The Song of Meditation
Ezra Bayda; Edited from: The Authentic Life: Zen Wisdom for Living Free From Complacency and Fear, Shambhala, April, 2014
A famous Zen master sat in meditation every morning listening to two birds jabbering back and forth. As he listened more closely he would hear the first bird sing, “Tweedley-doo,” and the second bird would reply, “Tweedley-dee.” A few seconds would pass and they would repeat the same little song, again and again. After a while, as he was sitting more deeply in meditation, he began to hear the first bird sing, “Be here,” and the second bird reply, ”Just Be.” Over and over he would hear the Song of Meditation: “Be here. Just Be.”
This is the essence of sitting meditation, whether it’s done sitting cross legged on a cushion, sitting on a chair, or even lying down. This is the song of meditation: Be here; just Be. The way we learn to sing this song is actually quite simple. We pause. We breathe. We just Be.
Even though this is a simple practice, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. In fact, as probably all of you have already found out: letting ourselves just Be is one of the hardest things we will ever do.
The most basic meditation instruction is to sit still and try to be present. We watch all of the mind’s activity as it arises, including the mindless daydreams, the compulsion to plan, the conversations, even the moments of spacing out. We just watch all of it. The idea is to allow whatever arises in awareness to arise unopposed. In fact, if possible, we invite it in—we welcome it. We even welcome our resistance to being present. We let all of it come up and then just watch it.
Often things will come up that we don’t like. When this happens, it’s particularly helpful to remember that these thoughts and feelings can be our teacher, in that we can learn from them. We don’t have to fight them or treat them like an enemy. In other words, we don’t try to change our experience or get rid of it—we just try to be aware.
Please note that observing ourselves in this way only requires observing, not judging and analyzing. Judging and analyzing actually impede the process. However, when we inevitably do begin to judge or analyze, the observing mind can take a step back and just watch those tendencies. This is the mind of curiosity, which can watch our experience unfold without trying to make ourselves or our experience different.
It’s interesting to watch what usually happens when we sit down to meditate. The mind will often be busy, jumping from one thing to another. What do we usually do when this happens? We may react to this busy mind with self-judgment, like believing that we’re not a very good meditator. The thought may be: “This is bad.” This is often followed by the thought that we need to do something to fix the situation. This is a very common process; we perceive a problem, the judging mind deems it as bad, and the fixing mind tries to do something about it.
But there’s an alternative way to approach our so-called problems. Regardless of what arises during meditation, and regardless of how we may be feeling about it, the practice remains the same: first, we Recognize what’s going on; second, we Refrain from getting pulled into the story or mental chatter; and third, we Return to being present—letting our experience just be.
This requires the basic understanding that our states of mind are not problems to be solved or obstacles to be overcome. Just because something may seem to be wrong only means that we’re adding a judgment to our experience—we’re acting out of our expectations of how things are supposed to be.
This inability to let our experience just be causes us endless difficulties. For example, if we’re emotionally upset during a meditation, we will often think that we have to settle down. The truth is, regardless what we’re experiencing, all we need do is first, be aware of our spinning thoughts and our emotional agitation; second, do our best to refrain from feeding them; and third, feel them as the physical experience of the present moment. Again, the basic principle is to simply be aware, and let our experience just be.
Keep in mind, this is not a passive approach; we still need the discipline to stay attentive and be precise in our observations. This requires an objective curiosity that’s willing to look at and be open to whatever arises. Yet, as we learn to observe our various neuroses and idiosyncrasies without judging them, we may begin to view them with benign tolerance. Perhaps we can even laugh at the absurdity of our all-too-human behavior. Learning to be able to laugh at ourselves is one of the many benefits of a meditation practice, and it is also part of the path of learning to live genuinely. Remember, we can be serious on the path without being grim.
It’s worth repeating that this practice, although in a way very simple, is also very difficult to do. Why? Because the mind is simply not inclined to let things be. The small mind would rather judge, analyze and blame, and there’s often a compulsion to find ways to control and fix our experience. Why?—so that we can feel better. However, as we learn to let our experience just be, it gradually becomes clear that real equanimity doesn’t require that we feel any particular way.
We have to keep coming back to the basics of sitting: the practice is to rest the mind in the breath, and to feel it fully. It is also to rest the mind in the environment—feeling the air, hearing the sounds, sensing the spaciousness of the room. Whenever we drift off into thinking we use the breath and the environment as anchors—to help bring us back to the reality of the present moment. In using these anchors, however, we hold to them lightly, so that we can still let our experience just be. The more we can refrain from trying to control our experiences, the more we can rest our minds in the silence of just being.