I have noticed that when meditation comes up in conversation, I often hear the phrase 'I should...' followed by some description of how someone is failing to live up to some ideal way of doing it. After meditating in a group of people where there's some kind of check-in afterward, I commonly hear descriptions of either a difficult/disappointing experience, or a lovely, special state type experience. When you're learning to do something like say, skateboard, and you go out there and try your hand at it, and come back either having wiped out, dusting yourself off, or successfully land without wiping out - what a rush! A positive, confidence building experience. I always wanted to be that guy having the rush, not the one who became increasingly aware of the intense kink in her shoulder over the course of the sit.
Meditation however, is not a performance. It's worth exploring this because otherwise, it's another thing to make us miserable. Some kinds probably are performative. But presence isn't something that you do, and this term meditation is simply about presence when all is said and done, or "This" : whatever's happening right now.
Instead, it's what is never not there. You aren't doing being presence, or doing being. Like the sky, or say, noticing you have socks on, the presence of socks is not about you, they're just, well, on your feet. The sky is never not there, whatever your level of interest in, focus on, or idea about the sky may be.
The other day I heard great table metaphor that may illustrate this. There's a table covered with books. Lots of books. That's you - the table - with all kinds of interesting books on it. The books are the identifiers we have - the things that when we're gone and everyone who knew us is also gone, go as well, because they are a shared thought. This includes your history, your plans, your opinions, your life story, your nationality, your preferences, how you vote, your personality, your style, your body, your chronic pains, your psychology, your turns of phrase, your reflection in the mirror, what you love and don't love about your body, your closest kin, your habits, your address, your drivers license number, your social security number, your CV and resume, your skill sets, pedigrees, your successes, your failures, your traumas, what you overcome. Your memories, others' memories of you, your reputation, your good deeds, your misdeeds, your credit score, your best moments, your bank account balance, your possessions, what you've made, what you failed to make, finish, accomplish or complete. Also, time, objects and space can go there too but that may be another conversation.
When the 'books' are removed, like when you're tidying up in the living room, you find there's a table underneath them. It's always been there. It's never not been there. It's familiar to you, as it's what you have used to access and read these books, and to refer to your 'self' in the form of each of these books, these programs or information packets about yourself. You may put your feet on it or put your dinner plate on the table too. Meditation is just awareness of This, or you could say, awareness of what is the ground of experience. The big attainment is actually just - the table is here, where it's always been. How spiritual!
The idea of meditation as a performance is just another book or glossy yoga type magazine on the table, with a picture of yourself perhaps, doing whatever idea of your meditation performance is. It's pretty funny and incredibly amazing how thought co opts even just This - what's happening right now. The flow of one thing after another, a live stream of you.
To take the table metaphor a little further, it's not even 'your' table - with a style, with a level of wear, perfectly reflecting all the books that were on it. It turns out that everybody's books are on one table, one gigantic table, again, just a metaphor this table, but it's not actually an object, and nobody owns it, or dusts it, or made it. It's not a thing like a galaxy is a thing, or a pebble. It's just that we are built to see and talk about and interact with objects, so that's as good a metaphor as any: table.
This big wide foundation or ground on which all the objects form a fleeting impression of the story of you and your life, is always here, always offering up the next thing, and is in fact, you, and me, and this word, and the sound you're hearing, and the plans for the next hour, and the irritations and concerns, and the gratitudes and questions, and the dog and the cat, the wad of tissue that didn't make it into the trash can lying on the floor, and the tree shimmering out the window.
Nothing, no book, no passing object of experience, and the presence underneath, is not you.
Here's a suggested way to let this sink in a little further.
Cue up a song or two, get a glass of something, maybe a snack. Sit in a chair and look out the window. Five minutes we're talking. Maybe set a timer. Let the flavor of your food and drink mix with the sound of the music or the kids fighting, mix with the sight out the window, the movement, inside/outside blending, and constantly changing, coming and going.
OR When you get really annoyed, overheated, or suddenly tired and notice this, plunk yourself down with that - sensations, the litany of thought, sounds, the taste in your mouth, how your body is, the temperature. Nothing needs to change and no one needs to do. Like a piece of cardboard lying on the side of the road, just being.( In this case, an agitated or overheated piece of cardboard.)
When you are in conversation with someone, notice what that's like, what the body feels like, the sounds, the gestures, emotions, distractions, how space and arrangement of bodies and body language is. No need to put ideas to anything, just become curious without getting involved in thoughts about it.
That to me, is what they call - meditation - or even better - it's you - the one talking, the one listening, the one reading, the one writing, the weather outside, the weather inside, the flavors and the smells, the ungainly and the very compelling. The pull and the push away.
Hannah Burr is a contemporary artist and author. Originally from Boston, she lives in Ann Arbor MI.