Sitting Quietly, Doing Nothing
In meditation, we steep ourselves in a stillness that is beyond time. But people often get discouraged because too often it feels like we’re steeping in our constantly churning, constantly chattering mind: our worries, moods, regrets, and heartaches are sometimes all we experience as we sit. In the beginning and often for a long time, our thoughts come so fast they seem to trip over each other. If we do get a moment of quietude, it’s fleeting and tentative; and then we’re back, immersed in the chatter of a busy mind, wondering if it’s even worth our effort. We all feel this way from time to time.
But if we stick to it, we begin to feel the underlying fear below our persistent mental noise. We begin to see how chatter, chatter, chatter covers up what we don’t want to deal with. It is difficult to experience our deepest hurts, longings, and existential pain in a direct and undiluted way. With a sincere meditation practice, however, there is no avoiding these deepest feelings.
When we just see our persistent thoughts without engaging or indulging them, this is pretty good. Eventually, the thoughts become transparent to us, and we begin to see the patterns from which they arise.
This often begins with an elusive and indistinct sense that something important is happening, but the significance is just out of reach, like vague shapes just beyond the horizon of our awareness. It takes time for our inner eyes to adjust to the dark and to the sensation-based language of our inner teachers. We so quickly get caught up in regretting the past and rehearsing for the future.
People often tell me they can’t meditate because their thoughts are too loud, too busy, too out of control. They are convinced that their meditative experience is different from that of others. But everybody says that. So if everyone says it, what is it really saying?
Our thoughts spin around and around, binding us to the wheel of reacting, regretting, and rehearsing. The wheel becomes the driving force of our life and it cuts us off from our true interconnected nature. It feels like we are stuck in what Zen teacher Joko Beck called “a substitute life.”
When we step back from all our regretting and rehearsing just a little bit, we see that the world is much bigger and much warmer than we ever imagined. If we see the wheel of reactivity without judgment, there’s a chance we can learn to dis-identify with it. But we can’t do it by trying to dis-identify: if you’re trying, then you’re still caught on the wheel of should and shouldn’t. You have just moved to a different spot.
Instead of getting distracted by the content of your thought dreams, look instead at the context within which they arise. What is the emotional environment surrounding them? Is it fear? Frustration? Worry? This is when our churning mind becomes our teacher, revealing fixations and patterns, while turning us toward the moment-by-moment cultivation of mental clarity, courage, and inner strength.
But you have to steep yourself in the practice of sitting quietly and being aware, again and again and again, to get a sense of what I am talking about. You have to put the teabag in the hot water, over and over. Eventually, the flavor of the water changes; it becomes sweet. And that sweetness bubbles up right in the middle of your churning mind and you find that you aren’t getting so wigged out over things.
There’s no need for despair if you only get a fleeting taste of this stillness, because it is not of time—but it completely permeates time. T.S. Eliot called it “the still point of the turning world.” After a while, the still point begins to enter our consciousness when we least expect it. We taste it when we immerse ourselves in nature, when we feel a sense of intimacy with others or the world around us, and when we give ourselves fully to the simple activities of daily life. Regardless of the speed of your churning mind, the still point is there, waiting for you to tap into it.
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Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher