Experiment Using Dharma Contemplation: Planning

I’ve begun an experiment: facilitating group dialogic meditation using a text—using Greg Kramer’s Dharma Contemplation method—and doing so primarily as a way of conveying certain meditative skills.

Dharma Contemplation is a meditative method engaging a text in four stages, a bit reminiscent of lectio divina. After maybe twenty minutes of silent meditation, to participants read the text aloud. Then participants speak aloud words or phrases of the text that have some resonance for them, and listen as others do the same. This Words phase is touch and release, very lightly. In Felt Responses, there is a more sustained dwelling with the resonances that appear. Spoken contributions reference a specific part of the text plus a bodily sensation, or a memory, or an image, or the like. In the Meaning phase, there is inquiry into what the text could have meant. Mindfulness accompanies the process of intellectual inquiry rather than getting lost in it. In the final phase, Dialogue, we turn our back on the text and look at the present moment and our lives in the light it sheds. What is our wisdom, here, now? How do we approach life differently, after looking at this text? The session concludes with more silent meditation. (For more information, see the Metta Foundation website.)

Some Uses of Dharma Contemplation

Until I helped Greg revise the Dharma Contemplation manuscript for publication in the late spring of 2011, I considered DC primarily as a way to access a text—and as such, as a good thing but a bit more structured than I cared for. I did see that it worked, when little else did, to bridge different backgrounds, assumptions, and levels of training in order to allow people to engage with such a text as a group—that’s a little amazing. But as Greg and I worked to “deepen” the chapters on the phases of Dharma Contemplation—specifically calling out the meditative moves that are their foundation—my interest in the method shifted and grew.

I currently see five distinct goals of the Dharma Contemplation method: (1) to access the wisdom in a text (individually or in a group), (2) to “install” a trusted text in memory and awareness, so that it is accessible at need, (3) to talk with others about the wisdom in a text, (4) to launch meditative dialogue (the final phase of Dharma Contemplation is Insight Dialogue, according to Greg), and (5) to convey certain meditative skills. The first three goals—helping people to access an ancient (and possibly off-putting) wisdom text, to internalize it, and to engage meaningfully with each other around such a text—have been the goals most often stressed in the short history of this practice. They are surely important.

Conveying Meditative Skills, Launching Dialogic Meditation

But I have decided, for this experiment, to be interested primarily in the other two goals: the potential of Dharma Contemplation for launching Insight Dialogue, and its potential for conveying meditative skills. So much meditation instruction is trying to present in words what to do; people listen (or read), then go try to apply, in the privacy of their own heads, whatever they have understood. If they are very, very lucky, they may have a teacher or competent friend to whom they can try to describe what they did and what happened, and get feedback in words. The channel for communication—words only, most of them one-way, with very high demands on one’s ability to accurately describe quite subtle phenomena—presents very stiff challenges to any meaningful, much less accurate, transmission. IF you had a choice, what skill would you try to teach on this basis? cooking? driving? dancing?

Insight Dialogue and Dharma Contemplation offer a genuinely different approach. Parts of the meditative work are visible and audible, happening in real time; modeling, commentary, and correction can happen. They offer a radically different teaching-and-learning situation, in which it is possible to see what is going right or wrong, or to demonstrate. (Making use of this opportunity, even in a small way, will surely take every bit of nimbleness I have learned as a Quaker clerk, and much more!)

A Pilot Project

Because I am wishing to use the Dharma Contemplation format to launch Insight Dialogue, I hope to find texts (sutta texts and other texts) that deliver approximately the Insight Dialogue guidelines (Pause, Relax, Open, Trust Emergence, Listen Deeply, Speak the Truth) as their payload. I expect to do a small amount of talking to introduce the guidelines and/or offer other guidance, too.

With these ideas for orientation, I launched my pilot project. Because it provided a path easy for me, I announced the first group just to the Quaker meeting here. I called it “dialogic meditation with a text” and a path into Insight Dialogue, because “dharma contemplation” would have conveyed little. This particular population will need readings drawn from a variety of sources, not just from the suttas. Nine have signed up for a series of six Tuesday night sessions.

When the series is done, I will post a report and evaluation. My plan is to offer maybe three such series—not all to Quakers only—over the fall, winter, and spring—and then to let the dust settle and see what I think about it all.

Follow-up posts:
First Dharma Contemplation Series: Fall 2012
Dharma Contemplation for Interfaith Dialogue
Reading the Suttas With Dharma Contemplation: Spring 2013

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Responses to Experiment Using Dharma Contemplation: Planning

  1. Delia Serruya says:

    Dear Martha, I’m inspired by re-reading your reflections from study and applying the Dhamma in the group you had. I’d appreciate suggestions you may have about structuring a collaborative way of alternating leading an I.D. group: from introducing the guidelines to contemplations and D.C., plus how to map out who leads and how, so that it becomes integral to practicing exploration of the Dhamma.

    • Hi Delia! Thanks for your comment—we have talked, and I’m sure will talk again.

      I haven’t found readings for DC that “introduce” the guidelines yet, though I haven’t given up that idea. I am seeing a need, for many groups, for some guidance in using the opening sit in a way that supports—rather than undermines!—the meditative moves underlying DC’s phases. And, as in any practice, collaborative leadership depends upon a shared depth of understanding of that practice.

      Also: this year’s Cascadia retreat will have a few days at the end on introducing and working with ID contemplations. I wish I could go!

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