “This experience of stillness and detachment in the observing consciousness is the way I would like to be all of the time.”

You can see that it would futile for me to try to convince someone with this kind of experience that it would be in his best interest to meet the chaos in his mind instead of following the routine of intentionally calming his mind. Even as I write this, I know it is a hard sell.

So let me approach this divergent view around practice in terms of values. The higher value of a clear and equanimous observing consciousness dominates a good deal of meditation practice. It may even be taught as the goal of meditation. Whenever such a luminous consciousness arises, it is excellent. It has the status of an optimal state of consciousness.

But here is where we could be a bit more discerning. It may not be the optimal state of consciousness to explore your thoughts and emotions, simply because it wants to have nothing to do with them. It is a state of mind that is often incapable of actually being interested in thoughts and emotions. Besides that, it can rarely, if ever, know an emotion at its actual intensity, because it mutes and diminishes such emotions, and the same goes for thoughts, which seldom last when you are in an optimal equanimous state of mind. If we just take this optimal state of mind for what it is, for however long it lasts, and look at it as we would any other state of mind, we may find what it is actually good for, what it actually does, and then we can make a more accurate assessment of its value. But people rarely ever do that kind of investigation, because such states of mind are often considered sacred, privileged, special.

Having done that type of investigation on numerous occasions, and having read and listened to the meditation reports of others who have done the same, calm and equanimous states of mind may actually be good for developing samadhi rather than insight. That is, it may make much more sense to let such optimal states move toward becoming more inward, more removed, quieter and stiller, and not burden them with the task of observing thoughts and emotions. Let such states produce their own state-dependent objects of awareness, such as colors, images, scenes, sounds, perceptions of space, etc.

What I am suggesting is that you let yourself go into them and let them carry you away. There is no need to use them to scrutinize your experience; that is for a different kind of calm state of mind, one that is more practically developed out of a practice of staying with the chaotic inner conflict and intensity that you may find when you sit with thoughts and emotions as they naturally reveal themselves to your awareness.

The shift in values I am recommending here is to value your capacity to be with and tolerate your thoughts and emotions in meditation over your capacity to detach from them. So if someone has a tendency to quickly detach from feelings and enter into a calm state of mind at the beginning of his sittings, a corrective instruction would be in order. But you may doubt this instruction, struggle with it, or just not bother with it. It will go against the grain of your practice, and will contradict the higher value of calmness, equanimity, and peace you have had for meditation. What I simply suggest is that when you sit down to meditate, let whatever you were thinking about or feeling before the sitting directly into the meditation. Do not do any preparatory or opening practice in the sitting – even taking refuge or doing a short invocation or chant can interfere with your attempt to start a sitting with your mind as it was before the sitting.

In this way, the boundary between what your mind is like before a meditation sitting and what it is like in a meditation sitting gets dissolved. What most people don’t like about this approach is that your mind in meditation then becomes more like your mind outside of meditation, which for experienced meditators may seem like going backward.

• to find out more about recollective awareness meditation go to

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  1. Tony Reardon
    Posted March 2, 2014 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    This is fantastic, I’d really like it if we called sitting meditation “sitting meditation” so we can get away from the idea that sitting is meditation per se. That gripe aside I find it so good to see people writing like this.

  2. Rod MacKenzie
    Posted March 2, 2014 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    Unfortunately for reasons that I am aware are entirely due to me I simply have not been able to relate to Jason Siff. As he points out himself at the end of the post, “What most people don’t like about this approach is that your mind in meditation then becomes more like your mind outside of meditation, which for experienced meditators may seem like going backward”. Yes.

    My meditation is very simple, I find Jason complicates things or puts up problems apropos of meditation I hadnt thought of! By making me think of them, they nearly became problems 🙂 . I got half way through one of his books and just put it down because of this.

    One suggestion is for all those interested in the group to write out a one to two hundred description of how they meditate and also why. I feel we need to get to know each other as people. We then compare notes?

    I am not saying I can’t learn anything, I know I can and need to, but boy am I drawn to keeping it simple 🙂

  3. Rod MacKenzie
    Posted March 2, 2014 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    Another example of my uncertainty with Jason Siff is (just for me) the actual title. I dont think of thoughts as the enemy. By him introducing that concept into his title I am already wondering, hmmmmm, are thoughts enemies? No, no matter how difficult or unpleasant they are, they teach me something about ….something, be that my “self” or some aspect of my lebenswelt. I believe I am not my thoughts, or rather, when I believe that, I find it incredibly useful. But to see thoughts as enemies? That already creates additional, unnecessary agitation. I have been taught to just ever so gently brush them aside and proceed with the “meditation” (yes like Tony I am not happy with our English word, meditation, there).

  4. Barbara Reardon
    Posted March 2, 2014 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

    I found Siff’s bit very interesting. I have never very successfully done samatha practice except occasionally, almost by mistake, on retreats. I have been judged, including by myself, as ‘over emotional’, ‘anxious’ etc and those mind states certainly sit down with me to meditate often. The article gives me a little permission to welcome them. I have considerable faith that practice is moving towards greater equanimity, with engaged calm rather than detached stillness as more of what I’m after. Dinner now; my daughter (just two minutes walk away) gave birth this morning, at home, very straightforward, a girl after two boys! And this mind persists in trying to work out whether another infant is a catastrophe or a blessing.

    • Sophie Alcock
      Posted March 3, 2014 at 10:43 am | Permalink

      This article is stimulating and I love that phrase ‘engaged calm rather than detached stillness’ Barbara; it sums up meditation for me, or what i work towards when sitting, standing, walking, on and off ‘the mat’ so working towards and turning towards greater acceptance of feelings rather then turning away and disengaging. Thank you and

      • Posted March 3, 2014 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

        You got there first Sophie – ‘engaged calm rather than detached stillness’. Barbara, that is such an excellent way of describing the heartful appreciation that arises with practice.

  5. Helen Lehndorf
    Posted March 3, 2014 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    Gosh, I just sit and what comes comes.

    My instinct tells me that too much evaluating of what comes (as described in the article above) will just mean more monkey mind white noise.

  6. Leon Frampton
    Posted March 22, 2014 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    Years ago I tried to understand the many definitions, traditions, and practices that appeared to define Buddhism. Nirvana, Enlightenment, Awakening – all achieved by very few people either by extreme effort or by accident, but they all become revered and honoured for achieving something that is apparently rare. This led me to question what the point was in even trying. Perhaps monasticism was the answer, so I practiced with this in mind. Not for me, far too insular, and shutting yourself off from the world creates a barrier from the ordinary experience that the Buddha was trying to help us deal with.

    So, I appreciate the idea that “your mind in meditation then becomes more like your mind outside of meditation”. I do not see that there should be a distinction between the two. And rather a sign of going backwards in practice, wouldn’t this be a sign of going forwards. This evening, quite unexpectedly I experienced a mental state while out working and doing errands that was akin to the happiness I sometimes experience “on the mat”. It lasted for around 30 minutes and the fact that it occurred while engaging with the world made it all the more valuable to me in my day.

    While I see the necessity of seated or focused meditative practice, I have always been wary of “living in two worlds” as far as meditative practice goes. I see it as a hazardous trap to take refuge in the meditation cushion, as if it is a protected space from the outside world. IT IS the outside world in the most dynamic sense, and if we fail to see it as such then we are engaged in a mental exercise rather than one that promotes awakening. This is my view, of course, with no offence intended to those with differing views.

  7. Posted April 27, 2014 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    Jason Siff talks about aspects of recollective awareness on this Sydney Insight Meditators page –

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