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Unlearning Meditation: What to Do When the Instructions Get In the Way Paperback – July 6, 2010
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“A creative and illuminating approach to meditation practice.”—Joseph Goldstein, author of Insight Meditation
“A radically illuminating book for practitioners to newly understand their meditation through loving interest in what is actually going on, beyond any instruction or ideal.”—Jack Kornfield, author of The Wise Heart
“A wise, practical, and radical book that sheds new and wondrous light on dharma in the West.”—Joan Halifax Roshi, author of Being with Dying
“Jason Siff is one of the most distinctive and engaging voices of the emerging Buddhist culture in the West.”—Stephen Batchelor, author of Confession of a Buddhist Atheist
“Siff frees meditators from their own expectations, and ultimately, any guilt about not following the rules. With a gentle style that’s encouraging, wise, and even playful at times, Siff provides a very useful guide for those who want to meditate, but need to ‘unlearn’ in order to move forward. He blends his Eastern and Western experience to give the work spiritual rigor and grounding, while still appealing to a broad audience. Readers don’t need to be Buddhist, or even familiar with its philosophical concepts, to benefit from Siff’s clearly articulated, thoughtful advice.”—ForeWord Reviews
About the Author
Jason Siff is the head teacher of the Skillful Meditation Project. He teaches meditation and leads retreats throughout the United States and in Australia.
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The usual approach to meditation is to follow instructions from a teacher of a certain tradition with a focus on making effort to concentrate, to remain mindful of the moment. Siff's instructions are basically to let your mind do what it does and then reflect on it. He suggests journaling after each sitting. One gift of Siff's approach is to free meditators from their own expectations and any guilt about not following the rules or not doing it the "right way." Meditation changes from an attempt to force oneself to fit a rigid model and becomes more like an exciting and challenging journey. Siff has found that if we let the mind follow its own drift and flow and give it attention, it will find its own way to the areas of consciousness that need healing and to its deeper wisdom.
Rather than promoting himself as a role model or his suggestions as the "only way," Siff manages to condense decades of thousands of his own "sittings" into advice that convinces you of your own authenticity. He assists you in developing greater trust in the meditative process itself, which is trust in the path of inner awakening.
Disclaimer: for the past 5 years I've been a student of Jason's. He's not the only teacher from whom I learn, but he has become the principal one since I discovered his "Unlearning Meditation" workshop at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies 5 years ago (4 years before the book came out). At that time I had run up against a wall, feeling that I was "failing" at meditation because of my inability--after 35 years of trying in one way or another--to attain sustained periods of thought-free concentration. I had internalized this goal from instructions in various forms of meditation--from Transcendental Meditation to several schools of Buddhism--that pointed to getting "lost in thought" as a sign that one's attention had wandered, and should be brought back to, say, a mantra, or the breath. My inability to stop "thinking" seemed to be evidence that I just wasn't getting where I "should" get to. I discussed this with a Vipassana teacher at a retreat, who suggested that during my meditation for the next six months, I just count my breaths. I felt as if I had been instructed to put my head in an oven and turn on the gas! For a few weeks, I gave up meditation. But that felt even worse. Instead, I decided to abandon what I had been instructed, and instead set my own goals, defining meditation as whatever I did when I sat down on my cushion every morning to meditate.
About this time I saw the notice for the "Unlearning Meditation" workshop, which appeared to be aimed at people who were stuck. Jason offered a way of looking at my experience that enabled me to reframe it, seeing it not as failure but as an expression of the natural tendency of my mind. The solution that he suggested affirmed what I had intuitively arrived at on my own: in place of resisting my mind's tendency to think, he invited me to explore allowing my attention to go there, even engaging with the thoughts to the extent of "problems solving" or "planning," all the while striving to be aware of the choice I was making, with non-judgmental curiosity. I found this to be enormously freeing. Instead of berating myself with feelings of failure, I began to become aware of patterns in the ways my thoughts emerged and attracted my attention, gaining the insights that had eluded me in "insight" meditation. Ironically, I found that viewing my meditation in this way enabled me to have more sustained periods of concentration than before, when I had been trying to do so.
I believe that encountering Jason Siff's "unlearning" approach not only helped me get unstuck from a deeply discouraging impasse, but also enabled me to regenerate a practice that has since become more rewarding than it had ever been. There's much more to be said. But Jason says it in the book better than I could here. I couldn't recommend this book more heartily.