Just This!

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The Japanese Zen monk and poet Ryokan wrote:

“Do you want to know what is in my heart?

Since the beginning of time:

Just this,

just this.”

Often when we start meditating we think that during meditation there are some experiences we should be having and others that we should not be having. The most notable being thoughts, as well as almost any negative or unpleasant sensations or emotions. We believe meditation is where our minds become quiet and we don’t feel anxious, irritated, angry or depressed anymore. Excluding certain experiences from the landscape of ‘meditation practice’ means that when we do have these human experiences on the cushion (which we will) we judge ourselves for it. ‘Oh I’m so bad at this!’, ‘I’m such a bad meditator’. So in order to avoid judging ourselves we try to control our experience. We aim our meditation practice at trying to achieve more of certain experiences and we feel good when we get those experiences, and bad when we don’t get those experiences. Perhaps we think staying with the breath for longer and longer will make us feel less and less stressed.

It is so easy and so natural for us to overcomplicate the practice of meditation and overlook it’s simplicity. The eminent mindfulness teacher Joseph Goldstein describes meditation as being ‘simple, but not easy’. Meditation requires us to put down our ‘doing’, to let go of our deep impulse to try to control our experience, and instead to open to what is actually present for us, moment after moment. Meditation is almost too simple for our goal-directed minds to understand at first.

As soon as we each form our own separate identities as toddlers we naturally hone the mind to become more and more adept at ‘getting us things’, whether it is attachment, love, success, acclaim, money, even happiness. All of these things we think require ‘doing’. Our minds are constantly solving problems in order to get us what we desire, whether its material things or more pleasant states of mind: we do ‘this’ in order to get ‘this’. This is the ordinary logic of the mind.

So when we sit down to practice, with all of our suffering, our hopes and aspirations and we are told to just be aware of whatever arises, paying attention to the breath, it is so hard not to think of meditation like a problem to solve, where we try to pay attention to the breath in order to feel less stressed say, and solve the problem. But mindfulness is not a solution to a problem. In fact the practice runs completely counter to our ordinary goal-oriented conditioning (which is why meditation literally ‘reconditions’ our minds).

The radical essence of the practice is captured in the phrase “just this”. Mindfulness is about being: simply being aware of what is happening, without doing anything at all. But we find that it is hard just to be. To be human. To be embodied. To feel what human beings feel. We find that the mind is ok with some things but not ok with others. It is so hard just to let things be as they are, to let ourselves be as we are. Maybe there is a thought, a sensation in the body, a sound, an emotion, this is what it means to be human in this moment, to be alive, ‘just this’.

‘Just this’ is a reminder to be open. Just this. Not this in order for this. And just this. Whatever it is, it is already here. Nothing is off limits to this moment. It is the place that is already open to everything, the place where everything is as it is. Our practice is just to rest in this open space that is already here.

“Do you want to know what is in my heart?

Since the beginning of time:

Just this,

just this.”