Tonight I’m scheduled to teach the weekly “intro to meditation” class at the Cambridge Zen Center, and as always I feel unqualified. What do I know about meditation that a person couldn’t learn from a book, video, or their own experience?
People come to the Thursday night intro class expecting profundity. Zen carries an aura of mystique, and this leads people to think that sitting in meditation must be essentially different and more profound than, say, waiting for the bus. So when I pull back the curtain and reveal that meditation is nothing more and nothing less than watching your breath go in and out, the disappointment is palpable. Why so much fuss, so much hype, so much pomp, and so much attention to candles and incense for something that isn’t essentially different from something you’ve done without thinking since you were born?
Breathing is boring–nothing special–at least when it happens freely: most of us don’t notice our breathing unless it’s somehow troubled or impeded, like when we have a cold or are breathless from exercise. All meditation does is ask us to pay conscious attention to the most mundane, ordinary, taken-for-granted thing–our own breath–and notice how amazingly difficult it is to accomplish even this most simple of tasks.
That is what makes meditation magic. Breathing itself is entirely ordinary: if you’re alive, you do it automatically. But the second you try to pay attention to your breathing, you realize how out-of-shape your Paying-Attention muscle is. Your heart and lungs are powerhouses, automatically doing their jobs nonstop without any conscious input from you. But your brain, on the other hand, is a far less focused entity. When you ask your brain to focus on just one thing, it has an incredibly difficult time, choosing instead to flit from thing to thing. When you start trying to train your mind to focus on one thing, you realize how scattered and all-over-the-place your mind usually is, wandering off in every direction except Here and Now.
I sometimes compare sitting in meditation to the process of teaching a puppy to stay. Our minds are like inquisitive puppies: they like to wander off and stick their noses in everyone else’s business. Telling our brain to focus on This Breath is like asking a puppy to sit still: it’s a war of wiggles. When you train your mind to Sit and Stay, you must do so calmly and patiently, with an abundance of love and gentleness. It’s not about yanking, smacking, or even scolding your mind-pup; it’s about gently steering it back, back, back to the Here and Now.
That is all that happens in meditation: your mind wanders, and you call it back. You do this over and over, more times than you can count: every time your mind thinks something other than the mantra you silently intone with each inhalation and exhalation, you calmly steer it back.
This kind of sitting and paying attention to your breath is nothing special, and it is very much like the kind of sitting you do when you’re waiting for the bus…assuming, of course, you aren’t checking your phone, reading a book, listening to music, or flipping mentally through your day’s to-do list while waiting for the bus. When you think about it, actually, very few of us truly wait for the bus while our bodies are physically present at the bus stop; instead, we’ve become incredibly adept at doing all sorts of other things while we wait.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this sort of multitasking, but too much of it alienates us from our own lives. Unaccustomed to being Where We Are When We Are, we find our minds wandering off when we want them to pay attention. This is how it happens that as our children grow, our elders die, and our lives pass by in a flash, we ultimately find ourselves on our deathbeds, wondering where it all went. “It” didn’t go anywhere; instead, “it” all happened right here under our noses while our minds were otherwise occupied.