Buddha talked occasionally about meditative states (jhāna), but he was clearly more interested in bhāvanā, or ‘cultivation:’ literally, cultivating yourself as a moral person. Bhāvanā is about how you relate to all experience, not just sitting quietly. It’s about how you see yourself and how you consequently relate to others.
That isn’t to say that formal sitting meditation is a waste of time. The quiet room and prepared space put you in the mood. The lack of distraction helps you focus, though as every frustrated meditator knows, you don’t necessarily focus on the right things. Once you give the mind all that space it tends to take off on its own.
Meditation is not about calming down and feeling good;
it’s about watching out and growing up
That’s when people declare that they can’t meditate, not realizing that it’s a natural feature of the human mind and that they’re already doing it; it’s just not what they expected. We naturally mull over our experience and try to grasp what’s happening but when we spend too much time thinking about how we’d like to be, we forget to pay attention to the way we are, and end up judging rather than helping ourselves. Meditation is not about calming down and feeling good, it’s about watching out and growing up. Here’s an example:
I was walking the other day through grey rain, under a grey sky. The rising mist met the falling cloud as I plodded along one foot after the other, steady as an animal. In that moment I saw myself as exactly that: a temporary presence on the face of the planet. My heart sank. I felt myself resisting the gloom, wanting the day to be sunny, my heart to be cheered. I invested my attention in that wanting, cultivating my own gloom.
Whether I tug myself away from the gloom or towards the
light the problem is the tugging, not the direction
Then I saw through it to the bawling baby I once was, unhappy with how things are. I almost identified with him but pulled back, realizing that whether I tug myself away from the gloom or towards the light the problem is the tugging, not the direction. Instead of opening myself to life’s fragile contingency, I obscured my situation and added to my burdens. Reaching out for what we want sometimes answers an immediate need, but it also become a habit that leaves us constantly unfulfilled.
Whether you’re sitting in a quiet room or walking through the woods, the meditative mind recognizes habitual reactivity and steps out of it. In an instant I saw the absurdity of resisting my experience. My eyes opened. I embraced the gloom and returned to my surroundings. There was a smell of must in the air, a rustling in the leaves, a familiar contact with unknown nature, a little dangerous and spine-tingling. I no longer felt comfortable. Instead I felt alive. My heart sank but my senses were acute.
Meditation is not an escape from this world but an intimate contact with it.