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The Art of Meditation

By Alan Watts

“The dewdrop slips into the shining sea.”
—Sir Edwin Arnold, The Light of Asia

The practice of meditation is not what is ordinarily meant by “practice,” in the sense of repetitious preparation for some future performance. It may seem odd and illogical to say that meditation in the form of yoga, dhyana, or zazen, as used by Hindus and Buddhists, is a practice without a purpose — in some future time — because it is the art of being completely centered in the here and now. “I’m not sleepy, and there is no place I’m going to.”

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We are living in a culture entirely hypnotized by the illusion of time, in which the so-called present moment is felt as nothing but an infinitesimal hairline between an all-powerfully causative past and an absorbingly important future. We have no present. Our consciousness is almost completely preoccupied with memory and expectation. We do not realize that there never was, is, or will be any other experience than present experience.

We are therefore out of touch with reality. We confuse the world as talked about, described, and measured with the world that actually is. We are sick with a fascination for the useful tools of names and numbers, of symbols, signs, conceptions, and ideas. Meditation is therefore the art of suspending verbal and symbolic thinking for a time, somewhat as a courteous audience will stop talking when a concert is about to begin.

Simply sit down, close your eyes, and listen to all sounds that may be going on — without tryihg to name or identify them. Listen as you would to music. If you find that verbal thinking will not drop away, don’t attempt to stop it by force of willpower. Just keep your tongue relaxed, floating easily in the lower jaw, and listen to your thoughts as if they were birds chattering outside — mere noise in the skull — and they will eventually subside of themselves, as a turbulent and muddy pool will become calm and clear if left alone.

Also, become aware of breathing and allow your lungs to work in whatever rhythm seems congenial to them. And for a while sit listening and feeling breath. But if possible, don’t call it that. Simply experience the nonverbal happening. You may object that this is not “spiritual” meditation but mere attention to the “physical” world, but it should be understood that the spiritual and the physical are only ideas, philosophical conceptions, and that the reality of which you are now aware is not an idea. Furthermore, there is no “you” aware of it. That was also just an idea. Can you hear yourself listening?

And then begin to let your breath “fall” out, slowly and easily. Don’t force or strain your lungs, but let the breath come out in the same way that you let yourself slump into a comfortable bed. Simply let it go, go, and go. As soon as there is the least strain, just let it come back in as a reflex; don’t pull it in. Forget the clock. Forget to count. Just keep it up for as long as you feel the luxury of it.

Using the breath in this way, you discover how to generate energy without force. For example, one of he gimmicks (in Sanskrit, upaya) used to quiet the thinking mind and its compulsive chattering is known as mantra — the chanting of sounds for the sake of sound rather than meaning. Therefore, begin to “float” a single tone on the long, easy outbrea[th] at whatever pitch is most comfortable. Hindus and Buddhists use for this practice such syllables as om, ah, hum (i.e., hung), and Christians might prefer amen or alleluia, Muslims Allah, and Jews Adonai: it really makes no difference, since what is important is simply and solely the sound. Like Zen Buddhists, you could use just the syllable mooo (mu). Dig that, and let your consciousness sink down, down, down, into the sound for as long as there is no sense of strain.

Above all, don’t look for a result, for some marvelous change of consciousness or satori: the whole essence of meditation-practice is centering upon what is — not on what should or might be. The point is not to make the mind blank or to concencentrate fiercely upon, say, a single point of light — although that, too, can be delightful without the fierceness.

For how long should this be kept up? My own, and perhaps unorthodox, feeling is that it can be continued for as long as there is no sensation of forcing it — and this may easily extend to thirty or forty minutes at one sitting, whereafter you will want to return to the state of normal restlessness and distraction.

In sitting for meditation, it is best to use a substantial cushion on the floor, to keep the spine erect but not stiff, to have the hands on the lap — palms upward — resting easily upon each other, and to sit cross-legged like a Buddha figure, either in full or in half lotus posture, or kneeling and sitting back on the heels. “Lotus” means placing one or both feet sole-upward upon the opposite thigh. These postures are slightly uncomfortable, but they have, therefore, the advantage of keeping you awake!

In the course of meditation you may possibly have astonishing visions, amazing ideas, and fascinating fantasies. You may also feel that you are becoming clairvoyant or that you are able to leave your body and travel at will. But all that is distraction. Leave it alone and simply watch what happens now. One does not meditate in order to acquire extraordinary powers, for if you managed to become omnipotent and omniscient, what would you do? There would be no further surprises for you, and your whole life would be like making love to a plastic partner. Beware, then, of all those gurus who promise “marvelous results” and other future benefits from their disciplines. The whole point is to realize that there is no future and that the real sense of life is an exploration of the eternal now. Stop, look, and listen! Or shall we say, “Turn on, tune in, and drop in”?

A story is told of a man who came to the Buddha with offerings of flowers in both hands. The Buddha said, “Drop it!” So he dropped the flowers in his left hand. The Buddha said again, “Drop it!” He dropped the flowers in his right hand. And the Buddha said, “Drop that which you have neither in the right nor in the left, but in the middle!” And the man was instantly enlightened.

It is marvelous to have the sense that all living and moving is dropping, or going along with gravity. After all, the earth is falling around the sun, and, in turn, the sun is falling around some other star. For energy is precisely a taking of the line of least resistance. Energy is mass. The power of water is in following its own weight. All comes to him who weights.

Text copyright © 1970 Alan Watts. Reprinted from What is Meditation edited by John White, Anchor Books, 1974. Published earlier in Alan Watts Journal.

Alan Watts (1915–73) helped introduce Zen to the West. He was the author of many books.

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This page was published on April 2, 2020 and last revised on April 2, 2020.


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