“All of humanity’s problems stem from [a hu]man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” – Blaise Pascal.
While it is more important to actually meditate than to write about it, it is also important to meditate as you can, not as you can’t. Of the many types and styles of traditional meditation, I like zazen the best. But I am not really that Zen. I’m very much not Japanese. And while I admire the story and many of the teachings of Siddhartha Guatama, I’m not a Buddhist either. My legs have never been flexible enough to sit in the lotus position. Now poor circulation prevents me from sitting on the floor for very long at all even with a cushion. But, there’s hope! I found a way of meditation that suits me well.
Because what is the point of meditation? For me, to meditate means to become still with what is. Frank Ostaseski calls it, “finding a place of peace in the middle of things.” I don’t have to like, feel good about, or be ok with the things. Just sit. Just be still. See what happens.
In a performance that earned him an Oscar nomination for best actor, Riz Ahmed plays Ruben, a heavy metal drummer and recovering heroin addict in the 2019 film, Sound of Metal. When Ruben suddenly and inexplicably experiences almost total hearing loss, he finds Joe who leads a deaf recovery community. Take a look at the following clip about Joe’s meditation assignment for Ruben. (2:49 min.)
Just sit. And if you can’t just sit, write. Sounds easy enough, right? Watch what happens during Ruben’s first meditation practice. (0:50 sec.)
Granted, Joe’s method is not as aesthetically sexy as zazen, but then traditional Zen doesn’t offer coffee and a donut either! Have you found, as I have, that when you just sit still, stuff comes up from inside? Thoughts, feelings, anxieties, desires, fears, and even physical sensations? My own practice involves learning how to just sit with the void without trying to fill it up. In other words, I am learning how to be ok with not being ok.
Later on, the film shows Ruben coming into his room (with his coffee and donut) and just writing, writing, writing. For a while, after I first watched Sound of Metal, I wondered, “Why writing?” After my third viewing or so—and continued practice of my own—I have an idea. Writing is a way of downloading thoughts. It can engage both conscious and subconscious parts of the brain. And it engages my body in doing something tangible outside of the space between my ears. This kind of writing feels different than writing this article does, or even journaling. It’s just writing. Sometimes I experience a calming effect from writing, writing, writing and am able to just sit some more.
Still later, in another scene, as the birds sing outside the window of his room, Ruben. Just. Sits. Momentary stillness. If you’ve experienced that, you know it can arise during meditation. And the experience of stillness usually doesn’t last very long. Maybe this is why they call it a “meditation practice”. And why in Zen there is no goal. No “so that”. Sit just to sit with whatever is there to sit with.
A little over a year ago, I tested positive for COVID 19. Among the symptoms I experienced with the virus was complete loss of my sense of taste and smell. Overnight. Gone. Gradually both sensations began to return, though my sense of smell—and therefore my ability to detect many flavors—is still noticeably different from what it used to be. Curiously, one of the foods I regained taste for early on was ginger molasses cookies. My just sit/just write practice is to have a ginger molasses cookie and a cup of coffee at my kitchen table with my backyard bird feeders in sight and pen and notebook at hand. This small treat is a reminder to me of impermanence and loss and also a new discovery of an utter delight, because I can taste it!
Well, after other events transpire in the story (no spoilers!) Ruben has another conversation where Joe asks him about his meditation practice and about the stillness. (0:30 sec.)
“And that place will never abandon you.” (Joe) So, I just sit. And if I can’t just sit, I just write. And occasionally, sometimes, I experience moments of stillness.
I am no longer waiting for a quiet moment;
my heart can be stilled whenever it is called.
I am no longer waiting for the world to be at peace;
I unclench my grasp and breathe peace in and out.
(Mary Anne Perrone)
One method of meditation is not objectively better than another. Entering the stillness is what matters. Try whatever you need to in order to discover and then practice what works for you. Zen practitioners also “sit just to sit” and also experience stillness. For a variety of reasons, Joe and Ruben’s way is more accessible for me. The moments of stillness keep me coming back. Well, that and the molasses cookies!
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“Sound of Metal” (2019) https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5363618/ (available to stream on Amazon Prime).
Frank Ostaseski’s book, The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully (https://fiveinvitations.com/).
Chewy Ginger Molasses Cookies Recipe: https://www.gimmesomeoven.com/chewy-ginger-molasses-cookies/#tasty-recipes-59998.