A matter of method #

Preamble #

Parts of this essay were published by the PARTS & SELF magazine. You will need to be familiar with IFS terminology.

I believe one use of meditation is to facilitate unblending. I will focus on this use. I will need to be specific about the degree of blending in a given moment. For example, a Self to Parts proportion of 99:1 is almost all Self and no Parts (unblended) whereas a proportion of 1:99 is all Parts and almost no Self (blended). To calibrate our measure, suppose a mentally well person has a 1:1 proportion with roughly equal contributions from Self and Parts. In comparison, during a psychotherapy session, IFS practitioners might sustain a 6:4 or 7:3 proportion of unblending, being somewhat more in Self energy than in Parts.

This idea of a ratio will be important to bear in mind as we consider now how to meditate, using an approach that includes the idea of unblending.

How to meditate #

Instructions are often of the form:

  1. Focus on your breath (or a mantra, or visual target, or whatever)
  2. Notice when your mind has wandered from the target
  3. Loop back to step 1

We can translate these instructions into IFS terms. Step 1 represents a managerial focuser Part whose job it is to keep attention on a non-Part target. Step 2 represents a managerial bouncer Part whose job it is to tell all the other Parts to keep quiet, except for the focuser Part. If any Part fails to cooperate, the bouncer Part is called upon to deal with it. There are at least two possible outcomes:

  • Parts will be constantly popping in and out. There will not be much of a chance for the Self to radiate. Inexperienced meditators may encounter this monkey mind situation and give up, not knowing how to progress further.
  • Will power can be deployed into the managerial Parts. These managerial Parts can, with effort, force other Parts into submission. This indeed makes some space for the Self to shine. However, this situation is a spiritual bypass because the Parts are suppressed. This is an unstable truce.

What is often not appreciated is that the typical instructions for How to Meditate are like training wheels. After a little practice, the method itself becomes a hindrance to meditation because it requires too much effort. This is where things can go wrong.1 In the best case, a person with 2:3 Self to Parts ratio might reach 6:4, but the method itself puts a limit on the degree of unblending. To really enjoy the Self in a profound way, all the Parts must willingly cede the stage to the Self, including the focuser and bouncer Parts. In a paradoxical twist, the Self shines brightly in direct relation to the effortlessness involved in the meditating: the less effort utilised, the more Self shines. In this way we can see that Parts unblending by ceding the stage to the Self must be done with full consent on their part; without fight, fear or dismissal, but instead with natural ease.

Easing into effortlessness #

Here is what should happen in a truly effortless meditation:

Ask all the Parts to quiet down for a duration
Parts, being obedient, cooperate
No muscular bouncer or focuser Parts are needed

Sounds great, but how does anybody develop such a mature practice? I suggest that we add an additional step to the original instructions:

  1. Focus on your breath (or a mantra, or visual target, or whatever)
  2. Notice when your mind has wandered from the target
  3. Note down which Parts want attention and why
  4. Loop back to step 1

This is not a meditation practice, per se; this is an inner excavation practice. You are looking for Parts that need attention. What the original instructions bury is actually valuable information. The output of this process is a list of Parts and their concerns. You can bring this list to your IFS Practitioner or, if you don’t have a Practitioner, work with the list gently on your own. Get curious about these Parts. Ask the usual questions: What is your job? Do you protect other Parts? What are you afraid would happen if you didn’t do your job?, etc. These Parts refused to be quiet because they need your care and attention. As you scrub your inner system clean, bathing each Part in calm understanding, your Self will appear with more and more effortlessness and spontaneity.

We can suggest that paying these vocal Parts attention is a Self energized compassion for them.

Targets #

I have already used the word target above to denote non-Part sensory experiences that are a necessary focus (by a focuser Part) for attention, in order to practice meditation or inner excavation. This non-Part target is a crude Parts detector because if you are not aware of the target, then there is a Part coming in between. When the bouncer and focuser Parts are overactive, any affectively neutral target for the focuser Part will do. You need something to try and return to and issues to do with quality of target (as discussed below in brief) are not important. With Parts frequently bubbling to the surface, the Self can barely connect with targets; steady, stable focus is elusive. Therapists who work with distressed clients see this all the time; these clients barely have any access to Self. These troubled clients might be 1:19 or even more severely blended.

As the Parts quiet down and meditation becomes effortless (e.g., Self to Parts ratio of 7:3), the choice of target for the focuser Part becomes an important consideration. An affectively neutral target is appropriate for beginners because it reduces the number of variables. When both Parts and the target can provoke emotion then the meditation practice is that much more challenging because there is too much going on. However, once Parts are willing and able to get quiet then an affectively neutral target like a bare wall or a lit candle becomes boring. Instead, when you have achieved some inner quietness, why not blend with targets that have qualities associated with satisfaction, beauty, joy, relaxation, or connection? Faint impressions of these affective states, enriched by ample Self energy, can be experienced with lush vibrancy. Targets with an affective charge, such as found in those arts evoking emotions (e.g., music), can help locate these elusive feelings. For example, a target associated with slight or faint relaxation can be experienced in a fully engrossing, enveloping, and entrancing way. In addition to any immediate sensation, an engrossing blending episode with an affectively charged target can create an emotional and attitudinal afterglow that can last for hours.2

Some suggested targets #

I have collected a variety of affectively charged targets to blend with. Before I list some suggestions, I want to emphasize that these experiences are most available starting from effortless meditation. Without effortless meditation, you might as well use a target like maintaining awareness of breathing as you work toward effortlessness. Your experience will mostly be cluttered with the focuser and bouncer Parts, and other Parts in need of attention and care. So do not worry about picking an affectively charged target until you have progressed in effortlessness.

The following list is suitable for effortless meditation. I have limited experience with picking targets to combine with psychedelics. Certainly music can inspire beautiful emotion with either effortless meditation or psychedelics, but it is not clear whether all targets suited to effortless meditation work in a similar way when used with psychedelics. In suggesting targets to attend to, I acknowledge that a Focuser Part is necessarily present. Effortlessness is an ideal that can only be approximated; a reasonable approximation will suffice.

Target Focusing Vigilance Immediate Sensation Afterglow
slow exhales Medium calming -
withdrawal of the senses Low - increase afterglow duration in combination with other targets
foot soaking Low relaxing reduction in tension
cold exposure Medium cold reduction in tension
ice on liver Medium calming reduces mental activity
sahasrara High freeing resets mood back to normal

Beyond your ability, a helping hand #

If the less effort utilised, the more Self shines, then is it possible be completely effortless? This is where ordinary meditation techniques fall short. All of the targets mentioned so far require some focusing vigilance, hitting a limit comparable to that of self-tickle.3 As far as I know, assistance is the only way to invite even more Self energy, either via partnered orgasmic meditation or psychedelics (or both?4 🤯).5

Visualization #

I want to discuss this from another angle to hopefully clarify any misconceptions. In the context of meditation, the usual positive relationship between technique complexity and tacit skill is reversed:

Technique Suitable for
Highly complex Beginning meditators
Simple Advanced meditators

For example, one complex technique from Tibetan Buddhism is visualization. In visualization, the aspirant trains to visualize a deity, mandala, or similar. The aim is to cultivate a clear and stable mental image. This doesn’t require photorealistic detail, but rather a strong and consistent representation of the object or scene being visualized. While the core focus is on the visual aspect, incorporating other senses can enrich the experience and deepen connection to the visualization. This might involve imagining specific sounds, smells, or even textures associated with the object or scene. Emotion can also play a role. Positive emotions like compassion, joy, or serenity can accompany visualizations. Every element within the visualization holds symbolic meaning. From the deities’ attributes to the colors and shapes in mandalas, understanding these layers adds depth. With this target in mind, follow the usual instructions: Observe any distractions, thoughts, or emotions that arise without judgment and gently bring your attention back to the visualization.

Visualization might sound like a technique suitable for advanced meditators, but that is backward. The complexity of visualization is precisely what makes it suitable only for beginners and untenable, unhelpful, and useless for advanced meditators. With no disrespect to Tibetan traditions, if you are a beginner considering whether to train in visualization, instead consider mathematics or some similar area. By studying mathematics, you feed two birds with one scone: develop mental dexterity, and at the same time, gain widely valued technical skills.

An ode to receiving help #

From ink-stained hands and mind aflame,
A thirst for knowledge, whispered name.
Heroic study, self-improvement’s hold,
A burning quest for truths untold.

But pride, a serpent, reared its head,
Independence, on illusion fed.
“No hand I need,” the arrogance cried,
“My path alone, where triumphs hide.”

Then wisdom’s tap upon the soul,
A gentle nudge to make us whole.
To see the strength in open arms,
The power found in learning’s charms.

For even giants, rooted deep,
Must drink the rain, their secrets keep.
So let us bow, with grateful heart,
And learn the art of playing our part.

Credit: Google Gemini 2024.04.30

References #

  1. See negative symptoms of meditation according to Cheetah House↩︎

  2. Basso, J. C., McHale, A., Ende, V., Oberlin, D. J., & Suzuki, W. A. (2019). Brief, daily meditation enhances attention, memory, mood, and emotional regulation in non-experienced meditators. Behavioural brain research, 356, 208-220. ↩︎

  3. Blakemore, S. J., Wolpert, D., & Frith, C. (2000). Why can’t you tickle yourself? Neuroreport, 11(11), R11-R16. ↩︎

  4. Barba, T., Kettner, H., Radu, C. et al. (2024). Psychedelics and sexual functioning: a mixed-methods study. Sci Rep 14, 2181. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-023-49817-4 ↩︎

  5. Siegel, V., & Emmert-Aronson, B. (2021). Both partners practicing orgasmic meditation report having a mystical-type experience: Results using the Mystical Experience Questionnaire. F1000Research, 10(638), 638. ↩︎