It’s a funny thing how most people that meditate don’t use the word meditate. For most of us, it’s simply sitting. Sitting is an adequately uncomplicated name to describe the practice: putting the body in something resembling an upright position somewhere near the floor and attempting to remain still for some amount of time. Within the seated position are many different meditative practices that can be undertaken, but in some way the rest of the endeavor is secondary to the action of just sitting still. It’s a simple thing to do, it’s a difficult thing to do, its a beautiful thing to do. Sitting still. I’m just back from doing it for ten days in a row—abstaining from all types of communication and sensory entertainment—spending around twelve hours a day with my eyes closed, awake, seated.
I get nervous before leaving to go on retreat because at this point I’m fully aware that each time it’ll surely be one of the most challenging things I ever do. I also get excited before leaving because I know that the absence of screens and dollar bills always grants me more room to explode in appreciation for something like a solitary leaf, spiraling towards the ground. I get nervous when coming back from retreat because I’m always so sensitive and the world is so… hmmmm… electric after such pronounced stillness and quietude. I get excited to come back because I know I’ll be more open, more permeable, more free, more alive, more compassionate.
I sit regularly. Not only on retreat at least once a year for ten days, but also every morning when I wake up for an hour. I do it for many reasons, perhaps the first of which is because it shows me what I’m made of. It shows me that I have a great determination to balance my weaknesses, it shows me that I have an incredible love to hold my fears, it shows me that I have an impenetrable stillness to permeate my tumultuousness.
Sitting still shows me what I’m made of as a human being, it’s a launching point for me to take a simple but penetrating look at the things that form my sense of identity, from my physical self to my energetic self to my social self. I sit because it allows my mind to become like a stylus carving its way through the etch-a-sketch of my body. I can feel my bones and soft tissues and organs like tentacles extending from the nervous system, wrapped in awareness. I sit because it gives me a proprioceptive map of my physical body, a map that is always increasing in resolution and intrigue. I sit because it gives me an ownership over my form, because it helps me more fully participate in my bodily undertakings.
When abstaining from external communication for some time, my body starts to speak very clearly in a language all its own—it’s a language comprised of a vocabulary of sensations. Pain, pleasure, agitation, pressure, vibration, itching, strain, fatigue, electricity, heat, cold, lightness, heaviness. Sitting still for an extended amount of time sharpens my mind to see through these sensations, underneath the physical structure, into the energy that gives life to the structure. Just like when holding the eyes in a sharply centered stillness the periphery starts to fade, the body’s boundary can also wash out with the steady perception of an inner-most liveliness. The sensations don’t go away but they start to be perceived more and more as the gross surface of a subtle depth of vitality, a feeling of some common denominator that vibrates beneath every part of the body, beneath every experience of the body.
Inside and in between the body’s structures and energies is an intangible feeling of home. I sit because it shows me that the forest of my body is a burgeoning landscape of richness. I am made from the fertile soil of every possible emotion—joy, sadness; excitement, boredom; hope and fear are all there inside of me, they are a part of me, perfectly… I am decorated by densely spiraling ferns of relationship—everything I’ve ever loved is still there growing, crisscrossing the floor of my sense of self, giving life to new growth… I am populated by the trees of experience—everything I’ve ever done stands somewhere inside of me offering a unique viewpoint into the entirety of the forest itself.
I sit because it gives me the opportunity to recognize that, as much as I’m all the things that populate the forest, I am also the space that lives around the soil, the ferns, the trees—I am the air that blankets them, I am the freedom to move beyond them. The space inside of me is a vacuum. Invariably while sitting, something always flourishes to fill that vacuum. On the second day of retreat, the air was filled with beauty and gratitude. On the fifth day, there was a violent storm of despair and discomfort. On the sixth, there was an unspeakable ecstasy. On the eight, there was boredom and sluggishness. On the tenth, there was a feeling that everything is perfect. Every day, there was unapologetic ordinariness. Every day there was agitation, every day there was peace. Every day there was potential… for equanimity, for insight, for forward movement. Every day I had ideas. Every day I had to look at things I didn’t want to.
I sit because it helps me remember. I remember what’s important to me, I remember who and what matters. I remember where to let go, I remember where to try harder. I remember completely mundane happenings, I remember extraordinary events long forgotten, both of which worked to shape who I am today. I remember dreams, I remember to-do’s. I forget them and then remember them again. I sit because I remember my loneliness from middle school and wrap myself around it without fear. I sit because I remember the time five years ago when we poured hot sauce and tequila in Shaeley’s mouth until she laughed and it all came back out. I sit because I remember the sound of her laugh that night, I sit because I remember that it’s important to call her and tell her that even though we’re not as close as we used to be, I love her and I remember her laugh.
Going into retreat, I knew the full moon would fall on day seven, I knew its rising would happen during the evening tea break so I could watch it come up. That night I filled my thermos with hot water, put on my jacket and walked outside in anticipation of some sort of external stimulus, in need of something to invigorate me for the last three days of sitting. I leaned against a tree waiting for the moon to peak up from behind the saw-blade of pine trees cutting into the night sky on the horizon. I glanced around and noticed there were a few other people there to watch also. We stood in silence. Entirely together, entirely on our own, we watched the perfection of the moon’s rising. I was full of the vastness of life and, in seeing the moon’s great dynamism, with the reminder that everything is always changing. After some time, we turned to walk up the hill to the meditation room. We had to start again, still three more hours of sitting before bed time. I sat down and closed my eyes, fixed my attention on respiration and sensation, and then got distracted by something and fidgeted. I took a breath and resolved not to move an inch. Then I got distracted again and fidgeted and realized I sit because it reminds me how amazing it is that I get to start over, over and over.