Let’s venture into advanced territory in my favourite meditation system: the Unified Mindfulness method from Shinzen Young. We look at the absolute fundamentals in my article Intro to Unified Mindfulness, so do read that one first.
This meditation system fits those who are methodical and value precision, like me. Its power lies in its clarity and flexibility. I recommend all meditators to learn this framework and apply it when they practice. It illuminates the endeavour and clarifies what is often murky, ill-defined and inaccessible.
This article will help you take your understanding of Unified Mindfulness to the next level. Let’s start with the core concepts.
Advanced Concepts in Unified Mindfulness
Additional Sensory Modes in Unified Mindfulness from Shinzen Young
In my first article on Unified Mindfulness, we introduced the three core categories of sensory experience (See, Hear, and Feel) along with two of the modes (In and Out). Yet there are four further modes that will particularly interest experienced meditators: Rest, Flow, Gone, and Space. Right now we’ll describe them in detail – later we’ll look at how to work with them.
Rest means absence or stillness in any of the three categories: we have See Rest, Hear Rest, and Feel Rest, and the In and Out version of each.
Let’s take See Out Rest, for instance. An example of this is a still object in our vision. Another is when we close our eyes and our visual input diminishes. Both are examples of Rest because they involve absence or stillness.
See In Rest means mental quiet. You notice that the mind, or a portion of it, is clear of thinking.
When you detect Rest in one sense, you’ll often find that faint content is present. Whether you decide to note Rest or In/Out/Flow/Gone/Space is up to yourself. If your main focus is on the restful chunk of experience, note Rest. If your attention is on the faint content, note it according to its category.
And in any case, the label is less important than applying Concentration, Clarity and Equanimity.
Rest can also be a vantage point between cycles of noting. When you finish a cycle and notice a relative absence, note Rest until the next sensory experience appears.
The next mode is Flow, meaning movement or change in the senses. As with Rest, Flow appears in See, Hear and Feel. To me, it’s most obvious in See Out and Hear Out – we all know what it’s like for a sight or sound to change or move. Moving objects, music, and everyday speech all exhibit Flow.
In the other four categories, Flow is subtler. It takes practice to detect it there, but doing so opens up a new window in your meditation practice.
Here’s an insight I’ve gained through my practice: Flow occurs at ever smaller levels, all the way down to the semi-perceptible. Vipassana meditation acknowledges this with the concept of anicca or impermanence, and claims that all experience is made up of kalapas, which are like little waves that immediately disappear after arising. “A trillion such moments are said to elapse during the wink of a man’s eye.”
This means that every experience, every touch, every taste, every thought, is really an arising-passing of countless wavelets. Don’t take my word for it – Note Flow.
I’ve found that focusing my attention on Flow helps me with my Sensory Clarity. As an example, if I note the sound of birds tweeting (Hear) with no particular focus on Flow, I maintain a broad awareness of the sound without penetrating its essence.
However, when I note Flow, my attention zones in like a laser beam on the miniscule ripplets and wavelets of the sound. This is heightened Sensory Clarity.
With enough practice, the seemingly solid world around you will become more flowy and insubstantial than you may have imagined possible. There’s an old saying along the lines of “if the Buddha statue remains stationary, you’re yet to become enlightened.” Working with Flow is likely to alter your perception.
Closely tied to Flow is Gone, another concept in Unified Mindfulness.
You can think of Gone as coming between Flow and Rest. When a sound, for example, is occurring, it Flows, then it disappears, then there’s a taste of Rest. The disappearance is what we call Gone. Like all these modes, Gone occurs in all sense categories.
There are many scales of Gone. When you watch a video, for instance, you can detect Gone as the pictures change and the sounds come and go. This is Gone at a “macro” level. Another example is when an entire mental image disappears.
An example of Gone on the micro level is the collapsing of kalapas in any of the senses. The disappearances are almost impercetible, but they’re there.
We note Gone with the usual three-step process: we acknowledge it, label it, then savour it. The flavour of Gone is the flavour of Nothingness. Savouring it usually brings relief and, paradoxically, fullness.
The final mode in Unified Mindfulness is Space, which is related to Gone. It means the volume or emptiness or absence that surrounds our sensory experience.
Space is also available in all three sense categories, and soon we’ll look at practices for working with it.
Stance in Unified Mindfulness: Active or Passive
Moving on from these subtle modes of sensory experience, let’s look at stance. There are two kinds: active stance and passive stance, and they have specific meanings.
Active stance means we go in search of sensory experience. Once we’ve chosen our focus space, we search around to find sensory experience there. We actively look for it, then note it.
In the passive stance, we do the opposite. We give our senses the initiative, letting experiences appear in our awareness on their own accord, then note them. The passive stance feels more spontaneous and less directed.
When might you use these approaches? Active is best when you’re looking for something specific. As an example, when you’re looking for the most potent area of an emotion, you’ll have to go Active and hunt for it.
Besides, these stances pop up in numerous meditation techniques. It helps to be acquainted with them ahead of time.
Turn To and Turn From in Unified Mindfulness from Shinzen Young
This concept is similar to stances and is best illustrated through example.
Let’s say you’re having an intense emotional experience in your In senses: mental images related to the sad event or circumstance in See In, emotionally charged mental chatter in Hear In, and emotional body sensations in Feel In.
The Turn To approach is the typical mindfulness advice. You make that emotion your focus space and run noting cycles on it, working directly with the emotion.
The opposite approach, Turn From, is when we deliberately choose an object of focus other than the emotion. We might instead choose to follow the breath or note the sounds around us. In any case, we don’t work directly with the emotion.
You might be tempted to judge Turn From as emotional avoidance or repression, but there’s a key difference. We practice background equanimity with the emotion, letting it do its thing as we run noting cycles on other material. We aren’t trying to push it out with all our might – we’re simply placing our object of focus elsewhere.
When might you use either approach? Turn From works well when we’re having an intense, unmanageable experience. Turn To is perfect for when we want to drill down into a particular sensory experience and change our relationship to it.
Most of your meditation will be of the Turn To variety, but always remember Turn From if things get too intense.
In my introductory Unified Mindfulness article, I spoke about labels as though they were fixed. In reality, labelling is an adaptable setting that we can customise according to our needs.
Labelling can vary in volume, rhythm, mode and attention. Let’s look at each of these variables.
Volume: from absent (high CCE), to quiet, to loud (low CCE)
Rhythm: from never (high CCE), to regular, to continual (low CCE)
Mode: mental, mimed, whispered, or spoken
Attention: minimal attention to label, significant attention to label
At the end of the day, noting is a support for CCE. To make things easy, I’ll say that it suits to stay in the low end of each variable when you have high CCE and the high end when your CC is low. Take this principle and run with it, finding the labelling that works for you.
You can even drop labelling altogether – it can be unncessary if your CCE is high.
Another focus option is Zoom: the size or volume of sensory experience we focus on. For example, with Feel Out we can focus on the entire body at once, zoom in on a tiny section of it, or everything in between.
You’ll implicitly use Zoom in your meditation, but you can also work with it explicitly. This is yet another tool in the UM system that you can wield whenever you find it useful.
Conscious and Subconscious
Often we have two kinds of experience simultaneously: conscious and unconscious. Conscious material immediately grabs our attention, while unconscious items tend to linger in the background and go unnoticed.
There are examples of this in at least the six basic categories (See, Hear, Feel crossed with In and Out). To illustrate, we’ll look at See In, and you can explore the others in your own time.
Conscious See In is mental imagery that lies in your surface awareness at any given moment. You’re picturing a scene, or a person, or a memory, and it’s prominent. You’re able to detect it with a moderate amount of sensory clarity.
At the same time, however, it’s possible you’re having subconscious mental images. These are subtle, nebulous, half-formed pictures that stir under the surface and tend to slip past you. You need a lot of sensory clarity to detect them.
I find that they almost seem to exist at a different point in time from the present. That’s impossible, of course, but their subtletly has a strange hypnotic effect on me.
To be sure, inability to detect something doesn’t mean that it’s unconscious. It could just be a lack of CCE. So how do you know? Well, unconscious material has its own flavour, which you’ll discover with practice.
Beyond these fundamental categories, is there also subsconscious and conscious Flow, Rest, and Space? I’ll let you discover that.
Double and Triple Noting
In UM, we tend to note only one kind of experience (See, Hear or Feel) at any time. But in reality it’s rare to only have one kind.
When multiple categories are part of your focus space, it’s likely that activity in several will arise at once. If you haven’t got much experience with UM or meditation, I suggest you go for one at a time. Even if you experience two categories at once, choose one and note that, letting the other be in the background.
But it’s also useful to note several experiences at once. If you find See and Hear coming up together, note both experiences and use the label “See Hear”.
Advanced Unified Mindfulness Practices
Now we’ve got the core advanced concepts down, it’s time to look at some techniques.
UM Advanced Meditation 1: Rest, Flow and Space
I highly recommend exploring these new modes in your favourite sensory categories. These lead you into the deep end of the pool.
With enough training on them, you’ll notice a shift in how you experience the world in daily life. Your senses will slowly go from being solid and permanent to being wavy, pool-like, transparent, and ever-changing. And it might just lead you to a complete transformation in how you see yourself.
To note Rest, you run the three steps on Rest itself. Use the label for the sensory category in which you detect it: if it’s visual rest, note See, and so on. You acknowledge it, label it See, Hear or Feel, then savour it.
Flow is nuanced. On one hand, an experience of Flow is one of movement and change, on the other, it’s one of arising-passing, arising-passing, arising-passing. For example, when you listen to music, you can zoom out on the music and listen to how it changes and moves while still remaining as one object. On the other hand, if you zoom in, you’ll realise that the change in the music is really a flow of countless kalapas and there’s no stable music there, no song!
I suggest reserving Flow for the first, broad kind of focus. If you note the latter, go for Note Gone and focus on the disappearances.
Unified Mindfulness Advanced Meditation 2: Detect The Source of “In” Sensations
This practice mostly applies to In categories and is an add-on to the three basic noting steps. Let’s look at how to use it with Feel In.
When we feel an emotion in the body, it’s often triggered by a thought, body sensation or external sight or sound. With this technique, we detect the cause of the emotion. There’s no need to run the full noting process on the source sensation – I find that a label is enough. By doing this, we interrupt our well-worn habit of automatically reacting to what’s going on around us.
Advanced Meditation 3: Deconstruct the Self
In this practice, we use the UM framework to deconstruct our sense of identity. This is a standard method in many schools of meditation, but often it lacks the precision and clarity that UM offers.
Here, our focus space is a subset of See In, Hear In, Feel In, and Feel Out. We want to note the material in those senses that we identify as being ourselves.
For the full details, check out my article Deconstructing The Head.
Make All Practices Into Mindfulness
Once you’ve learned the UM framework and practiced lots of UM, you can take it and run. It’s an enormously flexible system, and it gives you a lot of freedom within some solid guidelines. Make up your own practices. Adapt them to your needs. There are myriad possibilities, and as you discover more about your own body and mind, you’ll find the ones that are most powerful for you.
Check out my sober yet empowering take on the benefits of meditation. YouTube link.