Monday, December 15, 2008

The Subtle Art of Sitting Still

When talking about the practice of sitting still, one of my first meditation teachers, the Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, used to say that the best way to show a snake its true nature is to put it into a hollow stick of bamboo. Take a moment and give this unusual metaphor some thought. What could he have possibly meant by it?
Well, imagine that you’re a snake in bamboo. What does it feel like? Every time you try to slither, which is after all what snakes like to do, you bump against the walls of your straight-as-an-arrow home. If you pay attention, you start to notice how slippery you actually are.
In the same way, sitting in a certain posture and keeping your body relatively still provides a stick of bamboo that mirrors back to you every impulse and distraction. You get to see how fidgety your body can be — and how hyperactive your mind can be, which is actually the source of your body’s restlessness. “Maybe I should scratch that itch or answer that phone or run that errand.” For every plan or intention, there’s a corresponding impulse in your muscles and skin. But you’ll never notice all this activity unless you sit still. The funny thing is, you can sit in the same position for hours without noticing it when you’re happily engrossed in some favorite activity like watching a movie or surfing the Net or working on a hobby. But try to do something you find boring or unpleasant — especially an activity as strange and unfamiliar as turning your attention back on yourself and following your own breath or paying attention to your own sensations — and suddenly every minute can seem like an hour, every ache can seem like an ailment of life-threatening proportions, and every item on your to-do list can take on irresistible urgency.
When you’re constantly acting and reacting in response to thoughts and outside stimulation, you don’t have a chance to get to know how your mind works. By sitting still like the snake in bamboo, you have a mirror that shows you just how slippery and elusive your mind can be. Keeping still also gives you a tremendous edge when you’re working on developing your concentration. Imagine a heart surgeon or a concert pianist who can’t quiet her body while plying her craft. The fewer physical distractions you have, the easier it becomes to follow your breath, practice your mantra — or whatever your meditation happens to be. A word of caution, however: These sitting instructions aren’t intended to turn your body into a stone, any more than the bamboo is meant to turn the snake into a stick. As long as you’re alive, you’re going to keep moving. The point is to set your intention to sit still and notice what happens. The Buddha liked to use the metaphor of a lute — if the strings are too loose, you can’t play it, and if they’re too tight, they’ll break! If you’re too rigid with yourself, you’ll just end up miserable — but if you keep shifting your body this way and that, you’ll never get your mind concentrated and quiet enough to reap the benefits of meditation.

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