Meditation — It Is Not What You Think

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Dear Still Water Friends,

This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we will focus our discussion on sitting meditation. What is it we are doing? What benefits are we receiving? Is there something about sitting meditation that challenges us?

Perhaps the most helpful thing I learned when I was a beginning meditator was the distinction between awareness and thinking. Awareness is the capacity of the mind to know. It is wordless, immediate. Eating an apple, it is the experience of the aroma, the sweetness, the texture. Thinking is the words that usual quickly arise. It is the commentary, the planning, the remembering. “It a great tasting apple.” “I wonder if I can have another?” “This apple reminds me of apple picking in Virginia.”

There is nothing wrong with thinking. It is essential to our lives. Thinking becomes a problem, however, when it is all we do. We are cut off from our own lives when we no longer have the capacity to stay with our physical or mental sensation for more than a brief moment, when only a small part of each day is given to simple awareness.

For me, sitting meditation is like time at a gym. I am able to build up my capacity for awareness. Breathing in I am aware of breathing in. Breathing out, I am aware of breathing out. I am present to the changing sensations. Then I am not present. My mind wanders. I bring it back. I know that after years of sitting meditation, I have a greater capacity to stay present. I am present for more breaths. I catch the wandering sooner.

When describing meditation it is easy to slip into the language of agency: “I’m aware of my breath, I bring my mind back.” However, when I’m sitting and settled, rather than a doing, it is more of a relaxing, an allowing, a letting in.

I like sitting. I especially like it when I drop into a quiet place and feel at home in the present moment, at home in the world. Thich Nhat Hanh writes in Peace is Every Step:

We sit just to enjoy our sitting; we do not sit in order to attain any goal. This is quite important. Each moment of sitting meditation brings us back to life, and we should sit in a way that we enjoy our sitting for the entire time we do it.

Sitting also functions for me as an early warning system. Sometimes in sitting I’ll first notice a physical problem, such as the symptoms of an oncoming cold. Often I’ll notice an emotional state I hadn’t fully let in, such as an anxiety or a sadness. Sometimes in meditation insights spontaneously appear: all of a sudden I may see that an action I’ve thought of as generous might really be controlling.

When I was learning to meditate I was given the instructions to let go of thinking, and to let go of worries and concerns. The instructions were helpful, and when I’m teaching newcomers, I give the same instructions. However, I also know that when I’m calm and quiet, I see more deeply into issues, I make better plans. So sometimes in one of my regular sittings I’ll allow myself to think through a problem. Sometimes when I’m stuck – with a life problem or a writing problem – I’ll go to the cushion with the intention of first settling and calming, and then sitting with the problem, seeing what arises, seeing where my thoughts take me.

You are invited to join us this Thursday for our meditation and for our discussion about meditation. What is true for you?

You are are also invited to join us this week for a brief orientation to mindfulness practice and the Still Water community. The orientation will begin at 6:30 pm. If you would like to attend, it is helpful if you let us know by emailing us at

Below is a excerpt from Thich Nhat Hanh explaining what he does when he meditates, and also an excerpt from Joseph Goldstein about thinking and meditation.

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner

Senior Teacher


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Thich Nhat Hanh on Sitting Meditation

from a dharma talk at the Congressional Retreat, October 27, 2011

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

Relating to Thoughts

by Joseph Goldstein, from Insight Meditation

Meditation is not thinking about things.

The thinking, or discursive, level of mind pervades our lives; consciously or unconsciously we all spend much or most of our lives there. But meditation is a different process that does not involve discursive thought or reflection. Because meditation is not thought, through the continuous process of silent observation, new kinds of understanding emerge.

For the purpose of meditation, nothing is particularly worth thinking about: not our childhood, not our relationships, not the great novel we always wanted to write. This does not mean that such thoughts will not come. In fact, they may come with tremendous frequency. We do not need to fight with them or struggle against them or judge them. Rather, we can simply choose not to follow the thoughts once we are aware that they have arisen. The quicker we notice that we are thinking, the quicker we can see thought’s empty nature.

Our thoughts are often seductive, and meditation may pass quickly when we sit and daydream; before we know it, the hour has passed. It may have been quite an enjoyable sitting, but it was not meditation. We need to be aware of this sidetrack in practice and remember that the kind of wisdom we want to develop comes intuitively and spontaneously from silent awareness.

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