Many years ago, I spent a year teaching outdoor education to grade school children. The students would be bussed out from the city for their once-a-year instruction about wild nature. In addition to providing the scientifically-oriented subjects that were the core of our outdoor education curricula, I attempted to get students to sit quietly for a few minutes and attend to the sensory qualities of nature. To get them to quiet down, I would tell them: “if we sit quietly, something special might happen.” I usually did not have much success getting students to be still, but one morning I had a group sitting quietly when two fawns walked right into the middle of the circle we had formed. Wow, I thought, this is special! Strangely, it didn’t create nearly the buzz among the students I expected. Later I asked the teacher why the students were not more impressed. She said, “They think you do this for every group.” Oh well!
In the lingo of outdoor education, the technique of sitting quietly in this way is called Seton Sitting. It was named for the naturalist Thomas Seton. It is nothing more than trying to sit very quietly in a natural area until the wildlife forgets you are there. Some people call it “still stalking.”
Once, while Seton Sitting, a Northern Goshawk landed on a ledge about ten feet from me and graciously ignored me for about ten minutes.
Though its goals are not quite as lofty as enlightenment or attaining oneness with God, Seton Sitting is not too different from the formal practice of meditation. In both Seton Sitting and meditation you have to become somewhat ignorant. Yes you have to ignore the ants that crawl on you, and be unresponsive to a variety of other stimuli. This, I think, is what all forms of meditative practice have in common: to practice them, you have to create a “space” between the stimuli and the response. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl writes about experiences as a prisoner in the Nazi death camps. Frankl recognized that he had lost control over his activities and his environment. He came to realize, however, that though he could not control the stimulus he was subjected to, he could decide within himself how he would let it affect him and how he would respond to it. Meditation is like this. In meditation, however, it is the very space between the stimulus and response, rather than the response that is the focus.
I often think of meditation as a “space” between stimulus and response. The ordinary mind has a patterned response to various internal and external stimuli. To meditate, a person learns to be unresponsive, or at least less responsive, to these stimuli (though maintaining the ability to respond if necessary). Once you have become proficient in creating this mental space, you can do two things with it. You can remain in the silence and emptiness of this space, or can choose some object of attention, such as an idea, symbol, or impression, and become deeply immersed in it. Both have their distinctive values. I call the first of these, meditation, and the second, contemplation, but this distinction is not present in ordinary usage. In the practice of meditation, we learn to become unresponsive to both external and internal stimuli. The external stimuli cannot be shut out; the internal stimuli – thoughts, emotions, desires -- can be slowed, but not stopped. The practice of meditation deepens as we learn to let both external and internal stimuli pass through us without letting them elicit a response.
This is not easy. Most of us have a very strong inclination to respond to a thought or image by thinking it through. In the early stages of learning the practice of meditation, again and again one finds oneself abstracted from the present moment, entangled in a thought. With time, though, maintaining this space between the stimulus and the response becomes easier, and this space can develop into an inner refuge of self control and peace.
I mostly learned meditation on my own, but for a brief time I practiced meditation in the Zen tradition with Katigiri Roshi, a Zen Master (he was also Robert Pirsig’s teacher). Zen is a form of Buddhism, and the goal of Buddhism is Nirvana. Nirvana means something like extinction, and what is extinguished is the need to respond to stimuli. One of the incredible images from the Vietnam era was a film clip of Buddhist monks protesting the war by dousing themselves with gasoline and calmly setting themselves on fire. While burning, the monks meditated quietly and showed no outward signs of suffering. This seems to be a powerful vindication of the idea articulated by Frankl and many others before him that humans have the freedom to choose their response.
But this is meditation at its extreme: the ultimate anodyne to the pains and suffering of life. The world is certainly rife with degradation and pain, and I honor the Buddha for his commitment to finding and communicating a means for us to escape it. But the world is also filled with beauty and grace and occasions of joy. If one becomes unresponsive to pain and suffering, does it not entail also becoming unresponsive to beauty and delight?
Zen Buddhism, which developed in China, was strongly influenced by philosophical Taoism. Taoism offered a different approach to meditation. In Buddhism, meditation is good and more meditation is better. In Taoism, meditation is good, but only to a point. In verse 15 of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tze observes that muddy waters settles and become clear. In verse 16 he observes that leaves fall from the tree to return to the roots. I read these as an invitation to bring all the muddiness, all the sorrow, distractions and joys of the world into our meditation. And there we let them settle, so that we come forth from meditation with a deeper sense of our being’s rootedness in this world and with a clearer mind. This is the approach to meditation I have come to embrace.
The poet T.S. Eliot described the modern condition as being “distracted form distraction by distraction.” Our world pulses with disjointed stimuli, pulling the mind this way and that like leaves in the wind. The distracted mind’s readiest refuge is in entertainments abundantly supplied by the popular media. But, these entertainments are just that distraction from distraction. To gain clarity and rootedness requires a different approach. A formal meditation practice may be the right approach for some, or just sitting quietly with nature might work better for others. One has to try a few things to find what works best. And it is worth it. As I told my students many years ago, if we sit quietly, something special might happen.