Since meditation / shikan-taza is at the core of Soto Zen practice, and we are now seeing a major increase in mindfulness in the U.S., I thought it would it useful to start a specific topic on the varieties of contemplative experience. Shasta / Kennett had her own way of looking at meditation and "experiences" that was very idiosyncratic to her - and this permeated the teaching and practice there - much of it much more about her than about Zen. Meditation rarely takes place in a vacuum - especially when you live in a spiritual community. Especially in Buddhism - from the beginning - the Buddha taught that every breath, every step was part of being mindful - not just sitting on a black cushion - or trying to achieve some altered states. So context, beliefs, communication, relationship - all this is part of daily life and influences whatever you call meditation.
Many people on this forum continued to practice meditation in one form or another after they left. Meditation continues to be a major part of my life. But I also learned - especially after I left Shasta - that meditation practice - both the seated kind and the everyday breathing in and breathing out kind - is more complex that I originally thought - and demands a more much nuanced and skilled approach - and skilled teachers. One scholar said that the historic Buddha taught 48 different types of meditation - and if you then include all the various specific practices that developed later in China and then Tibet, then you have literally hundreds of different types of meditation / concentration / focus - many similar - but also specifically different. All the same thing? Actually not. And not only are the practices different, but the context and the teachings around them are not the same. Effort or non-effort? Sudden or gradual? Is that a big breakthrough or just a more subtle impediment?
And today, it is even more complex - in the West - with not only many different schools of Buddhism teaching, but the many other forms of meditation - from India - like TM, Advaita Vedanta, yogic forms that include breath and kundalini, and the meditations from Sufism, new age practices, meditations from non-Buddhist Chinese mystics, and also now Jewish and Christian meditation. All the same? No. They are all different paths that lead to the same summit on the mountain? Is that true? I would say no. Why should they all be the same?
And then, are they any side effects? Shadows? Are some meditations good for some and really harmful for other people? Does meditation solve every problem? Not a chance. And where does other forms of mental or psychological practice come into play - like cognitive therapy or other kinds of inquiry?
Shasta / Kennett's framework was simplistic and limited at best. And it seems that it has not evolved very much over the decades. If you have only have one tool - a hammer - then everything is a nail - and you are a dangerous carpenter. But a hammer is a great tool!!! Yes it is - in some cases only. In other cases, its a murder weapon.
There is some very interesting work going on today on the varieties of contemplative experience. I am posting here links to two Buddhist Geeks podcasts that some folks might find of interest, especially with regard to the shadow side of meditation. One point - they don't really address groups dynamics, spiritual authority and all the rest that comes into play, but perhaps that's down the road.
Willoughby Britton runs a research group that used to be called "The Dark Night Project" - which has been renamed as the Varieties of Contemplative Experience. There are many videos you can find on YouTube, etc.