Saturday, March 19, 2011

Don't plan. Just sit.

That's what I tell myself all the time. This particular habit, honed over decades, has fewer applications than you might think. I know I am not the only person who sits down to meditate only to be confronted with endless streams of mental list making. Once I was talking with a Zen teacher and she said to me "You're a planner." It took every ounce of strength to keep myself from saying "No s***, because it’s tiring when "time keeps on slippin' into the future” and I’ve missed the present moment again, or the last ten minutes worth of present moments. However, it also seems silly to plan to quit planning.

I can go for weeks when planning isn't my biggest problem, when I can just smile and go back to breathing in and breathing out, remembering that I am not the center of the universe and putting you there instead. Then, all of a sudden, a day will arrive where I am so impatient with myself that you'd think I was the center of the universe and have been doing it wrong all this time! Sitting quietly for 25 minutes can be a huge challenge. Can I sit with nothing on my mind? Can I remain attentive like a cat at a mouse hole? If something comes up, can I let it go and return to counting the breath? Not on those days. On those days I am hardest on myself. There's always another self-deprecating thought eager to replace the current one, and the gnarlier the thought, the easier it finds its way back onto my train of thoughts. Sometimes those days can last a week.

My brain is quick to provide an answer to almost any question it can muster, which makes me wonder about the efficacy of having a quick brain. The things that pop into my head run the gamut from brilliant and hilarious to ridiculous and snarky. Over the years I've discovered I'm not alone in having an uncontrollable mind, which discovery led me to other discoveries: 1) You and I are in the same boat more often than not, and 2) I can only be gentle with you to the extent I am capable of being gentle with myself.

“Self? Will I ever get better at this?” Self answers “That’s not the point. You don’t meditate to get better at meditating. Meditate to open your heart, to be more compassionate and less fearful and reactive.” “Uh, self? Is it working?” “How the hell do I know? Just sit. Breathe."

You have no idea how many times I've run that script. I’m pretty sure people won't mistake me for Jesus or the latest incarnation of the Bodhisattva of compassion anytime soon (another script I often run). I've been meditating for years, and still find myself sitting in front of my little altar trying to be compassionate toward myself, going back to the breath, breathing in my impatience and frustration with myself and everyone else's impatience and frustration with themselves, and breathing out patience and more for us all. I once read that you should begin with yourself. Easier said than done. I might understand the workings of my ego better than the workings of your ego, but I often have to stop myself from thinking it’s easier to fix your stuff, and drag myself back to the breath. Someone told me once “It’s not help if you haven’t been asked to help.” Sit. Stay. Remember to breathe.

Another thing I try to remember is to hold things lightly. Thoughts just happen, without prompting, and they don't stop coming. If I am able to let them go, there is always another thought eager to take its place. This is oddly comforting, because it means that thoughts are not solid, which means we don’t have to process every one. I also try not to fall into habitual patterns of reacting to the thoughts that pop up, which makes for some fun times on the zafu. I once wrote a haiku while I was trying to meditate. I don’t usually write haiku, so I dutifully labeled it “thinking” as it wandered by:

Flat smoke curls and twists
As I sit on my cushion
Thinking again, heh.

Occasionally I find a quiet place; sitting without thought. When I am given the grace of openness and quiet sitting for a few minutes, I'm often surprised, yet grateful for the space. If I look at the clock, I find that 35 or 40 minutes have passed and I have just been sitting, and I haven't scolded myself, not even once. I bow in thanks.


  1. Yeah, lotsa times I sit there and do nothing, I'm good at that, and sometimes I forget to breathe, then I pass out, but that's ok cause most of the time I wake up.
    Thank you.