This is an edited version of an episode of Noah Rasheta's podcast Secular Buddhism:
Master Meditation by Not Meditating
I wanted to discuss meditation a little bit, but from the perspective of the key to meditation being non-meditation. Also, this idea of doing versus being. When I teach mindfulness meditation, I usually ask people to imagine a pond. It has muddy water, and what would have to happen for that muddy water to become clear? Alan Watt says, "Muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone". And you can picture this with a muddy pond. If you take a jar and put dirt in the water in that jar and shake it up, the water is going to be really muddy. But if you put it down, leave it alone and give it time, all of that mud settles to the bottom, and what you have is clear water again.
I guess that this is the first level of meditation, which is a calm and inviting meditation. It's learning to still the muddy waters. What happens as a consequence of learning to still those waters is that then the water is clear, and now we move on to the phase of insight meditation. You're able to look into that pond and see what's actually there. This is looking into the nature of awareness, the nature of the mind, to see what's really there.
And I think something that happens when you learn about meditation is that you say, "Okay, I want to start meditating" and we start to develop expectations about what meditation is; what it's going to do for us and how we're going to benefit from it. And that becomes the very thing that Buddhism is trying to eliminate. It's the tendency to create meanings around things. There's what is, and there's the story that we create around what is. I think this is really common when it comes to meditation, or when it comes to life in general. We create meaning around it. And that's not a bad thing because creating meaning around life is part of life. But with meditation it can be detrimental to create meaning around what meditation is.
A lot of teachers will talk about the key to meditating being not to meditate. The moment I'm saying I'm going to meditate, that's a concept in my mind. That means something. Whatever that means to you, that's the meaning you give to meditation. It's this, or that, or it causes this, or it causes that. Whatever concept you hold about what meditation is can be useful to the point of helping you to be calm. And then insight meditation starts to help you to see the nature of awareness. But when this is done properly, and the mind and thoughts have been calm enough for the mud to settle, so to speak, and for the water to become clear to the point that you can start to see the nature of the mind, the way the mind works, then the concept that you have about what meditation is actually becomes a hindrance to progressing.
Because, when you can finally see what's really there, what you're going to gain out of this is the one thing that Buddhism is trying to get you to see, which is seeing things as they are. Again, to clarify, the concept of non-meditation, or the key to meditation being non-meditation, is that we want to let go of what the concept of meditation is.
I think this becomes very relevant when you think about what I shared last week about the parable of the raft. What the Buddha taught is that the raft is something that you need. Let's say that he taught that in this case it was specifically the Dharma, the teachings, which we can equate to meditation. It's this tool that you use and your life depends on being able to accomplish what you're trying to get. But, at some point, you have to learn to let go. The concept of letting go in meditation is that if you really want to get what meditation is all about then you'll learn that what it's all about is about not meditating. It's not something that you do, it's about how you are; it's about being. Doing versus being.
To take meditation to that next level, at some point you have to understand that the whole purpose of meditation is that you don't meditate. You're learning to just be with what is. That's why when I teach mindfulness meditation what I try to convey is this concept that there's nothing magical happening. Nothing happens. All you're doing is learning to be with what is. You're learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
That can be confusing to people, because then it's like, "Well, what's the point of all this then?" Think about this, how often do we really spend time with just being with something? Not doing anything, just being with what is. I think one of the sources of all of our problems is that, the minute we start meditating or the minute we're doing anything, we're creating meaning. And then we can't allow things to just be as they are. So meditation can be this practice. This is a technique that's used in different Buddhist traditions and the ultimate phase is this phase of non-meditation.
How does that work? How does this apply to a daily practitioner of meditation using the secular Buddhist lens? If you're new to this and you want to start meditating, how does it help to know this now, this early on in the game? I think the key is that the only way you're going to be able to progress with gaining insight into the nature of reality is to let go of whatever the concept you have of the nature of reality is.
Alan Watts talks about this in terms of the attitude of faith. He says, "The attitude of faith is to let go, and become open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be". I think this is very relevant when it comes to the concept of meditation. Because what you're doing is letting go of whatever you think meditation is, or what it's supposed to do, or how it's going to benefit you. You let go of that. Because there is nothing, it's not supposed to do anything, or benefit you in any way. And yet, when you grasp that, that's when it benefits you, because that's when you've let go.
Again, it's like this paradox. There's a teaching that says that, before you first start to study or learn about Buddhism, mountains are mountains, rivers are rivers, streams are just streams. And then you start to learn a little bit about Buddhism. And it's exciting. Suddenly it's like there's this awe about everything you see. Mountains aren't just mountains. Rivers aren't just rivers anymore, and streams aren't just streams. The more time that you spend with it, the more that you start to learn the philosophical understandings and the teachings of Buddhism. Then, when you're done and you really get it, then you realise, "Oh, mountains are just mountains. Rivers are just rivers. Streams are just streams." And yet, that's what makes them so beautiful.
I like to think about this in connection with a rose. A rose is beautiful because a rose is just a rose. It doesn't bloom and then wait for someone to come along, pick it up and say, "Wow, you are a beautiful rose". Because it doesn't care. That's not the reason why a rose exists. It does not exist so someone can pick it up and tell it it's beautiful. And yet, that's what makes it beautiful. Because it just is what it is.
It's no different with us and our existence, and the way that we try to see things the way that they are. When you learn to see something the way that it is, then it becomes beautiful, and almost magical, simply because it is just what it is. You've detached all the meaning you attached to it. Remember, it's because of those concepts, meanings and ideas that we attach to things that things get muddy. And muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone, as Alan Watt says. We leave things alone, meaning we let go of the meaning that we've attached to things. When we can allow things to just be what they are, then we can see them as they really are.
Meditation is that tool. Meditation itself can become a hindrance if we have meaning, or ideas, or concepts, attached to what meditation is. I think the biggest mistake is spending time thinking, "Meditation is working. Meditation is not working. It's doing this; it's doing that". All of this resides inside of the sphere of the meaning that we have created around what meditation is, or what it's supposed to do. The whole point is that there is nothing that it's supposed to do; there's nothing that it's supposed to mean. It's the exercise of just being with what is. Of learning to be comfortable with discomfort. It's about sitting and observing your thoughts, in the same way that you would sit outside and observe the clouds. You notice that the nature of observing clouds in the sky is that they arise, they appear, they linger and then they go away. That's also the nature of meditation, and of observing our thoughts.
The nature of things as they are is that things arise, they linger for a while and then they're gone. Isn't that the very nature of life itself? And when we can allow ourselves to start to see things the way that they are, without attaching meaning to things, then we become that much closer to being enlightened.
This is another concept, the idea of enlightenment, that carries so much connotation around the meaning. Everyone has an interpretation of what it means. Enlightenment in it's purest form is nothing more than what I explained earlier about mountains being mountains, rivers being rivers and streams being streams. When we think we know what it means to be enlightened, that's when we think, "Oh, mountains aren't just mountains. Rivers aren't just rivers. Streams aren't just streams. There's something more." But then true enlightenment happens and you realise that life is just life. Happiness is just happiness. Sadness is just sadness. It's in allowing these things to be what they are, in this attitude of faith, in letting go, that we become open to reality, whatever it may be. That is the nature of awakening. That is the nature of enlightenment in the secular Buddhist understanding.
This is what makes it all so beautiful. It's inside of that space of allowing things to just be what they are that everything becomes beautiful. Think of the concept of the rose. What makes the rose so beautiful is that it's just a rose. There's nothing more to it. There's nothing that you add to it. A rose is a rose, and that's what makes it beautiful. A human being is a human being, and that's what makes us beautiful.
If we could see all things like that, with that lens of allowing things to be what they are, it would change everything. Meditation is the tool to do that. That's the concept of meditation through non-meditation.
I want to spread this message: that enlightenment is just learning to see life the way that it is. We tend to live and go through our entire life inside of the story of what is, and we never actually see what is.
Imagine if you were to taste a food one day you had never tasted before, because, your whole life, you've only seen the menu. And you've been in love with the menu, and the pictures on the menu, and the words that describe the dish. And the price attached to it. But you never actually experienced what is, which would be to taste the food. It may seem silly, but that's what we do in life. There's what is, the experiential version of living, you're tasting the food, and then there's the idea or concept of what is. That's like being in love with the menu, thinking that this whole time what you loved on the menu is actually the meal. And it's not. They're two completely different things.
I think we do this a lot with meditation. There's my idea of what meditation is, and what it's supposed to do. You know everything from a conceptual understanding of what meditation is. That's the menu. And then one day you experience what meditation actually is: it's learning to see things as they are, which is like tasting the food. And it's a whole different thing. That cannot be conveyed. You cannot convey that in words to someone else. You can only experience it.
Using that menu as an example, I can taste all the food and enjoy the flavours, everything, and try to convey it to you. And maybe all you've ever experienced is what I'm telling you on a menu, and you think, "Yeah, yeah, I got it. Yeah, I see what this is. I see the ingredients, I get it." But we can't. Until you taste it yourself, you're not going to know what that really is. That's the difference between meditation and learning that the key to meditation is actually non-meditation. Let go of the concept that you have about meditation, and learn to just meditate. Which is, learn to just be with what is. Learn to clear that muddy water by leaving it alone, by not trying, by just being.
Next time you practice your meditation, don't have any expectations about what it is and what it's supposed to do. Just practise sitting there and being with what is, whatever it turns out to be. Think about this attitude of faith, of letting go, that Alan Watts talks about. Become completely open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be. Learn to be with what is, whatever that might turn out to be.
Noah Rasheta is a Buddhist teacher, lay minister and author, as well as the host of the podcast Secular Buddhism. He teaches mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy online and in workshops all around the world. He studies, embodies and teaches the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy, attempting to integrate Buddhist teachings with modern science, humanism and humour. He lives in Kamas, Utah, with his wife and three kids. You can listen to the full episode here.