There are three main layers in meditation practice. In reality, they are deeply interlinked and interpenetrated, but for the sake of clarifying how the process unfolds, they might be distinguished.
1. Representations (stories, imaginations, fancies, drama, etc.). This layer is the closest to the way in which we ordinarily live our life in absence of any meditative training or reflection. This is the layer where ‘we’ live as characters (‘this is me, this is my life, that is my future, these are my wounds’, etc.).
2. Feelings (psychosomatic tones in the spectrum of pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral). Feelings can be understood as pre-reflexive ways of grasping and shaping the meaning we give to our experiences. They are the underpinning (and mostly hidden) basis for all other representations.
3. Consciousness or awareness (the bare fact that there is experience, regardless of what the experience is about). Consciousness is not an object or a content of experience, but the overall space or horizon within which experience appears. As such, consciousness is not ‘somebody’ and cannot belong to anybody in particular. And by itself, consciousness is also not involved with the specific feelings, nor with the contents of the representations that emerge from those feelings. It simply holds space for the appearing and unfolding of all these elements, encompassing and embracing them, without being perturbed by them.
Meditation practice usually tends to move from the first to the third layer, both within a single section and over time, as practice itself builds momentum. To do so, each layer comes with a general task:
1. Step outside of representations and disengage from the contents of experience. This is the primary, basic task of all meditative practices. As long as there is full identification and absorption within the layer of representations, we live as in a non-lucid dream state, being completely absorbed in the drama, without realizing that we’re actually making it up.
There is a wide variety of techniques that can be used for stepping out of representations. They include:
a. Deconstructing the truthfulness of the stories themselves, undermining the belief into what they tell (e.g., all the strategies for countering the hindrances, which are the main kinds of stories we tell ourselves).
b. Increasing metacognitive awareness of anything that is currently happening, by thus drawing attention outside of the representation itself and towards the way in which the representation is fabricated at the cognitive level (e.g., cultivating recollectedness of body, feelings, and understanding).
c. Grounding the mind (citta) in the somatic level of the body, allowing attention to spread and remain rooted at the whole somatic level, which reveals how stories and representations are felt in the body, but which is also outside of the mental domain in which stories unfolds for the most part (e.g., attention-based yogic practices, such as asana, pranayama, pratyahara).
The variety of methods to address this first task is due to the extreme variety of personal dispositions. Each individual creates their own stories and representations, which in a sense are unique to them, and for this reason each case needs slightly different tools, which can fit better specific circumstances. While engaging at this level, practitioners are thus likely to do (in fact, they should be doing) ‘different things’ (or combine multiple tools) depending on their individual needs and conditions.
2. Open and surrender to whichever feeling is present—this is the second, major task, and also the most difficult. Deconstructing stories and representations allows the practitioner to take a step back. When this is done, one is left with the underpinning feeling tone that underscores those representations. This feeling is no longer a representation itself. Rather is a psychosomatic presence, rooted somewhere and somehow in the body itself, with its own specific tone and flavor.
The ordinary habit is that of reacting to this feeling in a way or another (greed, aversion, ignorance). These reactions are the building blocks of all ensuing stories and representations. But the task here is to do exactly the opposite, not to react, but to listen, to open, to allow the full disclosure and appearing of that underpinning feeling, whatever it is. In fact, one needs not only to listen to that feeling, but to fully surrender to it. Surrendering means dropping all forms of resistance, tension, contraction, allowing oneself (one’s whole field of consciousness) to become entirely penetrable, hospitable, and welcoming towards that feeling. Allowing it to stay, for as long as it wants, even forever, if that’s the case.
Notice that this attitude is directed to the feeling tone, not to the stories or the representations built upon it. Me hating someone is a story. The feeling of discomfort behind this story is the actual feeling. Surrendering to hate is just a way of fueling the story of hate, sinking into the dream-state at the first layer. Surrendering to the discomfort that is behind it, is a way of allowing it to be.
At this second level, there is much less variety of techniques. Rather, there are various ways of approaching or inviting the same attitude to arise. In fact, this attitude is nothing something that needs to be done or performed by anybody. It is the nature of awareness itself to be entirely resistenceless to whichever content of experience appears in it. What actually does the surrendering is consciousness itself, since that’s its nature. All that needs to be done is ‘just’ to relax the multiple ways in which this natural tendency to open is ordinarily blocked, hidden, contracted. Different people might still need to receive different sorts of nudges coming from slightly different angles, but at this level, all these nudges are just a different shaping and phrasing of the same basic invitation to open, surrender, and be with what is there.
3. Recognize the ground is the third task. The ground is consciousness itself. But it is consciousness when it is no longer seen from the point of view of stories and representations (first layer), nor from the point of view of specific underpinning feelings (second layer). This consciousness is the institutively immediately present field of experience itself, which is boundless in its own nature, without any intrinsic quality or orientation. Its quality is only that of being infinitely open, infinitely free, infinitely resistenceless, hence also infinitely loving. Consciousness stands with respect to all other contents, as a loving mother would do while watching her children playing. She is not involved in the game, and yet she is not completely indifferent or detached either. She watches them playing without interfering, holding a silent horizon of safety around her children, whatever they might be doing. She is caring, but never concerned, loving but never troubled, understanding but never worried.
At this level, there is no longer any technique to apply. This is also the reason why, in certain tradition (including early Buddhism), actual meditation ‘practice’ stops at the second layer, since now there is no longer anything properly ‘to do’. All that remains, is just to understand and recognize. In a sense, this actually happens naturally.
Understanding entails being capable of intuitively grasping the way in which this ultimate layer of consciousness constitutes the ground for all the rest of experience. This understanding can be developed in different directions.
Since consciousness, by itself, is utterly impersonal (in the sense that it is irreducible to anything like this personal ‘me’ that is enacted at the first and second layer), one might dissolve all contents here. Consciousness, by itself, is not consciousness of anything in particular. In the depth of its gaze there is just absolute voidness, no-thingness, pure potentiality. And one might decide to dissolve oneself in that gaze.
However, one might also recognize that, if consciousness is the ultimate ground, then all the other layers are also (somehow) a manifestation and expression of that consciousness. This reflection can be taken much further, but one of the most significant implications is that the other two layers are not just distractions, noise, or ignorance. They are an actual manifestation of consciousness itself.
What is missing there? Why do they create so much trouble and suffering? Simply because in order for consciousness to express itself in any particular content of experience (or in order to embody itself in any individual form), it needs to forget its own nature. To put it differently, individualized experience (first layer) is a contraction of pure consciousness (third layer). Nonetheless, it is pure consciousness itself that deliberately and freely undergoes this contraction for the sake of expressing one of its infinitely many possible ways of actualizing its potential for experience.
Each and every individualized locus of conscious experience is the actualization of a different way of being conscious, hence, a different embodiment of pure consciousness. This insight leads to recognize that everything, at all layers of experience, is always the same unfolding of consciousness. Any individual expression (including any story and representation) is in itself a unique way for consciousness to express itself, a unique work of art-consciousness, which includes all its picks and falls, bright and dark moments. At the same time, no individual expression of consciousness is the ultimate, absolute, or superior. No individual expression of consciousness has absolute value. In fact, all individual expressions of consciousness have no value, no weight, no ultimate importance. They are like games, subtle jokes, magic tricks, enacted for the sake of enjoyment and playfulness, without any further purpose.
The only purpose is that of enjoying the fact that there is experience (the consciousness of consciousness itself). This is blissful. And for the sake of enjoying and expressing this bliss, consciousness contracts itself into individual forms, forgetting about itself, and falling into a dream-like state, we call ‘ordinary life’.
However, this reflection entails that ordinary life is not wrong by itself, it does not have to be suppressed—it is only incomplete. The only reason why it might hurt, is because the movement of contraction that was needed in order to bring about a certain individual form, has not yet been complemented and completed by a movement of expansion, in which the individual can recognize itself as nothing but an expression of consciousness itself (or else, through which consciousness recognizes itself through its own expression). The crucial consequence of this realization is that any individual expression entails a movement of contraction and forgetfulness, which is inevitably bound to cause some form of pain or suffering. All individual expressions of consciousness are by definition determined, limited, finite, partial, imperfect. But this imperfection is somehow the necessary means through which consciousness expresses and experiences itself. Hence, what this imperfection needs is not correction or suppression, but rather understanding and recognition.
After all, all the sufferings, sorrows, accidents (but also all the specific joys, victories, glories) of any individual form, are somehow what shapes that individual’s unique way of looking at the world (namely, the unique way of consciousness to take a finite perspective to look at itself). What is needed is not to ‘cure’ this unique individualization (the ‘cure’ being the complete dissolution of individuality in the impersonal ground of no-thingness), but to restore and reintegrate (i.e., remember) the broader perspective in which this finitude unfolds, by also recognizing its deeper meaning and purpose.
As it turns out, this recognition does not suppress or eliminate individual experience (nor does it erase the dramas, actions, stories, and representations based on it), but takes all seriousness out of it, restoring its proper nature: that of being just a game, played for the sake of fun, uniquely beautiful, and yet totally indifferent in the end, hence, free from any further concern—in fact, free completely.