During the last 10 weeks I’ve started meditating regularly after neglecting the practice for a long time.
The foundation of my meditation practice is Taoist, and I acquired it by the end of 2008 while studying with Tai Chi Chuan master C.K. Chu in New York City.
Master Chu’s approach to meditation is the same as his broader approach to martial arts: radical demystification of basic concepts and razor-sharp focus on practice over theory. Captured in his little-yet-powerful book, Chu Meditation, it consists of sitting down and mindfully focusing attention on breathing.
More specifically, sit on the floor in half or full lotus position after basic stretching exercises. Progressively learn to “empty the mind”—to achieve a state of calm, mindful awareness of the present moment, uninterrupted by random thoughts or mind-wandering.
Each of the following stages can take between a few days and a few weeks to master. Whenever the mind wanders, bring attention back to the focal point relevant for each stage of practice.
1. Begin by focusing attention on achieving a properly upright sitting posture.
2. Once the upright sitting posture becomes natural, the focus shifts to achieving long, deep, smooth breathing. Each breath should be a small flow of air, drawn deep with the diaphragm, long in duration and with a smooth, even breathing pattern when inhaling and exhaling.
3. After mastering appropriate sitting and breathing, concentrate the mind on the t’an tien (the energy center near the navel).
4. The advanced meditator is able to comply with the guidelines of each stage simultaneously.
Total sitting time also increases as the student progresses. Five minutes a day are enough for the beginner. The advanced meditator can sit for 30 minutes or more.
The raw simplicity of this approach might put off people who are fond of new-agey views of what meditation is all about. There’s no focusing on feelings of gratitude here, nor visualizing any aspect of a preconceived notion of our better selves that we might want to grow into.
It’s not that Taoist meditation doesn’t acknowledge its power to produce altered states of consciousness and deep, growth-enhancing, insightful revelations that could well be described as mystical. It’s just that they can not be brought about intentionally—they emerge as a byproduct of simply doing the basic, mundane, prosaic work of sitting your butt on the floor with legs crossed and paying attention to your breath.
This issue is a particular instance of the broader riddle at the core of all ancient Chinese philosophical thought: how does one achieve wu-wei, that state of spontaneous, effortless action?
How does one “try not to try”?
It’s a genuine paradox, and as such there’s no clear-cut answer to it. Rather than trying to articulate an answer with words, the Taoists opted for meditation as a means to elicit a state of “pure being” that might allow one to experience an answer directly.
The humility muscle is the first to get a good dose of exercise with this form of meditation, because one realizes how deceptively difficult it is to carry it out. We quickly realize how little control we have over our own minds, how many ravenous little demons are fighting within, hell bent on breaking our will to be fully in the moment.
Mastering the inner war is all meditation promises. And yet it is the doorway toward truly empowering self-realization. Insights and revelations somehow start arising in consciousness little by little, as a subtle, unintended consequence of a focused, calm mind.
This is why the silliest new-agey meditation exercises are about “projecting peace, love and harmony on earth.” I can almost hear Master Chu chuckling wholeheartedly at this attitude. Anyone with such a grandiose aspiration misses the point completely.
Formal meditation arose in tandem with the ancient martial arts: martial as in the real wars in which one kills or gets killed.
These were people that had to be prepared to stare death in the face any time of day. They had to develop a character that allowed them to somehow stay sane, despite having to break the bones and cut the throats of their enemies.
That’s the way life was and there was nothing they could do to change it. Meditation allowed them to keep that in perspective finding a source of peace and sanity within, a force that nurtured their sense of wonder; their capacity to marvel at the world despite the chaos in their lives; to write poetry, epic works of literature and treatises; to practice calligraphy and paint and play, despite the horror to which they were routinely subjected.
Same goes for the notion of meditation retreats in idyllic, peaceful, beautiful sites that supposedly allow for a more genuine, fuller meditation experience.
Not that meditating at under those conditions can’t be nice or fruitful, but remember, the first formal meditators were most probably practicing after battle, surrounded by the smell of charred bodies, the blood of their enemies still drying on their skin. The thought of having just killed—rather than the presentation you have to make tomorrow to the board of directors—making their minds wander from the breath.
If they managed, shouldn’t we focus on making a genuine effort to meditate in the less-than-ideal conditions of modern urban life? Master Chu makes this point with the cover of his marvelous little book—a photo of him sitting calmly in the middle of Times Square.
A big part of the challenge of meditation is to learn to do it regardless of the circumstances. And most importantly, to keep doing it consistently day after day. Persistence is what’s been most difficult for me to sustain in my meditation practice, even having achieved a reasonably high level of skill.
A minimalist approach to meditation can help a lot in this regard. The simple act of sitting down and mindfully focusing attention in the moment is a good start.
If you can’t focus while sitting down, try doing it while you walk to work or run in the park. Meditate to music if that helps you break free from the chatter of your mind.
Do whatever it takes, but do it every day, even if it’s a bare minimum.
Focus on the routine work at hand: sitting down, correcting your position, focusing on the breath. You’ll gradually notice that warrior spirit growing strong within. And slowly, but surely, it will eventually take over.
Shortly after writing this post, I got the news of Master Chu’s recent passing. Although they are mourning, the students in charge of Chu’s school haven’t stopped teaching.
What better way to honor his spirit? If there is one phrase that condenses his wisdom like no other, it is “Keep Practicing!”
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