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.
Click to read Part One of the dialogue.
RP: If we could change gears here, I would like to ask you for your thoughts on this question: Why would one meditate? What is it good for?
RW: "A lot of things" is the brief answer. We need to divide the possible benefits into various categories: the traditional spiritual benefits, and then the benefits which have been more recently discovered by Western researchers. Maybe we can start with the latter, because they're relatively simple and among the more mundane ones. We can look at physical, psychological, and spiritual benefits.
Physically, there's an ever-increasing array of benefits that are recognized. In fact, almost every month brings out another research paper suggesting yet another benefit, either physical or psychological, of the meditative practices. So, there are benefits on a variety of physical and mental health factors.
The most widely researched effects have been on stress. In the cardiovascular system, as we might expect, there are reductions in such things as blood pressure and heart rate. Meditation has been found useful as an adjunct for treating coronary disease, and all sorts of physical disorders from asthma to migraine to psoriasis—we could go through a whole list.
There is also an array of psychological benefits, which we can simply summarize as follows: increased perceptual sensitivity and accuracy, increased introspective sensitivity, increased psychological health and well-being, and greater psychological maturity as measured by such things as self-actualization, moral development, and ego development.
So, these are the somatic and psychological benefits. And it's interesting that meditation was designed to help none of these. These are just things that, from a spiritual perspective, are interesting byproducts, but they're not what the game is about.
Meditation from a spiritual perspective is regarded as a central and essential practice because it has so many benefits on both heart and mind. It trains attention, and that is regarded as an absolutely fundamental capacity for any advanced spiritual work. As any of us who has ever sat down to meditate knows, the mind is hyperactive—it jumps all over the place. In fact, from a spiritual perspective, we all suffer from attention deficit disorder. The untrained mind, as the Course says so beautifully, is out of our control. Meditation is a way of bringing the mind under greater voluntary control, of stabilizing attention, of focusing awareness. That brings a greater calm and stability to the mind, a greater perceptual sensitivity and clarity, and a greater capacity to see the workings of the mind, which enables one to work with it. Meditation has been regarded as the key practice for what the Buddhists call mental cultivation—bhavana is the Pali term—or in the Taoist tradition, refining of the mind. All the meditative traditions and contemplative traditions in general agree that the mind can be refined and developed, and regard meditation as an essential tool for doing that.
There are many secondary benefits. For example, when you can hold attention on a preferred object, then you can choose what you're going to pay attention to. Since the mind takes on the properties of whatever it attends to, this is a very valuable tool, because now instead of being captured by experiences and stimuli—having experiences evoked willy-nilly —one can now focus, for example, on the thought of a loved person, and thereby cultivate feelings of love. So, one can use the stabilized attention and greater sensitivity that meditation brings to cultivate a variety of other qualities.
RP: In some of your writings, the stories from advanced meditators were fascinating. For instance, there was the response in relation to the burn victim, where the advanced meditator, rather than having the common reaction of revulsion, had a spontaneous reaction of both tranquility and compassion. The stories like that really inspire me with the sense of what's possible.
RW: I think that's one of the exciting things about meditation and spiritual practices, and the research that is now being done on them. They make clear that we have underestimated our potential. They show that we are half-grown adolescents in terms of our potential mental-spiritual development, and that we and the mind are capable of so much more than we ever recognized. Advanced meditators have now demonstrated twelve capacities that psychologists previously thought were impossible. So, this is an extraordinary tribute to the potentials of a trained mind and the capacities and stages of maturity that are available to us.
RP: In the materials you sent, I found the section on the higher capacities particularly inspiring. There was one part about advanced meditators being able to hold their attention on something for hours effortlessly—on one thing. To be quite honest, I find that hard to imagine. That seems really important, and for me it underscores the crucial importance of training the mind. I think with Course in Miracles students—because this is not an old tradition, and therefore we're often influenced by the currents of thought we pick up from the culture—we don't often realize that it takes a lot more than just reading and discussing the ideas. One has to actually train the mind.
RW: Yes, and I think the more of this we do, the more we are humbled, and the more we realize that this game we've gotten ourselves into is so much vaster than we imagined or even than we can imagine.
RP: I completely agree.
The limits of meditation
RP: One question I would like you to speak to is this: What aspect of spiritual development or psychological growth is meditation not good for achieving?
RW: You're actually getting at a question which I think will keep researchers busy for a century. I think the larger question you're getting at is this: What aspects of personality and being are transformed by meditation, and what are left untouched? I don't think we have a lot of answers yet, but I think we can take some educated guesses.
I suspect that meditation is less effective than other approaches for relationship skills, for work in the world, and for managing the nitty gritty of daily activity. It's not that meditation can't help with these—in fact, it can help by bringing a greater sensitivity and clarity —but that's not enough. We then have to use that greater sensitivity and clarity deliberately and intentionally on a regular basis in order to develop relationship or work skills that we need. And frankly, I think relationship with others is the advanced yoga course. There's a reason why the Course focuses so intensely on it. It is a truly demanding and humbling practice. Those are some things that meditation may not be immediately effective for.
There is also a question as to how effective meditation is for revealing shadow elements of oneself—that is, aspects of one's personality and psyche that have been defensively walled off. Again, we don't have a lot of information on this, but my sense is that people can do a lot of practice and still retain significant defenses. One of the things that meditation can do well is bringing issues into awareness, as so much of the Course helps us do. Let me back up by saying that there seems to be a general principle, well articulated by Fritz Perls: "Awareness in and of itself is curative." What we bring into mental awareness tends to be healed, transformed, and released, and the Course makes use of that principle a great deal. But to what extent meditation is able to break through defensive barriers, to unveil and bring into healing awareness aspects of mind that have been deliberately though unconsciously walled off—that is another question.
Then there is another really important question here, which again I don't think we know the answer to. It's clear now that development proceeds along multiple pathways. All of us are multifaceted beings: we have emotions, motives, perceptual abilities, ethical inclinations, cognitive skills, etc., and it is increasingly clear that people can develop on one of those so-called developmental lines and leave others behind. Classic examples would be the Nazi doctors, who were very intellectually sophisticated, yet were moral morons. So one key question is this: Which components of mind and psyche and heart are cultivated by meditation, and which get left behind?
One thing that is apparent is that meditation does not necessarily bring into awareness the limitations and distortions of the cultural belief system. Think back, for example, to Plato and Socrates, those geniuses who had no trouble with slavery. Or think of great spiritual teachers who were not troubled by sexism. Now, we can't blame those people, because you can't attack people for the cultural blinders into which they were born. But if we look at meditative practitioners, it is clear that they may have some deep insights, but not necessarily insights into the cultural limitations and biases in which they swim. One more example: There is a recent book called Zen and War, which is a very disturbing account of the history of some notable Zen teachers in supporting horrendously jingoistic Japanese wars.
This kind of ethical and developmental split has been a great moral conundrum for ages. However, once you get the idea that there are actually different lines of development, then it becomes clear that one can have deep spiritual insights, yet still be bound by one's cultural belief system. For example, one could understand the nature of mind or even have great love, but that love could be very ethnocentric. It could still be limited to a narrow circle of people. So, although the practices are designed to move one from ethnocentrism to biocentrism and even cosmocentrism, a love for all beings, that doesn't necessarily mean they will always succeed.
RP: I just finished the Ken Wilber book Integral Spirituality, and of course I recognize that much of what you're saying is reflected in that. In a way, one of the main points was almost the insufficiency of meditation by itself to move one across all the lines to full spectrum enlightenment.
RW: Yes, and I think this gets back to the question you raised: What aspects of personality does meditation transform, and what does it leave relatively untransformed? This also points to the importance of embedding meditation, which is one practice, within the context of a whole spiritual discipline and spiritual life, which ideally will include many practices. This will provide a more rounded education.
Do different meditation techniques produce different results?
RW: I'll give my take on this question, and then maybe you can talk about the possible different effects that the different Course practices might have. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on that.
I think we can clear the ground quickly regarding research by simply saying that there really isn't any research. So far, the meditation research is focused on first-order questions such as these: What is the nature of the effects? What effects does meditation produce, and how much and how helpful are they? There is almost nothing in comparative studies. So we're back to first principles, and I think there are some general ideas that we can certainly draw on here.
I think it is crucial first to look at the fact that there are two major types of practices. There are 1) general and nonspecific practices, which are aimed at psychological and spiritual well being in general, and then there are 2) more specific practices, which are directly aimed at the cultivation of a particular mental state or quality, such as love, compassion, or lucid dreaming, for example.
My own assumption is that the different types of practice probably have overlapping effects. If you remember those Venn diagrams of overlapping circles we all studied in high school, I suspect that's what it's going to look like. It's going to turn out that meditation and contemplative practices in general have overlapping effects in common, such as heightening awareness and sensitivity and developing concentration. So, I think those are some of the general effects that virtually all practices will turn out to share, and hopefully they will directly or indirectly foster psychological and spiritual maturation.
Now, psychological and spiritual maturation, as we all know, is a complex affair. There are many dimensions of growth, so another key question is, if we want to make the question more specific: What types of practice will foster what kinds of growth? Right now, we really don't know.
If we look at some of the specific practices, there are more specific techniques, such as concentration practices, practices for cultivating specific emotions, and dream yogas. I would bet, for example, that concentration practices will do a good, but slow, job of cultivating concentration and associated qualities, such as calm and mental stability. I would think that emotional cultivation practices and various yogas for the cultivation of love—of which the Course has so many rich examples—would do just that. They would cultivate love, and along the way also reduce conflictual emotions, such as anger, fear, and jealousy. Because as we all know, when we do a practice designed to cultivate love, what comes up is everything else that gets in its way. Spiritual traditions in general note that that's to be expected, so it's not something to be discouraged about. I would assume that a practice for the cultivation of compassion would tend to do that. It's certainly the experience of many people throughout history that such practices work with all kinds of emotions. There are also dream yogas—practices for cultivating lucid dreaming, for example—and for a subset of people that have that kind of gift, they do apparently work rather well.
Then there's another group of practices which relate to some of the Course practices. In some disciplines—most particularly, for example, in Tibetan Buddhism or some of the yogic practices—one does visualizations of a spiritual archetypal figure embodying a quality like wisdom, love, or compassion. In the visualization, the practitioner relates to, identifies with, and actually becomes that being. And supposedly, these practices cultivate the qualities that those archetypal figures symbolize: wisdom, love, dedication, or purity, for example. This seems to relate closely to certain Course practices, so I would love to hear your thoughts on that.
RP: I don't think there is any direct analog in the Course for that, but I think there is something that is fairly analogous. There is a great deal of imagery in the Course—imagery which makes it into some of the practices in the Workbook—that focuses on standing before our brother and seeing him as he really is. The imagery tends to be of seeing this brother as actually a being of shining light, whose body is now inconsequential; at one point, the body is described as "little more than just a shadow circling round the good." Part of this imagery is that of Great Rays emanating from this brother, rays of holiness, which I think has parallels in some of the bodhisattva imagery in Buddhism. As we stand before this shining figure, we are having an experience of being completely absorbed. And so we are silent, in a state of rapture before this divine being. It's not quite the same as identifying with a being in order to gain the qualities of that being, but it's similar.
There is some of this identification in today's lesson, if you're doing the lessons according to the calendar. Today's lesson, Lesson 78, has some of this imagery where you stand before this brother and see him shining in light.
RW: I assume we've both been doing that today. But aren't there are a couple of lessons where one goes one step further and actually merges with the brother?
RP: Yes. In fact, today's practice ends with "that I may join with him." So there is definitely that element of joining with the brother.
RW: There is something very powerful about seeing another person as a spiritual figure, or as the embodiment of spiritual qualities, and then identifying with and joining with him or her. That has always been a very powerful practice. Any other thoughts you have on different practices?
RP: I think the Course's practice tool kit is truly vast. As I was saying earlier in this dialogue, my associations with the word "meditation," which aren't as broad as yours, lead me to think of the smaller subset of Course practices which really focus on what you and Goleman have called "concentrative meditation." These are practices where you're stilling the mind, you're trying to keep it free of extraneous thoughts, and you're really focusing on one thing. And I do think that within that small group of practices in the Workbook, there must be differences in effect. I say that because there is a definite progression as one goes through the Workbook. And the progression really has to do with decreasing reliance on repetition of words, and increasing focus on the meaning behind the words.
RW: That makes a lot of sense, because that is a general progression in meditation practices. You start with more effort, more content, more objects to focus on. Then gradually, as the mind becomes more trained (as the Course talks about), there is less need for that, and one can work in a less interfering way— a way that demands less content to keep the mind entertained and focused, and also allows one to penetrate deeper into the meaning behind the imagery that one is working with.
RP: I've come to the same conclusion from the Course. It doesn't make sense that there would be that progression toward techniques with less reliance on words, unless those differences made a difference—unless somehow fewer words (or no words) allowed for a different experience to arise.
Beyond that, I think if we're talking about meditation in a broader sense—in which case more of the Course's practices would fall under that heading—at that point, the differences in practices would certainly yield different results. I know if I were to take what I consider my meditation time in the morning and devote it to one of the more active practices in the Course, it would definitely have a very different effect for me. The active practice might be geared toward changing my perception of a particular situation, in which case I probably would have a much more changed perception of that particular situation. But if I spent the time doing one of the practices that I consider meditation, I think my perception of the situation might be less changed, but my overall state of mind would be quite different. So, I would have a different state of mind to carry with me into my day, more so than if I attended to one of the more active practices. As part of this different state of mind, there's a different emotional orientation that generalizes to some degree to other things that I encounter in the day.
Also, as I look at the Course's techniques versus some of the other techniques I've tried, my experience has been quite different with each one. I know people who have reached tremendous depths just watching the breath, so I don't want to disparage that technique at all. But I know for me it didn't yield the same effect. I'm sure, then, that what you're saying is basically right, that wherever you train your attention, there is going to be an effect from training it on that thing or in that direction. That's definitely been my experience.
RW: Yes, and I think there is a very important general principle at work there. The mind takes on the qualities of what we attend to, and that's good news/bad news, because most of the things we attend to in daily life are not so helpful. Of course, on the other hand, there are some very wonderful things to attend to.
RP: A line comes to my mind that I think reflects the point you are making. It is a quote in the Course that says: "To be in the Kingdom is merely to focus your full attention on it."
How important is it to follow the instructions?
RP: My next question is this: In your opinion, how important is it to do a particular method according to instructions?
RW: I think there is an important, humbling fact that we all recognize when we take up any particular technique, and that is when we start, we can't do it correctly. That's why it is a practice. It's amazingly humbling to try to focus one's attention on the breath or to hold one of the visualizations that the Course presents, and find that you can only do it for a matter of seconds, in most cases, before the mind wanders.
So, is it important to try to do it correctly? I think the answer depends on the stage of practice we're at with the technique. At the beginning, I would think it's useful to try to follow the instructions as closely as possible. I assume that a lot of wise people have thought about this technique and tried it, and hopefully the instructions embody a lot of accumulated wisdom. In addition, simply making a sustained effort has beneficial effects on the mind. It trains qualities such as concentration, mindfulness, and willpower. So, I think there is something to be said there.
Later on, I think it may be a somewhat different matter. After we have had some experience with the technique, it seems that it can be valuable to experiment with it. We may want to see if there are variations that work for us, or that add richness to the experience, or provide novelty to keep the mind attentive and interested in the practice. I think one key factor or deciding issue is motivation. That is, if we're not following the technique, why? If it's simply because we're bored and can't be bothered to make the effort, that may not be so helpful. If it's because we're genuinely curious about trying a variation and seeing how helpful that is, then that may be fine. I'm interested in your thoughts on this, particularly as it reflects on the Course.
RP: I think the Course straddles the fence to a certain degree. On the one hand, it openly acknowledges a certain kind of freedom of technique. For instance, in the basic beginning meditation, in which you sink down and inward toward the center of your mind, the Course says that it doesn't matter what way you do this. It suggests at one point visualizing holding Jesus' hand and letting him lead you there. It also offers images of sinking through clouds or of sinking below the churning surface of a body of water to the depths. I assume all of those are subtle suggestions for what specific form you might have in mind when you sink down and inward. The Course says it doesn't matter, do what works for you, and that the important thing is the spirit in which you do it—having confidence and a sense of the importance of what you're doing, etc.
On the other hand, where the Course is very strict with technique is specifically with wandering thoughts—I counted about twelve techniques for dealing with wandering thoughts. Some of them are quite wordy and firm. There is one where you say, "This thought I do not want. I choose instead ," and you repeat the idea for the day. It's a very effective technique, in my experience, for pulling your mind back to center.
So, there's a lot of strictness around the wandering thoughts issue. One meditation in Lesson 74 specifically says that it is important not to mistake meditation for withdrawal from the troubles of your life into some sort of sluggish, sleepy peace. This lesson says that it's better to repeat the idea for the day to draw your mind back and not experience any peace than to let yourself float off into that drowsy peace. So you should be aiming for alert, joyful peace, but if you can't hit that, it's better to pull your mind back and back and back if you need to, rather than let yourself sink into withdrawal. I think there is a certain strictness of technique there.
I also know that for me personally, with what I've been calling the three different techniques of Workbook meditation, none of them worked particularly well for me at all until I sat down at some point and did a real close study of the instructions. It was when I sort of got what the technique was about that it started to work for me. When I say "work for me," I mean that in modest terms—it has at least been very helpful for me, and I felt like I was doing something like what the instructions said. I recently read about the idea of being able to sit and count your breath to ten for an hour without losing count. Oh, my God!
RW: That's a very advanced practice. To get to ten once is a challenge.
RP: I'm not saying I'm doing these as instructed, but I have noticed that as I get closer, it works better. I also think there is a freedom in the Course to play with things, not based on laziness, but on finding what's best for you. And the Course signals that in a number of lessons.
RW: Nice. So basically, the Course makes use of the general principles we've been discussing.
RP: I think so. I was surprised to hear the list you went down—I could think of Course corollaries for each one of those.
RW: Well, the Course says it's a master training program. When it comes to the training of thoughts, the Course is cognitive therapy par excellence. I know of nothing like it.
Click to read Part Three of the dialogue.