This month’s theme, Reflection, led me to reflect, on reflection. For me, the best tool for reflection is analytical mediation, an approach in Tibetan Buddhism. I bumped into applications of this practice when, forty years ago, I read Time, Space and Knowledge by Tarthang Tulku, a Nyingmapa lama. Over the next twenty years I used TSK books in my classes and wrote six book chapters relating to its ideas. I found it intriguing, illuminating, instructive and challenging. I share this approach to reflection should you want to try it.

The process of analytical meditation is to bring something to mind. It could be a word, a picture, a sound, a sensation — anything that could arise in mind. Observe without judgement or emotion. If judgement or emotion arise, observe them, then return to your original mental focus, and continue observing. There are many reasons to do this. Our beliefs and thoughts can be limiting and trap us, without our being aware. Sometimes our thoughts create a mental prison and we see no way out. This process can help free us, and, in doing that, opens up other possibilities not just for thought but action. So one goal is to get free and to have more options. Here is an example.

A friend asked me if I could provide an example of what I’m describing. At that moment, nothing came to mind. “I’m blank,” I said. I felt frustration and dismay at having nothing, when this is a process I’ve done a gazillion times. Next, I felt inadequate. And after that, I said to myself “I failed.” Then “I’m a failure” came to mind. At that point, I decided to engage in analytical meditation on the sentence “I’m a failure.”

I bring “I am a failure” to mind and observe it.I remember that there was a sequence of thoughts. “I failed” preceded the self-label “I’m a failure.” I continue to observe the sequence of thoughts and notice that “I failed” was in response to being blank, nothing coming to mind. I notice that “I’m a failure” and “being blank” are not the same.The thought “I’m a failure” begins to fade. Because I have no thoughts, does that make me a failure? “No thoughts” means only that I have no thoughts at this moment. As I continue observing, I now have many thoughts. And, even though at first I was blank, thoughts have been coming since I started this analysis. The words “I’m a failure” connect to nothing. Had I not opened up the thought “I’m a failure,” I might have carried it with me and felt sad, worthless, or depressed. Previously I felt constrained and locked up; now I find inner freedom, flexibility and creativity.

How we function, internally as a person and externally in the world, derives from mental constructs. We can increase our satisfaction, effectiveness and control by loosening what confines us.

There are many approaches to analytical meditation that focus on numerous features of the mental object. If you want to know more about this, send me an email and I’ll respond with a list of books. Following are some brief examples of some of these other approaches.

Here is the first approach. Bring up a mental object, which could be a thought, such as “reflection”. Bring it to mind again. And then do it again and again. Keep going. When I do this, a cascade of associations arise: a mirror, a mirror in which I see myself,two mirrors reflecting to infinity, self-questioning, and on and on. Observe the mind’s response each time. Eventually the web of interconnected meanings unravels.

Here is a second approach, which is more actively analytical. Hold the mental object in mind and repeatedly analyze it in all of its possible dimensions, meanings, and occurrences. When I do this, I might analyze “reflection” in various ways: light bounces off a surface, I only “see” myself when I look in a mirror, without light I am not there, different light shows me in different ways, and so on.

Here is a third approach. Think a thought, for example, “reflection.” Next remember having just thought “reflection.” Then remember that prior remembering. Keep remembering what you just remembered. Why on earth would you do this? Consider the following: all thoughts arise from memory. This process begins to point at how we have thoughts and the source of their meaning.

Here is a fourth approach.Focus on one aspect of mental objects such as their space, clarity, color, or location. I’ll select three different aspects: what, how, and who.

  1. The what of a thought. I can notice “reflection”, the thought, as a static concept. When I bring it to mind what is it? Is it always the same? Does it come to mind as a meaning without content? As a sound? As letters? As a picture?Keep observing what the thought is.
  2. The how of a thought. Watch the process of thinking. How does “reflection” come into mind. Before I think it, where is it? Does it arise in fragments or fully formed? Before “reflection” has come to mind and I am intending to think it, is “reflection” already in mind? Continue noticing how reflection comes to mind.
  3. The who of a thought. Observe the thinker. How do YOU think the thought “reflection”? Notice the observer of that thought. How does the intention to think “reflection” arise? Consider the observer, the thinker and the intender? Are they the same? Do they present differently? From the same mental location? Continue observing the thinker.

If you try this, settle your mind first, and then keep going, working up to more than fifteen minutes.

Tulku, Tarthang. (1976.) Time, Space, and Knowledge.Berkeley, CA.: Dharma Publishing.

NOTE: The ideas and opinions in this post do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.