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 Two of the dialogue.
General principles for beginning meditation practice
RP: If the Course wants us to take meditation seriously and truly advance, what do we do?
RW: I think you just gave us one important clue, and that is to get the instructions clear. Sometimes instructions are very simple, but deceptively simple, because we all know that "simple" is not necessarily "easy," particularly when working with the mind. So clearly, understanding the instructions is an important aspect.
Having a teacher or a group or both is a wonderful support for any meditation practice. The physical support of a simple aesthetic environment is also helpful. Having a place where one can practice undisturbed on a regular basis—a part of a room which can be used regularly and set up in a supportive way—is recommended as well.
It seems very important to recognize that meditation is, for most people, a slow but fortunately cumulative practice which gives incremental benefits. It's like mastering any high-level skill—it takes practice, and there is no substitute for that. We can use the analogy of learning the piano. At first, when we're learning the keys, it's more hard work than fun. But we learn the keys so we can get to the fun part, and that's often the way it is with meditation. Given that progress tends to be slow, it's important to know that and not to make unrealistic demands of oneself. It's important not to have expectations of lights, bells, and whistles. We need to appreciate that the process is likely to be slow, and we will notice benefits gradually.
Given the fact that meditation is a slow, cumulative practice, it obviously makes sense to find a way of doing it on a regular basis—ideally at least once a day. That may be unrealistic for some people, but I do think it's very valuable to set some sort of goal. I often recommend that people make a commitment to sit a minimum of five days a week, and to choose a set length of time for each day—twenty minutes is often a good starting point.
It's very helpful to decide on a minimum time you want to do before sitting down, or otherwise the mind will create all sorts of wonderful reasons to stop, and you'll find yourself in front of the refrigerator instead of on the cushion. Setting up a daily routine for a regular practice for a certain amount of time is very valuable.
One other very valuable practice facilitator is the opportunity to do a retreat: a period of time set aside specifically for meditation practice, be it a day, several days, a week, or longer. A quiet, secluded environment, and undistracted focus on meditation, perhaps in solitude in nature are invaluable Retreats are very powerful and a recommended part of every major spiritual tradition, and they do seem to deepen and accelerate the practice tremendously. Afterwards, you find your daily practice is deeper and more effective. Those are some of the things to keep in mind when beginning a meditation practice. What about your thoughts from the Course?
RP: While you're talking, I'm ticking off things that either match the Course or that aren't there. In terms of supportive environment—physical space, routine, etc. —the Workbook in particular tries to settle the student into a daily routine in which morning meditation is emphasized, but also evening meditation before bedtime. For morning meditation, the instructions for when and where are mentioned in several lessons. First and foremost, do it after you wake up, though this is qualified by "when you yourself feel reasonably ready," which I assume means "when you are fully awake." Second, you should do it when circumstances permit, and you can be alone in a quiet place where there will be few distractions.
Also, there is an emphasis on having a set time frame, and in some of the other practices there is a focus on a predetermined time frame. For instance, some lessons will have you set ahead of time how frequently you want to repeat the idea during the day. The Workbook also tells you how long to do its practices. As the Workbook proceeds, there is a bank of about fifty lessons that say to go for as long as you can. And there is one in that bank that says to give all the time you can, and then "give a little more." But later, it kind of backs off and says to use as much time as you need for the effect you want. It seems to presume that you've gone through the phase of giving maximum time, and now you've matured enough to have established a stable practice, so now it's really about benefit.
I think that where the problem lies in relationship to the Workbook is that a tradition really hasn't grown up around these practices, and there are certain things that a book can't supply, or in this case just doesn't supply. For instance, with the Workbook meditation instructions, there are often different instructions for the same basic technique, and they really come alive when you put all of them alongside each other and make a synthesis, a whole picture. Because of this, I think the students going through the Workbook one lesson at a time are often not really understanding the nature of the instructions they're being given. So, I think clear understanding of the instructions is where one should start, and that clarity is going to come, to some degree, from a tradition that arises around these practices.
I think the role of the teacher is very important, and is mentioned in the Manual for Teachers. The Manual explicitly talks about a mentoring relationship between a more mature student of the Course and a brand new student, and puts great emphasis and importance on that.
There is no mention of retreats, and I'm really glad you've said something about that. I've been wondering for years whether a Course tradition should explicitly include a focus on retreats. I haven't taken anywhere near a three-month retreat; it's definitely harder when you've got kids. I can slip away for just a few days. There is something that happens during a retreat that you just can't get when you're coming in and out of meditation and dealing with life—when the stuff you have to deal with is scattered all around you on every horizontal surface, calling at you. So, I think there is tremendous benefit in retreats, and from what you're saying, that has been discovered over and over again in every tradition. I'd like to see a focus like that in the developing Course tradition.
RW: That certainly makes sense, and you alluded to two different extremes here. One is the potential value of Course students setting time aside and doing retreats. I have done lots of meditation practices, and I can't think of one which has not been enriched by retreat practice. So, I'd be very surprised if this weren't also true of the Course. While I've not done long-term retreats focused exclusively on the Course, all my retreats have included the Course, and certainly these practices have been deepened by the concentration, calm, etc., that mature in retreat. I think what you're saying makes perfect sense.
The other extreme you're alluding to is the busyness of life, and the value of the Course in that. The one thing we haven't talked about is that meditation is usually thought of as sitting on a cushion or chair and doing a specific exercise. But of course, that's somewhat analogous to learning to drive a car, when you go into a nice secluded byway where there isn't any traffic and you learn how to drive there. But the aim isn't to spend your life on the byway; eventually, you must go out on the freeway.
It's the same with the Course. The Course's design is very clear: you need to be able to take your peace out to where it's really needed. So, the aim of these practices is to deepen, intensify, and mature them on the cushion, but also to extend some of those qualities out into daily activity, and to be able to hold them during activity. This is actually a well-recognized problem in both psychotherapy and spiritual practices: How do you generalize the benefits of a specific practice out into daily life? It's called "the challenge of generalization."
RP: That's something I believe is front and center in the Course's mind. It talks explicitly about generalization—it's in the Workbook and throughout the Text.
My understanding of how the Course has designed its practice is in terms of what I call a pyramid of practice (if that doesn't sound too gimmicky). The idea is that the pyramid has levels. The broadest level—the base—is spending a longer time in formal sit-down practice, and the higher the pyramid goes, the more it's extending into the hustle and bustle of daily life. So, the bottom level is morning and evening meditations. The next level up is an hourly practice: a few minutes on the hour where you sit down and do a brief practice. The next level is what I call "frequent reminders," very brief practices that you do in between the hourly ones. Finally, the topmost level is what the Course calls "response to temptation," and that's where you're responding to upsets and irritations that occur in the stream of the day with some brief practice supplied to you by your lesson.
So, the idea is that once each level is in place, you have all the support you need underneath you to actually do your practice on the fly when you're upset in the middle of the day. I think that whole design is really carefully constructed. If all the pieces are in place, it does bring the effect of the practice into the midst of all the business of the day.
RW: I want to draw attention to something I think you're implying there. The Course is exquisitely designed for all of us who are engaged in the world and in the middle of busy lives. Some of the practices are superb for that, because they literally just require you to stop for a minute—or perhaps not even that—just bring a thought to mind in the midst of some activity. Those are just superb for the challenges of daily life.
RP: One of the things I've found really important is a statement in the Course about your practice on the hour. This statement follows a bank of about twenty lessons in which you practice five minutes on the hour every hour, which is not easy to do if you have a life. It says that if you miss a practice because circumstances didn't permit, you haven't hampered your learning, your advancement. But if you don't do it because you established a cloak of circumstances to camouflage your unwillingness, then you should actually make those missed practice periods up. That's requiring you to distinguish which is which.
I liked those instructions from afar for many years, but didn't like them in terms of actually applying them. But after awhile, I thought I should do that. I now keep a checklist, and if I really couldn't do that sit-down practice on the hour, I check it off as if I had done it. If I really could have done it but didn't, then I'll make it up. I've found that really helpful.
RW: I'm interested to hear you're using a checklist, because it seems to me that the Course is helped by the use of some technological support. For example, I know we both have beepers on our watches. I use mine periodically for some of those lessons which request you to do them at certain times, and I think that is an enormous support. I hadn't thought of a checklist and I'm not sure I'm ready to make that jump, but I think it sounds helpful.
RP: I've been dragged to it. The fact is that I benefit from the practice, and I'm a nicer person to be around if I do it, and I do it more if I'm doing a checklist. In the last year, I've bought myself a small electronic counter about the size of a cigarette lighter, and I can keep that in my front pocket. I feel slightly silly about it, but the fact is if I'm carrying that thing around with me, I practice five times more.
RW: And the counter is to record how much you're doing it?
RP: Yes, I keep a record of each practice period.
RW: There was a paper in the psychological literature a few years back which was titled "We Gave Our Patient a Counter and Here's What Happened." And it was basically a description of the fact that when people are requested to keep track of how much they do a practice or intervention, it's more effective. So what you're saying makes total sense.
RP: There is a discussion in one of the lessons that basically says that ideally, you should practice out of a pure inner motivation. However, you're not there yet, so you need some structure in terms of time and numbers, etc. I'm still there.
RW: That makes sense. One of the recurrent themes in the Course is that actually you don't really need to do this, but where you're at right now, it sure would be helpful.
RP: I've benefited tremendously from these devices, and I'm a bit loath to tell Course students.
RW: I think it's really wonderful that you're doing it, and the rest of us can learn from you. Because as you said, we don't have a tradition. It's such a recent text and teaching that we don't have a tradition of practical wisdom as yet to accompany it. I think all of us are exploring and trying to find out what really supports our practice of it.
RP: Yes, and I think it is so important for such practical wisdom to arise, because most of us aren't going to get it just from the book. We need to augment the book with a supportive tradition that carries these bits of practical wisdom.
RW: One of the things I've been quite surprised to realize, having done a number of meditation practices, is that all meditation seems to be to a significant extent self-instruction. You have the basic, crucial instructions, but then you really have to try them out, work with them, and see what works for you. So, there's a lot of learning how to do these apparently quite simple practices.
RP: I do think that we'll have to cover some of that ground individually, and I think we can cover that ground by sharing our experience. I don't know if it's just me or what, but one of the things I've taken years and years to learn is to practice in such a way that if I do a lot of practice, I don't accumulate tension in my head. This tension makes me unable to sleep and makes me cranky, just the opposite of the intended effect. And I've had to learn, over a long period of time, how to do a lot of practice and not accumulate that tension, but instead accumulate more peace. I haven't heard anybody talk about that, but I assume it can't just be me.
RW: No, it's a recognized phenomenon in a number of practices. Energetic complications are well recognized in many if not all traditions, but the yogic ones are most explicit about these difficulties. And of course, this issue comes up in the practices which deal with so-called subtle energies, which we can interpret in various ways. Even people who start a very simple relaxation meditation or TM will occasionally report that they get quite wired.
The fact is that meditation opens the psyche and releases some very wonderful things, but can also release difficult things, such as painful memories, anxieties, and intense emotions. But the general understanding is that when difficult experiences arise, they arise as a potential cathartic or purification process. TM calls it unstressing, psychologists call it catharsis, and centering prayer now calls it unloading the unconscious. These are well-recognized issues. This is an interesting example of a complication that the Course doesn't mention, but which is part of the accumulating practical wisdom that we need to make available.
RP: I'm reassured to hear that.
RW: If we got a large group of Course practitioners together who were trying to do the practice, I'm sure everyone would report certain "complications" of the practice. And I think the general principle is that any effective practice cultivates desired spiritual qualities, but as part of that process it also unleashes the blocks and barriers that are in the way of those qualities—the parts of the psyche that need healing. Fortunately, awareness is curative. But the Course talks about bringing material out of the darkness into the light, and it says this can be painful and difficult.
RP: I don't particularly associate that with meditation practice, but the Course does talk a huge amount about bringing the darkness into the light, and all that might go along with such practice.
RW: Hopefully this will be valuable to others.