Meditation: From Top Down to Bottom Up

By Reginald A. Ray.

An excerpt from Dancing with Dharma anthology (McFarland, 2016) edited by Harrison Blum.

Among many modern people, meditation is approached as a kind of mental gymnastic, a way to fulfill yet another agenda or project—attempting to become more “spiritual,” less stressed out, more focused, more effective in our lives, or even more conceptually adroit. Meditation becomes another means of managing and superseding nature, controlling the other, ourselves, our bodies, and our own experience. Ultimately, what we are trying to override in the attempt to fulfill our various ego aims through meditation is our own somatic experience of reality. Unfortunately for us, it is there, in the Soma, that the spiritual path, and life itself, are actually and truly found.

Within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, we may distinguish two quite different ways of practicing meditation. The first method, by far the most common in the Tibetan Buddhism taught in the West, is based on the labeling, thinking, agenda-driven functioning of the left-brain. In this approach, the practitioner is given a set of instructions on how a particular practice is to be performed, where the practice is intended to lead, and what the goal is to be attained. He or she then sets out to perform and accomplish the practice as it has been explained to them, to fit their experience into the template that they have been given. Or, alternatively, they try to use meditation to meet their ego needs—to gain certain preconceived experiences or to feel the way they think they should.


In neuroscience, one way to talk about this is as a “top-down” process—the process of meditation is carried out under the watchful and judgmental eye of the executive function of the cerebral cortex. In top-down meditation practice, we are constantly attempting to approximate what we think we are supposed to be doing and what we think is supposed to be coming out of it. In short, we are bringing the managerial function of the left-brain to our practice, to control and manage our meditation in a top-down way. This approach is not without important benefits, helping us to calm down, reduce our stress, become less distracted and more focused, sleep better, and so on.

Another method of meditation within Buddhism—less well-known but characteristic of the yogic practices considered the most advanced in Tibetan Buddhism—is based on entering and identifying with the Soma. By Soma I mean not only our physical body, but also the entire neurological network within which it is embedded, including the right brain and the subcortical regions that include other parallel processing systems—for example, the intelligence centers of the limbic system, the reptilian brain or brain stem, the heart, the gut, and the neural pathways that exist throughout the entire body, each with their own kind of awareness. This somatically-based meditation could be characterized, in neuro-psychological terms, as a bottom-up approach.

What I have found in my more than forty years of teaching meditation is that when meditation is presented as a left-brain, top-down practice, it can be very difficult to sustain and frequently doesn’t really lead to long term results; certain superficial benefits arise, but people often don’t fundamentally change in the ways described as being possible in the tradition. However, when meditation is taught as a somatic, bottom-up, embodied practice, it works in a very natural, effortless, and beautiful way. By softening control and conscious agency, this approach allows the journey to unfold naturally, bringing often profound transformation and enabling us to experience the innate goodness, clarity, and compassion that meditation is all about. By drawing on the yogic practices of Tibetan Buddhism, which explore the body from within, we can learn to allow the experience of the Soma to communicate with our conscious mind and to become known to us in a direct—that is, nonconceptual—way. In the tradition I teach, this method of meditation is anchored in some twenty-five progressively-unfolding somatic meditation protocols that we refer to as the bodywork. Frequently begun in a lying down posture, these practices use a variety of techniques—such as the breath, visualization, and the simple direct physical experience of certain key gates in the body—to bring us into a new, intimate relationship with our body, the limitless awareness that resides in it, and the objective information it is constantly sending our way. (For an example of one of these protocols, see the chapter in the Guided Practices section of the book.)

These practices enable us to contact our body, or Soma, in a new way, beyond and outside of the conceptualized body or body image that we all habitually interpose between our conscious, ego selves and the direct, unmediated, naked, nonconceptual experience of our body. We gradually discover how our uncontrolled anxiety, ego reactivity, and endless discursive proliferation obscure the natural health and wisdom of our Soma, and end up creating physical and psychological distress and illness. As we move through this process of deepening somatic awareness, we can find intensity, meaning, fullness, and fulfillment in the most mundane details of our life.

Body as Revelation

Over time, these practices experientially demonstrate the essential and transformative role of embodiment in the path of meditation. The body becomes a revelation in of itself, outside of any thought of a spiritual journey or commitment. A much larger range of emotional and perceptual information becomes available, and we begin to sense the limitless terrain of our so-called “physical being”—the endless, open spaces we can enter through the body. Practicing in this way opens a context within which one can actually experience the energy of the body, and the tremendous inspiration that arises for life, without the mediation of the ego.

I have mentioned the left-brain, top-down approach to meditation; another set of terms I would like to introduce here is endogenous control—a left-brain oriented, top-down approach—and exogenous stimuli—a right-brain oriented, bottom-up somatic approach. Endogenous refers to ideas, concepts, assumptions, judgments, conclusions that already exist in our consciousness, based on past conceptualizing, and that we seek to impose on our experience in order to “know,” manage, and control it. Exogenous refers to phenomena that arise naturally and spontaneously from the darkness and unknown (i.e., subcortical) regions of our Soma, feelings, sensations, intuitions, memories, arriving in our awareness in a direct, utterly fresh, immediate, and naked way.

The endogenous part of us is a relatively closed system, cycling and recycling abstracted concepts that are already existing within us. Not surprisingly, the left-brain, without our larger brain, is the most far removed from actual experience. In fact, the left-brain cannot feel, sense, or experience anything directly, because that is not its function.

The exogenous part of ourselves, or Soma, by contrast, is all about direct, unmediated, nonconceptual experience. It beholds things exactly as they are without any judgment, evaluation, without even any filtering whatsoever. It receives reality as it is in all its diversity, color, and multiplicity without comment. Moreover, it beholds things as wholes, not through the limiting eyes of preconception, hope and fear, or ambition and agenda. It sees people as they are, in all their uniqueness and individuality, and in all their fullness and their totality, with everything included. And what it sees, it loves. It feels the utter sacredness of the earth, of each person, animal, cloud, and star in the sky. It loves and it appreciates. It also sees the connections and the communions that bind us all in one vast cosmic reality. For the Soma, strict and separationist personal boundaries do not exist; what is clear and compelling are our connections with each other, our links and bonds, the natural communion that our deepest self—our Soma—has with everything that is. The Soma’s way of being, it seems, is to see the totality of what is and to love and appreciate it all, simply because it is.

So, the purpose of this somatic work is to connect us with the reality, goodness, health, and possibilities of our basic human situation. In modern culture, all of us live in a state of disembodied abstraction, and we chart our life journey according to a bunch of more or less random ideas and hopes and fears—and a huge amount of wishful thinking—rather than based on who we are as people and what our lives are actually like. When we address our disembodiment directly through these bodywork practices and invite the wisdom and vibrancy of the Soma back into our lives, a new constellation of embodied experiences, along with their intelligence, insight, and wisdom, begins to become available. These somatic learnings or accomplishments, listed below, arrive of their own accord and on their own schedule; while they may seem to be arranged in a progressive manner, the order they take is ultimately unique to each practitioner. Trusting the body’s process is an integral part of this way of relating to meditation practice and to ourselves.

  1. You develop the awareness that you have a body that is actually independent of your ego, and not purely a function of your conscious mind.
  2. You begin to include this new awareness as part of your ongoing way of feeling and sensing yourself and of being at home in the world.
  3. You become sensitive to the livingness of your body: it’s dynamic, an ever-changing reality, almost an independent entity, filled with energy and life.
  4. You see that what you think about and what you experience in your body are often not the same thing, and that your thoughts, when they take over, often simply disconnect you from your own experiential ground, which is your body.
  5. You begin to see the impact on your body when you turn away from it through discursive thinking—you become numb, tense, feel that you’ve lost your ground. Because you’ve had the experience of the simplicity and directness of your body, purely conceptual and filtered experience doesn’t feel right anymore.
  6. You discover that you can actually best address a difficult or challenging situation by coming back to your body and listening deeply to it; you are learning how to heal yourself.
  7. You begin to experience a state of being that is embodied, visceral, grounded, open, and always in process, and you begin to feel this is your home.
  8. You realize that there’s a much bigger range of emotional and perceptual information coming to you than you had ever been aware of before.
  9. You begin to sense the limitless terrain of your physical being—the endless, open spaces we can enter through the body. Now you have a context within which you can actually experience the energy of your body, and the tremendous inspiration that arises for life, without the mediation of your ego.

Taking Refuge Through the Body

Working with the Soma restores to us the basis and ground of our human life. We become present to who we are and we discover resources of health, sanity, and well-being we didn’t know existed. We begin to take who we are as the foundation of our human journey, rather than something to be shunned or transcended. This work also naturally creates an unbelievable ground from which to make the spiritual journey. From this perspective, you can see how difficult and limiting it could be to commit to a spiritual path—in Buddhist terms, taking refuge—in a completely disembodied state, where you really have no idea about your physical body or what’s happening there. It would be something like your thinking mind trying to take refuge in an idea of taking refuge; meanwhile, the experience of the full spiritual journey, of showing up as who you are, would not be possible, because you wouldn’t even fully know who you are.

As Pema Chödron says, “Start where you are.” What the bodywork does, in a way that is very mind-blowing for all of us, is it actually shows us where we are. On the one hand, where we are is very grounded and real. It includes everything that we are. After some basic training in the bodywork, we have a pretty good idea of where we go off track. We have a pretty good idea of how neurotic we can be and of how open we can be. We can feel. We are bringing everything that we are to the table. If we don’t have that, taking refuge is frequently an attempt to escape from one’s pain and blockages, to escape from oneself, rather than taking the reality of what you are as the point of refuge. And that is the point of refuge—to take the person that you actually are as the ground of the journey.

With this genuineness as a person, you become very grounded, very open. There’s a softening of the ego process as you come to understand experientially that the body is more fundamental than the ego. The ego is not so hard and rigid and arrogant any more. And that’s the moment at which you can truly take refuge. You can commit to a spiritual journey because you know who’s taking refuge; you’re coming to it as a full person, an open person, and you can make the journey.

So, this work really becomes the ground not only of the journey but the ground of human life. Having a sane and healthy human life is really what this is about, in a certain way. In the traditional Buddhist cultures, they call it the prtagjana yana. “Prtag” means “ordinary” and “jana” means “person.” So, it’s the yana, or vehicle, of the ordinary person who is starting to have a healthy, dignified, wholesome life, and it’s considered to be very important in Buddhism. It’s the foundation of everything we do as humans.

But this is a very fundamental change for most of us; being an actually healthy person is extremely unusual in the modern world. “Healthy” means that there’s a healthy relationship between your thinking, ego-mind and the wisdom, openness, and spontaneous healing of your body. The neuro-pathways linking the Soma and your thinking mind begin to open. As we’ve discussed, the more they open, the more we feel a very deep sense of connection with our self as a person, with the world we live in, and with other people.

This brings us to a point where we begin to get a sense of what we could do with our life. We begin to see that there are places within us that are tremendously open and unbounded, and that there are places within us that call us, communicating in many different ways. We begin to relinquish our obsessive and often maniacal control over our experience and see that we could commit ourselves to a life that is much vaster, and more inclusive of our actual experience, than the one we currently inhabit. It’s very beautiful. It’s very powerful. It’s very transformative. With this experiential foundation, the spiritual journey becomes a constant, unfolding, embodied process that is inseparable from our lives. It transforms us and our lives as practitioners—our very experience of reality—in ways that the purely conceptual understanding of the left-brain never can.

To read other entries in this anthology, visit Dancing with Dharma, an anthology edited by Harrison Blum. 


Touching Enlightenment

Tricycle, Spring 2006

After years of meditation, you may feel you’re making very little progress. But the guide you may need has been with you all along: your body. Drawing on Tibetan Yogic practices, Reggie Ray takes on the modern crisis of disembodiment.

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The Awakened State

Sounds True: Insights at the Edge, June 2012

In this episode, Tami Simon from Sounds True speaks with Reggie about the possibility of using modern methods for capturing the essence of student-to-teacher transmission, how glimpsing the awakened state fits in with Mahamudra training, and the “three teachers”—a human teacher, the natural state, and life itself. (65 minutes)

Listen to the episode

In a word, Dharma

Lion’s Roar, December 26, 2017

What is Dharma? According to Reginald A. Ray, dharma is a fascinating term because it integrates several levels of experience, from our first moment on the path to the achievement of full realization.

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Embodiment and Earth Energy

Alart, host of Dynamic Health, interviews Reggie on Vancouver’s CFRO 102.7 FM.

  1. Embodiment and Earth Energy Reggie Ray 55:21
  2. Embodying Enlightenment Reggie Ray 37:14

Hard Questions

Interview with Reggie Ray

Sounds True: Insights at the Edge, August 2009

In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Tami Simon—who is a student of Reggie—poses a series of challenging and difficult questions to her instructor.

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Dark Retreat

Sounds True: Insights at the Edge, November 2010

Reggie discusses his recent experiences in dark retreat as well as the true goal of meditation and Reggie’s view of the meaning of spiritual practice. (51 minutes)

Listen to the episode

Busyness is Laziness

Elephant Magazine, September 2008

The life that we have in our mind, the life that is a reflection of our planning, the life that has been constructed out of bits and pieces in our environment—external conditioning, things we have observed in other people, things that influential people have told us—is actually not who we are.

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And Sparks will Fly

Elephant Magazine, Winter 2006

Dr. Reggie Ray is one of the first examples of an historical synthesis: the wisdom of the East and the technological know-how of the West. That’s not just hype: until 1959, when the Reds rolled through Tibet, Buddhism was something you read about in National Geographic. Then, suddenly, in a diaspora equal to the genocide that caused it, 2,500 years of Buddhist wisdom found itself forcibly exported across the snowy Himalayas. Chögyam Trungpa was perhaps foremost among these Tibetan gurus—leaving behind his monk’s robes for suits & sake, he put his ancient tradition into terms accessible and relevant to a new America. Among his first students was a young, precocious scholar by the name of Reggie Ray. 30 years later, Dr. Ray is an Acharya—an honorific similar to ‘Master’ or ‘Roshi’—and, with Pema Chödron, one of the best in the West at communicating the everyday profundity of the East.

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The Three Lineages

Lion’s Roar, December 2005

Inspiration, innovation, institution—Reginald A. Ray looks at the different manifestations of lineage and how they maintain their awakened quality.

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Playing with Fire

Dharma Life, Winter/Spring 2005

Tibetan Buddhism contains many teachings about the subtle energies of the body that are focused on the chakras or energy centres. Tibetan Buddhist scholar and meditation teacher Reginald Ray told Dharma Life about the dangers of meditating on the chakras.

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Three in One: A Buddhist Trinity

Lion’s Roar, September 2004

The “three bodies of the Buddha” may seem like a remote construct, says Reginald Ray, but they are the ground of existence and present in every moment of our experience.

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How to Study the Dharma

Lion’s Roar, May 2004

In Buddhism, an ever-deepening understanding unfolds naturally from intellectual study. This process is classically expressed in the teaching of the three prajnas, or kinds of knowledge—hearing, contemplating and meditating.

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Books that Burn

The Practice and Philosophy of the Buddhist Path

Lion’s Roar, January 2004

According to Reginald Ray, Buddhist philosophy and practice can’t be separated. Once you understand, through study, what the Buddha is saying about his own awakening, you are already within the fiery process of the path.

According to Reginald Ray, Buddhist philosophy and practice can’t be separated. Once you understand, through study, what the Buddha is saying about his own awakening, you are already within the fiery process of the path.

Read more…

That Problematic “Self”

Lion’s Roar, November 2003

“Self” is a purely conceptual construction says Dr. Reginald A. Ray in his fourth and final article exploring the “self.” He says, “What makes one’s ‘self’ so problematic is its degree of isolation from our actual experience, its rigidity and dissonance with reality beyond itself.”

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Deconstructing the ”Self”

Lion’s Roar, September 2003

If the “self” is ultimately nothing more than a figment of our imagination, what is this figment like and how does it come to seem so real? In the third of four posts on the self, Dr. Reginald “Reggie” Ray breaks it down.

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Why Me?

Lion’s Roar, July 2003

In the second of a four-part series on the definition of “self” in Buddhist teaching, Dr. Reginald (Reggie) Ray asks: If the “self” is ultimately fictitious, how and why does it come to be at all?

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Who, Me?

Lion’s Roar, May 2003

In the first of a four-part series on the definition of self Dr. Reginald (Reggie) Ray explains how Buddhism describes several kinds of ‘self’ and ‘not-self,’ each of which has its role to play in our spiritual life.

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Blood, Bone, Space and Light

Lion’s Roar, March 2003

Reginald Ray talks about the four foundations of mindfulness, and how, when we look closely into our bodies, we find nothing but space, drenched in sunlight.

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To Touch Enlightenment with the Body

Lion’s Roar, January 2003

In the second of a three-part series on Buddhism and the body, Reginald Ray talks about how the body is not just the pathway to realization but the embodiment of enlightenment itself.

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Kobun Chino’s Trailer

Lion’s Roar, November 2002

Reginald Ray writes a remembrance of Zen master and famed calligrapher Kobun Chino Roshi, who died tragically with his young daughter in July, 2002.

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The Red Coat and the Teaching of Impermanence

Lion’s Roar, July 2002

“Only when I realized that our time together was limited was the veil stripped away. In that moment, I discovered a love for her that had nothing to do with my own preconceptions.” – Reginald A. Ray

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