For exclusive access to all our stories, including sequences, teacher tips, video classes, and more, join Outside+ today.
Put aside your expectations and allow your mind to relax into its true state of meditation.
After immersing myself in Eastern philosophy in college, I finally turned to meditation in my senior year when a bad acid trip made it crystal clear that psychedelics didn’t offer the definitive answer to the deeper questions of life. The first time I entered a zendo, I knew I had come home: The incense, the robes, the formality, the silence, all spoke a language I recognized immediately as my own.
Before long I was sitting hours, days, even weeks at a time. Sure, my knees and back ached, but so what? I couldn’t get enough of the stillness. To use a favorite phrase of one of my teachers, Shunryu Suzuki, I was obeying an “innermost request” that drew me inexorably to meditate, and something deep inside seemed to be awakening after years (or lifetimes?) of sleeping. Or you could say I had fallen passionately in love–not with a philosophy or a spiritual practice, but with some mysterious, beneficent presence that filled my meditations on a regular basis. Of course I got lost in thought like everyone else and forgot I had a breath to follow. But the act of meditating held a freshness, an aliveness, and a magic that was extremely nourishing and precious.
See also Find Lasting Peace with Meditation
Like a baby discovering the world for the first time, I didn’t have the language or the concepts to describe what was happening, so I was constantly in awe. Then I became an expert on meditation–a “senior student.” I was ordained as a monk and began teaching to others. I read all the Zen books available at the time, which described the rigorous practices and awakening experiences of the old Zen masters. In my struggle to “die on my cushion,” as my teachers kept exhorting me to do, my sittings lost their original spontaneity, wonder, and juiciness and gradually became more effortful, deliberate, and dry. Even when I tried to recapture the old simplicity, I just got tangled up in the complexity of my efforts.
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” If I had taken these familiar words of Suzuki Roshi’s to heart, I might never have relinquished the innocence and openness of a beginner’s mind for the narrow authority of the expert’s.
See also The Upside of Doing Nothing
Facing the Unknown
In my subsequent years of spiritual exploration, I’ve discovered that this innocent, open awareness is in fact the awakened, expansive, all-inclusive consciousness of the great masters and sages. As one of my teachers, Jean Klein, often said, “The seeker is the sought; the looker is what he or she is looking for.”
But how, you may ask, can you keep this freshness and innocence when you’ve been meditating for years? In my experience, you can’t keep it at all. Any effort to hold on to some special inner state is doomed to failure, because states and experiences come and go like the weather. The point of meditation is to reveal the sky, the inner expanse that remains when all the clouds disperse.
Unfortunately, our thinking mind can’t find the sky, no matter how hard it tries. Minds simply don’t know how to meditate–though they can go through the motions, pretending. Sure, they do a great job of analyzing, planning, and creating, but true meditation exists in a timeless dimension beyond the mind. If not, meditation would merely be another form of thinking. The real value of techniques is to keep the mind busy and ultimately exhaust it until it finally relaxes and allows true meditation to happen.
The mind is such a poor meditator because it can only deal with known quantities, such as facts, thoughts, beliefs, feelings, the familiar raw material of the inner life. But it can’t wrap itself around meditation, whose province is the unknown. When the mind tries to meditate, it usually attempts to recreate familiar experiences. Perhaps it’s the powerful epiphany you had six months ago, the fleeting moment of bliss you tasted yesterday, or empty, thought-free inner space. Or maybe it tries to replicate the mind-states it has read in spiritual books. Rearranging the inner furniture, the mind draws our awareness away from true meditation.
During a long silent retreat a few years ago, as I exerted my usual concentrated effort, I suddenly found the process so amusing that I burst out laughing. Here was my mind, busily struggling to quiet down, and all the while it was being embraced by a silence so deep I could feel it in my bones. The meditative habits of a lifetime fell away like an old skin, revealing the raw immediacy of the moment. There was no place to go, nothing to do, no more tricks up my sleeve, just this–the indivisible and ineffable now.
In reality, meditation is our natural state, the inner ground or context in which all experiences come and go, as near to us as a heartbeat or a breath. It can’t be manipulated or fabricated in any way. Rather, meditation is the awake, aware presence that remains unchanging and undisturbed when even the most profound spiritual experiences have dissolved into memory.
Ultimately, true meditation is synonymous with Spirit, God, Buddha nature, and true self. Now I’m not suggesting you stop meditating–only that you give up trying. Instead of practicing your usual technique, experiment with being present and open to your experience just the way it is, without judgment or manipulation. If your mind engages in its usual meditative routine–making the effort to calm down, get rid of thoughts, or have the correct spiritual experience– so be it; just remain present and open to that as well.
Giving It Up
“Many thoughts will crowd into your mind,” wrote Zen master Dogen more than 700 years ago. “Let [them] come and go, without getting involved in them or trying to suppress them.” You may discover that your mind’s relentless attempts to meditate begin to lose their fascination, and you become more interested in the aware, empty presence in which they’re taking place.
As your letting go deepens, the one who is always aware, even of the mind’s efforts, gradually moves to the foreground to be recognized, and true meditation blossoms. In a moment outside of time, the separate “meditator” drops away, and only meditation remains. Don’t worry if these words make no sense to the mind. (How could they?) But they may touch a place deep inside that knows exactly what I’m talking about. In Zen, expressions that kindle this deep inner knowing are called “live words.” For centuries teachers have used live words to awaken their students to the living truth of their essential nature. Allow the words you read here to resonate beyond your mind and kindle your knowing.
As you may have noticed, the meditation I’m referring to is not an activity you do at a particular time of day. It can’t be done because it’s always occurring–it can only be joined. I like to think of meditation as a powerful river that’s continuously flowing beneath and through the surface of life. Obviously you can’t make this river happen. It’s the very ground and substance of everything that is. The ancients called it the Tao. But you can stop clutching the familiar beliefs, habits, and preoccupations that separate you from it–and fall in. Any effort to meditate, no matter how subtle, takes you away from this deep current of awareness and presence, which is the inexhaustible source of all spiritual mind-states like bliss, peace, and joy. It’s the ultimate observer of all objects of awareness, and it’s looking out through your eyes and my eyes right now. But you can never locate or grasp it with the mind–you can only be it.
I’m not offering techniques to add to your repertoire or sage counsel on how to fine-tune your practice. My intention is to baffle your mind so it gives up and lets meditation happen. If I’ve done my job, you will finish this column knowing less than when you began.
About Our Author
Former YJ Editor-In-Chief Stephan Bodian is the author of several books, including Meditation for Dummies (Hungry Minds, 1999).