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Why I Sit


(excerpted)

Paul R. Fleischman

This essay was first published as a booklet by the Buddhist Publication Society in 1986. The complete text, including another essay by Fleischman, can be found HERE (PDF). This shorter excerpted version appears as it was published in the July 1995 Vipassana Newsletter.

The English word "meditate" until recently had a vague meaning, referring to any one of a set of activities like extended deep thought, or prayer, or religious contemplation. Recently, "meditation" gained a pseudo-specificity: "T.M.," deep relaxation, or alpha-wave conditioning, with connotations of Hinduized cult phenomena like mantras, gurus, and altered states of consciousness. To "sit" is a basic word, with connotations ranging from chicken-coops to boredom and sagacity, so it forms a neutral starting point for an explanation of why I have spent thousands upon thousands of hours "sitting," and why I have made this activity the center of my life.

This morning, the first thing I did was to sit for an hour. I have done that regularly for twenty years, and have spent many evenings, days and weeks doing the same.

I would like to know myself. It is remarkable that while ordinarily we spend most of our lives studying, contemplating, observing and manipulating the world around us, the structured gaze of the thoughtful mind is so rarely turned inwards. This avoidance must measure some anxiety, reluctance or fear.

Most of our lives are spent in externally oriented functions that distract from self-observation. This relentless, obsessive drive persists independently of survival needs such as food and warmth, and even of pleasure. Second to second, we couple ourselves to sights, tastes, words, motions or electronic stimuli, until we fall dead. It is striking how many ordinary activities, from smoking a pipe to watching sunsets, veer towards, but ultimately avoid, sustained attention to the reality of our own life.

This motivated me on a search that led through intense intellectual exploration in college, medical school and psychiatric training, and finally to the art of "sitting", as taught by S.N. Goenka, a Vipassana meditation teacher with whom my wife and I first took a course near New Delhi, India, in 1974. Those ten days of nothing but focusing on the moment by moment reality of body and mind, with awareness and equanimity, gave me the opportunity ironically both to be more absolutely alone and isolated than I had ever been before, and at the same time to cast my lot with a tradition, a way, as upheld, manifested, explained and transmitted by a living person. I am continuously grateful to S. N. Goenka for giving me this technique.

Vipassana meditation was preserved in Asia for two thousand five hundred years since its discovery by Gotama, the historical Buddha. His technique of living was labelled by western scholars, "Buddhism", but it is not an "ism", a system of thought. It is a practice, a method, a tool for living persons. It does not end its practitioner's search. For me, it provides a compass, a spy glass, a map for further journeys. With daily practice and intensive retreats mixed into the years, I find the marriage of autonomy and heritage, membership and lonely continuity. Vipassana is the binoculars—now I can search for the elusive bird.

Before I received instructions on how to sit, my journey through life was predominantly intellectual. I had found lectures and books to be inspiring, suggestive, artful, but evasive. One could advise, one could talk, one could write. But sitting is a way for me to stand for something, to sit as something, not just with words, but with my mind, body and life. Here is a way to descend the stages, protected by teacher, teaching, technique and practice, into the light and darkness in me.

I want to know, to simply observe, this living person as he is, not just as he appears while careening from event to event. Of course, this will undoubtedly be helpful to me as a psychiatrist, but my motives are more fundamental, personal and existential.

I am interested in my mind, and in my body. Previous to my having cultivated the habit of sitting, I had thought about myself and had used my body as a tool in the world, to grip a pen or to chop firewood, but I had never systematically, rigorously, observed my body—what it feels like; not just with a shy, fleeting glance, but moment after moment for hours and days at a time; nor had I committed myself to observe the reciprocal influence of mind and body in states of exhaustion and rest, hunger, pain, relaxation, arousal, lethargy, or concentration. My quest for knowing is not merely objective and scientific. This mind-and-body is the vessel of my life. I want to know it with the same organic immersion that sets a snow goose flying ten thousand miles every winter and spring.

Because the harmony in me is at once so awesome and sweet and overwhelming that I love its taste yet can barely compel myself to glimpse it, I want to sit with the great determination that I need to brush aside the fuzz or distraction, the lint of petty concerns. To sit is to know myself as an unfolding manifestation of the universals of life—a gripping, unending project. Hopefully one I can use even when I look into death's funnel. For me, this knowing is a great force, and a great pleasure.

I sit because of, for, and with an appreciation of daily life. The great poets sing of the omnipresent ordinary, pregnant with revelation—but I know how easily and recurrently my own life yields to distraction, irritation, tunnel vision. I do not want to miss my life the way I once missed a plane at a New York airport. It may be ironic that simply to wriggle free of daydreams and worries I need a technique, a practice, a discipline, but I do; and I bow to that irony by doing what I must do to pry my mind off ephemeral worries, to wake to more dawns, to see my child unravel through his eddying transformations.

I sit to open my pores, skin and mind both, to the life that surrounds me, inside and outside, at least more often if not all the time, as it arrives at my doorstep. I sit to exercise the appreciative, receptive, peaceful mode of being filled up by the ordinary and inevitable; for example, the floorboards sagging in the crooked bedroom where I sleep, or my two year old son, tugging one splinter at a time, to help me stack firewood in new January snow.

I feel a need for a rudder, a keel, a technique, a method, a way to continue on course. I need increasing moments of self-control (though not constricting, deadening, or inhibition). While sitting one does not get up, or move, or make that dollar, or pass that test, or receive reassurance from that phone call. But military training, or violin lessons, or medical school, are also routes to self-control in this ordering and restrictive sense. Sitting is self-control around specific values. Observation replaces all action. What is the point of committing one's life to this practice, only to spend the time with daydreams, or anxious yearnings for promotion and recognition? Of course, those will happen anyway. They are part of the human make-up. Cultures would not have proliferated the ubiquitous moral codes, the Ten Commandments, the Five Precepts, if we were not so replete with ten million urges.

There is little I have heard from others —and it is my daily business to listen— that I have not seen in myself as I sit. But I also know the necessity of work, training and restraint. Dependence, loneliness, sensuality, exhaustion, hunger, petulance, perversion, miserliness, yearning and inflation are my old friends. I can greet them openly and warmly in people close to me, because I know them from the inside and therefore cannot condemn them without condemning myself. I also have been learning to harness and ride their energy.

Sitting pushes me to the limit of my self-directed effort; it mobilizes my willed, committed direction, yet it also shatters my self-protective, self-defining maneuvers and my simple self-definition. It both builds and dismantles "me." Every memory, every hope, every yearning, every fear floods in. I no longer can pretend to be one selected set of my memories or traits.

If observed, but not reacted upon, all these psychic contents become acceptable, obviously part of myself (for there they are, in my own mind, right in front of me); yet also impersonal, causally-linked, objective phenomena-in-the-world that move ceaselessly, relentlessly, across the screen of my existence, without my effort, without my control, without me. I can see more, tolerate more, in my inner life, at the same time that I am less driven by these forces. Like storms and doves, they are the persona of nature, crossing one's inner sky. Psychic complexity swirls up from the dust of cosmetic self-definition. At the same time, the determination and endurance I have to muster to just observe, grow like muscles with exercise. Naturally the repetition of this mixture of tolerance and firmness extrapolates beyond its source in sitting, out to relationships.

I sit because knowing that I will die enriches and excoriates my life, so I have to go out of my way to seek the discipline and stability that is necessary for me to really face it. Sitting rivets me on the psychological fact that death is life's door. No power can save me. Because I am aware of death, and afraid, I lean my shoulder into living; not reactively, but with conscious choice and decision of what will constitute each fleeting moment of my life. To embrace life I must shake hands with death. For this, I need practice. Each act of sitting is a dying to outward activity, a relinquishment of distraction, a cessation of anticipatory gratification. It is life now, as it is. Some day this austere focus will come in very, very handy. It already has.

I have been sitting at least fifteen hours a week for years, and when, as often happens, I am asked how I find the time, I know that part of the certainty in my aim is an anger that will not allow the rolling woodlands and hilltop pastures of my psyche to be bulldozed by TV, non-nutritional food, fabricated news, tweed socialization, pedantic file-cabinets of knowledge, or loyalty rallies to leaders, states, gods, and licensures. The voices of the herd will not so easily drive me from my forest cabin of deeply considered autonomy and honest talk, because I have had practice in this sort of firmness. A child's anger is the kindling of adult will. I can stay true to myself yet mature, be willed but not willful, by sitting in the spirit of Woody Guthrie's song: "Don't you push me, push me, push me, don't you push me down!"

I sit to be myself, independent of my own or others' judgements. Many years of my life were spent being rated, primarily in school, but, as an extension of that, among friends and in social life. As often happens, out of their concern for me, my parents combed and brushed me with the rules of comparison: I was good at this, or not good, or as good, or better, or worse, or the best, or no good at all.

Today I find that sitting reveals the absurdity of comparative achievement. My life consists of what I actually live, not the evaluations that float above it. Sitting enables me to slip beyond that second, commenting, editor's mind, and to burrow in deep with immediate reality.

I am relieved to be more at home in myself, with myself. I complain less. I can lose discussions, hopes, or self-expectations more easily and much less often because the talking, hoping, and doing is victory enough already. Without props or toys or comfort, without control of the environment, I have sat and observed who I am when there was no one and nothing to give me clues. It has happened that I have sat, asked for nothing, needed nothing, and felt full. Now my spine and hands have a different turgor. When I am thrown off balance, I can fall somewhat more like a cat than like a two-by-four. When I sit, no one, beloved or enemy, can give me what I lack, or take away what I am.

So as I live all day, I can orient myself into becoming the person I will have to live with when I next sit. No one else's commentary of praise or blame can mediate my own confrontation with the observed facts of who I am.

I sit in solitude to lose my isolation. What is least noble in me rises up to the surface of my mind, and this drives me on to be more than I was. When I am most shut into my dark self I find the real source of my belonging.

The two greatest difficulties I have faced while sitting for extended hours or days are physical pain, and the loss of the social position that I had previously seemed headed for and entitled to in the community. Pain that starts in the knees or back can flood the whole body and burn on and on. The self-protection of calculated membership and its comfortable rewards are lost to me in those aching, endless hours.

I imagine my other options: a better house, winter vacations in the tropics, the respect of colleagues listening to me speak as I climb the career ladder. I imagine the financial crises I am less prepared to withstand. I imagine the humiliating rejection that crushes the refugee from poverty or racism or any form of powerlessness, all of which are in my heritage and possibly in my future (and in anyone's heritage or future if you look far enough). Why do I sit here? A thrush hops onto a low limb at the edge of a wooded clearing with triumphant song. Knowing yet staying, I am an inheritor and transmitter, flooded with gifts from those who loved and left their trace, and this still, glowing posture is the song of my species.

Sitting helps me overcome my deepest fears. I become freer to live from my heart and to face the consequences, but also to reap the rewards of this authenticity. Much of what I called pain was really loneliness and fear. It passes, dissolves, with that observation. The vibrations of my body are humming the song that can be heard only when dawn and dusk are simultaneous, instantaneous, continuous. I feel that a burst of stern effort is a small price to pay to hear this inner music—fertile music from the heart of life itself.

I sit to anchor and organise my life around my heart and mind, and to radiate out to others what I find. Though I shake in strong winds, I return to this basic way of living. The easy, soothing comfort and deep relaxation that accompany intense awareness in stillness, peel my life like an onion to deeper layers of truth, which in turn are scoured and soothed until the next layer opens. I sit to discipline my life by what is clear, simple, self-fulfilling and universal in my heart. There is no end to this job. I have failed to really live many days of my life, but I dive again and again into the plain guidance of self-containment and loving receipt. I sit to find and express simple human love and common decency.

© 1986 Paul R. Fleischman

This essay as it appears here is an excerpted version. First published as a booklet by the Buddhist Publication Society, the full text can be found HERE (PDF). The essay is also collected in the excellent book Karma and Chaos: New & Collected Essays by Paul Fleischman (Pariyatti Press).

Karma & Chaos (book)

VIPASSANA MEDITATION: WWW.DHAMMA.ORG

The Experience of Impermanence  |  "On Buddhism & Buddha's Teachings"  |  Buddha's summation of Meditation
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