At 9:30 the church bells ring the half hour and I go to my mat, sit cross legged, my hands in my lap. Lower my eyes and begin to watch my breathing, slowly in and out through my nose.
I imagine myself a frog on a lily pad, the rain falling around, the birds singing and I pull my attention back to my breath and let the images fade. In and out, slowly in and out, deeply in and out. As time passes the breath gets shallower, my body settles, my mind settles, my heart rate and my breathing settle.
I hear the boiler in the next room click on and realise that the pump starts a fraction before the flames ignite. And I pull my attention back to my breath. In and out slowly and time passes.
I think ‘I must write a passage about what it is like to meditate’ and I pull my attention back to my breath but quickly think that I must take a photograph of my meditation space, my mat and its cushion facing the wall, and I pull my attention back to my breath and settle again. The breath flows in, the breath flows out and time passes as I exchange molecules with the air around me.
I notice my posture has slumped and as I pull myself back to a more vertical one I imagine a meditation master standing behind me pulling an invisible thread attached to my head to make me upright and I pull my attention back to my breath.
Outside a cat howls. Raindrops begin. Somebody passes by. Leaves blow. Another person passes by. I hear them, almost feel them with my body but do not think about them and they pass without thought. I allow my attention to slip away from my breath into complete inner stillness. The sounds I can hear are like ripples on a pond that fade. The bells ring the quarter hour. The thought comes: ‘half way through’, then I pull my attention back to my breath.
There is often pain with meditation, that is not a bad thing, It provides something to ignore – no, not to ignore – to accept, not fight and cause yet more discomfort, but to hold as a natural part of being alive. Discomfort is normal in life. Loss, pain, hunger, cold. A pain in my right hip, my left leg is more flexible than my right. I let attention pass and the pain remains but has no importance. My attention comes back to my breath.
Later and I drift into thought again and imagine all the other people in the world meditating right now and how we are all emanations of the force of life, all temporary flowers in the garden, and I pull my attention back to my breath and that attention fades until once again there is nothing but a wide stillness and ripples on the pond.
Time passes and I feel my body has slumped again, I pull myself straight, my attention on my posture, then when I have settled I put my attention back on my breath. In, out, in, out. A wood pigeon calls incessantly, my breath comes in and goes out. My inside connected to my outside. The world flowing into and out of me. My attention remains on the quiet stillness of being connected until the half-hour bells ring and my sitting meditation is over for the day. Tomorrow it will be different, it is always different. Now it is time to eat and shower and dress.
Anybody sitting in meditation is engaged in an epic struggle to calm and quieten the ‘monkey mind’ that grasps at everything around in order to ‘own’ it. Creating an emptiness is like pouring water from a jug, this empty jug that is left is then available for use. Unlike a jug that is full and its contents are continually added to as it constantly overflows and cannot take any more. Each morning the jug is emptied and is ready for a new day.
Yesterday in my meditation there were feelings of self-hatred, then feelings of ego. The feelings faded, accepted but unfed, starved of the attention they craved, they withered and balance was restored. Meditation is always different, always the same. Sometimes the half hour passes and the attention has passed from the breath and there is no attention anywhere, the head remains empty, the sensations from ears eyes, nose mouth, skin come in and pass, a deeper connection with all that is passing, a oneness with it all. At other times the chattering monkey mind will not be silent for anything more than a few seconds and all I can do is sit and watch it chatter away, it is fine, just a child, let it be and it will fade. Meditation is emptying the left overs from yesterdays pots and washing them, sometimes they need a little soak.
It’s over too quickly. I keep myself hungry so that I am desperate for it each morning. When it is cold and dark or hot, bright and sticky I am still hungry.
I think of my morning meditation as cleaning the hearth, brushing away the ashes from yesterdays fire, clearing the dust and laying a new one for the days burn. It is as natural as brushing my teeth. There are often many more meditations through the day, active ones; when I cook a meal or go for a walk and my attention is on walking, the texture of the earth under my feet, or the scent in the air or the sounds and tuning out everything else. These active meditations are easy, very easy, a little light relief from the days worthless chattering thoughts. When I worked as a gardener I meditated for hours each day. Each pruning of a rose bush became a silent meditation, no internal chatter, just a tool, a hand, a rose, a bunch of senses connecting them all. Each mowing of a lawn, each step behind a wheelbarrow. Through meditation I am free from desire and have no fear.
In yesterdays meditation when I had feelings of self-hatred I remembered a time may years ago when I had planned to find a monastery, to become a Zen monk and I realised that the reason I wanted to do that was because I wanted be a Zen monk. Desire, pride and ego. A project that I abandoned for that reason but also on reflection an awareness that I hate being told what to do, would rather learn for myself and a distrust of human systems. I could have ended up in completely the wrong kind of temple. The reasons for our decisions are never simple. Instead I chose to follow the Buddhas route and sit each day alone in humble meditation. Under a tree, or in an empty room. I rarely sit with others although I have done. That would require, getting dressed, washing, travelling. I prefer a simple routine that flows easily from one event to another, bed, tea, yoga, meditation, food, tea, shower, dress, work.