A friend recently asked a Zen teacher about the purpose of sitting to be told that we sit "for no reason at all." The teacher was meaning to say, I think, that we have to abandon our agenda in order to sit properly but she failed to mention that we can't help but have an agenda. This is an instance of something that is, as Achaan Chah would say, "true but not right." Awareness undermines our agenda just as our agenda undermines awareness. Saying we sit without an agenda is a sure away to add a new item to the agenda. We can't help but have a agenda.
One of my college professors neatly summed up the human agenda with this: "We are stimulus seeking organisms." We do not still this function for no reason. When we begin to understand that we are making ourselves suffer, meditation makes sense. Inevitably, we take it up as our newest self improvement project which, like all the previous projects, inevitably, fails. But unlike the others, when this one fails we realize that we have stranded ourselves up Shit Creek and we've thrown away paddle. By the time this happens we hopefully understand that all the paddle has been doing is splattering us with shit. There's that, but tossing away the paddle, the effort, is tantamount to tossing away hope of a better life, leaving it just stuck in the shit where all we can do it see it and smell it. It is a scary place, but ultimately a benevolent one because that place where there is no escape is the exact location where awareness does its very best work.
We sit because we don't want to hurt. If we are sitting properly, we are working with hurt in a way that is very specific and quite precise. The Buddha taught two things, suffering and the end of suffering. Meditation is the study of suffering -- what causes it, how it starts and how it fades away, which it will do all on its own in its own time. Sitting with suffering without trying to change it or make it go away requires determination. As we sit we make a simple shift from being dominated by thoughts to holding those thoughts in awareness.
Awareness is a big word in meditation circles. We all hope to awaken to a big "A" awareness of the great web being that transcends our grubby little lives. But what we have to work with is regular old little "a" awareness that is no more transcendent that the simple knowing that you are reading these words.
The Theravadans have a useful term for just what it is that we grapple with, "defilements." My mind wants to interpret that word as sin but the term actually refers to is the thinking process that distorts our sense of reality and makes us feel crazy. Being crazy is nothing more than the inability to distinguish our thinking from the awareness that we are thinking.
The crucial element of any thought is whether or not it is straining for some kind of resolution or being held harmless in a larger field of awareness. It is in this awareness that we find refuge. This very basic, bare awareness is so subtle that we barely notice it. We don't notice it because it is entirely neutral. That entirely neutral space is all we need to begin evaluating our thinking and understanding that thought is a useful and necessary but limited. It is difficult to understand because life inevitably hits each of us really hard. When it does we also inevitably, try to think of a way out of it. When we are left with nothing but pain and the awareness of pain, awareness seems like the thinnest of reeds upon which to hold faith.
Whether we know it or not, awareness is always doing its work. It allows us to continually move on from whatever compelling thought is dominating the mind so we can shift focus where it is needed. Meditation is a conscious process of utilizing awareness to balance too much thinking.
Turning the attention to the breath is the most fundamental meditation. The breath is natural, constant and it is calming. Attention to breathing is "shamatha meditation." Awareness of the breath diverts attention from obsessive thinking to the simple fact of being here in this present moment. The simple awareness of being creates an opening for "vipassana," the realization that the thinking we mistakenly believe to be a clear seeing of a truly awful reality is simply an infinitesimal part of one very vast, infinite moment.
This takes courage, patience and time. Eventually, we realize that we always have a choice. We can be overwhelmed by thinking and be crazy or we can turn attention to the simple awareness that we are thinking and stay sane, uncomfortable perhaps, but sane.
And Shit Creek? Back in 1971 or so, I attended the Boulder, CO Whole Earth Fair and Holy Man jam. There was a guy running around Boulder back then everyone called Brother John. He had long hair, a beard, and a strange facility for speaking in King James English. He always went around shirtless and surrounded by girls. God, how I hated him. One day I found my self sitting behind Brother John at a lecture given by an Indian Swami. John got up to dispute some point the swami have made in a rant that and went on at great and, from what I recall, incoherent, length. When he was finished, the guy sitting next to him looked up and said, "That's bullshit!" Without missing a beat, John extended his hand toward the guy and replied, "Are you not aware my friend, that it is bullshit that makes the flowers grow." We all cracked up and the swami remarked that this was "the wisest thing he's said yet."