Forms of Meditation Practice

As someone once said, “The undisciplined mind is its own punishment,” and anyone who has done meditation for an extended period of time knows its truth. Zen, and other meditation practices, obviously can help ground us, but at the same time, it’s sometimes surprising how little understanding there is about the substantial differences that can exist between the various forms of practice. It’s as if when someone says, ‘I practice meditation,’ we actually know what that means – a situation not so different from what we find when someone says they’re doing psychotherapy.1

The truth is different meditation practices can work in strikingly different ways, both in terms of the practice itself, and in the ways we may engage with them. Some have more to do with a relaxing, expansive presence; and some cultivate more of a one-pointed, or samadhi-like concentration; some work with ‘choiceless awareness,’ while others cultivate an inner discipline.  Some utilize a mantra-like repetition, and others engage the questioning mind. Some incorporate thoughts and labeling, while others work to help us get beyond the conceptual (and addictive) nature of language. Some have more to do with cultivating a witnessing or observing awareness, while others foster insight and awakening.  They can focus on the breath, a sound, a sight, or some inner visualization; they may cultivate a devotional presence, or compassionate attitude towards all beings; some envision the teacher with a Buddha-like presence, and some question into the fundamental ground ‘Who am I?’ or ‘What is the nature of Mind?’

On the downward side, meditation can also be used to reinforce such defenses as compartmentalization, denial, and detachment, (the defense of detachment is very different from the Buddhist teaching of non-attachment). We can use “spirituality” as a kind of ‘sacred’ avoidance of the ‘merely’ psychological; or to suppress any unacceptable feelings and needs; or even to use it in the service of the punitive forces of the unconscious such that practice becomes one more thing we employ to beat ourselves up. Fortunately there are a number of writers/practitioners who have addressed this aspect of false practices in some depth, though resolving such patterns is often not easy.

In terms of both Zen and PsychoDynamic Zen, it can be especially helpful to get a sense of the truly significant differences between practices that cultivate a witnessing and observing mindfulness2, versus those that foster a non-dual, or No-minded awareness. Mindfulness practices can help us learn to observe our defenses and become aware of patterns of response; they can help us see into the ways defensive structures arise and fall away, and into their destructive nature. This process could be described as “clarifying” the structure of the defenses; of turning something that was unseen, or ‘ego-syntonic,’ into something that is ‘ego-dystonic.’ No-minded, or non-dual practices aren’t as useful in this area, but they do stir things up at deeper levels — they are different, but complementary.3

Mobilization of the unconscious does occur with all forms of meditation, but there can be a significantly higher degree of it with non-dual Zen practices. Dualistically-based practices (such as witnessing, observing, labeling, and choiceless awareness) maintain an awareness separate from what one is paying attention to, which, in psychological terms, would be called strengthening the ‘observing ego.’ Non-dual practices (such as intense shikantaza or initial koan-based practices) work to quiet the conceptual, analytic, and language-based levels of awareness; with them we can dissolve the sense of separation, and enter various levels of samadhi.  This kind of unstructured awareness creates much greater fluidity with all levels of the mind, and so makes our unconscious dynamics far more accessible. With non-dual practices unexpected insights, sudden openings, and awakenings are more likely to arise.

Because there are so many styles of meditation practices, it seems important for a person to feel that what they’re doing on the mat is consistent with their goals and aspirations. It also seems valuable to have some sense of the ways practices can affect not only our conscious awareness, but also our unconscious dynamics, and the helpful or obstructive states that can arise out of it. Going a bit further, if someone has a meditation practice, and is also engaged in some kind of psychotherapy, it seems prudent that there be a measure of congruence between the two.


  1. In writing about other practices I’d like to be clear that my background, for the most part, has been with breath, shikantaza, and koan-based practices. I’ve had some experience dualistically-based mindfulness practices, and with Metta or loving-kindness practices, (along with the psychodynamic difficulties that can arise out of them), but have not actually worked with many others. []
  2. The term Mindfulness has been used in a number of ways, which easily leads to confusion. Though it is  primarily viewed in terms of various witnessing or observing approaches, it has also sparingly been used in the sense of a merging. []
  3. I write more about this in my article Mindfulness Practices and Beyond, available at  []