A Dialogue Between Roger Walsh and Robert Perry
Meditation is one of the most universal, time-honored, and effective spiritual practices. Its effectiveness is now being confirmed by an ever-growing mountain of research data. Yet its place in A Course in Miracles seems far more questionable and hazy. What most students don't realize is that meditation actually occupies a central place in the Course, being a main focus of the Workbook.
To explore the relationship between the Course's methods of meditation and the methods of other spiritual traditions, and to simply underscore the importance of meditation for Course students, we asked Roger Walsh to join Robert Perry for a dialogue on meditation. Besides being a student of the Course, Roger is a long-time practitioner and scientific researcher of meditation. His text on meditation received the Outstanding Academic Book of 1984 Award. He is a professor at the University of California at Irvine, author of several books, including Essential Spirituality: The Seven Central Practices to Awaken Heart and Mind, and coeditor with Frances Vaughan of a collection of quotations from the Course titled Gifts from A Course in Miracles.
A review of meditation research is available in the article: Walsh, R. & Shapiro, S. The meeting of meditative disciplines and Western psychology: A mutually enriching dialogue. American Psychologist, 61(3), 227-239, 2006.
Robert Perry has been a teacher and interpreter of A Course in Miracles since 1986. He is the founder of the Circle of Atonement and author of many books about the Course.
Robert Perry: How are you defining meditation?
Roger Walsh: The term "meditation" refers to a family of practices that particularly train attention and awareness in order to foster psychological and spiritual well being and development.
I think there are a number of key features to that. First, meditation refers to a family of practices, so it's important for us to recognize that we're dealing with quite an array and constellation of practices, but practices which have a common core. Second, although meditation can do many things and can involve many components, meditative practices all seem to center around the cultivation of awareness and attention. That distinguishes them from psychotherapy, where there is more of a focus on the content of awareness, rather than the training of awareness and attention per se. Third, meditation aims not only to enhance psychological and spiritual well-being, but also to foster development—to bring people to greater maturity, greater heights of developmental potential.
RP: I have a question then. I've always seen meditation as almost being defined by the quieting of the mind, by the reduction of verbalization and discursive thinking. What I've been wondering for quite some time now is this: Are there methods of meditation that break that mold, or would those characteristics hold true for all methods?
RW: My understanding is that the quieting and calming of mind is common to many meditations, but by no means all. Keep in mind that there are moving meditations, there are expressive meditations, and there are meditations which arouse energy, in addition to the many practices which attempt to quiet the mind and bring it to stillness, calm, and concentration. We could run through a list of various practices where there is more emphasis on movement, on energy, etc. But you are certainly right that a lot of practices have that quieting, calming, and stilling emphasis. I think certainly most of the ones in the Course do.
The Course's approach to meditation
RP: Shall we move on to talk about the Course's approach to meditation?
RW: Yes. Why don't you say something about that?
RP: First of all, before talking about the actual methods, I want to say something about the place of meditation within the Course, because I think this is something that is generally not very appreciated by Course students. And the place of meditation really starts before the Course starts coming through Helen Schucman.
Shortly after Helen and Bill Thetford had their joining in the goal of demonstrating a better way, Bill suggested that they both meditate. So, they were both doing that, and it was during meditation that Helen had the first of her inner visions that preceded the actual dictation process of the Course.
Then, the day before the Course dictation stated coming through, the author of what would be the Course gave Bill a clear meditation technique. He told Bill to take the words "Here I am, Lord," and withdraw his attention from everything outside, everything else, and put it only on those words. This would enable him to still his mind and allow him to access higher guidance.
When the Course dictation did start the next day, there were several comments in that early dictation about meditation, all of which got edited out of the final, published Course. The actual passages in which they appeared made it in, but the word "meditation" was changed. For instance, a line famous among Course students—"Salvation is a collaborative venture"—was originally "Meditation is a collaborative venture."
RW: That's interesting.
RP: Very interesting. Essentially, these early passages affirmed meditation, but just warned against practicing it in isolating ways. Instead, meditation is meant to be combined with methods that would join you with other people. After these early references, meditation drops out of the picture for most of the Text.
But then, when the Workbook comes in, starting in Lesson 41, there is clear training in meditation. I think most Course students don't spot it because the word "meditation" is not used. But the concept is so clearly there. It's as if I told you I was traveling somewhere in a metal vehicle with four tires and an internal combustion engine. Even without using the word "car," you would know exactly what I meant.
So, starting in Lesson 41, there is this new "kind of practice," as it is called. There is a promise that there will be more training in it, and that sooner or later it will always work. This practice is aimed at experiencing God, and from that point on, meditation becomes a really major feature of the Workbook. By the end of the Workbook, we're expected to be doing a whole lot of it: morning, evening, and on the hour.
What I can discern in the Workbook are three broad methods. The methods are fairly fluid, so deciding where one ends and another begins is a bit tricky, but it seems to me that we can make some delineations. The first method, the one that begins in Lesson 41, is what I tend to call, for want of a label in the Course itself, "down and inward" meditation. What you do here is close your eyes, repeat the idea for the day, and then attempt to clear your mind. For the most part you will not be repeating words, but instead have a sense of sinking down and inward in the mind to some central place in the mind, in the process sinking past what the Course calls "clouds of insane thoughts."
RW: Yes, I know those thoughts well.
RP: So, you sink down and inward into your mind, while having an attitude of confidence that you can succeed at this, desire to reach that place in your mind, and a sense of the importance and holiness of what you are doing. When your mind gets caught up in the clouds, you draw it back by repeating the idea for the day. That's the essence, as I understand it, of that first technique, which is in the Workbook from Lesson 41 up to about Lesson 200.
RW: What did you call that again?
RP: I call it "down and inward" meditation, just because that's descriptive of what we're meant to do there.
Then, Lesson 183 gives us another technique, which again, for want of an actual label given by the Course, I call "Name of God" meditation. Essentially, it's very much like centering prayer, and very much like the technique that's in the mystical text The Cloud of Unknowing. You repeat a Name for God—no name is specified, so I assume we can pick whatever we want—to the exclusion of all other thought. And here, you repeat it in a special way, as a call for the experience of what that Name represents: not only God, but our own true Self, the truth of our and all of our brothers' reality.
The idea is that the Name isn't just a sound being repeated—it's almost like a relational act, somewhat like that line "Here I am, Lord." And it is not just used regularly as a focus, but also as a response to wandering thoughts that may come in. So that's the second method, and there is little mention of that elsewhere. It's mainly in Lesson 183.
Then, as the Workbook enters the second half of the year, another technique comes in, which becomes the main focus of the second half of the year. This is the real crowning method of meditation in the Workbook, and I call it "open mind" meditation.
It's meant to be an almost entirely nonverbal technique, where there isn't a regular repeating of words, or even of one word. There is a conscious attempt to empty the mind of all beliefs, all concepts, all self-images, and create a kind of vacuum. But oddly enough, in the vacuum you're supposed to hold a sense of expectancy and anticipation. So it's kind of a formless expectancy, an emptiness and fullness in the mind. The expectancy is for the experience of God to dawn upon the mind. So there is, even in the absence of words, a presence of something.
The Workbook returns to that technique again and again, in the final two reviews of Part I- Review V and Review VI-in the introduction to Part II, and in the instructions for the last five lessons. The mentions of this technique tend to get subtler and subtler as you go; I assume this is because the author expects us to already know what this is about. The Workbook thus ends on its most formless technique. Apart from using words to recall the mind from wandering, this technique is meant to be nonverbal.
Similarities between Course-based meditation and other methods
RW: So, there is a division here, into form and formlessness. The "Name of God" meditation uses form in the sense of the deliberate use of thoughts, but in the other two meditation techniques you describe, the emphasis is on formlessness, on releasing thoughts. In the Christian tradition, that would be the distinction between meditatio and contemplatio: meditation on a particular thought or idea (meditatio), which merges into or extends into a release of the idea and a falling into open contemplation (contemplatio). Actually, that very much ties the whole method of the Course into the Christian contemplative tradition, because the threefold division for contemplation was usually lectio divina: lectio, the reading and savoring of the word; meditatio, the inner reflection on the word or phrase; and then moving into contemplatio, which the Course uses very skillfully.
RP: I think with all three of the Course's meditation methods, it's important not to overemphasize their differences, because they all share a focus on emptying the mind of normal thought and training the mind to center on one thing—something other than normal thought. In the first two techniques ("down and inward" and "Name of God"), there is more permission to help that training of the mind with words: In the first one you can bring in the idea for the day, and in the second one you are encouraged to repeat that one word. But in both cases it's a minimum of words, and the word is really used to keep your mind trained in a stable way on a particular meaning which the word represents. So, in all three cases there is a reduction in normal verbalizing and thinking, accompanied by a focus on one thing. This one thing may sometimes be represented by a word, but I think it's understood that this one thing is mostly just a meaning that need not be verbalized.
RW: Right, and that's a common progression in meditative practices. It is a progression along several dimensions: from the use of thought to the release of thought, from control to a letting go, from a more active to a more passive approach to the mind. Eventually, we move into a condition of what is variously called wu wei in the Chinese tradition, or what Meister Eckhart called "acting without why." It's a relatively advanced stage in which the mind is allowed to be, and there is no felt need for active intention or interference.
RP: I'm not sure the Course talks about intention in that way.
RW: I would agree, but I think it's clearly where it seems to be heading. Or would you not agree?
RP: I think it sees intention as fundamental to the mind. So, I think it would probably be aiming for us to reach a state in which the intention is almost an experience of the mind's true condition, rather than something that has to be added by us. That's just my speculation.
RW: I would agree with that, and I think you're actually pointing to that condition of what Buddhists call "effortless effort," or even beyond that. Effortless effort is still at the level of separation. But the deeper of levels of wu wei—for example, the level of nonintentionality—go along with, at their deepest, the dissolution of the separate self-sense. The endpoint of this progression is this: If there is no longer any ego to defend, then what is left is—however you conceive it—"the Will of God," in the Course's terms. Certainly there is no sense of effort or struggle in that.
Differences between Course-based meditation and other methods
RP: We've already discussed the similarities between Course-based meditation and other techniques. Do any important differences jump out at you?
RW: I find that hard to answer, in part because there is such a wide array of meditative practices, and I can't think offhand of any type of practice that is unique to the Course, although it does have its specific emphasis.
I think one can also look at the Course as a kind of jnana yoga—the yoga of discernment and wisdom. The Course clearly works with beliefs, discerning between skillful and destructive beliefs. And as with jnana yoga, it does that in a meditative way. It also has the bhakti or devotional aspect: love meditation practices, and repetition of phrases such as the Name of God to evoke love and transcendence.
I guess the distinctive practice of the Course is forgiveness, and it certainly uses a number of meditative practices for that. Forgiveness is not unique to the Course, but I know of no other tradition which has such a sophisticated psychological understanding of, or as wide an array of practices for, cultivating forgiveness. That is a distinctive if not a unique feature of the Course.
RP: I do think you're defining meditation more broadly than I am. And of course, I would cede to your greater knowledge and experience.
RW: Well, maybe you want to say a little more.
RP: When I think of meditation in the Course, I tend to focus on that small family of practices that I guess you would call concentrative meditation, where there is a narrowing or focusing of awareness onto one stable thing. I would distinguish what I'm calling meditation from a huge number of practices in the Course that are still disciplined exercises of the mind, but are more active, more verbal—there is more going on.
For instance, the Workbook lessons will often instruct us to enter a practice period in which we start with a very active phase. It might be applying an idea to certain things in our lives. We might be placing an idea in our mind and allowing what the Course calls "related thoughts" to spontaneously arise. Then, after that introductory active phase, we'll often be instructed to enter a receptive phase in which we try to clear the mind of that kind of activity and focus in a sustained way on one particular thing. That thing may be represented by a few words, or by no words. It's still a sustained, unmoving attention being put on that one thing. That receptive phase is what I tend to identify with the term meditation. And that goes back to my question at the very start of this dialogue: How do we define meditation, so we know what we're both meaning by the word?
RW: Yes, I am using the term more broadly, although as you've pointed out, there is a shading or gradation among these techniques. Traditionally, for example in lectio divina, one practice shades into the other, so where one draws the boundaries is a little unclear.
RP: Yes, I agree with that.
The role of meaning in meditation
RP: Let me move on to something that's very much on my mind around this whole meditation issue. That is, in studying and using what I'm calling the Course's meditation techniques—which I'm limiting to those three things I talked about—I've noticed a real strong emphasis on what we might call meaning.
In all three techniques, even though you're limiting or even excluding a focus on words, there's still a real focus on intent, on feelings, on expectancy (in the third technique). There's a determination, and confidence is frequently encouraged. Even though the mind is empty of its normal content, it's meant to be full of other content that in my mind clusters around this idea of meaning. Even when we're repeating, say, the Name of God, it's not just a word—it's almost like a relational act, a call.
And while I'm sure there's a vast number of techniques out there that I have no idea about, what I've noticed in the ones I seem to encounter on the American spiritual scene is that a lot of them seem to have that meaning element more stripped out. Along with words and discursive thinking, meaning seems to be removed from the process as well.
So maybe, for instance, you just focus on something physical, like the breath. Or, to use another example: I have read about centering prayer, and there you pick this name for God (at least if I've understood the instructions correctly), but you don't seem to inject much will, feeling, or meaning into the repetition of that name. The phrase, if I remember correctly, is that "you lay it on your mind like laying a feather on an absorbant piece of cotton." What I find interesting is that I believe that technique is pretty self-consciously derived from or a descendent of the technique in The Cloud of Unknowing. But in The Cloud of Unknowing, you say the name as a "dart of longing love." This seems to be a stark contrast to "laying it like a feather…"
RW: First, you're pointing to an interesting distinction between practices that deliberately evoke a particular meaning or cognitive tone, and practices that don't. I hadn't thought of that distinction before, but it's an interesting one. And I think you're right, there is a spectrum of practices. On one extreme are those which focus, as you said, on something like a physical sensation—the traditional one being the breath. On the other extreme are practices such as Lesson 183, in which there is a recitation of a phrase which is aimed to evoke an intense emotion, motivation, longing, and deep resonance, with a very profound meaning. So, that's an interesting distinction, and I think you're right that the Course does place emphasis on the more cognitive but extremely subtle element of meditative practices.
Now, how does that compare with other practices statistically? Well, there is a wide array, and it's true that in the West at the moment, there is a big emphasis on Buddhist and yogic practices, which do often focus on the breath, or the body, or some physical sensation, or even a meaningless sound, as in a mantra. And their primary aim is to strip away thoughts, etc., and to come down to a level of primary sensation. But on the other hand, there are a lot of practices which are not quite as well known, such as practices for the cultivation of love, or any number of other qualities. These practices do emphasize a focus directly on the qualities themselves, or on phrases or images which will evoke them. So again, the Course is not unique in this, but it has its own unique flavor, that's for sure.
RP: I don't know much about Sufi meditation, but I suspect that with the devotional flavor you get there, there is probably some of that heart-mind-will emphasis—a focus on meaning—in their style of meditation.
RW: Yes, and again, they have an array of practices too. Their practice of chanting the Name of God is very similar to the Course's practice in Lesson 183. In fact, there is a saying in Sufism: "The breath that does not recite the Name of God is a wasted breath." This is very similar to the idea of bringing the Name of God to mind as much as possible and just letting it work its effects. So, that's one example of a meditation technique out there that seems to share the Course's emphasis on meaning.
RP: I just wonder why techniques like these aren't taking root much in the contemporary American scene. I wonder if there are currents in that scene—or assumptions or phobias around what we associate with the church of our youth—that filter out those techniques from the popular scene.
RW: It could be. Of course, it may be that the current interest in meditation was largely fueled by the influx of Asian traditions, particularly Buddhist and yogic practices, and in those practices there is an emphasis on things like focusing on the breath rather than using recitation, japa, etc. One still finds, for example in Buddhism, the primary practices that people have become aware of are either the vipassana or insight meditation of Theravada Buddhism, or the shikan taza or "just sitting" practice of Zen.
But there are many other practices in Theravada Buddhism. The insight meditation of focusing on the breath and whatever other experiences arise in the mind is often accompanied by practices of lovingkindness, compassion, and empathic joy—practices that specifically use phrases. And Tibetan Buddhism, which isn't quite as well known, has an enormous array of visualization practices. There is, though, a contrast between these Asian traditions, with their primary focus on the breath, and the Western monotheistic contemplative practices, which certainly place more emphasis on contemplation, use of thought, chanting, repetitive prayer, etc.
Now again, where the dividing line is between that and meditation is a question. Again, these practices certainly shade into meditations, such as those in The Cloud of Unknowing, which you mentioned. These practices certainly have more of that active element.
RP: I think what I'm getting at is that when I think of the practices from the Course or The Cloud of Unknowing—practices where you take one word, but you repeat it as a "dart of longing love"—it seems that in the contemporary scene there is a squeamishness about that sort of thing, like it's not in vogue. I'm wondering what's going on there. Is there some mood that's filtering out the full range of practices that have been developed out there from getting into our particular scene here?
RW: That's a very interesting question, and I think you may be right. I think one way of looking at it is that historically, we are still in what is presumably the very early phases of the reintroduction of contemplative practices into the West. What we have had so far is not only primarily an Eastern influx, but a narrow selection of Eastern practices—particularly vipassana and Zen in Buddhism, and yogic breath practices in yoga. So, I suspect that as the meditative practices take greater hold, we will see a wider array of practices. And the kinds of practices you're talking about, what are called in the Hindu tradition the bhakti or love practices, which have a great emphasis on acquiring "the unrequited longing for God," will become better known.
RP: That makes sense.
Click for Part Two of the dialogue.