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Contact meditation

Updated: Jun 4

We know and experience reality by getting in touch with it. This figurative way of speech is taken quite literally in the discourses of the Buddha. Phassa (literally “touch”) is used to provide a model for how experience originates. In the standard account, phassa is the result of three ingredients: an object, a sensory basis, and a kind of consciousness capable of recognising both. For instance, when I see a tree, my experience (phassa) is the coming together of the tree, my functioning visual apparatus, and the visual consciousness associated with it. But the term phassa emphasises that this process is modelled on the paradigm of touch as the fundamental kind of sensory experience: we know things by touch and by being touched by them (hence, Spinoza would translate phassa with ‘affection’ or ‘being affected’).


Phassa plays a pivotal role in the soteriology of the discourses. Full awakening is sometimes described as phassa-nirodha. Nirodha is the technical term used to indicate the cessation of craving. The compound phassanirodha is commonly translated as “cessation of contact”. This is grammatically legitimate but practically problematic. Awakening in the discourses does not coincide with an experiential blackout, as the idea of a “cessation of contact” seems to entail. As an alternative translation I suggest “cessation-while-in-contact” (which is also grammatically possible, by assuming a locative instead of a genitive case). It conveys better the idea that cessation does not concern the fact of experiencing as such but rather the attitude towards experience: reaching “cessation-while-in-contact” one is still in contact with experience but there is no more craving for what is experienced.


This is not just a matter of translation but it has also a profound impact on how one conceives of the practice leading to awakening. If awakening is the “cessation of contact” then one should interpret final liberation as a sort of cessation of all experience. This is an extreme ascetic and almost transcendent view, surely defended by historical advocates, but is it the best and most helpful? If awakening is the “cessation (of craving) while still in contact” then final liberation is “just” another (healthier, happier, freer) way of living experience and inhabiting the world.


I’ll take this second approach as the most promising and ask the crucial question: how do you cultivate this attitude?


The very idea of “cessation while in contact” provides and important cue: the cessation of craving is not achieved by stopping contact with the world or by withdrawing from it. Cessation happens while in contact. Hence, it can also happen through a specific kind of contact or a specific way of developing our capacity for being in contact with the world. I shall call “contact meditation” the training that cultivates this capacity (and this is the new label I’ve found for the sort of practice I’ve been exploring over the past months, a bit more precise than “dynamic meditation”).


In the discourses, contact is the conditional basis for the arising of feelings, and feelings are the basis for craving. What disrupts this connection is the recognition that contact is uncertain, conditional, impossible to own and control. Seeing conditionality (anicca) is seeing the impossibility of control (anattā) and this insight cuts off craving.


Conditionality can be observed in many ways. In the form of “contact meditation” that I propose, this insight is cultivated in a deeply embodied way, by allowing the whole of experience (which originates from contact) to rest on the awareness of our dependence on the ground. The specific contact between our body and the ground is taken as a general paradigm to understand how all experience is dependent and conditional. But depending on the ground is encountered primarily and foremost as a relationship of trust and even gratitude. By resting our weight on the ground, yielding and surrendering to it, we recognize our conditional nature but also experience it as a blessing, like trees nurtured by earth.


Being grounded means being exposed, open, vulnerable to the world of experience. It is impossible to ‘be-there’ (Da-sein, Heidegger would say), without simultaneously ‘being-with’ others (in contact with others). Hence, grounding is inevitably a transindividual process and experience, which unites being in touch with ourselves, with our condition of possibility, and with other beings at the same time. Grounding, conditionality and vulnerability go together, and together show the implausibility of appropriation, encouraging letting go.


On this basis, the three elements of contact take a different appearance. The object of contact appears free from constraints, allowing the natural flow of solicitations and stimuli from the world to stream in. The sensory basis is the fire that takes in the experience, burns and consumes it, devours and assimilates its flavour. Consciousness works as the open, broad field in which this whole process unfolds, fully present both within and outside.


With contact working in this way, the result is not craving but rather letting go. Like space allowing everything in and keeping nothing, so experience becomes the free dance of energy, and beauty, and play. This letting go is not a conceptual apprehension or even a reconceptualization of reality. Is a different way of being in touch with things, allowing them to be, without having to grab them. Empowering what is there, acknowledging its manifestation, without any need for forceful control or attachment. It happens as a sort of ‘click’ through which everything seems to lose its usual weight, while still remaining there, fully shining in its empty nature.


I’m writing these notes to rephrase and reframe what I’ve been experiencing and experimenting so far with the "dynamic mediation" workshop that has being running for the past weeks. In a sense, the basis of the workshop is shaped around a meditation in the essential qualities of the five elements (see here and here), which can be connected with Buddhist teachings, although it takes somehow a bit of stretch.

In another sense, the workshop attempts at integrating some of the most powerful skills developed in several of the conscious dance practices I’ve been exploring over the past months. It takes the idea of contact and weight sharing from 'contact improvisation' (CI) as the essential grounding practice. It takes from ‘contact beyond contact’ (CBC) the idea of mutual listening and the ability to establish connections while in interaction with others. And from 5Rhytms it takes the idea of free movement as a channel for free expression. While the workshop usually doesn’t look like an ecstatic dance, the overall structure and building up of tension and relaxation is modeled after ecstatic dance and ideally preparing for it. So far, I noticed that while each of these practices are self-contained and autonomous, they offer the best soteriological results (from the point of view of someone approaching them as meditation tools) when combined, integrated, and mutually adjusted.


“Contact meditation” seems an apt label to describe what is really going on in this form of meditation. Physical contact is used since the beginning as a core tool to free contact (as phassa) from the limitations imposed by craving. Intersubjectivity (social contact) is also central since the beginning. We’re relational being, our problems are mostly relational problems, and thus it makes sense to seek a relational solution to them. After all, this is the core insight of mettā practice. Contact meditation is superficially something very different from traditional meditation, so much that it might not fit what one would expect meditation to look like (even if the basic fivefold scheme of grounding-opening-enjoyment-contentment-letting go can be practiced as a seated formal meditation, with a very similar flavor of traditional jhāna practice). Nevertheless, the difference can be helpful to convey in our contemporary setting and conditions a very old and simple message: let go and enjoy. Yet, this remains more easily said than done (precisely because is not something to be said, it is something to be done!). My intuition is that contact meditation can be a powerful method to facilitate the realisation of this attitude and its integration in a fulfilling and healthy life.


Get in touch.

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