Interviews, articles, essays

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.