Dear Still Water Friends,
For me, learning sitting meditation is very much like studying an art, such as sculpture, or a physical discipline, such as Tai-Chi. Each of these practices calls on us to be fully present, with our minds, bodies, and spirits. In each of these practices, too, although there are many people willing to give us advice, ultimately we have to puzzle it out for ourselves. We have to make sense of how the words of advice relate to our own lived experience.
In my own practice, I have been guided by an explanation I heard from Thich Nhat Hanh seventeen years ago. He counseled that there are basically three ways to meditate and compared them to attending to the mail we receive each day.
Most of the time, sitting is like looking through today’s delivery. In Japanese Soto Zen this form of sitting is known as Shikantaza, “Just sitting.” I am aware of what is present for me right now. Whatever arises, I become aware of it, and let it pass. I use my conscious breathing as an anchor, so as not to get caught in the train of thought that can easily arise once an experience is recognized.
Sometimes I just focus on the physical sensations that occur while breathing. This is calming, and I notice that there are many levels and kinds of calmness. Sometimes I open my awareness to other bodily sensations, feelings, emotions, heart-mind states, and objects of the senses.
If and when it all comes together, there is a peaceful aliveness, a delightful sense of being fully present to experience, with very little mental chatter. This meditation poem by Keizan Zenji, a 14th century Japanese Zen teacher, beautifully captures, for me, the process and potential of sitting meditation:
Abandoning myself to breathing out
and letting breathing in naturally still me.
All that is left is an empty cushion
under the vast sky,
the weight of a flame.
A second way of sitting is similar to selecting a letter, opening it, reading it, and reflecting on it. Basically, this is what we are doing during a guided meditation, or during Metta (loving-kindness) meditation. Instead of focusing on whatever might come up, we purposefully direct our attention to specific physical or mental objects.
When I sit by myself and want to look more directly into something, I begin by establishing calm and stability in my body and in my mind. After I have settled myself, I bring up the meditation object (the letter) and hold it in my mind. The object of meditation might be a part of the body that is causing pain (a tension headache), a problematic state of mind (I seem to be a little depressed and I’m not sure why), an issue in my life (a difficulty in a relationship), a memory (the loneliness I experienced as a five-year-old), or a concept (impermanence). I become aware of it and sit with it for a time, aware of my sensations and reactions. I use conscious breathing to steady my mind, and when it drifts, I gently bring it back to the meditation object I have chosen.
This practice of maintaining in awareness and looking deeply is different from ordinary thinking: it is not linear, analytic, or goal oriented. Sometimes a deeper knowing or understanding spontaneously occurs. It may be a simple association, as when a touch of sadness relates to what someone said earlier in the day. Or it may be a whole new way of understanding myself and the world I am part of. (Although these deeper insights may appear suddenly, often the are preceded by months or years of gentle holding and inner exploration.)
The third way of sitting occurs on days when regardless of how I intend to meditate that day, there is a strong meditation object pushing its way in. It is as if the doorbell is loudly ringing and there is a letter carrier at the door with an express-mail envelope. Once I realize this is occurring, I figuratively get up, go to the door, get the letter, and open it. Perhaps it is a strong emotion all by itself, such as sadness or fear (or maybe unconstrained joy), or it could be a problem in my life about which I am feeling very upset or preoccupied. In any case, it needs attention and understanding. Rather than trying to ignore it or being angry at it, I embrace it. I sit with it. I calm it. I might gently ask why it has come and what it can tell me.
At the Congressional Retreat in 2011, Thich Nhat Hanh talked very personally about how he sits and what he experiences:
When I practice sitting meditation, I do not open the doors of the eyes, the ears, the nose, the tongue, the body, or the mind, and yet I feel very alive. I feel cozy. I practice breathing in mindfully and I touch the fact that I am alive. I touch the miracle of life within me. I enjoy breathing in and breathing out. I generate the energy of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the energy that can help protect us. In the Buddhist tradition, mindfulness is the essence of a Buddha. A Buddha is someone inhabited by the energy of mindfulness. Mindfulness is the energy that allows you to know what is going on. What is going on is that you are alive. What is going on is that you have a body. What is going on is that there is a paradise of forms and colors available in the here and the now.
What is available is the Kingdom of God, not only around you, but in you. That flower is a wonder and if you have enough mindfulness and concentration you recognize that as something belonging to the Kingdom of God. If we get in touch deeply enough with that flower, we get in touch with the Kingdom and we get in touch with God. That is thanks to mindfulness.
What do you do when you sit? What brings you joy? What challenges you? How is sitting meditation for you?
You are invited to share your experiences with the Still Water community this Thursday evening.
This week is also the first Thursday of the month, and, as is our tradition, we will offer a brief newcomer’s orientation to mindfulness practice and to the Still Water community. The orientation will begin at 6:30 pm, and participants are encouraged to stay for the evening program. If you would like to attend the orientation, it is helpful if you let us know by emailing us at info@StillWaterMPC.org.
A guided calming meditation from Peace is Every Step is below.
Present Moment, Wonderful Moment
From Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh
In our busy society, it is a great fortune to breathe consciously from time to time. We can practice conscious breathing not only while sitting in a meditation room, but also while working at the office or at home, while driving our car, or sitting on a bus, wherever we are, at any time throughout the day.
There are so many exercises we can do to help us breathe consciously. Besides the simple “In-Out” exercise, we can recite these four lines silently as we breathe in and out:
Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment!
“Breathing in, I calm my body.” Reciting this line is like drinking a glass of cool lemonade on a hot day—you can feel the coolness permeate your body. When I breathe in and recite this line, I actually feel my breath calming my body and mind.
“Breathing out, I smile.” You know a smile can relax hundreds of muscles in your face. Wearing a smile on your face is a sign that you are master of yourself.
“Dwelling in the present moment.” While I sit here, I don’t think of anything else. I sit here, and I know exactly where I am.
“I know this is a wonderful moment!” It is a joy to sit, stable and at ease, and return to our breathing, our smiling, our true nature. Our appointment with life is in the present moment. If we do not have peace and joy right now, when will we have peace and joy—tomorrow, or after tomorrow? What is preventing us from being happy right now? As we follow our breathing, we can say, simply, “Calming, Smiling, Present moment, Wonderful moment.”
This exercise is not just for beginners. Many of us who have practiced meditation and conscious breathing for forty or fifty years continue to practice in this same way, because this kind of exercise is so important and so easy.