In its outward manifestation, formal meditation appears to involve either stopping, by parking the body in a stillness that suspends activity or giving oneself over to flowing movement. In either case, it is an embodiment of wise attention, an inward gesture is undertaken for the most part in silence, a shift from doing to simply being. It is an act that may at first seem artificial but that we soon discover, if we keep at it, is ultimately one of pure love for the life unfolding within us and around us.
When I am guiding a meditation with a group of people, I often find myself encouraging them to throw out the thought “I am meditating” and just be awake, with no trying, no agenda, no ideas even about what it should look like or feel like or where your attention should be alighting . . . to simply be awake to what is in this very moment without adornment or commentary. Such wakefulness is not so easy to taste at first unless you are really in your beginner’s mind,* but it is an essential dimension of meditation to know about from the very beginning, even if the experiencing of such open, spacious, choice-free awareness feels elusive in any particular moment.
* A phrase used by Suzuki Roshi, founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, to capture the innocence of an open and unencumbered inquiry on the meditation cushion into who you are and what the mind is via direct experience. “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”
Because we need to get simpler, not more complicated, it is hard for us at first to get out of our own way enough to taste this totally available sense of non-doing, of simply resting in being with no agenda, but fully awake. That is the reason that there are so many different methods and techniques for meditating, and so many different directions and instructions, what I sometimes refer to as “scaffolding.” You might think of these methods as useful ways of intentionally and willfully bringing us back from a myriad of different directions and places in which we may be stuck, dazed, or confused, a bringing us back to utter and open silence, to what you might call our original wakefulness, which actually was not here, is never not here, just as the sun is always shining and the ocean is always still at its depths.
I have a feeling that my boat has struck, down there in the depths, against a great thing. And nothing happens! Nothing . . . Silence . . . Waves . . .
—Nothing happens? Or has everything happened, and we are standing now, quietly, in the new life?
Juan Ramon Jiménez, “Oceans”
Translated by Robert Bly
As the pace of our lives continues to accelerate, driven by a host of forces seemingly beyond our control, more and more of us are find- ing ourselves drawn to engage in meditation, in this radical act of being, this radical act of love, astonishing as that may seem given the materialistic “can do,” speed-obsessed, progress-obsessed, celebrity- and-other-people’s-lives-obsessed, social media-obsessed orientation of our culture. We are moving in the direction of meditative awareness for many reasons, not the least of which may be to maintain our individual and collective sanity, or recover our perspective and sense of meaning, or simply to deal with the outrageous stress and insecurity of this age.
By stopping and intentionally falling awake to how things are in this moment, purposefully, without succumbing to our own reactions and judgments, and by working wisely with such occurrences with a healthy dose of self-compassion when we do succumb, and by our willingness to take up residency for a time in the present moment in spite of all our plans and activities aimed at getting some- where else, completing a project or pursuing desired objects or goals, we discover that such an act is both immensely, discouragingly difficult and yet utterly simple, profound, hugely possible after all, and restorative of mind and body, soul and spirit right in that moment.
It is indeed a radical act of love just to sit down and be quiet for a time by yourself. Sitting down in this way is actually a way to take a stand in your life as it is right now, however it is. We take a stand here and now, by sitting down, and by sitting up.
It is the challenge of this era to stay sane in an increasingly insane world. How are we ever going to do it if we are continually caught up in the chatter of our own minds and the bewilderment of feeling lost or isolated or out of touch with what it all means and with who we really are when all the doing and accomplishing is sensed as being in some way empty, and we realize how short life is? Ultimately, it is only loved that can give us insight into what is real and what is important. And so, a radical act of love makes sense—love for life and for the emergence of one’s truest self.
Just to sit down and let ourselves drop into presence is a poignant and potent way of affirming that we are slowly but surely coming to our senses and that that world of direct experience behind all the thinking and emotional reactions and all the self-absorption is still intact and utterly available to us for our succor, for our healing, and for our knowing how to be and, when we return to the doing, for knowing what to do and how to at least begin afresh. From Meditation Is Not What You Think, by Jon Kabat-Zinn, published by Hachette. Copyright © 2019 by Jon Kabat-Zinn.