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Two Ways to Think About Meditation For a Better Practice

Keeping both in mind is hard, but it’ll help you on your path

Jon Kabat-Zinn
Jul 2, 2018 · 7 min read
Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

It may be useful to realize that there are two apparently contradictory ways to think about meditation and what it is all about, and the mix is different for different teachers and in different traditions. You may find me purposefully using the language of both these ways simultaneously, because both are equally true and important and the tension between them exceedingly creative and useful.

Meditation as method

One approach is to think of meditation as instrumental, a method, a discipline that allows us to cultivate, refine, and deepen our capacity to pay attention and to dwell in present-moment awareness. The more we practice the method, which could actually be a number of different methods, the more likely we are over time to develop greater stability in our ability to attend to any object or event that arises in the field of awareness, either inwardly or outwardly. This stability can be experienced in the body as well as in the mind and is often accompanied by an increasing vividness of perception and a calmness in the observing itself. Out of such systematic practice, moments of clarity and insight into the nature of things, including ourselves, tend to arise naturally.

In this way of looking at meditation, it is progressive; there is a vector to it that aims toward wisdom, compassion, and clarity, a trajectory that has a beginning, a middle, and an end, although the process can hardly be said to be linear and sometimes feels like it consists of one step forward and six steps back. In this regard, it is not dissimilar to any other competency that we may develop by working at. And there are instructions and teachings to guide you along the way.

This way of looking at meditation is necessary, important, and valid. But — and it is a big but — even though the Buddha himself worked hard at meditating for six years and broke through to an extraordinary realization of freedom, clarity, and understanding, this method-based way of describing the process is not in itself complete and can, by itself, give an erroneous impression of what meditation actually involves.

Meditation as way of being

Just as physicists have been compelled by the results of their experiments and calculations to describe the nature of elementary particles in two complementary ways, one as particles, the other as waves, even though they are really one thing — but here language fails, because at that level, they are not really things but more like properties of energy and space at unthinkably minute levels — with meditation there is a second, equally valid, way to describe it, a description that is critical to a complete understanding of what meditation really is when we come to practice it.

This other way of describing meditation is that whatever “meditation” is, it is not instrumental at all. If it is a method, it is the method of no method. It is not a doing. There is no going anywhere, nothing to practice, no beginning, middle, or end, no attainment, and nothing to attain. Rather, it is the direct realization and embodiment in this very moment of who you already are, outside of time and space and concepts of any kind, a resting in the very nature of your being, in what is sometimes called the natural state, original mind, pure awareness, no mind, or simply emptiness. You are already everything you may hope to attain, so no effort of the will is necessary — even for the mind to come back to the breath — and no attainment is possible. You are already it. It is already here. Here is already everywhere, and now is already always. There is no time, no space, no body, and no mind, to paraphrase the great Indian 15th-century Sufi poet Kabir. And there is no purpose to meditation — it is the one human activity (non-activity, really) that we engage in for its own sake — for no purpose other than to be awake to what is actually so.

For example, how can you possibly “attain” your foot when it is not apart from you in the first place? We would never even think to attain our foot, because it is already here. The thinking mind makes it into “a foot,” a thing, but unless it is severed from the body, it is not a separate entity with its own intrinsic existence. It is simply the end of the leg, adapted for standing and walking upright. When we are thinking, it is a foot, but when we are in awareness, outside, underneath, and beyond thinking, it is simply what it is. And you already have it, or, put differently, it is not other than you and never was. Same for your eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and every other part of your body. As St. Francis put it: “What you are looking for is who is looking.”

By the same token, how can you possibly attain sentience, knowing, original mind, when original mind, to paraphrase Ken Wilber, is reading these words? How can you come to your senses when your senses are already fully operative? Your ears already hear, your eyes already see, your body already feels. It is only when we turn them into concepts that we de facto sever them from the body of our being, which by its very nature is undivided, already whole, already complete, already sentient, already awake.

Synthesizing both views

These two ways of understanding what meditation is are complementary and paradoxical, just like the wave and particle nature of matter at the quantum level and below. That means that neither is complete by itself. Alone, neither is completely true. Together, they both become true.

For this reason, both descriptions are important to know of and keep in mind from the very beginning of taking up the practice of meditation, and especially mindfulness meditation. That way, we are less likely to get caught on the horns of dualistic thinking, either striving too hard to attain what we already are or claiming to already be what we have not in actuality tasted and realized and have no way of drawing on, even though technically speaking, it may be true and we are already it. It is not merely that we have the potential to become it, although relatively speaking, from the instrumental perspective, that is the case. We are it, but — we don’t know it. It may be right under our noses, closer than close, but it remains hidden all the same.

These two descriptions inform each other. When we hold them both, even merely conceptually at first, then the effort we make in sitting meditation or with any other formal meditation practices, as well as in bringing mindfulness into all aspects of our lives, will be the right kind of effort. And we will have the right kind of attitude, because we will remember that, actually, in terms of the fundamental nature of life and mind, there is no place to go and no striving is necessary. In fact, striving can rapidly become counterproductive.

Keeping this in mind, we will be more inclined to remember to be kind and gentle with ourselves, relaxed, accepting, and clear even in the face of turmoil in the mind or in the world. We will be less inclined to idealize our practice or get lost in “gaining fantasies” of where it will take us if we “do it right.” We will be less entrained into the contortions of our own reactivity, more likely to let go and rest effortlessly in non-doing, in non-striving, in our original beginner’s mind, in other words, in awareness itself, without an agenda other than to be awake to what is. This inhabiting of awareness with things exactly as they are is orthogonal to any kind of instructional set we may be, from the instrumental perspective, and rightly so, whispering in our own ear.

From the relative and temporal perspective, what the Buddha called “right [meaning wise] effort” is absolutely required, and we will learn that lesson and know it firsthand as we come to practice over days, weeks, months, years, and decades. For there is no question that we do get lost in the perpetual agitations of body and mind. There is no question that, when we sit down to meditate, we so often find that our attention span is short-lived and hard to sustain, and our awareness, more often than not, clouded over, the mind less than luminous and clear, objects of attention less than vivid, regardless of any self-talk about the mind’s natural state and luminous empty nature. So it is crucial that we remind ourselves to stay seated rather than jump up as soon as the mind becomes bored or agitated; to come back to the breath, for instance, or to let go of a chain of thoughts that has carried us away; and to settle once again, and always, in awareness itself. For all of these, and ultimately whatever emerges in this present moment, become the real “curriculum” of the moment, the real “curriculum” of mindfulness, and of life itself.

After living with these two descriptions of meditation for a time, the instrumental and the non-instrumental, you will find that they slowly become comfortable old friends and allies. Practice gradually, or sometimes even suddenly, transcends all ideas of practice and effort, and whatever effort we put in is no longer effort at all, but really love. Our efforts become the embodiment of self-knowing, and thus, of wisdom. But it is also no big deal. We are it more than we do it, because there is no more substantial difference between us and awareness than there is between us and our foot. We are never without it.

And yet…the foot of a Mikhail Baryshnikov or a Martha Graham in their prime is not quite the same as that of us regular folk. Their feet “know” something ours may not, although in their very nature, they are the same. We can marvel at that sameness, and that difference. We can love it. And we can be it, too. Because, in essence, we already are.

From Meditation Is Not What You Think: Mindfulness and Why It Is So Important, by Jon Kabat-Zinn, published by Hachette. Copyright © 2018 by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

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