enlightened qualities start with a peaceful mind, one that is stable,
open, and awake. It all begins, says JAMES ISHMAEL FORD, with the simple
practice of sitting down, shutting up, and paying attention.
you’re stressed. No doubt this is the age of stress. Fortunately, there
are many things you can do about it. Among them, a number of styles of
meditation will help to slow things down, give you a bit of space, a
moment of calm in the storm. There sure seem to be a lot of storms that
need calming. So it’s natural that many are turning to meditation as a
significant help toward mental and physical well-being.
course that’s not the only reason people turn to meditation. Nor is it
even the most important. Perhaps you’ve experienced some spiritual
question. Maybe you have a sense there’s something missing in your life.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that whether things are going well or badly
there always seems to be a hole. This longing for some sense of
wholeness is what brings many to meditation.
maybe you’re thinking that things are possibly not the way everyone
seems to think they are. You’ve noticed discrepancies between what
you’ve been told and what you actually see and hear and experience. And,
with that, perhaps you have an intuition that meditation of one sort or
another might point you toward a deeper, more accurate take on what
is interesting is how meditation can be so important for us, whether
we’re looking to enhance our well-being, hoping to get a bit of a better
handle on our lives, or throwing our lot into the great exploration of
this life’s meaning and purpose.
the reason we take up meditation, what I’ve found is that when we stop
and look, step away from our assumptions just for a moment, and take up
the spiritual discipline of practice, things do happen. It can be
shocking to discover how much is in our hands. William James observed,
“Each of us literally chooses, by his way of attending to things, what
sort of universe he shall appear to himself to inhabit.” Synergies begin
when we bring our attention to the ways of the world, and the ways of
our hearts. We discover new territory and new possibility. An old and
dear friend summarized this, observing how the cultivation of a
“peaceful mind can blossom into a profound mind.”
course, there are many kinds of meditation, one or another for every
purpose under the sun. Personally, I’m a bit of a minimalist. And so
whatever your reason for considering meditation, maybe someone
interested in minimums might be helpful to you.
what I have to offer: I find the practice of sitting down, shutting up,
and paying attention is the most useful path to a more healthy life. It
will help us find peace and sometimes open us up to ever deeper
down. Shut up. Pay attention. These are the points that allow the
synergies to happen. As the modern Chinese master Sheng Yen said, “As
the mind becomes clearer, it becomes more empty and calm, and as it
becomes more empty and calm, it grows clearer.” This is the spiral path
of clarity. The more deeply we engage it, the deeper we become. It is
here we find that peaceful mind. With this we find the place is set
where we can find a profound mind, opening ourselves to a path of wisdom
in a world of confusion.
I first began Buddhist meditation I met a woman who was a longtime
student of Zen, and who was considered to have achieved deep insight.
What is important to note here is that she was a quadriplegic; since her
accident she’d never “sat” in any traditional way. Whenever I talk with
people about sitting, I remember her. In fact the Buddha told us there
are four postures suitable to meditation: standing, walking, lying down
and sitting down. They all work. They all have a place.
said, for most of us it seems best to begin the practice by sitting
down. Taking our place this way establishes our intention and allows us
to focus on the basics of the practice.
someone says something like, “I don’t need to sit, my spiritual
practice is golf” (or knitting, or archery, or target shooting), I think
they might well be missing something. Now, I have nothing against golf,
or any of these activities. While each of them brings gifts, true
meditation—at least the meditation disciplines associated with
Buddhism—bring us to something more important. And we start by taking
our place, by sitting down.
sit. If you can hold your body upright it is better. You can sit on the
floor on a pillow or on a chair. Whichever you chose, it helps to have
your bottom a bit higher than your knees. This establishes a triangular
base that supports your torso. Pushing the small of the back slightly
forward and holding the shoulders slightly back helps create that
upright position. Sitting this way, you can immediately feel your lungs
opening up and each breath invigorating your body.
your hands in your lap. In Zen, we like to sit with our eyes open. Many
traditions prefer to close the eyes. Experiment a little. Find what
seems to work best for you. Personally, I like to see where I’m going.
you’ve heard the story of the professor who visited the Zen master. The
professor talks and talks and talks, until his throat is dry. Finally
the master offers him some tea. The professor thanks the teacher, who
then sets out two cups and begins to pour tea into the first cup, and
pours and pours. The tea flows out of the cup and covers the table.
of the time when people hear this story they identify with the Zen
master. We all know people like the professor, people who just don’t
know when to shut up. But the truth is that we’re such people ourselves.
That is you. That is me. It’s a human thing.
the most part we are running a steady commentary on life. We’re
judging, we’re refining, we’re planning, we’re regretting. We tend to
run tape loops around anger or resentment, around desire and wanting,
around how we think things are or are supposed to be. What if we did
just shut up?
Japanese monasteries, a novice monk would have his place in the
meditation hall pointed out to him and he’d just go sit there. Shutting
up in the external sense would be obvious to him because in old Japanese
monasteries if you got out of hand you could catch a beating. But as
for handling those loops of noise inside the head, well, almost nothing
is said about that.
invitation here is not to put a complete stop to our thoughts, whether
they’re those old tape loops we run over and over, or more creative and
possibly even useful thoughts. Truth is, stopping all thought is a
biological impossibility. But we can slow it all down. We can stop our
thoughts and feelings from grabbing us by the throat.
Shutting up is the invitation.
Just be quiet.
pay attention to what? Our minds can wander, and wildly. We plan and we
regret; we wish for something else. We rarely are simply present. So,
how to deal with it?
a start. Take five breath cycles, putting a number on each inhalation
and exhalation, counting one as you inhale, two as you exhale and so on
to ten. The invitation here is to notice. When you don’t notice—and
realize you don’t notice—return to one. Don’t blame yourself. Just
return to one. Don’t blame something else. Return to one. Just notice.
Just pay attention.
Or you allow your attention to ride on the natural breathing without counting.
Or you can just pay attention.
years ago there was an American who made his fortune doing business in
East Asia. Financially comfortable, he decided to retire and to enjoy
the fruits of his labors. Along the way he’d become fascinated with
jade, and decided to learn all there was to know about it.
hired the foremost authority on the subject, who instructed him to come
to her home once a week for a tutorial. As he arrived on the first day,
he was greeted and given some tea. Then the man was handed a large
piece of jade, and with that, the tutor disappeared for an hour. When
the tutor returned she claimed the jade, thanked the patron for his
time, and told him his next appointment was scheduled for the same time
the following week. The man wasn’t sure what to make of this experience,
but he’d learned patience in his years in business, and deferred for
the time being to the reputation of his tutor.
enough, the same thing happened again the next week. This time the
patron was less willing to defer, but he restrained himself, and came
back for a third time. And then a fourth time. Each visit repeated
itself exactly: some tea, some small talk, the piece of jade was put
into his hand, and the tutor left for an hour.
after many weeks, he was once again handed the jade and the tutor
departed. At the end of that hour he couldn’t contain himself any
longer. Everything that had been boiling within him burst forth when the
tutor returned. “I have no idea what you think you’re doing! But I’m no
fool. You’ve just been wasting my time and my money. And now, to add
insult to injury, this time you put a piece of fake jade into my hand.”
And he was right— it was fake.
Just pay attention.
you’re stressed. Perhaps you have some burning question about life and
death. Perhaps you intuit there is something more to all this than
you’ve been told.
Sit down. Shut up. Pay attention.
You never know when it will reveal what is true and what is fake.
James Ishmael Ford is a guiding teacher of Boundless Way Zen and a Unitarian Universalist minister. He is the author of Zen Master Who? and coeditor of The Book of Mu. His new book, If You’re Lucky, Your Heart Will Break: Field Notes From a Zen Life, will be published in September by Wisdom Publications.