What is Meditation?

‘What can I say that I have not said before?
So I’ll say it again.
The leaf has a song in it.
Stone is the face of patience.
Inside the river there is an unfinishable story
and you are somewhere in it
and it will never end until all ends.’
(Mary Oliver, Swan)

Meditation, like poetry, can seem obscure and intangible but it is simply what happens when you begin to notice what is happening. In this way meditation positions you in the very midst of your experience of life. If nothing appears to be happening, noticing that is meditation too.

Meditation inhabits a common ground of all religious traditions and no religion. It is simply us turning up to life. There is a trick to this, because we attempt to remain in moments which have already passed, to locate an abstract self in the moments where we feel most alive or would like to be. Even when we are not ‘being present,’ this is where we are. Right under our noses.

‘Meditation can mean all kinds of things. But when I use this word, what I’m mainly using it for is that sense of centering, that sense of establishing, resting in the center. The only way that one can really do that is not to try and think about it and analyze it; you have to trust in just a simple act of attention, of awareness. It’s so simple and so direct that our complicated minds get very confused. “What’s he talking about? I’ve never found a still point in me. When I sit and meditate, there’s nothing still about it.” But there’s an awareness of that. Even if you think you’ve never had a still point or you’re a confused, messed-up character that really can’t meditate, trust in the awareness of that very perception.’
(Ajahn Sumedho, Intuitive Awareness)

What’s this awareness? What is it? Does it follow knowledge? Mystics have often articulated knowledge as pointing toward something. My eleven-month-old boy has recently been pointing – sometimes he first sees something which he then points too, other times he simply points and then looks to see what he is looking at.

‘The bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain,
To see what he could see.

And what do you think he saw?
And what do you think he saw?
The other side of the mountain,
The other side of the mountain,
The other side of the mountain,
Was all that he could see.’
(Traditional children’s song)

What do we really know and, after all, what is there to know? It is enough simply to notice. Awareness will look after itself. I am not talking about separating ourselves from our experience of life. What I sense is that there is a motivation within this awareness, more powerful and imminent than the grasping of ideals or the collecting of information. Like the river’s flow. ‘You have only moments to live,’ writes Jon Kabat-Zinn. This is it. And this. And this too.

What I am talking about here is known as mindfulness meditation. I am describing more than concentration meditation, which you can practice by focusing on your breathing, your footsteps, a candle flame, a notion of holiness or interconnectedness – and this experience will help you to notice the nature of constant change which imbues these moments of life.

Mindfulness meditation, or simply mindfulness, is living this awareness of constant change in every moment:

‘Awareness is your refuge: Awareness of the changingness of feelings, of attitudes, of moods, of material change and emotional change: Stay with that, because it’s a refuge that is indestructible. It’s not something that changes. It’s a refuge you can trust in. This refuge is not something that you create. It’s not a creation. It’s not an ideal. It’s very practical and very simple, but easily overlooked or not noticed. When you’re mindful, you’re beginning to notice, it’s like this.’
(Ajahn Sumedho)

We are aware of our breathing and each breath brings us into a new moment and we find we are still here. We know we feel angry and are yelling at or silently resenting our partner and each constricted breath brings us into a new uncomfortable moment and we are still here. We can see we ‘missed a great moment’ by not being present with our children and each moment of their presence tells us this is a new moment and we are still here. We often mistake children’s presence for lack of concentration or intention and their willingness for impatience, ‘I want it now.’ This is all they know and they will continue to live for it. And it is not such a bad thing, when you know how to let go in the same manner. Life undermines our constructions and mostly leaves us standing.

Geoff Dawson, a Sydney-based psychologist and Zen teacher writes of meditation, ‘The motivation for practice comes simply from looking into this present moment as it is and being willing to experience its edge of unsatisfactoriness if that is what is present or seeing its immeasurable wonder and love and joy if that is what is present. There is no practice or motivation for practice outside of this.’ Where does the motivation for this motivation arise? From our experience of life.

It may seem unwise to offer a simple answer to this difficult question, and it will certainly sound tacky to further say the solution is to be here now. We have an idea that a solution is something fixed at the end of everything else. We have another idea that there is, somewhere, an experience of life more significant than this particular moment we are living through. A solution can be a helpful metaphor in that we can allow ourselves to dissolve into each moment, knowing that we cannot do anything else or be anyone else other than who we are in this moment. And this very moment will dissolve and disappear until we look anew:

‘I know that nothing has ever been real
without my beholding it.
All becoming has needed me.
My looking ripens things
And they come toward me, to meet and be met.’

(Rainer Maria Rilke, The Book of Hours: Love Poems to God)

If there is a significant ‘me’ to be found, it is in the pointing, the noticing. Engaging in living.

So, I encourage you to be here. To bear witness to your experience of life. To bear life, to bring forth living with noticing. Kara Matheson, who applies mindfulness in the contexts of parenting and education, defines it as: ‘learning to pay attention to what is happening in and around you, learning to bring kindness, curiosity, and acceptance to your experience, and learning to not take it all so personally.’ If you are like me in finding kindness challenging, you may be surprised to see it bubbling up like a hidden spring, a fresh balm for those you have hurt and where you have also been wounded. And if you think you do or don’t know what is good for you, then good for you. Talk to someone about it. This is it, is it?

One of the most famous contemporary meditation teachers in the world, Sogyal Rinpoche, explained recently, ‘when I meditate … I do nothing.’ A ten-year-old boy in the audience responded by asking, ‘but how can we do nothing, aren’t we always doing something?’ Leave your mind where it is – if your life is anything like mine your present mind will probably get trodden over by muddy feet and forgotten sooner or later. This is most welcome.

(Simon Williams, 24.8.2012)

Thank you for reading. I invite you to explore these links to teachers who make mindfulness practice accessible and enjoyable…

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This entry was posted by Simon Williams.

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