What is Meditation?

Adapted from a talk given by Wayne Coger at the December 2016/January 2017 Retreat in Springwater.

It is an incredibly quiet, still morning and there is just the lightest presence of snow; an incredibly beautiful dance of snowflakes. And perhaps there is some quieting within us, sitting together for several days, there might be some space—space between thoughts and space with the thoughts. In any moment there can be a cascade of thinking and in another moment, we are empty—empty and open and wonderfully quiet. Does anything have to disturb this quiet? Can there be quiet and thinking as well as quiet and doing—cooking, cleaning, or walking on the icy driveway or the icy path? Walking carefully—full of care, listening to the crunch, the feeling of a slight slip, catching oneself and looking up to trees, sky, open fields and forest. Everything here, nothing out of place—everything as it is!

There was a question on the board last night—I will read it, it would not do the question justice to merely summarize the note. I was hoping too that this question would weave into another concern that has come up from the beginning of retreat, and that comes up again and again through all the days of all the retreats. The question is: “What happens when I get home? Will this quiet and peace be available when I’m back to work, or at home and in relationship?

So, first the note: “I have heard many Krishnamurti talks on the topic of ‘What is meditation?’ and he seems consistently to suggest that meditation is a state of alive, intelligent, non-mechanical awareness rather than a system, a method, a set of postures etc. So I’m having a hard time reconciling that with the role sitting meditation plays at Springwater. Are the sittings not a system because they’re optional and free form? Are they a compromise between Krishnamurti and Zen? A reflection of Toni’s unique perspective? What’s your view? What was Toni’s?”

I cannot speak for Toni—but her books are available! We can study the books, but what will we learn? What it says in a book. And I’m not putting down the books—these are wonderful books and the sale of the books helps support the Center! Is it possible to read or listen to a talk and at the same time to question, to look for one’s self?

What presents itself here is to first consider what is meant or evoked by the word system. It also feels important for the speaker to see if there is already a movement towards defending Springwater, or the work of quiet, motionless sitting. Is it clear that there is nothing to defend, no point of view to uphold? Then we are free to take a fresh look. This is perhaps the one constant in my experience at Springwater: there is always a chance to review, re-look, wonder and change—to drop what is an encumbrance and to include what is appropriate and helpful. Someone in a private meeting this morning said that the work here is nothing like sesshin, the sesshin that one experiences at Zen Centers—it is something different, a very simple silent retreat. But it could still be considered a system, a form, a mechanical device and an artificial creation. We don’t normally wake up early in the morning, sit for an hour and a half, eat in silence, work in silence and then sit for another several hours in the evening. So are we describing a system or a method?  I don’t know, but we can look together, at this moment. [Pause].

It is a break in the routine, but perhaps our daily routine is also a system—there are expectations and patterns in our work life and in our relationships. In the rapidity of daily interactions it is sometimes hard to step back, to see how automatic and mechanical our responses are. I’m often surprised to discover conditioning and to see how little of what I say or do is original or spontaneous. And to this person, that is part of the beauty of retreat. In the spaciousness of stillness there is an opportunity to see what is actually occurring in any given moment.

One may also discover that one is imposing rules and regulations that are not part of the sitting/retreat environment. If there is a desire to get somewhere, one might invent or import a methodology to attain those goals. There is a conscious or semi-conscious need to become happier, more at peace, or to achieve enlightenment. This is not said critically, but if I become obsessed with what I lack then I miss what is here. I miss learning about wanting and I miss this moment of being. Again, in stillness these movements may reveal themselves: the desire to be someone, someone special or “spiritual,” someone who has something and who has status in a meditation community or in the world. This is, in most endeavors, encouraged. One may learn a skill, learn to play the piano or run a marathon. There will be an immense amount of work and perhaps there’s a hope that there will be rewards:  concerts, championships and approval from friends and strangers. Or perhaps, somewhere along the way, it’s noticed that the training falls away and one may just play music or run for the joy of it, for beauty and for love. Or for no reason that one can discern.

Sometimes I almost feel apologetic because we don’t really offer anything here, we don’t offer a road map or make promises about future rewards—there is no lure, no carrot on a stick. While that may be so, we still can wonder if the sitting itself isn’t some kind of methodology or a kind of separation or withdrawal from the world, a world of much sorrow and need. A world where people do violent things to themselves and to each other—and even to the air, water, plants and creatures that we share this earth with.

Aren’t we this earth, this world? And I don’t mean that metaphorically. Feeling the sorrow within oneself, within the world that is oneself, one may want to discover if there is another way to live. We have had enough of the mechanical, the repetitious; the grind of everyday life—the chasing after goals that get further and further away. Or we may achieve our goals and find that there is still not the satisfaction that was hoped for. One has the whole thing; the family, the house, the car, the vacation and something is still not quite right, not wholly satisfactory. And this dissatisfaction may engender an urge to find out if there is something else. It is like an itch that really needs to be scratched. Part of this discovery might be that I really don’t know who or what I am, or what life is and why I’m so afraid of death. Or we may wonder, like the Buddha, if suffering might come to an end, if there can be a deep and lasting peace, within ourselves and with each other—to see if there may be freedom from isolation and alienation.

I believe, have seen, that serious questions have their own energy. We don’t need to be prompted or encouraged—there is no choice, we simply look, attend and aware. Really questioning, being open to whatever is here and whatever may reveal itself is not mechanical. If there is an open question, I don’t think it can possibly be mechanical. And I don’t think there is a system to plug into that really addresses, that really meets this yearning. Lots of people will, however, offer solutions, ways and means to answer our questions and to quiet our curiosity. Is it okay to allow this natural curiosity to be and to flourish?

This engenders a memory from Toni’s retreat readings, the story of a real meditation maverick named Bankei. He lived in Japan in the 17th century and at a very early age encountered a Confucian teaching about something called “bright virtue.” Perhaps many of us might have let the reference go, not quite knowing what it meant, but Bankei began to wonder deeply what the words “bright virtue” pointed to. He inquired among various Confucian scholars, but they said (something like), “We can’t really go into that kind of thing-we really just read these scriptures and repeat what we’ve heard”. They were very honest about their limitations and they offered that a Zen teacher might be able to point him in a helpful direction. So he went to a Zen teacher, to a Zen monastery and he worked and worked and sat and sat and still couldn’t resolve this matter of bright virtue. So he went off on his own and he stayed with the sitting, enduring tremendous pain and eating only enough to stay alive. And at some point the question opened for him, revealing that: “Everything is taken care of in bright virtue.” He must have experienced a profound joy, but there also arose a concern to help other people avoid going through what he went through. So he didn’t create a system, but instead talked of the Unborn, advising those who would listen to simply remain in their Unborn Buddha nature. People did gather around him, and wanted to hear him talk. And they wanted to sit. And he would say, “If you’d like to sit, go ahead and sit for a while. You’ll get tired of sitting, so you’ll get up and walk. And then you’ll sit because you’re tired of walking and later you will get up to walk.”

So here we are not quite that informal. We have bells, walking rounds and timed periods of sitting. People here have, from time to time, questioned whether we might drop the bells and the clock and perhaps someday we will do that! But then there are also people who say, “We really like the structure, it is nice not to have to think about when to get up.” And some retreat attendees don’t get up when the bell rings and some do not come to the sitting room at all. One can discover for oneself what fits and what feels helpful or necessary. Or maybe one discovers that one is indeed moving very mechanically: striving, trying to get somewhere, trying to stick rigidly to the schedule in hopes that something will happen. This can be revealed, the repetition, how I mechanically follow the breath and become upset if I lose track of the practice. Or I may not have a formal practice, but I strain to be aware, to listen to something or everything. When I eat I am ultra-careful to be attentive, to be good at being mindful. This all can be seen—the tension and the grinding of gears and in that noticing there might be a relaxing, a tasting of the food, a feeling of the breath, with no intention and no attender.

The conditioned, the mechanical is a learned behavior and might even be in our genes. It functions with or without the imposition of any external system. Can this dependency on systems, on habit, break down? Or does it need to break down? Is it enough to see what is here, freely and openly? The discovery of the mechanical is not mechanical! Not bound and not dependent on what anyone says. People who give talks or write books can only point out what they are seeing or have seen. It really is for each of us to discover for ourselves what is so, what we are. Are we only the driven, the programmed? Is there something that is not of that limited world?

In the note that we read at the beginning of the talk, the questioner asked whether the work at Springwater was a compromise between a meditation that is a state of alive, intelligent, non-mechanical awareness” and Zen, which often includes structure, practice and hierarchy. I don’t know. When the Buddha dropped his searching, his visits to various teachers to try different disciplines and austerities, he sat down under a tree, reportedly to stay with the questioning, “What is suffering, what is the cause of suffering and is there a way out of suffering?”

Was this a compromise? Or was it simply a matter of letting the extraneous stuff drop away? After the Buddha’s awakening people came, as they did with Bankei, to be with this person and to hear what he had to say. Eventually sects arose, structures were formed and methods were adopted. People—we—look for a road map and for someone to tell us how to follow it. It is difficult to stand on one’s feet and to look for one’s self. But who can see for us?

So why do we come together in silence? There can be so many different answers at any given moment. Maybe the primary answer is that one doesn’t know! At the last November retreat, I remember in one of the dialogues someone saying, he had been coming to retreat for years, but when he walks from the parking lot up the little hill to the Center there is a strong feeling of fear. So do we come despite our trepidations;our fears of losing our moorings, our certainty of who I am and what I am?

Despite the uneasiness, many people report that in sitting, walking, working and eating together in silence they discover a joy and an ease of being that is totally unlike anything they have experienced. It is hard to convey the simple beauty of this work to someone who has not felt it for themselves, but it is palpable and quite real. This is not to say that there is not a fair amount of hardship possible in a retreat, including meeting tendencies and emotions that one really does not want to see, that are not compatible with one’s self-image. But in the meeting, in actually being here, there can be a real joy.

So perhaps that brings us to the other question, whether this joy of discovery is limited to retreating, to being together quietly, or can it flower in the airport, the bus station, the workplace—or with one’s family? Or is it impossible? If we think it is impossible it probably will be. The question, “Is awareness in everyday life possible,” has a different flavor and invites curiosity. What has been discovered here is that one may act or react (or not react!) to criticism or disappointment in a totally unexpected way, out of the space of not knowing. And this spaciousness can communicate itself; can be shared with friends & co-workers in a wonderful and mysterious way.

And while we may hold to pleasant memories of a week in Springwater, retreat was probably not an uninterrupted stream of bliss! Are we always, in retreat, calm, aware, and free of turmoil? Maybe in retreat it is relatively quiet, but is daily life all anxiety and disruption?  Maybe when I describe it to myself, it sounds like that. But how is it when we are not describing, when we are actually here?

Someone recently told me about their experience at an open air market on a Saturday morning in a large city. She found, amidst the hustle and bustle, that there was quiet and space—there was the beauty of people, of the market and the produce. Everything as it was and as it is—not the peace of a beautiful hillside, but the joy of everyday life. So another question could be, “Is it possible in any circumstance to discover a natural and unencumbered way of being?” It could be a kind of neat shift, turning towards what is presenting itself with an innocent curiosity. And if we are afraid or angry or desperately wish things could be different—we can wonder about that, gently and without expectations.

It does seem to be a function of thought to postpone, to look over the horizon and imagine what could be. This imagining can be very useful in making a building or writing a play, planning a garden and so forth. But maybe thought can also learn to be quiet when it’s not needed. And we can discover the beauty, the joy and the simplicity of this moment. Can we see that coming and going, leaving and staying are ideas? That we are always here? And there might be a discovery that being-here is totally sufficient, complete and whole. We do not always have to fall for the thought-trick that I must worry about what’s coming, what is going to happen to me. Not getting tricked is seeing, seeing that a thought is just a thought and no more than that—seeing that and staying here. Here in the spaciousness of no time and no separation.

Just this!