04/29/2013 12:27 pm ET Updated Jun 29, 2013

One Thing


The world is made up of stuff and life as we know it is a constant interaction with stuff. You wake up in the bed, put on the clothes, turn on the coffee machine, eat the breakfast, go to the work, deal with the people. You look at them just like the other stuff in your life. They are making you happy or mad and they look right back at you the very same way. You leave work, go home and see the husband or the wife, see the kids. Cook the food, put the feet up on the table and look for a little entertainment to take the edge off of the day. Have a little drink, watch a little tube, take a shower, brush the teeth, get in the bed and eight hours later do it all again. Input, output, all day long.

From the first breath you take everything you need or think you need is outside of you. Your life is about constantly scheming to get the stuff you think will make you happy and it always seems like you need more and more of it. If the all the physical stuff isn't stressful enough you have intangibles to consider. God, for instance. He says you've got to be good and, believe you me, the things you have to do to keep that guy happy are enough to make you want to scream.

So, you hear about meditation and how it will mellow you out, and you think you'll give it a try. You've had enough of dealing with stuff and you've heard that meditation isn't about getting more stuff. It is just about sitting and chilling and pretty soon being just like the Buddha, all chilled out.

So you sit yourself down to chill and you find that all that worrying and scheming you've been doing has a momentum of its own. It doesn't stop when your body does. All those thoughts just keep going, banging right into your old pre-frontal lobes and careening all around your poor brain so you feel even more stressed than you did before you started. You never notice just how much thinking goes on until you just sit down and watch it happen. Now you begin wondering what is going wrong that your brain just keeps churning out one fevered thought after another while you just stew in a state of helpless befuddlement.

You don't know it yet, but you've actually done something significant. You've discovered an entirely new dimension of life: awareness.

Awareness is the previously unrecognized medium in which thought happens. When we meditate, we do one thing: We shift attention away from the endless stream of thought back to its medium, awareness. Awareness registers in the mind but it encompasses physical reactions as well. We generate the energy of awareness by directing attention to the breath in the nostrils and then following it in and out the body. This soothes the body and synchronizes it with the mind. We do it over and over again and it is the one and only thing that we ever do. If you are sitting there watching or hearing lots of amazingly crazy noise, it may feel just terrible but you are meditating just right. And in just sitting down and exercising your capacity for awareness, you are doing the one revolutionary thing that a human being can ever do. You are examining, on a very basic level, the insistent stream of consciousness that drives human behavior.

When you sit down to meditate, you are practicing a skill. Meditation is beneficial only if you take it out of the chair and into the world so that as you move through your daily life you catch stressful thoughts in a net of mindful attention. You shift attention back to the still point of right here, right now. This means attending to all the mundane details that you don't consider important. You pay attention to the sound and feel of the toothbrush in your mouth, your fingers tying your shoelaces, your feet on the floor as you walk, your fingers typing, the person next to you who needs recognition. Turn your attention to just what is, right here and right now, and you are home. This is very simple.

You just do one thing and you do it over and over again. You find that when you lavish attention on the annoying little details of life, they cease to annoy. You begin to feel affection for the people and things in your life and you appreciate that the kingdom of heaven really is within. It isn't in getting a lot of stuff or being someone special. It is being completely ordinary and it that you are an intextricable part of the fabric of the universe right here and right now.

I leave you with a helper from Thich Nhat Hanh:

Breathing in, I calm my body,
Breathing out, I smile,
Living in this present moment,
I know that it is a wonderful moment.