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Transformative Meditation

by Dr Mark Edwards(more info)

listed in meditation, originally published in issue 35 - December 1998

It is often said today, even in such lofty circles as the World Health Organisation, that health is not simply the absence of disease but the presence of real physical, emotional and social well-being. While this may be so, there is also the growing recognition that the ability to accept and adapt to the inevitable occurrence of illness and emotional and psychological pain is an essential aspect of a balanced and mature approach to life. As Christ and the Buddha and many other great spiritual figures through the ages have pointed out, suffering and loss are fundamental aspects of the world we live in and of our experience of life. They are not simply aspects of life that we have to "put up with" or attempt to avoid for as long as possible. The reality of pain and loss have, in a very real way, a central function in the dynamics that govern our development and growth (Busick, 1989). How we, as individuals and as communities, deal with this core element of reality contributes greatly to our personal and collective state of health.

‘Meditation is danger for it destroys everything, nothing whatsoever is left, not even a whisper of desire, and in this vast, unfathomable emptiness there is creation and love.    – J. Krishnamurti
‘Meditation is danger for it destroys everything, nothing whatsoever is left, not even a whisper of desire,
and in this vast, unfathomable emptiness there is creation and love.    – J. Krishnamurti

Most of us will, especially in later life, experience deep grief through the loss of those who are dear to us, our family members, friends, and people and animals with whom we have some sense of close relationship. However, there is another type of loss and of dis-ease that goes unrecognised in our communities. This is also a kind of unconscious grieving and chronic sorrow that deeply permeates modern life and which has to do with the absence of a true spiritual relationship with our inner life and with the natural and social environment that sustains it (Burke, Hainsworth, Eakes, & Lindgren, 1989). This type of unrecognised spiritual grief arises from the loss of a potential rather than from something with which we are already familiar. It can be likened to the loss of a young life not yet in full bloom. Those who have experienced directly or vicariously the death of a baby, child or young person know how particularly painful and traumatic this occurrence is. The loss of what might have been, of the unknown beauty of a life left unfulfilled, leaves an immense sense of absence. In some way this loss is reflected in the premature closing off of our spiritual lives. We are all children in the spirit, beginners in the search for our true nature, and when that potential life is cut off, and starved of inner and communal energy, an unconscious and unrecognised grief pervades our lives. In this short essay I want to discuss this idea of a spiritual grief and see what it teaches us about how we can deal with this unspoken kind of mourning in a more positive and creative way.

Escaping spiritual loss

An awareness of the relationship between loss and the discovery of meaning is essential for both individual and communal development.

Many writers, sages, poets and thinkers have discussed the complex alliance between adversity and spiritual development and between loss and the growth of new potentials. I won't launch into a review of that great body of work here. I want only to say that our experience of spiritual loss should not be avoided or dismissed either in our language or our emotions, nor in the course of our ordinary domestic lives. This is not to propose that we should accentuate or wallow in this type of grief, as in some masochistic process of self-mortification, or to regard it simply as a minor irritant on the road to "self-discovery". By way of beginnings, let me wrestle with a few thoughts and intuitions about spiritual loss and how it manifests in our ordinary personal and social lives.

The strange thing about pervasive feelings of loss and emptiness is that they are not usually or even commonly about the death of a loved one or some significant other (friend, colleague, pet, homeland, etc.). While we will all, in some way, lose those we are close to and live through the distress that follows from such traumas, loss is a much more frequent experience in our lives than that (Worden, 1991). I suggest that loss is actually an ever-present dimension of experience that builds on the daily instances of lost opportunities, challenges left unmet, dreams that disappear unexplored, talents that go unused, opportunities for generosity and openness that pass without action, thoughts of love that remain unexpressed, and, in all these moments, intimations of the spiritual in us that go unanswered and underdeveloped. I believe that this type of existential loss is very pervasive and something we either engage consciously or expend large portions of psychic energy trying to avoid and suppress.

In some fundamental way we all hunger to do good, to be just and to be active members of a compassionate society. But, because of the huge risks, fears, and hard work that might be involved we turn away from the actions that could make such yearnings a reality. The interior sense of malaise that flows on from this avoidance finds substitute consolation in the multiple means of entertainment and sport that are at our disposal (Lindgren, Burke, Hainsworth, & Eakes, 1992). It is my contention, in fact, that the plethora of mass entertainment options that are presented to us, and that we ourselves generate, are due largely to our frenzied attempt to escape the reality of loss of potential that human life is witness to.

Instead of risking what we are comfortable with for a greater openness and intimacy with the possibilities of life, we opt for the safer alternative of ensuring a life of comfort and ready amusement.

And so, out of this ongoing avoidance of potential, there develops a momentum of alienation. Alienation from ourselves, from each other, from our traditions and from the land and environment that holds us.

Many religious, spiritual and philosophical systems have emerged across all cultures and peoples in response to these existential needs (Smart, 1989). However, the contemplative practices that have supported the personal and communal exploration of our spiritual potential have become, in today's modern existence, so marginalised as to be virtually impotent. They exist, in most instances, as ritualistic forms only, with no real power to transform potential into transformative experience. But there is also a huge slice of good news to balance the turmoil that surrounds spiritual practice in post-modern cultures. I believe that the rediscovery of the importance of contemplative practices in the spiritual traditions of all cultures is one of the greatest developments of the modern era. It is within these contemplative paths that a more intimate and relational encounter with our true nature will unfold. It is also from these traditions that the path to healing the alienation from our personal and collective spiritual identity is possible. But, of course meditational practices vary enormously in appearance and application, and before going on I will make a few distinctions and express a few thoughts and feelings about different types of meditational techniques and practices to further the discussion.

Therapeutic and Transformative Meditation

Meditational practices, in one form or another, have always played a central role in that transformative process. I know of no great spiritual identity who was not also a master of meditational practice (Smart, 1989). But meditation is also a very common activity in various spheres in current times. Are we talking about the same thing here? How can the simple act of sitting quietly result in such a profound development? To look at these issues, given the great variety of methods and applications, it might be useful to make some basic distinctions about different types of meditation and how they can be used to cope with grief in all its personal and social, conscious and unconscious forms.

In recent years the innumerable methods of meditation and contemplation have been applied to different domains of modern life with many different purposes. Meditation is practised to attain physical relaxation, emotional calmness, phobic desensitisation, cognitive restructuring, intuitive insight, creative openness, and contemplative awareness. It is an holistic activity in that it can, in the right setting, engage all the many realities that go into the great "booming and buzzing" complexity that is human experience. As such meditation can affect us physically, emotionally, cognitively, existentially and spiritually.

In today's secular world, meditation is typically employed as a relaxation technique designed to complement or support some other therapeutic intervention (West, 1987). In behavioural therapy it is used to reduce anxiety and treat specific phobias. In depth psychology it is used to loosen egoic constraints and defences in order to facilitate the expression of repressed images, emotions and feelings. In cognitive therapy meditation can act to restructure patterns of thought and attitudes that act against the achievement of personal and group goals. In humanistic approaches meditation is used to amplify feelings of spontaneity and authenticity of self as a catalyst for peak performance and to engage feelings of individual worth and goodness.

As well as these rather mainstream applications, meditation can also be taken up as a spiritual discipline that initiates new intuitions and insights into who we are and how we relate to the world in which we act. As a general rule, this transformative meditation involves sustained and prolonged practice over a substantial portion of a life.

In using the term of transformative meditation I am drawing a distinction between this lifelong contemplative path and the more instrumental and targeted types of therapeutic meditation, which I briefly described, and that require much less intensive degrees of energy and commitment to achieve their ends.

This is an important point because very often the actual techniques of both therapeutic and transformative practices and the instructional directions for practice can be identical. Let me give a more concrete example of this. The techniques of breath awareness and breath counting are among the most commonly applied meditation techniques in therapeutic and alternative health settings, and many of you reading this will have encountered such methods in stress management courses or as an adjunct to some medical treatment.

But breath awareness is also a pivotal practice in all contemplative traditions, be they modern, ancient, from the major religious traditions, or from shamanistic and indigenous spiritualities. The difference lies not in the technique but in the life that engages the practice. This is why the term "technique" is so inadequate to describe the meditational process when it is taken up as a spiritual discipline. Therapeutic meditation is utilised for relatively short- or medium-term treatment/healing objectives while transformational practices constitute paths of renewal that require long-term engagement at an intimate level. This distinction shows just how inappropriate and reductionist it is to regard all meditational practices as therapy. Meditation, as a life path, is not fundamentally about therapy at all. Therapeutic healing clearly can and does occur on this life-long path but it happens almost incidentally in the act of walking the contemplative's path.

Disenfranchised grief

In considering the relationship between meditation and loss, the concept of disenfranchised grief is one that has particular relevance.

In the field of grief counselling and bereavement studies disenfranchised grief refers to the grief experienced when a person suffers a loss that is not acknowledged openly, publicly mourned, or socially supported (Doka, 1989). The consequence of this is an unconscious or suppressed grief reaction that surfaces through emotions, behaviour and attitudes that can result in substantial personal and relational health problems on many levels (Pine, 1989).

figure 1: Main elements and summary descriptions of the Full-Spectrum Model of Human Development A) Body self = The self as sensorimotor agent, physiological and instinctual processes.

B) Affective self = basic emotional process, simple image cognitions, self as emotional member of familial/social network.

C) Egoic Identity = rational/cognitive process, personal self as social agent, relational

D) Existential Identity = authentic social self, integrated intuitive, moral and behavioural self.

E) Spiritual Identity = the mystical self, integrated intimate experience of transcendence/immanence.

    The direction of development is from the earlier aspects of human experience to the more complex and integrative levels of identity. The later phases of development include and integrate former ones, e.g. B' = A+B, C' = A+B+C, D'=A+B+C+D, etc. For example, egoic identity includes and integrates the body-self and the affective self. During the life-span the subjective self can develop and spiral through these phases in very complex and multi-dimensional patterns.
    Ultimate reality includes all structures and forms the basic foundation on, and through, which all development occurs.
figure 1: Main elements and summary descriptions of the Full-Spectrum Model of Human Development

 

Disenfranchised grief can occur in both interpersonal and intra-psychic domains. Extending this concept into the area of spirituality, it may be that we are all suffering from disenfranchised grief over the lack of a space or a language to acknowledge the absence of a truly spiritual dimension to our lives. Modern life and industrial culture provides very little place for the social recognition let alone the real development of the spiritual dimension in life (Pollock, 1989). Where it is present, our spiritual life is often experienced in a very passive, disembodied, and second-hand way, one that hardly supports its healthy nurturance and expression. In some ways, the more we "think" and "read" about spirituality the more we seem to intuit the fragmented condition of our spirit. The result of this dissociation is a type of disenfranchised grief or malaise which is felt as an underlying sense of meaninglessness which permeates all spheres of modern life for many people, young and old.

Transformative Meditation and Loss

Many therapists have recognised the utility of what I would call therapeutic meditation in dealing with the trauma of personal loss (Niederland, 1989). Developing meditational skills can help with emotional and cognitive reactions to grief and with particular experiences such as anticipatory grief where a spouse is confronting the imminent death of their partner. It can also assist in reducing the stress and worry which often follow on from the bereavement experience. But, as yet, there is little understanding of how the practice of transformative meditation can develop capacities which address deeply seated domains of loss in their spiritual and existential forms.

But why should meditation, when it is practised in this transformative, life-course context, have this great capacity for developing our spiritual potential? And how do transformative practices create the experience of meaning, connectedness and purpose where previously there may have existed only a sense of alienation and fragmentation?

One writer who has opened up a way of describing the many-faceted nature of the loss experience and how it relates to the transformational aspect of contemplative practice is the author Ken Wilber. For more than two decades now Wilber (1980, 1986, 1990, 1995, 1997) has generated a multi-layered vision of human experience and evolution that includes holistic principles of inclusion, holarchy and complementarity. In this "spectrum" or "integral" model of evolutionary development all individuals and communities are in a dynamic state of unfolding through potentially more embracing and integrative structures of consciousness. I say "potentially" because a key postulate of the model is that growth through each layer of development entails the complementary process of loss of old modes of consciousness and identity. In this sense every thing and every experience is fundamentally transitory and, consequently, creates a fundamental sense of loss.

Our response to this loss can be one of openness and acceptance of change or one of retreat into security and denial of possibility. If impermanent objects and experiences are clung to and seen as definitive of self then suffering and pain will ensue. If reality is experienced and enjoyed of itself, in all its temporal but exquisite beauty, then acceptance of the passing nature of life and appreciation of its inherent meaningfulness can be touched. Consequently, death, loss, rebirth and renewal all play important roles in this dynamic and evolutionary understanding of human spirituality.

The model also presents a comprehensive description of the many dimensions of human experience – ones which are based on both conventional and contemplative understandings of development. From this view, experience can be described as wholes within wholes, where the constituent characteristics of our human nature include each other in a "holarchy" or order of nested levels of identity (see Figure 1). It is exactly this aspect of the spectrum approach that bears directly on this discussion. The sense of spiritual loss that I spoke of earlier – the disenfranchised spiritual grief which I believe pervades modern life – flows from the denial and neglect of potentials that are structurally and developmentally as much a part of our humanity as the development of language or cultural identity.

The potential for spiritual or mystical identity is "hard wired" into our developmental programming and as such demands that it be nurtured and nourished at the right time in the life-span. Just as we need to be sensitive and supportive of our children's passage from toddlerhood to the explorative world of early childhood or from adolescence to young adulthood, so there is the need for nurturing the developmental drive in moving from the narrowly focused egoic identity to engage more holistic and spiritual modes of consciousness. I am not talking here of some disembodied or altered state of consciousness associated with the more extreme reports of mystical experience. What I speak of here are the ordinary but profound experiences of awe, of intense intimacy, of authenticity, of loving communion with the "Other", experiences that include and integrate the body, the emotions, the mind, and the soul in ways that generate a sense of meaning and purpose in life.

And, just as the development of language and symbol mediate the passage to mental and social modes of being, so the paths of transformative meditation mediate the actualisation of the spiritual layers of identity into reality. In effect, meditation is the midwife of the soul in that it creates the conditions necessary for existential and spiritual potentials to become the content of consciousness instead of forever remaining the elusive, unknown context.

Wilber calls this unconscious intimation of the later and more integrative stages of being the "emergent unconscious". These existential and spiritual structures of self are emergent in that they are appear out of the teleological drive towards transcendent levels of experience.

Wilber's spectrum model sees the experience of loss and of letting go as a crucial aspect of the whole journey of transformation that gives meaning and substance to life. Within this context, transformative meditational practices support us in the conscious meeting with this central facet of reality. In fact, Wilber regards transformative meditation to be fundamental to the process of growth. In his words: "Meditation is simply sustained development or growth ... It is not primarily a way to reverse things but to carry them on".

Drawing together the various stages of the spectrum model with the corresponding sense of loss generates a rough intervention strategy for the application of certain techniques and practices to specific types of loss experience (see Table 1). Of course, being holistic participants in the healing/growth process, people cannot be treated in terms only of symptomatology. Accordingly, the spectrum model allows holistic approaches to be combined with an individualised application of intervention modalities. As always, the balance between the idiographic and the nomothetic provides the flexibility to support a genuinely human response to a person's real need.

This brief overview shows that the spectrum model can have much to say about the place of loss/grief in human growth and how meditative disciplines can be used to integrate those experiences. The perspective enables the shock of separation and absence to be seen as opportunities for transformation as well as traumatic processes of bereavement and emotional pain – experiences that always confront us with the reality of a world that is ultimately mysterious and incomplete.

Individual
Identity Phase
Sense of Loss
(conscious &
unconscious
grief reaction)
Type of meditational intervention
(& some suggested methods)
Time line of practice
effect
physical / body self physical separation  

Therapeutic meditation (healing objectives)

progressive relaxation
postural awareness
immediate / minutes
emotional self emotional distance and affective grief breath awareness
visualisation
minutes / hours
mental / egoic identity loss of relational intimacy and friendship cognitive restructuring
thought stopping
days / weeks
existential self the loss of meaning & non-authenticity, existential dread Transformative meditation
(developmental
objectives)
work as meditative activity, meditation as art, meditation in action months / years
soul/spiritual consciousness loss of spiritual insight and intimate connectedness, dark night of the soul, dukha Eastern, Western & indigenous methods of contemplative practice lifetime
practice

 

Sex, drugs, grunge: the drive for transcendence

When the emerging possibilities of experience remain unconscious and thwarted from gaining concrete expression, then the grief response to the loss of meaning and deep community results in the destructive symptoms that we see in the lives of individual and communities everywhere. And most of all it is to be seen in the lives of the adolescents and young adults of our society who seek a renewed experience of the experiential and the transcendent. But our culture presents no vision or language of the transcendent to them. We give them no consistent vision of what may lie beyond conformity, beyond the scramble for the dollar, beyond the experience of the trivial, the fragmented and the meaningless world of constant entertainment. And we certainly don't present them with the rituals and practices that may bring such explorations within reach of their seeking and enquiring minds and hearts. But we do unwittingly provide them with a world that lies beyond the conformist and regular world of suburbs and television. That, of course, is the underworld of sex, drugs and alternative music. And contrary to common belief, that world is alive with imagery of Spirit, of intense transformative experience and meaning, and of allusions to the mystical as well as with the more destructive and aggressive shadows. The very positive aspects of the youth counter-world are created by young people out of their own drive for transcendence and often in spite of the education and modelling that we have presented to them.

The texts to their music abound with imagery of death and loss, departure and searching. Here, at least, these themes find a language even if, ultimately, they bring no lasting resolution to these concerns.

The youth counter-culture may give some space to the expression of the transcendent in the short-term perhaps, but in the long-term, cut off from the greater community, it brings no real integration of spiritual needs into the ordinary world of families, relationships, and work. At its worst the world of drugs, sex and grunge is a slow road to communal degeneration and an abuse of the spiritual potentials of our young people.

But, through all this, adolescents and young adults intimate, sometimes unconsciously and sometimes with true awareness, the embedded possibility of their true nature, but they have no visions presented to them to bring those intimations into expression. The loss of this spiritual promise is felt keenly by a great many of our young people as well as the middle-aged and elderly. I suggest that the contemplative paths of spiritual practice are our cultural means of accessing authentic meaning and vision, and transformative meditation has an essential role to play in that journey.

Transformative meditation as intimacy

I seem to have wandered rather chaotically through various themes here – spiritual loss, disenfranchised grief, transformative meditation, the spectrum model of human growth. The common element through all this is the huge need we have for a greater intimacy with our lives, with those around us and the worlds that we inhabit. In essence, to paraphrase Robert Aitken, meditation is one path to that intimacy. When transformative meditation is carried into one's everyday life, a gentle but irrepressible integration of the many layers of loss occurs. In a paradoxical way, a more conscious awareness of loss seems to heighten the sense of meaning that lies in each and every moment of life, and this can be a source of resolution and peace rather than struggle and conflict. The grief experience brings us powerfully into intimate contact with the present moment through a challenge to our established views of the world and in the provocation of our response to the ordinary. It is in this place that we recognise that we have absolutely no control over some very important aspects of life. In this place we learn to let go, to let be, and, as James Taylor puts it, "to enjoy the passage of time". At some deep level, loss and contemplative practice seem to be the poles of a dynamic that generates a more grounded sense of who we are. Through walking the contemplative path there emerges an abiding sense of hope in simply being with one's experience of loss, and this knowledge allows a profound acceptance of the passing nature of all relationships and experiences. It also provides a deep-seated realisation of just how wonderful those relationships actually are, or might be.

References

Burke, M.L., Hainsworth, M. A., Eakes, G.,G. & Lindgren, C.L. (1989) Current knowledge and research on chronic sorrow: A foundation for inquiry. Death Studies, 16: 231-245.
Doka, K.J. (1989) Disenfranchised grief: Recognising hidden sorrow. Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books.
Lindgren, C.L., Burke, M.L., Hainsworth, M.A., & Eakes, G.G. (1992) Chronic sorrow: A lifespan concept. Scholarly Inquiry for Nursing Practice, 6: 27-40.
Niederland, W.G. (1989) Trauma, loss, restoration and creativity. In D. Dietrich & P. Shabad (eds.) The Problem of Loss and Mourning: Psychoanalytic perspectives, (61-83). Madison: International Universities Press.
Pollock, G.H. (1989) The mourning process, and the creative process and the creation. In D.R. Dietrich & P.C.Shabad (eds.) The Problem of Loss and Mourning: Psychoanalytic Perspectives. Madison, Conn: International Universities Press.
Pine, V.R. (1989) Death, loss and disenfranchised grief. In K. Doka Ed., Disenfranchised Grief: Recognising Hidden Sorrow. Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books. (13-23).
Smart, N. (1989) The World's Religions: Old traditions and modern transformations. Cambridge: Cambridge Press.
West, M. (1987) The Psychology of Meditation. Oxford: Oxford Science Publications.
Wilber, K (1980) The Atman Project. Wheaton, Illinois, USA: Quest Books
Wilber K; Engler, J, & Brown, D.P. (1986) Transformations of Consciousness: Conventional and Contemplative Perspectives on Development. Boston: Shambhala.
Wilber, K. (1990) Eye to eye (2nd Ed.). Boston: Shambhala.
Wilber, K. (1995) Sex, ecology and spirituality: The spirit of evolution. Boston: Shambhala.
Wilber, K. (1997) The Eye of Spirit: An integral vision for a world gone slightly mad. Boston: Shambhala.Worden.

Comments:

  1. Louisa said..

    Can someone tell me where figure 1 comes from? What is the citation?


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About Dr Mark Edwards

Dr Mark Edwards BSc GradDipPsych Curtin MPsych PhD W Aust is a Registered Psychologist and Lecturer in Management and Organizations at The University of Western Australia, having received his PhD in 2008 and a Masters Degree in Developmental Psychology. He worked with people with disabilities for more than 10 years and was previously the Disability Officer at the University of Western Australia. He has been a student of contemplative practices for many years and is particulartly interested in the practical application of the theories of writer / philosopher Ken Wilber. Dr Edwards may be contacted via Mark.Edwards@uwa.edu.au    www.uwa.edu.au/people/mark.edwards

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