Mindfulness and Non-dual Meditation Practices

Just as there are many types of psychotherapy, there are also many kinds of meditation. Some forms of meditation encourage us to remain on more superficial levels, while others draw us into the depths. Some focus more on conscious levels of awareness, while others are more likely to tap into hidden realms of the unconscious. Some, of course, are more secular in nature, and others more spiritually oriented. As with psychotherapy, the effort and risk we’re willing to invest in the process often relates to the significance of what we experience. As Andre Gide wrote, “One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore.” With all these kinds of inner work, the further from the shores we venture, the deeper the waters become. And much also depends on our intent – on why we begin a meditation practice in the first place, and how we hope it will change our lives. 

Because meditative practices can affect us in significantly different ways, it makes sense for us to be engaged with a style that’s consistent with our goals and aspirations. For some it’s about lowering stress, for others it’s about being able to concentrate more deeply, and for longer periods of time. And at least for some, there’s a strong spiritual thread that runs through much of it as well. What’s clear is that for anyone interested in experiencing insights, unlockings, break-throughs, and deeper levels of change, certain forms of meditation will be more helpful than others. In terms of Zentensives, then, it may be valuable to take a closer look at a couple of basic approaches in order to help clarify the role meditation plays during these specialized periods of training.

These days, the most well-known form of meditation is mindfulness meditation, a type that is often mentioned in conjunction with other practices like “labeling,” “choiceless awareness,” “tracking,” “bare attention,” “just sitting,” and so forth. Narrowly viewed, mindfulness is most commonly tied in with a “witnessing and observing” approach, although actually, this is a more limited and popularized interpretation.*

Witnessing and observing practices often help people feel more grounded. In terms of psychotherapy, this approach lowers anxiety and helps practitioners become both more self-reflective and emotionally present in a moment-by-moment way. This sense of presence can also be helpful when trying to process intense and difficult feelings and, when used skillfully, may be particularly beneficial in working with certain kinds of deep trauma. These benefits arise, in large part, because mindfulness practices strengthen the observing ego, and so help to foster a certain measure of intrapsychic safety.** 

In more recent times, this popularized form of mindfulness has also become more closely associated with Zen Buddhism. A few years ago I was at a conference on spirituality and psychotherapy and was struck by the certainty with which a young woman, in the midst of a collective discussion, stood up and called out, “I know what Zen is – it’s mindfulness!” Zen certainly includes mindfulness, but it is in no way limited by it. 

Historically speaking, what we find is that since the time of the Buddha, some 2,500 years ago, the dharma has been a teaching immersed in, and arising out of non-duality. It’s a teaching about freeing ourselves from the confines of dualistic thought, and it encourages the kinds of practices in which we lose ourselves in the moment. As Hui-Neng, the legendary sixth Chinese Dharma Ancestor wrote: “As long as there is a dualistic way of looking at things, there is no emancipation. Light stands against darkness; the passions stand against enlightenment. Unless these opposites are illuminated by Prajñã, so that the gap between the two is bridged, there is no understanding of the Buddha Way.” We find this same spirit expressed by all the great Ch’an and Zen masters including Bodhidharma, Ta Hui, Huang Po, Hakuin, and so many others. 

As Westerners most of us have internalized the many biases manifested in Cartesian dualism, and the resulting aloneness has become woven into the fabric of language and consciousness. Perhaps one reason mindfulness has become so popular is that it easily incorporates, and in a sense confirms, our established cultural tendencies to stand back, to watch and observe.

On the other hand, quieting the upper levels of the mind and merging with the practice rather than observing it, fosters a remarkable intrapsychic fluidity. Engaging in this kind of absorptive practice is by no means easy. It calls for focused effort, for an openness to new kinds of experience, and for a faith and trust in ourselves and in the process. The thinking part of the mind wants to be endlessly occupied; it wants to be kept busy analyzing, judging, and knowing. The intuitive mind sees things differently: it finds connection and understanding through absorption, wonder, and a sense of the sacred. 

And so, circling back to our Zentensive Retreats, what we’ve seen is that intensive non-dual practices affect the psyche in broad and profound ways. Most significantly, what’s become clear during these extended training periods is that meditation practices that lead to deeper, non-dual levels of awareness are the same ones that mobilize the whole of the psyche – including, of course, the unconscious. In other words, this form of meditation stirs up both the healing and compassionate forces, as well as the obstructive and destructive ones. This work can help us touch into hidden levels of unresolved conflict, and connects us with the deeper currents of our lives. 

When this fluid and mobilized unconscious is combined with the richness of an ISTDP-based understanding, fresh ways of working begin to open up. The ways that ISTDP addresses the defenses – those obstructive and destructive forces – can play a vital role in this deepening process. And as ISTDP is used to address the feelings themselves, it can do so much to help open the heart. This is exactly where this kind of understanding can deepen the whole of the meditative experience and, in the same breath, how deepening meditation gives us ever-increasing access to the depths of the unconscious. 

As a retreat goes on, people often discover that these are not two different ways of working as much as mutual reflections of a deepening, unified awareness. By immersing ourselves in this kind of effort, sudden openings become increasingly possible, and more authentic realms of awareness begin to arise. To the extent that non-dual perspectives are woven into our work, the landscape becomes broader, and everyone benefits.

D.T. Suzuki sums the universal nature of this process up when he writes, “Meditation opens the human mind to the greatest mystery that takes place daily and hourly; it widens the heart so that it may feel the eternity of time and the infinity of space in every throb…  and all these spiritual deeds take place without any refuge into a doctrine, but by the simple and direct holding fast to the truth which dwells in our innermost being.”

*As David Collins writes in his 2019 article, “Deconstructing Mindfulness: Embracing a Complex Simplicity:”  “There’s been a marked increase in studies of mindfulness and meditation in recent years. I’m worried that many of today’s researchers may think they know what they’re doing.”

**It might be noted that writers and others promoting mindfulness practices often ignore or minimize Awakening experiences, sometimes even dismissing such efforts as egotistical. No doubt this is because this type of meditative practice simply doesn’t mobilize the unconscious in the same way as non-dual practices do, and so it doesn’t foster break-through kinds of experiences in the same ways.