Meditation has found a home in the West. Countless scientific studies tout its benefits, and a multitude of students proclaim its life-changing value. I am one of those students. For over forty-five years I have practiced this ancient art, and I continue to reap its remarkable rewards. While I remain a follower of many wisdom traditions, and believe that no one has a patent on truth, thirty years ago I took refuge in Buddhism. The adage “Chase two rabbits; catch none” points out the necessity of commitment, and the dangers of spreading yourself too thin.
My passion for meditation led me into the traditional Tibetan three-year retreat, where I became a monk with robes and a shaved head, meditating fourteen hours a day in a remote monastery. I even slept sitting up in meditation posture, practicing the nocturnal meditations of dream and sleep yoga. Three-year retreat is like a meditation university, providing the opportunity to practice dozens of meditations in the most nurturing environment. It remains the most transformative experience of my life.
Of the many practices I was introduced to in retreat, one meditation stands out: the quirky, intense, multifaceted, and revolutionary practice of reverse meditation. I learned these practices within the context of Mahāmudrā (Sanskrit for “great seal”), a lofty tradition in Tibetan Buddhism that explores the nature of the mind. This was over twenty years ago, and since then these radical meditations have become a cornerstone of my spiritual path.
They’re called “reverse” meditation for a number of reasons. First, these practices are the opposite, or reverse, of what many of us associate with meditation. Most people think that meditation is about feeling good, getting “Zen,” or otherwise chilling out. But this is just one small aspect of meditation. Complete meditation is not about feeling good—it’s about getting real. And getting real requires dealing with the reality of difficult situations.
Second, these unique meditations are designed to reverse our relationship to unwanted experiences, which means going directly into them instead of avoiding them. In so doing we can discover the basic goodness of whatever arises, which is deeper than interpretative goodness. Basic goodness refers to the ineffable “suchness, isness, thatness” of whatever occurs—good or bad.
If we capitulate to our usual avoidance strategies, we push the acute, conscious psychological discomfort of avoidance into becoming a chronic, unconscious mental cramp. The discomfort is still there, but now it’s buried deep in our body-mind matrix, where it works backstage to dictate much of our onstage life. The rejected experience then manifests symptomatically—it becomes an undiagnosed reflection of an underlying discord that expresses itself in virtually everything we do. Our actions then become evasion tactics—reactivity, psychological duress, physical illness, and all manner of unskillful responses to the challenges of life—as we try to skirt these buried, uncomfortable feelings.
The reverse meditations give us the opportunity to relate to our mind instead of from it—and also to establish a relationship to our evasion tactics, which otherwise become obstacles that act like scar tissue to sequester the unwanted experience from consciousness. Relating from our mind, from our reactivity, is no relationship at all. In place of conscious relationship, we respond with knee-jerk reflexes to difficult experience, a reactivity that kicks us out of our feeling body and into our thinking head, and into unnecessary suffering. Instead of dealing authentically with the challenging somatic sensation, we leap into inauthentic conceptual proliferation (confabulating and catastrophizing) to buffer ourselves from the discomfort of our feelings. We run from the honest pain and real news that come with being human, and into dishonest commentary and fake news. The truth is that many of the worst things in our life are things that never really “happened”!
Third, the reverse meditations upend our sense of meditation altogether. They represent a revolution in spiritual practice that turns our understanding of meditation inside out and upside down, and therefore radically expand our practice. Situations that were once antithetical to meditation now become our meditation. Obstacles that previously obstructed our spiritual path now become our path. This means that everything becomes our meditation. Nothing is forbidden. We can enter lifetime retreat in the midst of ordinary life.
Excerpted from Reverse Meditation: How to Use Your Pain and Most Difficult Emotions as the Doorway to Inner Freedom by Andrew Holecek.
Andrew Holecek is an author, speaker, and humanitarian who offers seminars internationally on meditation, lucid dreaming, and the art of dying. His work has appeared in Psychology Today, Parabola, Lion’s Roar, Tricycle, Utne Reader, Buddhadharma, Light of Consciousness, and many other periodicals. Learn more at andrewholecek.com.