We just removed the training wheels from my son’s bike. He’s still more than a bit wobbly, but he’s making progress.
For many reasons, learning to ride a bike is a terrible analogy for learning to mediate. Among other problems, it suggests that there are those who are proficient at it, and those who are not; that there are novices and adepts.
Our son is an expert at wobbly bike riding. His wobbly bike riding is perfect just as it is.
And, yet, his bike riding form is changing, and changing in a way we recognize as progress, as part of a natural progression in bike riding. His training wheel-free bike riding likely will become less wobbly; or, rather, the wobbles will become less pronounced. His instinctive recovery from an endless string of little wobbles will be almost imperceptible to him and to others, and he’ll recover more easily from the less frequent, bigger wobbles.
(Except when he doesn’t.)
Meditation practice tends to follow a progression, as well. In our little branch of the Zen family, those new to meditation practice are encouraged initially to use one’s breath as a sort of stabilizing device.
The basic instruction for meditation practice, as James Ford is fond of saying, is simply to “sit down, shut up, and pay attention.” Doing that for 25 minutes can be surprisingly difficult as one takes up this practice.
Paying attention suggests paying attention to something, and, for most of us, ordinary “paying attention mode” tends to require a focal point something. A something we attempt to attend to continuously, or at least that we return to when we feel our attention has drifted.
I pay attention to the ball in soccer.
I pay attention to the words on the page as I read.
I pay attention to you when we’re conversing.
Enter the breath in early meditation practice. We’re not encouraged to concentrate on it, to dissect and discern all its subtle features, but it serves as a point of reference to which we can return when we seem to be drifting away from other features of our experience.
(In some Buddhist traditions, one attends to one’s posture, or to the rising and falling of one’s diaphragm with the breath, or to something different still. Same idea.)
Initially, we invite people to count each breath gently until one has counted to ten, and then to repeat. One might then count only in-breaths for some number of months, and then switch to out-breaths.
Eventually one drops the counting altogether. We’re invited to give up this attentiveness to one’s breath entirely, and not to fill in the blank with some other reference point.
To push the bike riding analogy a bit further before exhausting its usefulness, we might think of this transition not as dropping the training wheels, but as letting go of the handlebar. Letting go of the handlebar, we’re no longer capable of steering toward or away from something with the same decisiveness and agility. Bike riding becomes a less directed experience, in which we’re more vulnerable to what may come, even if we feel a paradoxical sense of stability poised upright on the seat.
Shikintaza, or “just sitting,” as this later approach to meditation is known, is the practice to which one typically progresses within BoWZ and some other Zen streams. One way to think of it is as meditation without the steering mechanism – or, better yet, meditation without a preference for steering or not steering.
Shikintaza is not a technique. Oh, I suppose there are elements of technique in this practice, but the technique is very spare, and very practical.
As with counting-the-breath practice, one sits in a stable position (normally on a meditation cushion, though a chair also is fine, as is standing). One remains reasonably still. Eyes are open – mainly so we’re not closing that window on the world, as closing ourselves to the world is the antithesis of what we’re doing in meditation – but one doesn’t look around.
That’s pretty much it for technique.
So, what if one’s mind drifts while “just sitting”?
Well, for starters, now we know we’re human.
But, what should one do about it?
There’s no need to do anything. We’re not seeking any particular experience in shikintaza – certainly not an experience of “25 minutes in which my mind doesn’t wander,” as if that were possible, and not even some experience of “not seeking any particular experience.”
Noticing our attention was “there” and now it’s “here,” we don’t bring ourselves back to anywhere or anything in particular. The noticing, and whatever follows it, and whatever follows that: that’s it.
The rain falls.
The baby cries.
The mind wanders.
Here is all there is. Here isn’t some void we need to fill in anxiously. (The void is full, in case one hasn’t noticed.) Even when we’re in “fill in anxiously mode,” we don’t need to overwrite that.
Shikintaza, just sitting, is simply being here, now. Our breath is part of what’s here now, but we don’t privilege it in shikintaza.
Shikintaza is simply letting one’s experience be its own reference point – trusting this, wobbles and all.
There are wobbles after we let go of the handlebars.
And even the wobbles are rock solid.