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 if we continue to look up the boat drifts on.

The habitually frantic movements of the mind can be observed 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? This image gets to the heart of how self-defeating our initial efforts of mindfulness can be.

The process 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, just observing, being witness, to both outer and inner events equally passively and without distinction. This moment by moment containment is serenity, apparently both method and the end itself yet neither of them.

We watch the machine of the mind – and it is a machine, if a fantastically complex one, a machine within another 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?

Unbidden and seemingly at random memories will push up into the flow of thoughts like sunken logs released from a riverbed. Left alone they drift away.

It can be 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, there is a fluid sensing, the delight of pure streaming being. The elation of bare being bubbles up through the here and now to crowd out the sad spaces of habitual thought. 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.

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. It uncovers an unknown but inexhaustible reservoir of well-being and resolve.  

Awareness is the act of chipping away as from a block of stone all that is not awareness. 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 strive for it and not to strive are equally far from it. Moments of peace and insight cannot be planned  but arrive unexpected like a sudden breeze through an open window. They are like the sightings of a rare wild animal that happen unannounced leaving us with a sense of wonder.

But meditation does not always bring happiness, at least not immediately, and perhaps not ever in the conventional sense. To the riddle of whether it’s better to be an unhappy human or a happy but less sophisticated animal anyone who meditates well has the answer: choose to be fully present every moment even if it’s bundled with some grief. Reaching our full potential as conscious beings is something above mere contentment and perhaps this realization  – that has so many applications – is the true reward of the practice of awareness.

Understanding as art and science