Experiment Using Dharma Contemplation: First Series

Eight participants (including myself) met in my small apartment on six Tuesday evenings in September and October (2012) for an experiment in Dharma Contemplation. (See here for my planning and intentions for this group.)

Fall 2012 Dharma Contemplation/Insight Dialogue group participants, at end of sixth (final) session.

For simplicity’s sake, I announced this series only to the Evanston Quaker meeting. For this audience, I described it as “reading meditation” and as a path into group Insight Dialogue. I wrote, “It’s an interesting way to encounter a text, but the BIG goals of the practice are around encountering each other with some stable mindfulness.” Eleven people expressed serious interest, but not all were available on the same evening.

Practical Arrangements

I invited participants to arrive as much as 20 minutes early, as it can be very difficult to time an arrival exactly, given the vagaries of Chicago traffic and parking. As a result, we were able to start promptly (after the first meeting). I asked people to leave their shoes and anything they didn’t need with them in the other room, easing the small space. I offered a pitcher of filtered water and glasses in that room, but no other refreshments.

Our sessions ran two full hours (including ten to fifteen minutes for questions or observations about the practice after the end of the fourth phase). It’s hard to imagine condensing it into less time. All eight persevered to the end. Three were absent once each, one twice—so average attendance was a bit above seven; attrition, zero.

Some Outcomes and Learnings

Several participants were very quiet the first couple of sessions. Some of this was getting comfortable: some participants knew all the others, while others knew only one or two. Some may also have imported ideas from the context of Quaker meeting, like only Very Important Contributions should be spoken or speak only once to an issue.

Some may also have come with understandings and practices that did not readily support the present moment mindfulness and acceptance that underlie Insight Dialogue (and this variant, Dharma Contemplation). Expressions of surprise in conversations between the sessions helped me see this. Attention to the body during meditation (rather than a “park it and leave it” approach) and attention to reactions/responses seemed unexpected to some, as did having eyes open and looking at a text.

I offered some guidance toward the end of the silent opening meditation in the first, second, and fifth sessions. I offered it semi-unplanned, in the Quaker way (which happens also to be Greg’s approach): preparing myself rather than my message, speaking as seemed right in the moment. It was mostly about being aware of the body and of reactions—a matter of being intimately present with experience as it happens and changes moment by moment. And that this is mostly an eyes-open form of meditation, that the text could be used as an anchor: if thoughts wander off, bring them back to the text. And that—while it is always one’s choice what to speak—it is an act of generosity to speak out whatever one doesn’t wish to keep private. For this group, it would have been good to offer more guidance sooner in the series.

On two occasions, two different participants developed negative reactions to that week’s chosen reading. The first time this happened, I simply asked the person to bracket large-scale assessments (promising there would be time for them later) and to identify a phrase that evoked a reaction and to tell us the phrase and the reaction, repeating as necessary. That person followed those instructions superbly for the rest of the series, and has called the process “respectful.” When something similar happened the next week (with a different reading and a different person), I pointed out that background information she was using to interpret the passage was from a different era and culture. She took this well enough, and my response was certainly one of supplying useful background information. In retrospect, however, I wonder if I should have just come back to the structure of the practice.

Second Half

People came to the fourth session (after a week’s break) quite enthusiastic. One participant later said, “we were just all wagging our tails.” It was true: the room was full of happy, cooperative, cocker-spaniel energy. We also had lovely opening and closing meditation: a surprisingly silky and deep silence that I just didn’t want to end!

By a couple of days later, I had suggestions from two people wanting readings that would be somehow more … something. More positive, more lyrical, more satisfactory somehow. My hunch is that, finding much to like in the process, they started wanting to get rid of the disagreeable and/or hard parts. Perhaps imagining being swept along by a lovely and emotionally preemptive text?

I responded by offering a bit more guidance along the lines of approaching the text with generosity, willing to see things one likes even if one also sees things one dislikes; willing to see things one dislikes even if one also sees things one likes; willing to not know and to not rush to interpretation; willing to be present, curious, respectful: with the text, with each other, with one’s own responses.

Choosing Texts

But I also chose “sweeter” texts for the remaining two sessions: Karaniya Metta Sutta, and the Rumi dialogue between the chickpea and the cook. Curiously, the discussion of Metta Sutta focused almost entirely on the beginning and end of the passage—hardly anyone had anything to say about the practice description. Even the Words phase visited the middle section sparsely. (I don’t know what that means.)

The Rumi passage produced the most lively discussion—though not necessarily the most meditative. Surely this was in some part because it was the last session, we’d had the most practice, people were feeling comfortable with each other, et cetera.

I was not able to locate texts that delivered the sense of the guidelines of Insight Dialogue, as I had hoped. We ended up using a motley assortment of texts:

  • Qur’an 4.135 (on bearing true witness)
  • Anguttara Nikaya 10.70 (ten praiseworthy topics of conversation)
  • LXXVI from Merton’s Wisdom of the Desert (working with one’s own mixed motivations)
  • Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching 15 (being watchful, waiting for the moment of action)
  • Karaniya Metta Sutta, Sutta Nipata 143-152 (good will)
  • Rumi, “Chickpea to Cook”


I’m extremely intrigued by this experiment I have launched. There is so very much I don’t know, and will never know, about how it turned out!

This series was part of a larger experiment. See:
Experiment Using Dharma Contemplation: Initial Planning
Dharma Contemplation for Interfaith Dialogue
Reading the Suttas With Dharma Contemplation: Spring 2013

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Responses to Experiment Using Dharma Contemplation: First Series

  1. I found this description thoughtful, informative, and encouraging. It can be challenging to work with such long texts, e.g. the Karaniya Metta Sutta, but it sounds like even this was workable. With shorter texts, the mind really absorbs the text and different things can happen.

    • Yes, Karaniya Metta Sutta was the longest text we used last fall, weighing in at 252 words. I’ve tried a few very short texts, too–64 and 92 words.

      I know you are now mostly leading Dharma Contemplation as a part of Insight Dialogue retreats. A group that has not been on retreat for days already, but is coming (say) for a weekly session, may need a bit more text for the mind to hang onto, in order to support contemplative engagement. (This is just a hypothesis: under testing.) For the two groups I have currently running (spring 2013), I’m trying to aim between 100 and 200 words for most readings.

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