Additive meditation (how to)

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In this post I want to talk about “additive meditation.” This is not my main meditation practice, “foreground/background meditation,” which I gave a preview of in a previous post. Additive meditation is, however, something that I do sporadically and I’m trying to find the time to do more and more of. Analogues of additive meditation are Shinzen Young’s “Focus on positive” [1], Buddhist cultivation of the Brahmaviharas (metta, mudita, karuna, upekkha; lovingkindess, compassion, sympathetic joy, equanimity) [2], Paul Gilbert’s work on compassion [3], and Tibetan buddhism’s tonglen meditation [4]. Also see Alba Emoting [5].

Ok, so what is additive meditation? There are many legitimate perspectives you could be taking in a given moment. There are many legitimate things you could be feeling in a given moment. This protocol is about adding perspectives and feelings that help to flesh out a given occasion. The focus is on feeling because feeling alters physiology (or *is* physiology, depending on your definitions), and physiological state affects cognition and memory.

You might use it like this: When I have a problem, I typically blend a) a combination of warmth and safety (to overcome focusing bias) as well as b) some gentle sense of lack and a sense of “what could go wrong,” to get myself in a finely tuned state of mind. Another example: If I want to creatively think about or reach for something I care about, and I’m already being sufficiently careful and protective, I bring warmth and safety into my state, to balance anxiety- and fear-driven repertoire narrowing.

In terms of “what to add,” you can get a feel for what works best for you in any given situation. Sometimes whatever you’re feeling then and there is totally appropriate, but, other times, you want to bring more nuance on board, depending on what you’re up to.

Notice that there is no corresponding “subtractive meditation” in the paragraphs above. More on why that is, below.

I want to expand on focusing bias a little bit more: We tend to focus on things that have happened recently or are going to happen soon. We tend to blow things out of proportion. We make decisions based on how we feel now, not how we might feel in three minutes. And, sure you *could* end up as a homeless person on the street: it’s worth deploying a certain amount of cortisol and adrenaline to amp up your focus, energy, and attention to avoid such an outcome. But now it’s 8pm on a Tuesday night, or it’s the weekend, or you need a break–there isn’t a saber-toothed tiger chasing you this very moment. You’ve put in your time for the day or week, you’ve laid your plans out for next steps. It’s worth being able to change your sympathetic/parasympathetic balance, so you’re not pointlessly hanging onto fat, chewing up lean tissue and dampening your immune system function. Let’s have your digestive system working smoothly and powerfully. Let’s be able to attend to the short, medium, and long-term things we do want to happen, not just the short-term things we don’t want to happen as well as worst-case disaster scenarios. Let’s feel cozy, safe, warm, loved, and relaxed. Your body will thank you. Your significant other will thank you. Flexibly moving through states, and realizing how much “reality” is influenced by those states, is important.

So, as I said, we’re going to be working mainly with feeling and emotion. But, before we do that, it’s worth emphasizing that there’s lots of stuff that can influence how we feel inside:

1. Time marching on, the world changing around us, and the world doing things to us, can change how we feel inside.
2. When you do things in the world, carry out actions, projects, plans, doing that, and the result of doing that, can change how you feel inside.
3. Simply planning, cognizing, taking different perspectives, basically doing things internally, with respect to the world, can change you you feel inside.

My point is that, having a particular state inside is a legitimate thing to want. It feels good to feel good, warm, safe, loved, happy, interested, etc. But chasing states is probably not the best use of your time. Feelings and qualities are “designed” to be a summary of the state of self and world (rather, a summary of our interpretations or beliefs of the state of self and world) evaluated with respect to how all that’s good or bad for the self. So, if you want to powerfully affect how you feel inside… then do things in the world. Consider that working directly with your internal state should be a strategic, proximal goal in service of what you really care about in the world. But, also consider that you don’t *have* to change your state before you can do something in the world. You can just fucking do it, regardless of what’s going on inside you. Acceptance and commitment therapy has a lot to say about feelings vs valued action [6].

Now, all that being said, sometimes you’re already having hot sex, hanging out with friends, having intimate conversations, going to the movies, cooking delicious meals, writing searchingly in your journal, etc., and something is still not right. Sometimes then it’s just fine to explore giving yourself exactly what you need, be it feeling loved, cared for, etc., nuanced precisely just for you from you (or an imagined other). And you can do it as much as you want or need. Maybe that will prime the pump so you can bring it into your life for real. And/or maybe getting those things from yourself is precisely all you needed.


The goal of additive meditation is to bring into physiology and consciousness a feeling-state that wasn’t already online before you started. Doing this is internal, nonverbal behavior, so I can’t swing the baseball bat while you watch, after which you try it, and then I correct your form. There’s going to need to be gentle, continuous experimenting on your part, to see what works for you. It can be better to not give precise instructions, anyway, as this can induce you to be more flexible, creative, and adaptive in your approach (says research that I don’t have on hand, at the moment).

You might need to be patient. You get much, much better over time at this, more flexible and powerful. There may be no discernible limit as you practice over a lifetime. (Unlike other meditation practices, I’m less afraid of overdoing something dangerous and permanent with this type of meditation, though I don’t have much basis for that non-fear. Even if you’re temporarily feeling extreme endogenously generated emotion, it seems that the body/mind is very heavily biased towards taking emotional cues from the outside world, which makes sense.)

Anyway, there’s no one single way to do this. When I do it, I feel like I’m doing a bunch of different things, sequentially or simultaneously, at any given time. The ideas is, doing whatever works, to legitimately, truly, begin to feel, and to gently or firmly maintain the feeling of, whatever you’d like to feel in that moment.

As I said above, this is a nonverbal “action” or “allowing” within yourself. You might feel like you’re directly doing it, or maybe it has more of an indirect feel to it. Or, you can speak inside or out loud to yourself, “May I feel…”, or intuitively have a running dialogue/monologue of whatever makes sense. Or, you can imagine scenery, people, scenarios, or other things that make you feel what you would like to feel. Or you can notice or call attention to aspects of your immediate environment or overall life situation that evoke what you want to feel (e.g. for feeling yummy stuff, you might call attention to you being currently warm and comfortable, that people love you and care about you, that you have savings in the bank, or maybe you’re just physically safe at that moment. There are many, many, many pleasant possibilities, even for really, really shitty immediate environments or current life situation.)

Whatever you need, whatever you want, the idea is to give it to yourself. Maybe it’ll feel like you’re /allowing/ it. Maybe it’ll feel like you’re /surrendering/ to it. Maybe it’ll feel like you’re /opening/ to it. Maybe it’ll feel like you’ve chosen to be /willing/ to feel it. Maybe you feel like you’re /evoking/ or /generating/ or /invoking/ it. Maybe you’ll feel like you’re /savoring/ it. Whatever works. There are many paths and stances and ways to go, within. Whatever works.

Examples of things you might want to go for: love, joy, safety, warmth, peace, comfort, ease, rest, opening, allowing, surrendering, safe and sleepy, curled up, comforted, accepted, loved, held, free.

Layer stuff, combine stuff, blend stuff, intertwine stuff, keeping playing and intuiting feelings and qualities that feel good and right for you. Be an emotional artist, conduct an emotional symphony.

You can do this intermittently as you go through your day, for fifteen focused minutes 2-7 times per week, for longer a couple times a week, there’s no one right way. I do the first two.


So, while you’re engaged in doing all that above. Stuff might come up, or already be present, in reaction to what you’re doing. That stuff might be aversive or “negative” or feel like it’s in opposition to what you’re engaged in doing.

An example is, you’re exploring feeling warm, safe, and loved, but you’re sick, scared, and you are living paycheck to paycheck. And that’s what surges up whenever you try to feel warm, safe, and loved.

Here are some things to consider if and when that happens (which, for lots of people, is all the time):

1. While doing additive meditation, you’re not fighting a war. You’re not trying to indirectly drown out emotions, beliefs, and qualities that you don’t want to feel or don’t want to feel about yourself or other people. Nor are you trying to directly counteract emotions, beliefs, and qualities, pitting one set against another. What you are doing is *adding* emotions, beliefs, perspectives, and qualities to what’s already there or what’s arriving.

2. See how there’s plenty of space. There can be a sense of gently shaking free of the “grippyness” of the “negative” stuff clamoring for your attention, the stuff that might be reacting or lashing out to what you’re bringing to the table. You’re gently shaking free of that stuff, but you’re not rejecting it. There’s a delicate touch, and it takes practice, where you don’t let that “negative” stuff run the show, but you let it be, you let it hang around, let it be as loud as it wants, let it have a voice at the table. You’re sidestepping it without disrespecting it or pushing it away, a delicate touch that honors what’s already going on or what’s coming along for the ride. You let it be, in addition to what you’re deliberately adding. There’s plenty of space.

3. Also, generally, to feel these new things that you’re deliberately bringing to the table, you have to be willing to feel a) what’s already at the table and b) anything that’s also coming up. You can’t selectively feel, at least not easily or consistently. In the long run (I think), it’s easier to feel everything. So, if there’s “negative” stuff going on, consider being willing to experience that negative stuff, for the entire time you’re also bringing positive stuff the table, and beyond.

4. To summarize, a) you have your job, b) the “bad stuff” or “realistic stuff” coming up is doing its job, and c) there’s plenty of space at the table.


You can make things more complicated, with four core aspects and one optional aspect, for five aspects, total. If you’re doing at least one of the core aspects, then you’re doing additive meditation as I’ve defined it (but, remember, you can do whatever the hell you want). You can do two through all five aspects simultaneously, if you desire. I do this, sometimes.

So, to break this down:
1. You can explore feeling/thinking things that you want/need to feel/think. (This is what we talked about above.
2. You can explore feeling/thinking things that you want/need to feel/think specifically towards/at/about yourself.
3. You can explore feeling/thinking things that you want/need to feel/think towards/at/about one or more other people, as if they were right here, right now, aware of you being aware of them, and vice versa.
4. You can explore how you want/need one or more other people to feel/think towards/at/about you and how you want to feel/think about that, as if they were right here, right now, aware of you being aware of them, and vice versa.
5. You can open to explore everything happening within and without, in addition to exploring one or more of 1-4. (In this way, you can incorporate foreground/background meditation into additive meditation. A complete post on forground/background meditation is forthcoming.

Please refer to the diagram, which is meant to summarize (1-5) above:

a. The emanating arrows inside the “I” correspond to (1) above.
b. The reflexive arrow from/towards the “I” correspond to (2) above.
c. The arrow from “I” to “You” corresponds to (3) above.
d. The arrow from “You” to “I” corresponds to (4) above.
e. The boundary (really no boundary) around everything corresponds to (5) above.
f. The jagged line inside “I,” a lightning bolt, is any thinking and feeling in reaction to any of (1-5) above.



So I hope you’ll take a few hours to explore additive meditation, spread out over a few months. Over time, It can even out your emotional reactions, possibly after an initial transient response, so you feel a more complete and balanced emotional milieu towards whatever’s happening around you and within you. You’re less swept away by what you’re feeling, and it can feel more safe to feel intensely strong and intensely negative emotions because you can bring whatever you want to also have a seat at the table. This can be awesome.

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[2] Lovingkindess by Sharon Salzberg

[3] Compassion Focused Therapy: Distinctive Features by Paul Gilbert

(Much of the structure of the core practice was inspired from Gilbert’s organization of these topics.)


[5] There are about four peer-reviewed journal articles that describe key aspects of alba emoting and two fairly fluffy books written in Spanish (the first of which cites those key articles). You can find Susana Bloch on Scopus or possibly Google Scholar.

[6] Acceptance and commitment therapy

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2 thoughts on “Additive meditation (how to)

  1. Pingback: how to do foreground/background meditation | Meditation Stuff

  2. Pingback: On Additive Meditation | Rival Voices

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