Many years ago, I spent a year teaching outdoor education to grade school children. The students would be bused 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 your 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 itself that is the focus.
So I invite you to think of the practice of meditation as developing and living within a space between stimulus and response. The ordinary mind has patterned responses to various internal and external stimuli. To meditate, a person learns to break these patterns and to be less responsive to these stimuli (though maintaining the ability to respond if necessary). As you 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 meditation and the second contemplation, but this distinction is not present in ordinary usage.)
In meditation, then, we learn to become less responsive to both external and internal stimuli. The external stimuli cannot be shut out; you need to let them move through. The internal stimuli – thoughts, emotions, desires — can be slowed, but not stopped. Like bubbles in a glass of soda, the meditator lets them rise, pass through, and dissipate. The practice of meditation deepens as we learn to withhold our attention from the stimuli that seeks to engage it.
This is not easy. Most of us have a very strong inclination to give such stimuli our attention and response. In the early stages of learning the practice of meditation, again and again one finds oneself abstracted from the present moment and entangled in a thought, image or emotion. With time, however, maintaining this space between the stimulus and the response becomes easier; as one’s practice deepens this space develops into an inner refuge of self control and peace.
In verse 15 of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tze observes that “muddy water settles and becomes 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 life’s muddiness — all the sorrows, distractions and joys of the world — into our meditation. And there 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 approach, focused on this life in this world, 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, which are supplied non-stop by the commercial media. But, these entertainments are just another level of 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.”
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.