I admire folks who declare—earnestly, honestly, wholeheartedly—that to simply sit in meditation is the greatest pleasure. To plunk the butt down. To adjust the legs and straighten the spine. To breath and breathe and steadily, rhythmically, mindfully breathe yet again.
For instance, Thich Nhat Hanh. He wrote the following in his 2014 book How To Sit: “In our time, in our civilization, sitting and doing nothing is considered either to be a luxury or a waste of time. But sitting can produce the most nourishing calm and joy and we can all afford some time to sit. How wonderful to sit and do nothing.”
Indeed, it is really wonderful. But so is jogging, ice skating, shooting baskets, shooting pool, dogsledding, walking the dog, swimming, skydiving, and fiercely battling your best friend on the Ping-Pong table. So is movement. How, then, does a fidgety person—a person who admires Thich Nhat Hanh and dozens of other cushion-smitten Zen masters through the ages—choose nothing over something? If doing nothing isn’t your absolute favorite pastime—isn’t the activity (anti-activity?) you immediately and instinctively embrace whenever the chance arises—where does that leave you?
Many of us can use a little nudge in the direction of sitting. I don’t mean we need a carrot at the end of a stick to coax us along, a reward to motivate us, whether “calm and joy” or full-on capital-E Enlightenment. I only mean that getting started can be challenging. Transitioning from the usual action-oriented existence to a slower, mellower, more passive and contemplative state of being. Switching gears.
When driving a car with a manual transmission, you don’t abruptly shift from fifth (seventy mph) to first (five mph), but rather ease through fourth, third, and second. Likewise, I’ve found that the trick to doing nothing is—strange as it may sound—doing something for a while and letting it naturally, seamlessly, subtly play itself out. Phrased another way: Something is a Trojan Horse that enters the gated city and releases its secret cargo of nothing under cover of night, without anybody realizing what’s occurred.
The key, though, lies in selecting the right kind of something, the right Trojan Horse.
Fishing is a decent example of a hobby (something) that frequently leads to an open, receptive, simultaneously dazed-focused afternoon of plain old sitting (nothing). Disregard the hard-core, athletic anglers fording wilderness creeks and sailing the high seas. What I’m thinking of is the guy in a lawn chair beside a dinky pond, the lady in a pokey rowboat on a smooth lake. They set out with a rod, tackle box, and bait—with an intention to catch some fish, yeehaw!—and then, well, the bass aren’t biting. As my nonfishing mother would put it: Like watching paint dry.
Bodhidharma, the famous First Ancestor who carried the Buddha’s teachings from India to northern China, earned the nickname Wall Gazer for the nine years he supposedly spent meditating in a cave, face-to-face with a blank screen of rock. When I picture him, it’s as a fellow watching paint dry, so to speak. For the lawn chair guy and the rowboat lady, the sky of morphing clouds is a wall. The reflection of those clouds on the surface of the water is a wall. Consciousness is a wall. Life is a wall. They aren’t Zen adepts, but they have managed to trick themselves into a version of Thich Nhat Hanh’s wonderful sitting.
In a similar vein, autumn after autumn, decade after decade, my grandfather hunted deer without pulling the trigger, without firing a bullet. For him, the seasonal tradition was primarily about getting into the woods, treading lightly on the crunchy leaves and crackling snow, finding a seat from which to observe his surroundings, a seat where he could quietly notice. That seat was typically a log.
Stow the rifle. Pour a cup of tea from the thermos. Watch minutes dissolve into hours. Watch shadows twitch, tremble, travel. Watch until you’ve forgotten that you’re watching, forgotten that you are you. Basically, watch the paint dry.
I say this as the sincerest compliment: Grandad annually made himself a bump on a log!
Jim Harrison, a longtime student of Zen, wrote a prose poem near the close of his career titled “Notes on the Sacred Art of Log Sitting.” The reader discovers early on that Harrison is recovering from surgery (“I was slashed from neck to tailbone”), can’t keep pace with his bird dog Zilpha during morning hunts, and must regularly stop to rest on whatever piece of organic furniture is available. He accepts this situation—this situation called aging, sickness, mortality, the inevitable—and creatively transforms it into a practice resembling zazen.
“Empty your mind of everything except what is in front of you—the natural landscape of the canyon.”
“Dismiss or allow to slide away any aspect of your grand or pathetic life.”
“Avoid a doze.”
“Internalize what you see in the canyon: the oaks and mesquites, the rumpled and grassy earth, hawks flying by, a few songbirds.”
Gary Snyder, another Zen writer with an ecological bent, suggested in his book Earth House Hold that the origins of meditation “may have their roots in the requirements of the hunter—where a man learns to be motionless for a day, putting his mind in an open state so that his consciousness won’t spook creatures that he knows will soon be approaching.” It’s an intriguing idea—unprovable but fascinating—that in effect traces a line from some Paleolithic dude with a spear, through Bodhidharma the Wall Gazer, to modern log sitters like my grandfather and Harrison.
Tens of thousands of years of the something-nothing dance?
Personally, I’ve never been particularly interested in fishing or hunting—they aren’t my Trojan Horse, my nudge toward sitting—and so I’ve sought out other opportunities to plunk my butt down, adjust the legs and straighten the spine, and breathe. Take yesterday evening. I strolled a familiar four-mile loop through local aspen groves—green groves just beginning to turn color—and tasked myself with counting each and every yellowy-golden leaf. An absurd project, definitely, but a success in that it slowed me without grinding my gears. In that it drew me tight to the hushed beauty of the place. In that it engendered a dual awareness, both pinpoint precise and expansive, zoomed in and zoomed out at once.
I lost count around the two hundredth leaf—the leaf caught in a crooked stream’s eddy, circling lazily beneath the pale climbing moon. Mesmerized, I folded a sweatshirt in lieu of a zafu and sat. Circled with the circling leaf. Drifted with it. Drifted off.
Ultimately, this whole subject centers on an individual’s unique character and idiosyncratic inclinations. What activity leads you to inactivity? What intention gets you to transcend limiting intentions? What something sneakily delivers you to a brief spell of Thich Nhat Hanh’s wonderful nothing? Knitting can be wall gazing of a sort. So too can wildlife photography, plein air painting, painting your toenails, taking a bath, gathering litter from a roadside ditch, or chopping wood and hauling water—to borrow a classic Zen image.
Last week, I crawled on all fours behind an ant until my knees ached and I was sprawled among drooping ferns. Next week, I’ll perhaps listen to Mozart until the symphony fades and I’m listening to silence.
Tonight’s Friday. Zero plans. I’ll sip a beer in the yard and read a novel, less for the story on the page than the peachy sunset glow that saturates the white spaces between the inky words, then dims to darkness and leaves me staring at nothing, serene.
This article was originally published on November 1, 2022.
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