Zazen is not a way to escape from life by being mindful of something that is apart from the human world; it is the practice of being present in the real stream of time and looking directly at life itself.
– Dainin Katagiri
To learn to attend is a beginning. To learn to attend more and more deeply is the path itself.
– John Tarrant
Meditation is an activity that helps us clarify our own experience. In the process it helps us inquire into some of our deepest concerns. How does one practice meditation, and what does its experiences have to teach us? Since I am most familiar with Buddhist meditation techniques, I will focus on how its methods attempt to help us understand our existential problems. In a later article I hope to address how different religious traditions absorb and direct meditative practice.
Buddhist meditation encourages us to develop our attentional faculties to their fullest. As this attention becomes even more defined, we turn towards the bustling complexity of our bodily experience. We then temper this attention into a killing edge to slice through preoccupations of the self. Our incredible capacity for wisdom is unlocked through ordinary feeling and action, “carrying water and hauling firewood.” It seems that meditative attention gets us closer to a subtle truth that becomes too distant when wrapped up in human conditioning. When that habituation begins to recede, we may begin to have feelings of a cosmos that remains powerfully susceptible to change. A decaying, frightened shell is replaced with beautiful, emergent matter.
Buddhist meditative practice can be utilized in different ways. An outline that agrees with my perception of it is used by James Austin in his book Meditating Selflessly:
As Buddhist meditation practices slowly evolved from the ancient Yogic traditions, they began to train attention in two mutually reinforcing ways. The resulting generic categories are often described now as concentrative meditation and receptive meditation . . . [In concentrative meditation, we] make a mental note to monitor how consistently we can sustain our span of attention. In psychological terms, these are short-term tasks that exercise our working-memory skills. Concentrative meditation includes these several willful efforts to sharpen our focusing, select its target(s), modulate its intensity, and monitor its progress. Our choices are deliberate. We’ve chosen to concentrate on one small area while excluding all other items . . . In contrast, receptive modes of meditation are more nuanced . . . They are entered into by a more passive, non-doing open approach. [42-43]
Both of these approaches enrich each other. They constitute the same trajectory, pushing us outward. Human awareness cannot readily stay with what is present at first. It is more used to long-winded chains of egocentric and associative thinking. By narrowing our focus on certain parts of experience, such as the breath, we create routes for attention to return. Attention grows stronger the more we repeat this process, and with practice we find ourselves able to maintain that attention in the midst of the hive-mind’s insect chitter. This lets us learn to use our attention in different ways, and begins to bring that attention towards things we usually screen out.
In order to begin experimenting with focused attention, sit in a quiet room in a position that encourages a straight spine. Meditation cushions can be very helpful but are not strictly necessary. Do not exaggeratedly push your chest forward nor allow it to cave in. One can position their legs in a variety of ways. This includes a regular cross legged posture which is the easiest to adopt. Also available are the half and full lotus, where one or both feet are allowed to rest on the opposite thigh. Chairs or other aids are acceptable as long as they help proper positioning. You may have to work up to positions that are initially uncomfortable to you, but trust yourself to know when a posture is damaging you. Make sure that your hips are above the knees.
Begin to relax and choose something to direct your attention toward. The breath is often selected for this purpose and is very useful, but you may select other bodily sensations as well. There seems to be a difference of opinion on closed or open eyes, so find what works best for you. Although fantasies and thoughts arise, don’t follow them. Simply become aware of them and do not explore their possible implications. Go back to the focus when you notice that thought has engulfed your attention.
It will be necessary to do this often. You will quickly notice that your attention wavers frequently. The mind stays with the focus for a short time until a thought presents itself. The mind then quickly changes tracts and moves into abstraction. All meditators have experienced this in their practice. Continue the exercise as much as you can in the span of time you have allotted. Just as a musician must build their abilities through repetition, continually return to your focus. Give yourself license to experiment and enjoy yourself.
The next form of meditation to integrate with your practice is closer to “just sitting” or Zazen. We observe anything that arises as our experience without concentrating on anything in particular. Nothing is turned away. In the book Roaring Silence, a good description of this is: “meditation isn’t; getting used to is.”
This brings us back to the Tibetan adage: Meditation isn’t; getting used to is. When it is said that meditation isn’t, what is signified is that meditation is not a method of doing. It is a method of not doing. One does not involve oneself in doing anything. One does not instigate anything or impose anything. One does not add anything or elaborate anything. One simply remains. One simply maintains presence in motiveless observation. When it is said that getting used to is, what is signified is a practice in which one is simply getting used to being. One acclimatizes oneself to the undefined dimension of existence. We are unused to our own enlightenment, so meditation is a way of “getting used to” it. In terms of deep-rooted attachment to thought, one is getting used to nonreferentiality. One is getting used to being referenceless. (Loc. 938-950)
Sit in a quiet room in a position similar to that described in the attention-based exercise. Notice your own tendency to speculate, fantasize, and abstract from the present. Once this has gone on a short time, pull back on active involvement in your own thought. Observe the closed loop of thought, and start to shift your awareness to different parts of your sensory field. Try to detect everything, whether thought, emotion, or sensation. Learn all that you can about your own body and mind. Continue this way throughout the amount of time you have dedicated to sit.
The importance of this type of awareness cannot be overstated. It can give us an appreciation for how thought is only one element of our experience and need not take priority. The more we engage in meditation, the less important our thoughts ultimately become. Sensations become intensely as they are without any need for further description. Doing both of these forms of meditation over time also helps create a firm attention with which to notice personal sensations and patterns. Through attention you will understand the implications of how you help order your own experience. In doing so, you will begin to unseat such seemingly self-evident concepts as suffering and happiness.
We are encouraged in both of these forms of meditation to observe everything that we experience. One can notice, through disciplined recognition, that each phenomena that presents itself can appear similarly. Some phenomena instantly appear and disappear. Other sensations are similar to a wave pattern, in that the sensation does not stay the same over time while it occupies perception. There are distinct variations in that feeling before it fades. When you realize this, you are primed to recognize what are referred to as the “three marks of existence.” This triad claims that all things are “impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not-self.” This is a very simple formulation that is borne out as we become more aware.
Impermanence is to recognize that no feeling stays in one form forever and continually changes. Since these feelings are impermanent, they are unsatisfactory because they continually move from one state to the other. They cannot create a firm basis for what we take to be lasting pleasure or displeasure. We lay the groundwork for our suffering when we try to make these cascades and thresholds permanent. This is reflected in the concept of no-self, which shows that we cannot be organized into a stable self that is disconnected from this change. This self erodes along with everything else. We no longer need memories, opinions, or sensations to form a self who experiences. Experience then seems to unwind, obeying its own laws of motion.
Meditation can help us be more cognizant of how we reach out to effect the universe. This is a cornerstone for changing one’s attitudes in daily life. Meditation also shows us our own existence, ultimately reframing our search for truth and meaning. Our task with it is open-ended: to continually be with everything that arises while finding effective ways to act. The simplicity and challenge of this type of practice is contradictory to notions of acquisition and spiritual progression. To borrow a phrase from philosopher Alain Badaou, it is “infinite and rigorous.” This is what has been referred to as the continuous circle of the way, your own life as it is continually expressing itself in the present. There is no closure to it which goes on for us as long as we live. Meditation can help corrode the distinctions we try to draw between it and the rest of life, until the two bleed together into just this. Seeing that reality is to return again and again in a spiral without end.