What makes a school of meditation “radical”?
(A reminder, that “witnessing” and “mindfulness” are two ancient words that mean the same thing. Mindfulness has baggage, so I mostly use “witnessing.” )
We’ve seen a basic definition of meditation, aka mindfulness. Meditation teachings are very varied. There are many schools of meditation, of which the most famous is Buddhism; then there are many schools of Buddhism. There is also Westernised Buddhist mindfulness, made famous by Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Full Catastrophe Living. This is a bold attempt to wrest from Buddhism the bits seen as practically useful, and leave behind what is perceived as oriental esotericism. The recent book Mindfulness by Mark Williams and Danny Penman is a British counterpart, the gold standard in NHS-prescribable Westernised neo-mindfulness. And there are so many other ancient and current schools.
I am using the term “school of radical meditation” to apply to some of all this, but not to all. Gautam Buddha was a very, very radical meditator. I wouldn’t apply that term to all of modern Buddhism.
So what do I mean by radical meditation? How does it relate the the 20 minutes daily sitting meditation that is famously the starting point for beginners?
Well, there’s no such thing “radical meditation”, there is only “meditation.” But I do view some schools of meditation as radical, others not. Many elementary presentations of Westernised mindfulness seriously lack some essential thing, indeed lack the essential thing. They present the foothills of meditation as if there are no Himalayan peaks beyond. And I want to indicate what is missing. So I need some terminology which lets me distinguish the foothills and the Himalayas. I could have chosen “basic versus advanced” school of meditation, “secular versus sacred”, “meditation versus Buddhism-lite” or many other phrases. I wanted to be clear, and I also didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. In the end I chose to use an un-colonised phrase I can give my own meaning to, which has good resonance with the phrase “radical acceptance.”
Here is a near-enough perimeter fence around what I’m terming a school of radical meditation.
A school of radical meditation is any system of meditation that proposes that there is a wondrous and unknown destination, beyond the self, to the journey of meditation; and offers a vivid conviction that you can get there.
(Please no anguished comments about there is no journey, there is no goal, etc etc. Yes indeed, but that’s a story for another day. I have to start in a simple way.)
The expression of radical meditation teaching – a few examples
Different schools of meditation express things differently. Here’s some language that often signals radical meditation.
At this point in these posts I do want
- to indicate an comradeship behind these varied forms of language
I don’t want
- to get into complicated verbal tangles about eg “what is dis-identification”
- to get into even worse complex verbal tangles trying to explain eg how dis-identification and non-duality mean the same.
Today my aim is simple. It’s just to present the notion that while all meditation is meditation, some meditation schools have a more radical proposal than others. Those that do, tend to talk like this:-
- any school or system of meditation which contains a real and vivid trust and conviction that if you carry on and on with the process of witnessing, there is nothing that is you. (Thoughts include everything.) The words “real and vivid trust and conviction” are important, because plenty of schools pay lip service. (Radical dis-identification.)
- In different language the school of Ramana Maharshi asks “Who am I in this moment? Who is the one who is eating / writing / walking?” and never gives up asking until a moment of illumination arises … and even then goes on, “Who is having this moment of illumination?” (Radical enquiry.)
- any system of meditation that includes witnessing of positive and joyful experiences equally as much as painful and negative ones, and looks for something deeper than both. (Radical non-duality) [ Friday in Heaven, Friday in Hell. ]
- References to radical acceptance can be a part of radical meditation
- the conviction that every single moment of life has something wonderful, blissful, joyful within and behind the moment, that every moment floats in the mystery life; that meditation is far more than a cognitive first-aid kit for stress and depression, but a doorway to something wonderful, miraculous and sacred that emerges as we let go of our sense of self. [You seriously need to tell the real from the merely enthusiastic here, because many people talk a good talk on these lines, but are not grounded.]
- My basic definition of meditation is that you live a moment in life meditatively when you are relaxed, aware and alert, and no judgement that your experience is good or bad, desirable or undesirable. That is a standard definition of meditation. A vision of radical meditation would be to live your whole life like that.
- A focus on “eglolessness”, “living beyond the ego”, and similar language. Gautam Buddha’s term for this is “anatta”.
- The quick simple test is this. Can you substitute for the word “meditation” or “mindfulness” the phrase “To know ‘Who Am I?'” or “to drop the ego”? If yes, this is probably a school of radical meditation. If no, porbably not.
Fear not! It is OK if at this stage the previous paragraphs seem ridiculous, stupid, meaningless, insuperably remote, niche, doo-doo-woo-woo; or, even if true, of no possible value to your actual life. I aim in these posts to make these things plausible, concrete, plain and very relevant to you and your meditation. In terms of everyday life, here’s one example of witnessing negative and positive experiences equally ie “radical non-duality”: Friday in Heaven, Friday in Hell.
Non-radical meditation: NHS mindfulness
Here by contrast is what non-radical meditation looks like,: NHS mindfulness.
To avoid doubt: this NHS cognitive-behavioural mindfulness is valid, is useful, is significant. It is true, it is real. The world is a better place for it. The more people who become mindful of their negative thoughts, and let their anxiety and depression float away, the better. The more people who come more fully into the present moment, the better. So it’s good.
But it is not radical. Even though life-changing for some, it is nevertheless is a shallow, two-dimensional psychological analogue of Gautam Buddha’s radical three-dimensional spiritual understanding. The goal is “reductions in stress and improvements in mood”, “new perspectives in life”, “to improve our mental wellbeing.” Radical enquiry in Ramana Maharshi’s tradition (link above) would ask “Who is experiencing this mood? Who is experiencing this stress, these perspectives?” And radical enquiry would carry on and on asking this, until the very sense of self itself relaxes, for a moment or for a day or, as blessedly happened to Ramana himself, forever. Remember one of my definitions of meditation is “… the search for an inner peace so deep and enduring that one remains at peace in the deepest hurricanes of life and in the moment of death itself.”
NHS mindfulness is a start in the right direction, but plainly you cannot begin present such notions as in my list above as a population-wide prescription in your local hospital. So cognitive-behavioural mindfulness is only the foothills of a deeper and vaster journey. I hope these posts will make clear that what is to be found on that journey is of extraordinary value.