Whenever I need a heaping dose of reality shorn of unnecessary concepts, my eyes wander to a bottom shelf in my office where the mindfulness books hang out.
This morning I was drawn to pick up a book by Jon Kabat-Zinn that I'd read before, Wherever You Go, There You Are.
I've read other mindfulness books by Kabat-Zinn. As he says in the introduction, his previous book, Full Catastrophe Living, is largely aimed at people akin to those who use his stress reduction clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center run by Kabat-Zinn.
That book had to be quite detailed and comprehensive. Also, thick. Wherever You Go, There You Are is aimed more at a general audience. It's clearly and simply written with many short chapters, several of which I re-read today.
I was struck by how much I agree with Kabat-Zinn's description of what meditation is all about. His take on meditation is pretty much how I've come to view it. When I meditate now, I follow my breath, not trying to change my breath, like by making it shallower or deeper, faster or slower, just being aware of the sensation of breathing.
But this sort of meditation is markedly different from the form of meditation I practiced during the 35 years I was a member of Radha Soami Satsang Beas, an India-based religious organization headed up by a guru which taught that the purpose of meditation is to leave this world behind and enter a supernatural better world.
Meditation, according to Kabat-Zinn and Buddhism, is almost precisely the opposite of this. Today I read:
New Yorker cartoon: Two Zen monks in robes and shaved heads, one young, one old, sitting side by side cross-legged on the floor. The younger one is looking somewhat quizzically at the older one, who is turned toward him and saying: "Nothing happens next. This is it."
It's true. Ordinarily, when we undertake something, it is only natural to expect a desirable outcome for our efforts. We want to see results, even if it is only a pleasant feeling. The sole exception I can think of is meditation.
Meditation is the only intentional, systematic human activity which at bottom is about not trying to improve yourself or get anywhere else, but simply to realize where you already are. Perhaps its value lies precisely in this. Maybe we all need to do one thing in our lives simply for its own sake.
But it would not be accurate to call meditation a "doing." It is more accurately described as a "being." When we understand that "This is it," it allows us to let go of the past and future and wake up to what we are now, in this moment.
People usually don't get this right away. They want to meditate in order to relax, to experience a special state, to become a better person, to reduce some stress or pain, to break out of old habits and patterns, to become free or enlightened.
All valid reasons to take up meditation practice, but all equally fraught with problems if you expect those things to happen just because you are now meditating.
You'll be caught up in wanting to have a "special experience" or in looking for signs of progress, and if you don't feel something special pretty quickly, you may start to doubt the path you have chosen, or to wonder whether you are "doing it right."
In most domains of learning, this is only reasonable. Of course you have to see progress sooner or later to keep at something. But meditation is different. From the perspective of meditation, every state is a special state, every moment a special moment.
When we let go of wanting something else to happen in this moment, we are taking a profound step toward being able to encounter what is here now.
Beautiful! So refreshing.
This demolishes the absurd notion that just because someone has a different experience in meditation than you do, that means one of you is more advanced spiritually or mystically. I love the simple wisdom in From the perspective of meditation, every state is a special state, every moment a special moment.
There's no better or worse in meditation, no higher or lower. There's only "This is it." Doesn't matter at all what it is.
I also enjoyed reading Kabat-Zinn's description of meditation as being akin to dying, except, of course, the actually being dead part. He writes:
People think of meditation as some kind of special activity, but this is not exactly correct. Meditation is simplicity itself. As a joke, we sometimes say: "Don't just do something, sit there." But meditation is not just about sitting, either.
It is about stopping and being present, that is all. Mostly we run around doing. Are you able to come to a stop in your life, even for one moment? Could it be this moment? What would happen if you did?
A good way to stop all the doing is to shift into the "being mode" for a moment. Think of yourself as an eternal witness, as timeless. Just watch this moment, without trying to change it at all. What is happening? What do you feel? What do you see? What do you hear?
The funny thing about stopping is that as soon as you do it, here you are. Things get simpler. In some ways, it's as if you died and the world continued on.
If you did die, all your responsibilities and obligations would immediately evaporate. Their residue would somehow get worked out without you. No one else can take over your unique agenda. It would die or peter out with you just as it has for everyone else who has ever died. So you don't need to worry about it in any absolute way.
If this is true, maybe you don't need to make one more phone call right now, even if you think you do. Maybe you don't need to read something just now, to run one more errand.
By taking a few moments to "die on purpose" to the rush of time while you are still living, you free yourself to have time for the present. By "dying" now in this way, you actually become more alive now. That is what stopping can do.
And when you decide to go, it's a different kind of going because you stopped. The stopping actually makes the going more vivid, richer, more textured. It helps keep all the things we worry about and feel inadequate about in perspective. It gives us guidance.
Try: Stopping, sitting down, and becoming aware of your breathing once in a while throughout the day. It can be for five minutes, or even five seconds. Let go into full acceptance of the present moment including how you are feeling and what you perceive to be happening.
For these moments, don't try to change anything at all, just breathe and let go. Breathe and let go. Die to having to have anything be different in this moment; in your mind and in your heart, give yourself permission to allow this moment to be exactly as it is, and allow yourself to be exactly as you are.
Then, when you're ready, move in the direction your heart tells you to go, mindfully and with resolution.
More wise advice.
I enjoy taking a few breaths, feeling the air passing into my nose, visualizing the air filling an empty cavity on the inhalation, then leaving the cavity empty on the exhalation. That emptiness is akin to the dying Kabat-Zinn speaks of.
It helps me look upon whatever I'm experiencing at the moment from a perspective of me being absent. What would the situation be like if there was no "me" aware of it? Well, then there would be the same thing happening, but not with a sense of like/dislike, pleasure/pain, good/bad, and the other pairs of opposites that aren't objectively there, but are part of my subjective response to what's going on.