I teach meditation, but I haven’t written much about it these past couple months of Equanimist Pages. I’ve written instead about practice more broadly, and the skills I think are developed across many kinds of practice. I do this because I want people to see the practices they already do as helpful and valuable – so they can boost the signal – and because it is mind-expanding to be exposed to other people’s practices and experiences. It opens our understanding of what’s possible, and allows each of us to find our own way in.
Yet it does raise an important question: is there anything special about seated meditation?
Body still, mind awake. It’s one of the lowest common denominators of experience. Minimal external distractions and interactions, no special movements to remember or complex tasks to engage in. Even if there’s lots of thinking, even if there is an internal process involved, the magic of meditation is that it unfolds in an environment of comparative simplicity.
There are some significant things about this kind of environment. For one, we’re more likely to notice our background state: stable or distractible, clear or muddy, open or contracted, friendly or emotionally agitated. Wherever we are on the mind-body roller-coaster, we can suddenly see it. We hadn’t noticed before, in our busyness. We thought life was just like that. But now we realize, actually, life isn’t like that. We’re like that.
And so, we have this opportunity to calibrate. To tweak the controls on the mixing board of consciousness. We make small adjustments in attention and presence, we dial up the clarity, we back off the agitation, we find some settledness and grounding. The many subtle adjustments we learn to perform in this simple medium of a sitting meditation become ones we also learn to perform out in the world. But we wouldn’t even sense the possibility of this unless we’ve taken the time to look and learn.
Meditation in stillness is the best place to notice our baseline, and to learn to make the necessary adjustments.
So that’s one side of simplicity – the busy proactive side. There’s another side, one that may be even more significant. That side hears all this talk of “calibrating” and “skills” and is like: “Meh, that sounds like work.” This side is the lazy bad angel on your shoulder, the bad angel that is actually the really good angel. This angel knows the antidote to all this ridiculous self-improvement is … to do nothing whatsoever.
Oh how I love this angel. Thankyouthankyouthankyou I think, when I sit. I’ve never been the religious type, but, in my flawed and frenetic way, I am devoted to the God of Nothing.
All our life we run and we jump and we act and we try and we scheme and we do, do, do. And every wise sage who ever lived, and every sort-of-wise one who got paid to write copy for Hallmark, they all say the same thing: sometimes the right thing to do is nothing at all.
In that stillness, in that quiet, in that place of naked simplicity and non-striving … we make space for something to find us. Something deep and true and good that we can feel, but never quite fathom. It gets humbling. It gets spiritual. It gets to be not about us at all.
And then we open our eyes, and bring that back with us into our busy days.
Thankyouthankyouthankyou meditation. You do nothing for me. And by nothing, I mean everything.
How to Do Nothing – A Guided Meditation
The mind will make a big deal out of anything, even sitting around doing nothing. Here’s the ultimate simple meditation instruction: sit, close your eyes, and practice being fine with your existence.
If it helps, use the mindset of sitting on a porch on a lazy afternoon. You’re awake and alert, but not tense. Maybe listening to the sound of distant traffic, or – if you’re in the country – the breeze in the trees. Breathing. Settling. Existing without needing things in the moment to be any different. Like a tea bag steeping in your life.
Here’s a guided meditation on nothing (starts at 07:08), from my Do Nothing Project virtual community. And here’s a 5-minute version of another dead-simple practice, called “The Most Basic Meditation,” recorded for the 10% Happier app.