“Do you know what you are doing?” It’s a common enough question in just about all fields of endeavour. It can be an insulting question and other times a helpful one.
When it comes to embarking upon meditation practice do we know what we are doing? Through some decades of teaching and personal practice I have found that it greatly helps learners if I discuss with them “what are we doing?” Or really, what is meditation?
I am not talking about definitions of meditation; they can be unwieldy and dry. I mean a straight-to-the-point discussion using the simplest of words and concepts. If the discussion is clear and practical enough it can just about give a learner all the instruction they need, until of course they meet their next roadblock and want some more direction.
So without any academic psychological or philosophical terms, what is meditation? A starting point in some traditions is that the heart of meditation is SITTING. Zen teaching emphasizes that it is really just sitting, and then sitting some more.
By sitting we don’t necessarily mean a special way of sitting, though a fairly straight upright spine is helpful, as is a posture that is quite balanced so that a good degree of relaxation is possible. Otherwise, kneeling, being on a chair or special stool, or even lying down if your physical condition demands it are all okay. They can all qualify as ‘sitting’ for the purpose of meditation.
Why is an emphasis on ‘just SITTING’, or ‘simply SITTING’ so useful? Look at it this way. Often when something is tiring or stressing us we decide we need a break (providing we are self-aware enough to feel that). So we take a break; a ‘smoko’ or a coffee break. Quite literally we go outside and have a cigarette, or we make a cup of tea or coffee. We might be sitting, but we are also sipping coffee or tea. Or we pick up a magazine, a bill or piece of mail or whatever might be on the table. Perhaps we have on the radio or TV or we may be chatting to whoever else is in the room. There is nothing wrong with any of this and it may be somewhat restful. But are we also capable of just SITTING without any of these preoccupations? Mostly we find it pretty hard after thirty seconds or so.
Meditation is the art of having a ‘smoko’ break without the smoke, tea, coffee, magazine or anything else. It is the bare bones of having a break; it is simply SITTING.
The second element of the zen-like description ‘simply SITTING’ is that we find a way to stay with the sitting for a period of time. There are various suggested techniques, but in the end it is YOU finding a way you can employ. The simpler the better.
Finding a way to do what, exactly? A way to stay physically and mentally with ‘simply SITTING’ beyond the first, second and third impulses to have a coffee, browse a magazine, turn on the radio or go to the fridge. And that means a way through the distractedness or restlessness that underlies all those impulses.
And there you have it – that’s meditation. Whether you are attending to your breath, to your body relaxing, to repetition of a mantra or something else it is in the service of encountering the mental impulses that would move you out of ‘simply SITTING’.
Encountering your impulses and mental distractedness also has to be YOUR own way. It may be a head on confrontation like an arm wrestle, but generally that is not sustainable. More likely it will develop characteristics of witnessing your mental activity and busyness, flowing with it and allowing it to settle naturally. Something like surfing the waves, or a more subtle and responsive martial art like judo or aikido. It is your discovery and it will be your way.
So now where have we come to with this enquiry into “what are we doing”? It seems we are sitting and surfing the waves of all that would pull us away from ‘simply SITTING’. Hopefully this involves relaxing, and just possibly some moments of freedom from the tyranny of excessive thinking. Until of course we do choose to move out of sitting and into the rest of our day’s activities. Having a coffee perhaps. Where’s that bill I have to pay?