As a living being, what is the most basic state you can be in? A state requiring no effort on your part whatsoever and of which all human beings are capable, but which most of us rarely engage in except if forced? The answer: existing; simply being.
If you were on your couch talking to someone and that person then got up and left the room and there was no laptop in the room and your phone was dead, how long could you comfortably sit there or lay there just being and taking up space? Forget any spiritual talk or any kind of ‘practice’ of anything; how long could you do it? Maybe you’re at a diner with a friend and they excuse themselves to use the restroom. Are you okay? Or are you diving for your phone and looking around for anything more ‘interesting’ going on in the room or outside the window? Maybe they get back and you say ‘what took you so long!? I was just sitting here!” As if that were a terrible thing.
Some people answer “Yah, I really can’t deal with that—I need to be doing something” or “I’m okay maybe five minutes—maybe ten?” Many people begin fidgeting, counting ceiling tiles, dreaming about a new vacation home; anything to ‘pass the time’, but few of us are able to just sit peacefully feeling our heartbeat and listening to our own breathing for very long. In other words, very few of us would be able to engage in simply being for even a short span of clock time.
Imagine that! Just existing and taking up space is very difficult! Your own mind betrays you and starts to torture you; “Lets go! What are we doing here? How long do I have to sit here? Is my phone charged yet? Where did the other person go? Is he or she angry with me? Isn’t there something productive I could be doing right now?” and so forth and so on. Your body feels restless and fidgety. ‘This has to stop!,’ you think.
But WHAT has to stop? Being alive? Existing?
For many of us, this simple act of being frightens, challenges and frustrates our efforts more so than any work-related responsibility, academic testing or relationship issue. Isn’t it interesting such a seemingly simple, straightforward ‘act,’ i.e. the act of taking NO action, should cause so many people so many problems? Such non-action is even seen as ‘worthless’ or stupid by many. As if the most fundamental, most basic essence of our presence here on the planet is not at all worthwhile!
So imagine that! We are human beings and most people are all but unable to simply BE. In this sense most of us are very good at the human part of human being, but not so good at being.
This is partly due to culture; human culture! As children, we are constantly encouraged to do or think something all the time by well-meaning teachers and parents etc. The state of simply being is in fact actively discouraged! ‘Don’t just sit there!’ Is a common refrain. So it happens that while many of us have years of experience engaging in all manner of occupations, activities and endeavors, all manner of doing or thinking about doing, very few of us have much interest in or experience with this most basic quality of existence; one which is free and readily available to all of us. This is the state of non-doing; the state of being.
Throughout your life, you may have come to know this state by the other names it has been given, such as ‘laying about’, ‘contemplating your navel,’ ‘being lazy’ or ‘meditation.’ However, at its core, it is simply the act of being alive with no willful engagement in any particular activity. You can conceive of this state as your ‘default’ and native state; the desktop screen of your computer. No action, no endeavor, no effort; just existence. Just breathing and feeling your heartbeat.
And it is this state of your being which is the most important state of being to become acquainted with because it is the purest; everything else on top of it is human-created ‘noise’ full of ideas, opinions, arguments and advertising jingles etc.
So, while most everything else in our world is human-created, your very existence is not. It isn’t cluttered with advertising or ideas about the world or politics or the stock market or a thousand things. It simply is. It is pure. This is what the spiritual gurus mean by ‘there is nowhere really to go’ or ‘everyone is already enlightened.’ They mean that this pure uncluttered state is already available to you and is with you at all times; we are just too involved with the superficial mind-created noise on top of everything to experience it.
So how can you realize this; this bedrock state of existence beneath the artifice of the mind and the human-created artificial world? Do you need to move to Tibet? Wear a robe? Not necessarily. Like anything, you can practice! Whether in Tibet or Atlanta, it is free to spend some time in silence just breathing and feeling your heartbeat each day. Perhaps the best, though not the only way to practice this, is by setting aside time for it daily. This is commonly known as meditation. By meditation though, you must be carefuI not to try to do anything special or attain some special state. This is because such ‘specialness’ will then too be a creation of your own mind; your own ideas about meditation and your nature rather than your very nature itself.
One method is just to set a timer for 15 or 20 or 30 minutes and sit down or lie down or situate yourself in any comfortable position and then… do nothing. Do not try to clear your mind or calm yourself. Do not try to meditate! Take some deep breaths to situate yourself if you like and close your eyes or leave them open. Maybe observe any feeling states that arise or thought patterns, though no mental comment on them is necessary. Otherwise; just become comfortable with stillness and get in touch with your own existence; your own being. After some practice getting in touch with this state; the silence and stillness beneath the world of noise and man-made ideas, the inertia of your thought train may slow down or even cease for a time.
Then there you are; just existing; relaxed and unafraid. It’s then that you begin to experience your own true nature as your true essence rather than the mind-created ideas about what you are or what this world is. Gradually this growing ‘stillness beneath the noise’ with follow you throughout the day and more and more you’ll feel calmer and generally more connected to the external matters in your life. You become more comfortable with non-doing even in the course of doing things! You also begin to realize how confusing and obfuscated the mind-made world is.
To paraphrase one modern spiritual teacher, connecting to the stillness beneath the noise is like walking into a quiet room and shouting; the room was always silent until you got there and shouted. Then afterwards, it returned to silence. The silence was always there; it just needed for you to stop shouting. It’s the same with your being.
Underneath everything is silence; just breath and a heartbeat.
Often when I talk with people about meditation or yoga practice or some other type of spiritual practice, they say things like "Oh I tried that but I couldn't clear my mind like they wanted me to" or "yah I just didn't have the patience; my mind was like 'what am I doing this for?' or 'what's the point of this?"
When I began meditation, I spent years trying to do this very thing; trying to make my mind 'clear' so I could get into some special 'spiritual' place or other. Eventually, I realized this was quite backwards really. By this I mean you don't have to 'clear your, mind' at all to do these types of spiritual practices! Not at all. Rather, these types of practices RESULT in a clearer, less obstructed mind.
So saying you couldn't do meditation because you weren't able to 'clear your mind' like the instructor said or were too bothered by thoughts for it to 'work' is a bit like saying you couldn't take up jogging because you weren't able to run 10 miles with a running group or you couldn't start lifting weights because you couldn't bench press 250 pounds!
Perhaps the best explanation of the essence of meditation and spiritual practice I've come across is also the simplest. It is Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki's comparison of the human mind with its ceaseless thinking to a glass of water with sand floating in it making it cloudy. Master Suzuki says if you try to take a stick and push all the sand to the bottom of the glass to 'make the water clear,' all you will succeed in doing is stirring up more sand. The water gets cloudier; not clearer! So what do you do? Just leave the glass of cloudy water on the table for an hour, come back and presto! All the sand is at the bottom of the glass and the water is clear.
Humans want to DO something; to GET somewhere. We want to push the sand to the bottom and make the water clear, but it seems any action we take to do so just ends up making things cloudier. Meditation and all spiritual practice is like that. There is nothing you need to 'do' and no special 'spiritual' state of mind you need to try hard to achieve.
On the very deepest level this means there is actually no such thing as 'meditation' or 'spiritual practice' since there is nothing really at all to do! Or if you like, everything is meditation and spiritual practice. Our job is just to recognize this; to become aware of it. Indeed, a line from a well-known Buddhist scripture tells us this very thing; 'No attainment with nothing to attain,' reads the Heart Sutra. Or if you prefer, 'Be still and know that I am God," reads a line from another famous book.
In other words; you can allow for or be the space for things to happen, but you cannot try to make things happen; or the opposite of what you would like to happen will happen! The water was clear until the sand got stirred up in the glass and will be clear once again after being left alone for a time. Humans just choose to name our particular methods for 'allowing things to happen' or 'leaving the glass alone,' meditation or spiritual practice. Yoga, Tai Chi, Zen, prayer and other 'spiritual practices' therefore are just some different names for various ways of 'leaving the glass alone;' for cultivating the clarity that is awareness.
So don't worry about being 'spiritual' or 'clearing' your mind! Just follow Master Suzuki's simple advice; leave the glass on the table and come back in ten minutes. Or a half hour. Or an hour. The glass of water may not be crystal clear; not yet. But gradually, after some span of regular practice, it will be less and less cloudy.
A 2016 New York Times article cautions readers that the timeworn mantra "be yourself" (commonly described as 'being authentic') is terrible advice; and that taken literally, such advice can do more harm than good. However this article fundamentally confuses 'being yourself' with being blunt or uninhibited. Telling someone “those pants make you look fat” or “I’ve always hated you” or “you’ve written a terrible article on authenticity” does not mean you are 'being yourself' nor does it make you ‘authentic.’ In fact, more often than not, it makes you what many would consider tactless and insensitive.
So then, what does it truly mean to 'be yourself' or to 'be authentic'? The nature of the ‘authenticity’ mental health professionals strive to cultivate in their patients is the same kind those independently seeking such authenticity by yoga, zen or self-help practices strive for in their own lives and this brand of authenticity is much harder to quantify and study.
It’s the kind where your identity, your overarching sense of who you are, comes not from someone else’s perception of you or indeed from your own perceptions and ideas about yourself (which are in turn, often based upon the notions of others), but rather from the ongoing moment to moment recognition that you are not any particular role you are playing; nor are you any particular perception or idea you or anyone else may have about you.
Shakespeare said “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players...” Yes, but moment to moment, do you understand the role you’re playing? Do you understand you are acting?
This means you are not a father, a mother, a teacher, a doctor or a businessman any more than you are a person who enjoys hiking, swimming, dogs, cats or long walks on the beach. You are not a ‘TV watcher’ or a ‘good writer’ or a ‘boat enthusiast.’ You are not ‘pretty’ or ‘fashionable’ or ‘successful’ or ‘dumb’ and so forth.
As you grew up, you may have been told you were some or many of these things; the ‘pretty one’ or the ‘smart one’ or the ‘dumb one’ or talented or untalented or artistic or clumsy. Even now people tell us we are these things all the time. We consider some of these things ‘good’ things to be and some of these ‘bad’ things to be. We may keep the ones we like and discard the ones we don’t.
All of these descriptors, whether we consider them ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ are only labels though, unless you make them more; unless you make them self. Then, like Shakespeare says, you are a player on the stage, but you don’t deeply understand you are only acting.
Sometimes we may choose to energize, consciously or unconsciously, one of these ideas about ourselves depending upon our mood, insecurities, potential for secondary gain, feelings about the people we are currently associating with etc.; play a role, put on a costume. This is okay as long as we understand in that moment none of these roles is ‘authentically’ us. Then we don’t hold on to them as ‘authentic’; as self.
So who are you behind all of these perceptions? Who are you after you cut through the web of everyone else’s perceptions of you and indeed, your own ideas about yourself; which you to some degree fashioned out of everyone else’s perceptions of you along the way?
That’s your authentic self and coming to rest in it, by any means you may see fit, is really the only work any of us here has to do.