“Do not respect the clever, and the people will not be induced to conflict. Do not be impressed by hard-to-get material things, and the people will not be induced to covet what they lack and grab what is not theirs. Do not stare at the desirable, and the people will not be induced to entangling thoughts.”
—Tao Te Ching, Chapter 3
When many people first approach meditation, they think they’re doing something. They see it as an activity intended to have this and that result, a prescription with side-effects. We believe this because rarely in our chaotic modern lives do we do something for its own sake. In a culture obsessed with productivity and progress, we say, “If it doesn’t do something for me, what’s the point?”
Because of this, people really don’t understand meditation. They think they can do it with music, or with drugs, or with a smartphone app that talks to you in a soothing voice. Did Dogen or Bodhidharma have a goddamn smart phone?
The truth, sadly, is that these types of distractions have nothing to do with meditation. You’re either sitting in silence with no-mind or you’re not. Some days we can even meditate without meditating, because we grasp at thoughts and try to make the experience a certain way. These attachments remove us from awareness. They don’t bring us closer to it. We only get closer to it by easing off the gas.
The secret of meditation is that it’s a process not of doing, but of undoing. You’re undoing years and years of delusional thought patterns, closely-held opinions about yourself and others, and attachments to everything from material wealth to the desire to be liked or attended to. When you sit, you’re letting go of everything. The moments of illumination come when there is nothing left distracting you, nothing for you to grasp at. If you violently chase a cat around the room, he’ll never sit in your lap. But if you just sit and wait, he’ll snuggle up to you eventually. Everything in life is like this, but we tend to prefer the security of delusion until we understand the truth, often after it’s too late.
That’s why it’s so important that we just sit. Just do it. Set a timer, sit on the couch, and do it. It’s so contrary to our nature— there’s no delusion of grandeur. We suffer from these every day. We do jobs for weird uncertain future payoffs. We form fake relationships on the promise of later gratification. We lie to ourselves about everything from politics to nutrition, hoping that someday we’re magically right. Unfortunately this day never comes. You can never be certain about anything, and it’s best not to get too attached to your thoughts. This is why we sit.
On a mass scale, we comically uphold Lao Tzu’s visions of a dystopia:
—We respect the clever rather than the virtuous.
—We promote a culture of needless acquisition of everything from sex to fame to luxury goods. It doesn’t make anyone happier.
—We live entangled in this desire at all times, letting it shape almost everything we do, from career-building to child-rearing. Oof.
The Stoic philosopher Seneca (himself a very wealthy man) said, “True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.”
Those who attain what they’re attached to in this life often find it doesn’t fill the hole in their heart. The hole is filled by making peace with being. This is what happens when we just sit. By letting go of all expectations and desires, we see the essence of things. Being is enough. Living is enough. If you can’t experience life directly as you are right now, acquiring more stuff or knowledge won’t help you. You have to continue to sit.
So, next time you think your meditation practice is useless or difficult, accept that maybe it is. Let all of that go. Imagine a branch wrapped in hundreds of layers of thick thorny vines. That’s your mind, entangled by its own self-reflexivity and non-stop movement. The thoughts are wrapped so tight around your mind because you haven’t spent long enough in meditation. But as you continue to sit the coil unwraps itself, the mind shedding enough of its baggage to experience mere being. This is a special experience. But it won’t come if you’re expecting it.
The Zen master Dogen believed every moment spent ‘just sitting’ is a massive achievement, an act of benevolent karma that echoes for eternity. When we can see it like this, as valuable in and of itself, there’s no more pressure. Just sit! There’s nothing else to it.
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