What is Meditation?


Over the years I have developed an approach to meditation that I began to conceive in college when I was studying psychoanalysis and the nature of relationship.

In one of my college seminars, the students were asked to complete a story in which a chance encounter between a man and a woman on a backyard swing leads to the question, "Tell me, why are you interesting? Why should I pass this time with you?"

In my completion of the story, the character being asked this question, a man of high community standing, a man of many accomplishments, runs quickly in his mind through all that he has done, all that would make him interesting to the conventional mind. In a panic he searches for the most interesting thing he has done, searches to impress this woman, so eager to prolong this fascinating chance encounter. But all his accomplishments seem pale and uninteresting in the light of this situation. Finally, he takes a deep breath and says, "I am interesting because I am here."

He realizes that his fundamental worth is not based on anything he has accomplished, but on his actual existence. He is, in fact, interesting only in so far as he is present, open, aware and responsive. I didn't really know what I was getting into at the time, but I was beginning a long journey to discover the significance of being fully present.

So my approach to meditation does not involve trying to control the mind or tame the passions. It does not involve striving for enlightenment.

It involves one simple thing: being present, with your whole being, to whatever is happening. Being aware of the body: its sensations and the simple fact of it. Being aware of the existence of thoughts as they arise and dissipate. Being aware of sounds and sights. Being aware of inattention.

Especially that. For as awareness increases, you are going to discover that most of the time you are not aware. You are not paying attention to others and they are not paying attention to you. You do not know what is happening in your body. You do not know what is going on in the world around you. You do not know that you are lost in thought.

Thought. The place where we spend most of our time, without being aware of it. Thought is a product of the past. By being lost in thought, we are lost in the past, and cheating ourselves of the present. Failing to be interesting. Failing, in fact, to be alive, since the present is the only place where we live.

So, meditation is simply being aware of whatever presents itself to awareness. What if the mind is noisy with thought? What is the difference between meditating, and just sitting around with a noisy, chattering mind, jumping from one thought to another without letup? The difference is simply bringing attention to all that chatter rather than letting it ramble on unnoticed. The difference is simply being aware.

How often have you been in a conversation where no one really hears anyone else, or understands anyone else, or responds honestly to anyone else; where every statement is a matter of posturing for dominance, or reacting defensively, or making excuses, or complaining? If you can pay attention to your own words as they are spoken, and your own thoughts as they arise, you will see how common this is. We are lost in thought and reaction most of the time. Take a breath. Be aware of it. It will begin to diminish in power without any effort.

There are times when there is something fairly intense going on that needs to be attended to, some strong emotion that arises. I am angry. I am extremely sad. I am afraid. I am anxious. Can I embody these things, consciously? Can I give them space to be what they are without trying to make them go away or latch onto them? Is it the purpose of meditation to control or eliminate or identify with these feelings, or is it the role of meditation to make it possible to bear all things completely, without shrinking away at all, and then let them go?

There are times when all is quiet, when the space between thoughts suddenly expands. When I was new to meditation, the deep quiet was truly frightening. The mind likes to remind itself of its existence, to fill the silence with noise. Whistle in the dark.

For in the deep quiet, when there is no need for thought or action, what is there? What lies in this space? It is perhaps a mistake to talk about this at all, because to talk about it is to turn it into a concept, another thought, an ideal, and I do not want you to get caught there. The practice is simple: be aware. Be aware of lack of awareness. Everything else is contained in that.

But, this is what I find: you probably know that sounds are vibrations within a certain range of frequencies that the ear can respond to. There are vibrations that can not be heard, but are still vibrations. A very deep vibration, say around 10 cycles per second, can not be heard (unless you are an elephant or a fin whale), but it can be felt as a vibration. Well, in the deepest quiet of the deepest meditation, it is as if there is a vibration that is so deep that it can neither be heard nor felt. And this vibration is the fundamental vibration.

When we hear a sound, it is usually made up of many sounds at different frequencies. The fundamental is the ground of the sound, the lowest frequency in the range of frequencies that make up the sound. But what makes a sound unique and distinctive is not the fundamental, but the overtones. It is the character of the overtones that makes a violin and an oboe sound so different even when they play the same note.

In the deepest quiet of the deepest meditation, it is as if the overtones cease, and all that is left is the fundamental.

It is like that. This fundamental lies hidden, beyond the ability of the senses to grasp it or the mind to record it. Yet it is the ground of all. It is not just the ground of me, but also of you, and all the animals and all the rocks and rivers, and all the planets and the stars, and all the vital dance in which we all move. How do I know this about something I can not see with my eye or grasp with my mind? I do not know it in that way. But it leaves traces. And by those traces, I discern its presence.

First, there is a more accurate perception of reality. I am able to see that the overtones are overtones, where before I thought that they were the whole sound, perhaps the only sound. I can see that "I" is a small thing, a resonance of a larger thing, whereas before, I suffered under the illusion that I am separate and alone. I can see that thoughts are thoughts, and reactions are reactions. I can see where they begin and where they end. I can see that they do not constitute a unified and everlasting "self."

And then there is a greater appreciation for beauty. There is a feeling of being connected to everyone, and everything. There is a feeling of a great dance going on of all energy and matter, in which we and all things participate. There is a movement to love more and possess less and live more fully.

Why should it be so? Why shouldn’t time spent in "emptiness" leave one feeling a little blank? Why would it leave one richer? These feelings are mere echoes, it seems to me, of a great truth that is touched in the deep stillness of being fully present, free of the grip of thoughts, opinions and reactions.

This is interesting, but ultimately not that important. Knowing this might remove some of the fear of dwelling in silence, but it is not the goal of meditation, or perhaps it is clearer to say it is not helpful to make this a goal.

Be present. Find that place in you which is already fully present to and in everything. Attend with your whole being to whatever lies before you and within you, to what you are, the noise and the silence. Do not force yourself to be quiet, but ease naturally into quiet as the need for noise falls away. Do not play mind games to trick yourself into being still. Be aware. Be present, and find the dynamic stillness that lies waiting at the root of your being.

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