Meditating at the Edge of Reactivity

I have been remembering my first encounter with Insight Dialogue and thinking about how my understanding of that practice has grown and shifted over the years. (Insight Dialogue, as some readers will know, is an interpersonal meditation practice in which meditators work in changing dyads and small groups, guided by six guidelines: Pause, Relax, Open, Trust Emergence, Listen Deeply, and Speak the Truth.)

As my understanding of Insight Dialogue deepened during my first retreat in that practice—eight days in South Carolina in 2001—I formulated two homespun guidelines conveying what was emerging, for me, as its gist: (1) Meet reactivity with stillness; and, (2) Allow reactivity to be met with stillness. Or, sometimes I said, … with mindfulness. These were not meant as substitutes for Greg’s six guidelines, but concise guidance for myself. They also served as a working hypothesis that helped me observe my own unfolding experience more clearly. I still find these homespun guidelines helpful and worth pondering, but they are no longer as central to my understanding of dialogic meditation as they were a decade ago.

Reactivity and Mindfulness

Let me unpack these statements a little. In individual meditation, a certain level of mindfulness can remain even when some reaction pattern (say, anger, or desire, or anxiety) appears in the mind. Whenever mindfulness persists—or if it is re-established—the reaction pattern can be be observed. It can be met with stillness, mindfulness, and kindness. With enough mindfulness, an individual meditator can observe the entire trajectory of a reaction: its arising, presence, and disappearance.

In dialogic meditation, there are more opportunities to be overcome by reactivities. We are so very attuned to other humans, and so accustomed to managing our sensitivities by automatic programs! But whenever either meditator is able to hang onto the life-preserver of mindful observation and to offer it to the other, the meditating dyad can re-find its meditative balance. Each meditator may get a new and clearer picture of what the return to mindfulness feels like. Such an experience establishes, strengthens, and broadens the habits of mindfulness, and of continued mindfulness, and of returning to mindfulness.

Cliff edge with two women walking, view of the water far below.

Detail from Claude Monet’s “Cliff Walk at Pourville,” oil on canvas, 1882

These perspectives were implicit in my two homespun guidelines, which continue to prove true and useful in my experience. Yet—after four Insight Dialogue retreats in thirteen months (November 2011–November 2012)—I now see those self-formulated guidelines as oriented toward remaining as mindful and calm as possible, no matter what. That orientation—while very good!—now seems just a little bit too cautious.

Falling In and Climbing Out

Recently, I have begun skating closer to the edge of reactivity. Inevitably, I have fallen in a lot, and climbed back out a lot. It now seems to me that clinging too tightly to stillness and non-reactivity misses a key opportunity of dialogic meditation: to play with the reactive stuff of human relationship in the slowed-down context of retreat practice. This past year, I have trusted emergence more; I have trusted both myself and the other more. I have let myself get triggered more. Sometimes I have gone out to meet my own reactivity with curiosity, kindness, and some measure of balance. As a result, I have gotten to observe those reactions more, not less. And I have certainly gotten a lot more practice climbing back out!

These are choices that can also be made in a silent retreat, or in individual meditation practice, or just in life. One can choose greater stability or greater opportunity; no one choice is always best in all circumstances. To some extent, my shift in emphasis just reflects how I am taking my path at present. But it has also brought different facets of Insight Dialogue to the center of my attention.

Meditation and the Provocative Other

When meditation is extended to two minds conjoined in dialogue—mutually influencing and influenced by each other—myriad potential reactivities are introduced. This is the interpersonal, messy stuff of relationship, of life. One of the primary justifications for attempting interpersonal meditation is that so much of our life happens out there between people. Practice working with the forces encountered there seems to be indicated! Thus, Insight Dialogue is not just about helping each other stay mindful, or calling each other back to mindfulness, or modeling the return to mindfulness for each other, as valuable as those things are. Any interpersonal meditation form is also, inevitably, about providing each other with the conditions of relational practice—namely, the provocation of another human being’s presence and interaction. And about accepting those conditions as a gift: the gift of an opportunity to practice.

Thus, while we can stay well back from the edge of reactivity—and sometimes this is wise—we can also skate close to that edge, reach out and touch it, experience it, play with it. If we do, sometimes we will fall in! And when we do fall in, it is essential to reclaim mindfulness, to surround any and all reactivity with mindfulness. Simply falling into reactivity and staying there is no meditation at all! Sometimes the same meditation partner who provided the provocation can also extend a steadier mindfulness, or another can, or we can do this ourselves. The safe, slowed-down, mostly silent context of a meditation retreat also helps, as does the intention embodied in retreat structures and conventions.

Working with the Charge of Relationality

Viewed from this perspective, interpersonal meditation practice seems almost a kind of tantra: a deliberate touching of something dangerous yet quintessentially human, done carefully and meditatively, in order to learn to handle its forces rightly, wisely, and well—that is, in a way that moves us toward insight and freedom.

“Tantra” is, of course, a notoriously polysemous word; using it impressionistically like this is almost courting misunderstanding. What I mean is this: in interpersonal dialogic meditation, the everyday provocations and delights of interpersonal contact are engaged under special circumstances and surrounded with ample opportunities for meditation. These provocations are just the familiar and ordinary provocations of conversational proximity and verbal interaction. The practice is taken on as an opportunity to work with with the charge of such provocations—the charge of human relationship that, in the rest of life, so often kidnaps our attention. Far from being something to avoid or negate, these provocations form the practice situation, the meditative opportunity. Amazingly, it is possible to work with that interpersonal charge directly and deliberately, openly and with shared intent.

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Responses to Meditating at the Edge of Reactivity

  1. Suzanne says:

    Martha, this article gives me a lot to think about. Most of the time, a retreat is silent, a welcome respite from the busy interpersonal world. the last day of the retreat, when everyone begins to talk again, is often not welcomed by many retreatants. Using talking, or dialog, as the meditation object at first seems strange. Who would want to do such a thing? But in the context of the precepts, and right speech, which are so, so difficult to do, it begins to make sense. Maybe practice in right speech in a retreat environment is just what we need! I still like the silence, though.

    • You are exactly right, Suzanne: it is the difficulty of right speech and relationship that makes this make so much sense.

      But once one is actually doing it, Insight Dialogue just feels like meditation—a whole lot more like silent meditation than like our usual habits of talking! Also, its after-effects are those of silent mediation: increased steadiness of mind and ease of entering/re-entering concentration, for example.

  2. re: tantra – which I’m assuming you know means ‘continuity’ [it comes from weaving; one of the threads runs thru the whole of the fabric – the tantra] – is indeed the right word to use for ID. Tantra really is all about continuity of practice – i.e. using everything and every encounter as part of the spiritual path. ID is precisely relationship tantra training – I’d not thought of it in those terms before.

    • Yes, my working definition of “tantra” has been using everything and every encounter as part of the spiritual path. Including the challenging stuff.

      But I hadn’t thought of “continuity of practice” in quite this way before. I’d seen it so strongly through the lens of temporal continuity that the range of experiences was partially eclipsed for me. Thanks for pointing this out, Leigh!

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