What is meditation?

A photo by Jason Ortego. unsplash.com/photos/buF62ewDLcQ

Meditating is like being laid down on the bottom of a small boat on a peaceful lake, staring up at the sky while all the time one’s hyperactive mind is shouting out from the shore for you to come in now. That voice may be near or far, loud or quiet, clear or incomprehensible but we continue to look up as the boat drifts on.

The overactive mind can also be imagined at busier times as a great flapping pterodactyl, loudly squawking and circling just overhead, demanding our attention as nothing else could. Mindfulness shoots a tranquilizer dart into this beast of overactive thought.

The movements of the mind are often frantic but it’s possible to observe them passively as if they were changes in weather of a planet far below. Through extended spells of watching we discover the transience of even – or especially – the most intense feelings.

Imagine a bowl of water with a layer of silt that’s just been stirred up and watch as the silt settles and the water clears – would you “try” and clear the water faster?

The act of meditation is akin to sitting down to watch a parade go by. The parade may be noisy and demanding but the watcher avoids getting caught up in it, observing, being witness, to both outer and inner events equally passively. This moment by moment containment is serenity, apparently both method and the end itself but really neither of these two.

We watch the machine of the mind – and it is a machine, if a fantastically complex one, a machine within a machine – and learn its movements, mechanisms and structure. Are these transient and volatile patterns that appear and disappear without a trace the real being or just airy intimations of a false self, phantoms from a phantom?

It’s startling to realize how impersonal and detached our thoughts are; we don’t own them any more than the air we breathe.

Awareness floods the body, filling up every cell and every moment, squeezing out habitual obliviousness, creating space through the very denial of it. The elation of bare being bubbles up through the here and now to crowd out the sad spaces of the self. The mind is quiet even as it’s at the peak of stimulation. Pure presence is molded to the shape of the here and now.

Mindfulness is a fluid sensing, the delight of pure streaming being.

The only true measure of meditation is the here and nowness of it, all else is hypnotism.

Mindful meditation is not an imposition motivated by reward but a play with the here and now, taking moment to moment awareness as its only reality, a passive but alert observation that doesn’t seek change even if it brings it.

Unbidden, stimulated by chance events or seemingly at random memories will push up into the flow of thoughts like sunken logs released from a riverbed. Left alone they drift away.

Mindfulness is the act of chipping away as from a block of stone all that is not mindfulness. It blurs into both action and what is acted upon, the means and end itself and like something beautiful but slippery evades our firm grasp. There’s no easy and obvious path to the profound; to work hard toward it, to not work hard are equally far from it. Moments of peace and insight cannot be planned for but arrive unexpected like a sudden breeze through an open window.

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No special posture or equipment is needed, just an ordinary chair or cushion that allows the body to sit easily upright and alert, comfortable but not too comfortable. The spine stretches up from the base right through to the top of the head and even a feeling of reaching above.

An alternative to sitting for long periods is to stand up against a wall, not leaning against it but just touching all along the back of the body from the heels to the head. This provides both a guide to perfect posture and a means of feedback from the body,  in particular barely discernible micro-movements of the head that can be quite intense to discover. I like to alternate sitting and standing in this way to break up time.

The eyes have it. The usual mindfulness practice is to focus on breathing as the link that bridges mind to body. However attention to the movement of the eyes can also open the portal to thinking. Crowded thoughts, quick eyes and shallow breaths are habitually cued up to follow in a cascade one from the other. So look to the eyes as they look out.

Two or three times a week usually in the morning before eating I’ll go to one of the local forest trails to meditate among the trees. There’s one place in particular, secluded just off the trail, that has a rock perfect for sitting on. Thirty minutes to an hour will easily pass in the quiet observation of both mind and nature.

Make it a priority to have space and time to sit quietly in the shadows and come to the light by sipping a tall cool glass of silence, all at once or throughout the day.

Insight as art and science