Book Review: Reflective Meditation

Linda Modaro and Nelly Kaufer’s Reflective Meditation: Cultivating Kindness and Curiosity in the Buddha’s Company (2023, Precocity Press) is a lively written conversation between the authors on their understanding of meditation and the meditative path. Linda Modaro is the founder and lead teacher at Sati Sangha, a Southern California based online meditation community, and Nelly Kaufer is the founder and lead teacher at Pine Street Sangha in Portland, Oregon. The book was edited by prominent Australian secular Buddhist Winton Higgins and originally published in New Zealand under the Tuwhiri imprint, which is a secular Buddhist press.

This is a book that I think can be very helpful, especially (but not only) for beginning meditators. The authors provide a free, open, non-prescriptive approach to meditation. If you’re sitting still and paying attention to whatever experience is arising right now, then you are meditating correctly, regardless of what the content of that experience is. In this way, their approach to meditation, although steeped in the Insight Meditation tradition, is more like Zen shikantaza (just sitting) then the usual Insight Meditation instructions. So, for example, if you spent your time on the cushion daydreaming or brainstorming instead of breath-focused or sensory-focused, you weren’t being a bad meditator—that was just the way your mind happened to be disposed at that moment.  As you reflect back on that daydream, maybe that daydream can open up or reveal to you who you are, who you wish to be, and how your mind works. Everything that occurs during meditation thus becomes grist for the dharmic mill.

The authors also maintain a Middle Way dialectical focus. For example, they emphasize finding a balance in meditation between “making effort” vs. “letting be.” The middle way, they helpfully point out, is not a perfectly maintained balance between these two polarities, but a moving back-and-forth wisely between them. Sometimes more efforting is required, sometimes more letting be is required. The authors believe one can trust oneself to develop a sense for when each of these polarities is required as one gradually gains one’s meditative sea legs. Ultimately no one else can be the arbiter telling you how your meditation ought to be or what you ought to discover on your meditative path. We all come from different places, have different needs and distinct personalities, and our path cannot be ultimately predefined. We can only proceed from where we are, and only in ways that make sense to us. While the authors offer suggestions from traditional Buddhist teachings—the four noble truths, the bramhaviharas, the seven factors of enlightenment, Nagarjuna’s tetralemma, etc.—they allow these teachings to resonate with readers in different ways—kind of like the 12-Step Program advice to “take what you need and leave the rest.”  Their non-authoritarianism is deeply steeped in feminist values of non-domination, tending, and befriending, and their approach is refreshing. They call their approach “reflective meditation” because they recommend a period of reflection after meditating to allow one’s meditative experience to resonate, and also recommend the sharing of those reflections within the sangha. I am undecided as to whether I agree with this emphasis on post-meditation reflection or not—I can see its possible benefits, but also its possible drawbacks. For the right people, however, this might be the exactly right approach, although it may not be for everybody. As they say, different strokes for different folks.

In my own sangha we read a few pages from a selected book before each weekly gathering.  Over the past year we have read books by Toni Packer and Kosho Uchiyama. They each describe different approaches to Zen-style meditation, and reading different voices and approaches helps members understand how there is no one universally right way to meditate  I am going to have my sangha read Reflective Meditation next. I think it will help members who are self-critical about their meditation, who believe they are “bad meditators” or who worry over if they are “doing it right” to move beyond those judgements.  And that’s a form of liberation all in itself.