A Guide to Effortless Meditative Practice
by Dean Sluyter
Copyright © 2015 by Dean Sluyter
All Rights Reserved
Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin
Meditation for the Rest of Us
Please try this:
Turn your head to the left. See whatever you see.
Now turn your head to the right. See whatever you see.
OK. You saw two different views, but what remained the same?
Now scrunch up your shoulders into an awkward position. Feel whatever you feel.
Then drop them back into a comfortable position, and feel whatever you feel.
Two different feelings, but what remained the same?
What always remains the same?
Please recall leaning forward to blow out the candles on (let’s say) your seventh birthday cake. There were the glowing flames filling your visual field … their warmth against your face … the sound of your family shouting, “Make a wish!” … the smell of sugary icing and melting wax … the feeling of being inside a highly excited seven-year-old body.
Now recall hanging out with friends at seventeen. All the sights and smells and sounds were different: maybe cigarettes … beer … pizza … wisecracks … loud music. You had a different voice, and you were in a different body, one with hair in new places and prone to recurring storms of sexual arousal. Your range of emotions was very different, with levels of sarcasm and romantic desperation unknown at age seven. But what remained the same?
And now please recall the last argument you were in. Recall eating dinner yesterday. Falling asleep last night. Opening this book a few moments ago. Different, different, different. But what remains the same?
Here’s a hypothesis:
No matter how much our experiences change, one thing always remains the same: the presence of an experiencing awareness, which we call “I.”
Running through every moment of your life, whether you’re perceiving your senior prom or your retirement party, is that one thread — the conscious presence that’s there to perceive it all, the sense of an awareness or “I,” the simple knowingness by which all these impressions are known, right now and always. It’s just yourself, and it’s self-evident.
Now, do you have one special I-awareness to experience the view to your left and a different one for the right? Is there one for the awkward feeling when you scrunch your shoulders and one that takes over when you relax them? Clearly not. (To confirm that, scrunch up one shoulder while you leave the other one down.) So it’s also self-evident that it’s the same awareness, the same I that experiences everything, at every moment and at every age, even as the body, thoughts, and feelings incessantly change. Awareness is the constant; everything else is variable.
No one had to teach you this I-sense. It was there before you knew your name or knew you were a boy or a girl. It’s there as the silent witness of your dream adventures and your waking adventures, and it’s there whether you’re depressed or happy, agitated or tranquil, so sick you can’t remember how it felt to be healthy or so healthy you can’t remember how it felt to be sick. You don’t have to do anything to create or maintain it. In fact, see if you can get rid of it.
So here’s the method … the meditation:
Rest in the I-sense.
Just bring your attention to this always-present experience of being aware. Don’t worry about the things you’re aware of, which come and go. Since you don’t need to hang onto this I-sense — since you can’t get rid of it — there’s little or nothing to do. You can sit or stand, walk or lie down, with eyes open or closed. You don’t have to push away thoughts; they come and go, and the I is there to perceive them. You don’t have to relax; relaxation and tension come and go, but you remain as their silent witness, unchanged by either.
Please do this for a few moments right now, just resting in the already-present I-sense. After a while you’ll “stop.” That is, you’ll start reading again or go on to do something else … but of course the I-awareness will be perceiving that as well.
Why is this important?
Please imagine a perfect moment — whatever that would be for you. You’ve just surfed a thirty-footer off the north coast of Maui … or crushed the LSAT … or hit the jackpot at Atlantic City … or enjoyed a delicious dinner at an excellent restaurant with a lovely new romantic prospect. You’ve got money in the bank, none of your body parts hurt, and you’re having a great hair day. There’s a feeling that we can only describe as … Ahhhhhhh!
But then the next wave knocks the wind out of you, you swallow water, and you scratch your face all over the bottom … or you’re not sure you want to go to law school after all … or you lose all your winnings at the craps table … or you get a weird call from your date the next morning … or that itchy patch of skin is flaring up again, or you’re depressed again, or you’ve got that annoying insurance commercial stuck in your head.
How long does ahhhhhhh ever last? The problem is that it’s always dependent on so many shifting, changing circumstances, from your date’s mood to the surf report. It’s all (as Paul Simon sang) slip slidin’ away.
What has probably brought you to this book is the suspicion that somehow there’s an inner ahhhhhhh that doesn’t depend on your luck, your accomplishments, your health, or anything else, and that it can be found through meditation. Your suspicion is correct. I’ve seen people find that ahhhhhhh after losing everything in an earthquake, or while they’re serving a thirty-year sentence in a prison where they don’t have the luxury of a private toilet stall. And I’ve seen people find it in the comfort of the suburbs. Anyone can find it, because it’s the overlooked nature of our own basic awareness, the I-sense that everyone has and no one can get rid of.
There’s just one hitch: it’s hard to believe it can be that easy.
It’s like computers. Before 1984, most people thought of them as powerful in some vague, mysterious way, but forbidding, weird, a little scary. Computers were something for a different kind of person to operate, an alien breed of super-genius science geeks. And, in fact, most computers back then did run on arcane “line commands” or “dot commands”: to indent a paragraph, you might have to type something like “.x703.” The screen displays were blocky, squint-inducing green characters on a black background, always in that same clumsy typewriter font.
Then Apple introduced Macintosh, the easy-to-use “computer for the rest of us.” In the ads, its squat, upright shape and its gently rounded edges made it look like R2D2, the cutest little robot in the galaxy. Off to the right was the new-fangled point-and-click mouse thingy, with its tail in a gentle curve. In black letters on a soft-white screen was a sentence of just one word, ending with a period but starting with a grammar-defying lowercase letter. And, impossibly, it was written in a cursive font, like the handwriting of a warm, chummy, understandable human:
Oh! Computers could be friendly. They could be like humans. They could be for humans, regular humans, the rest of us, the ungeeks, the non–rocket scientists. We could do this.
The aim of this book is to welcome you, with the same kind of hello, to user-friendly meditation: meditation for the rest of us. Despite its growing popularity, many people still think of meditation as powerful in some vague, mysterious way, but forbidding, weird, a little scary. It’s for a different kind of person, an alien breed of — hmmm, let’s see — maybe monks who live austere lives of grueling concentration, or maybe touchy-feely Californians who listen to tinkling chimes while they eat granola and massage each other with crystals, or maybe just people with some kind of extraordinary commitment that the rest of us lack.
Actually, those stereotypes contain a grain of truth. Most approaches to meditation are, we could say, either “hard” or “soft.” The hard methods do require a lot of concentration, a struggle to control thoughts and “tame the mind.” They’re like bitter medicine; you hold your nose, gulp it down, and hope you’ll eventually feel better. The soft methods might involve some feel-good visualization or trippy New Age music or efforts to cultivate only happy-face, positive emotions … even if it kills you. This approach is like sweet, syrupy medicine that may be popular (“Kids love it!”) but doesn’t do much for you.
But these two seemingly opposite approaches have something fundamental in common. They’re both unnatural. Something inside us understands that, and rebels against their artificiality, which is precisely why sticking to them does require extraordinary commitment. As a result, I meet a lot of people who tell me that they’ve tried meditation, but (guilty eye-roll here) “I had trouble sticking to it” or “I guess I just don’t have the discipline.”
Good news: you’re not the problem.
If we eliminate both the hard and the soft, the two unnatural approaches, what’s left? Natural meditation — as natural as breathing, walking, laughing, or being the I that you already are. This is meditation for the rest of us. As you’ve seen, it’s straightforward. There’s no straining to concentrate, or cop a “spiritual” attitude, or imitate someone else’s lifestyle. Because it’s natural, it’s easy to learn and do. Meditation is supposed to make life smoother, less stressed, more friction-free, more like open sky, less like sand in your bathing suit. If the process of meditation itself makes you more stressed, then (as De Niro says in Raging Bull) it defeats its own purpose.
“But I’ve tried to meditate, and it was difficult.”
The key word here is tried. What, exactly, were you trying to do? Please spell that out; put it into a sentence. If you try to lift your chair with one finger or try to fly around the room, it’s very clear what you’re trying to do, and that it’s something difficult. Whatever it was you were trying to do in the name of meditation, you don’t have to do. It was just some misunderstanding, or some unnatural meditation instruction, that led you to believe you had to do it. As you’ll see, meditation is not doing, but being. And being is effortless — it’s unavoidable.
Effortless doesn’t mean watered down. I didn’t make up this stuff; its pedigree is long and distinguished. I’ve had the privilege of training directly with some of the pre-eminent teachers on the planet, and I’ve applied what I’ve learned from them seriously (though not solemnly), sometimes on retreats for months at a stretch. I’ve observed its effects in my own life and in other people’s lives since the Johnson administration. I know it works.
We’ll take it step by step, and we’ll go at a relaxed pace. I’ll introduce a number of specific natural meditative techniques, and you’ll develop a sense of which ones you most strongly gravitate toward. We’ll discuss the points of practice as well as the results of practice as they begin to surface in daily life. Your questions — that is, the questions that people have asked repeatedly over the last umpty-ump years — will be answered.
As with learning to tie your shoes, it might seem a bit puzzling at first, but with a little practice and encouragement, pretty soon it’s a matter of “Oh yeah … this!,” and then you do it almost without thinking about it. I suggest that you try the methods in the sequence presented, as the earlier experiences prepare the ground for the later ones. But ultimately feel free to use whatever resonates for you, whatever you find helpful, and don’t worry about the rest. Take your time. When you feel you’ve really connected with one of the methods, there’s no need to rush on to the next. Any one of them can provide rich growth for days or years.
We’ll draw on several wisdom traditions without being locked into any one of them. One of my first teachers was fond of saying, “The knowledge that is in the book remains in the book”; it’s in the living that these teachings prove out. So I’ll illustrate many of the points with stories of my own thrills and spills and those of others. Stories are fun, but they also help keep things grounded in actuality rather than drifting off into academic theory or spiritual fantasyland. There’s no need to go woo-woo. The actuality of this stuff as it unfolds in your life is deeper than any woo. It’s Whoa! It’s Ahhhhhhh!
I’m writing this on the little deck in my garden, occasionally serenaded by a mockingbird or buzzed by a hummingbird. Feel free to imagine that you’re sitting here with me on a lazy afternoon, that this is where our sharing takes place.
I think there are many people who feel pulled toward meditation but are held back by the notion that it lies on the other side of some narrow door, and that passing through the door requires a lot of work, or study, or discipline, or belief, or ceremony, or money, or finding the one “right” teacher or technique out of a bewildering array of choices. But I can promise you that the door is wide open and easy to pass through. By the time you finish this book, in fact, you’ll see that the door is everywhere. You’ll feel thoroughly at home doing one simple, crucial thing: relaxing into the rich silence at the center of your being. And you’ll discover that it heals and nurtures every area of your life.