Someone who commutes into New York from the suburbs everyday by train asked me whether I thought it was a good idea to try to meditate while riding on the train. Occasionally you see people doing that - even on the subway - usually they close their eyes and try to settle into an inner silence that shuts out all the noise and commotion going on around them. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but the alternative I suggested to this student was to just sit there - and not meditate. Just sitting on the train means staying awake and aware of everything going on inside and all around. Staying aware of our restlessness or boredom; our wandering thoughts and our worries; our bodies whether tired or relaxed. As soon as we begin to "meditate" however, all too soon we begin to have some goal in mind: we try to calm ourselves down or try to quiet our mind. And then we focus or trying to have a certain kind of idealized experience rather than simply staying with the actual experiences we happen to be having.
Actually, it's an interesting exercise to try in the zendo as well: for one period, don't meditate, just sit here! What's the difference? Well, I think if you try it you'll quickly encounter some subtle and some not so subtle images and expectations of what sitting and what meditating are supposed to feel like. Even when we talk about "just sitting" we all too often end up with a mental prototype in our minds of what a "good" sitting is supposed to be like. And consciously or unconsciously we try to steer ourselves towards the image. Sometimes we are aware of that image only in contrast to how our sitting is going. We sit thinking we're having a bad sitting or chronically feel we're no good at zazen without ever explicitly examining what our image of "good" zazen is - and without making noticing or labeling the thoughts that accompany that judgement.
The fact is, "good" sitting has no particular content whatsoever. What distinguishes sitting as practice from merely daydreaming while we ride the subway is not the contents of our minds, but our willingness to simply pay attention to the ongoing flow and process of our thought. We radically leave our mind and our experience alone; we let come what comes, let go what goes. Rather than try to amuse or distract or entertain ourselves we let our minds take in whatever in going on. We let ourselves feel what's going on in our bodies. We let ourselves stay attuned to the moment - and to all the subtle resistances we inevitably feel to the moment just as it is. The effort this involves is not so much an effort of intense concentration (though we do make an effort to pay attention and not allow ourselves to drift off as a mode of avoidance) but an effort to stay emotionally open. We stay present to the full range of emotional responses, including the anxiety or restless or depression or anger that life as it is - as opposed to life as I want it to be - continually gives rise to. Rather than trying to control the flow of our moment to moment experience we allow ourselves to be transparent to it: to let the thoughts and feelings and sounds pass through us like light through a window. Our usual self-centered mode of being is preoccupied with controlling what passes through that window. To do nothing, to leave it all alone and let it all pass through turns out to be no easy task. What I want to emphasis this morning however is to beware that you don't turn meditation itself into a filter: don't use sitting as a way to screen out unpleasantness or anxiety and to settle into a comfortable mental bubble. When you sit, really just sit; don't meditate!