~ awake in this moment, at home in the world ~

Just Sit

June 8, 2011
Meditation sounds so simple. You slip onto the floor, relax your body and quiet your mind. After a few moments of this quiet practice - if what you've heard is true - you dissolve into an ocean of serenity and bliss. And your life is transformed.

Here's the dirty little secret: Meditation may be simple, but it isn't easy.

If you decide to give it a try, here's what will likely happen: You'll sit down, exhale deeply and soften your muscles. You'll invite your mind to empty. You'll focus on your breath for at least two good inhalations.

And then your mind will stray. A random thought about some snippet of your life will grab your attention. You'll notice that your mind has wandered and then you'll focus again on your breath, just as you've been told to do.

Another thought will pop up. You'll grumble at your lack of focus, and then you'll return to the breath again. A fear will pop up, then a fantasy, then a regret and finally a plan. You'll be overwhelmed by snippets of your endless inner commentary. Within just a few minutes you will discover a jungle of wild beasts in your brain, screeching madly and swinging from trees, disturbing the peace in any way possible.

That's how it started out for me, anyway. I had heard so many good things about meditation that I was determined to take on the practice. I tried every technique I could find to help silence those unruly thoughts that seemed to ricochet off the walls of my brain. I tried focusing on the breath, listening to the sounds around me, visualizing flowers, reciting exotic mantras.

Every day I found good reason to abandon the practice. The experience wasn't the least bit peaceful. I declared myself a fraud and a failed meditator. I was sure I couldn't do it.

And then one day I stumbled upon a remedial meditation practice. In a fit of low energy and half-hearted dedication, I decided to lower my expectations. I challenged my body to sit still for 15 minutes with no expectation that anything would happen at all. I would let my mind do whatever it wanted to do, but would stay seated in one spot for the duration of my session. Maybe I wouldn't be meditating on the inside, but on the outside I would at least be assuming a meditative posture. Surely I could manage to just sit quietly in a grown-up version of a kid's time out.

Surprisingly, even this was difficult. Once seated quietly on the ground, my mind discovered many good reasons to get up and move. I remembered an email or heard the phone ring or felt a pang of hunger or thought of a task that I needed to add to my day's to-do list. I was surprised to see just how hard it could be to stay put for a few minutes each day.

I persisted, though, challenging myself to stay seated regardless of the temptations that came my way. I even grew to enjoy this simple challenge of sitting still. I always felt better afterward. Somehow my quiet body helped bring a teeny bit of calm to my mind and my life.

My practice of “just sitting” felt challenging but manageable. I didn't feel like I'd set myself up for inevitable failure in the blissed-out brain department. I decided that while I may not be able to quiet my mind and unlock the doors to endless tranquility, I could insert a little window of physical stillness into my life, each and every day.

Over time, I discovered that just asking myself to sit and watch what happened - curious and alert but with no great expectations - nudged me toward a more formal meditation practice, a practice that does eventually lead to moments of deep calm and contentment. I now understand why meditation feels a quiet sanctuary for so many people. And I’m so glad that I persisted in this practice even when I was sure it wasn't for me.

Are you, perhaps, a failed meditator like me? Maybe you'd like to give this remedial practice a try. My invitation to you is to just sit for 10 to 15 minutes. Let go of lofty goals and instead enjoy a nice little break from the busy world of doing.

Just sit and watch, with no expectation that you will grow quiet or focused or will even enjoy it. Just sit and watch the world around you. Just sit, and watch what happens to the body and the brain.

Give the practice a week or perhaps even a month to reveal itself. Is this easy or difficult? Do you look forward to sitting or dread it? Where does your mind stray to when it has no easy diversions to entertain it? What thoughts bubble up? What diversions are waiting in the mind's wings to tempt you when the mind gets bored? What do you learn about yourself? Do you sense a possibility that this simple practice could offer you clues about the nature of peace, contentment and well-being?

My hope is that over time, you will grow to love the fine art of sitting still, watching life just happen right before your eyes. And I have a feeling that eventually your mind will lure you deeper and deeper into the practice of resting easily in the moment with no agenda.

Maybe one day you'll find your awareness settling happily into the rhythmic lullaby of the breath. Or perhaps you'll fall into a place where your attention settles deeply into the sounds around you. Or perhaps you'll find yourself silently repeating a favorite poem or prayer.

Over time, you'll get really good at simply resting quietly in the raw ingredients of the here-and-now, welcoming each passing moment and sensation with a quiet body and a tender heart.

Guess what? This is exactly what meditation is all about. Without even trying, you will have found your way right into the heart of the practice.

And by then, I have a feeling that you'll be motivated to keep practicing day in and day out. You'll sit quietly for a few minutes each day and observe what happens when you rest with ease and an open heart in the experience of the present moment. You'll discover the wonderful ways that the practice of just sitting can foster a sense of quiet and calm amid the busy-ness of life. You'll understand what I mean when I say that learning to sit still can anchor your life in presence and peace.