Sitting. Just sitting. That’s what it’s called. A somewhat unusual, perhaps unnatural activity, but arguably no less bizarre than many of the things we’re embroiled-in and busy-with, over the course of a life. Between birth and dying: that mercurial stretch. Ours and not-ours. Impersonal and intimate.
You sit for no one, and for no quality or result. For no pay off. For no good reason. Indifferent to common and good sense (as Gilles Deleuze, among other thinkers, has slanted these terms). Sitting is not a means; it is an expression. If Eihei Dogen, the 13th-century Zen master and poet, made any intervention into existing conventions and the future of sheer practicing, it was arguably his insistence that sitting expresses realization; it is not a means to it. (We’ll talk about means very soon.)
Delaying. Or waiting. Or starting right now. Deftness in time, with time. Being able to intervene on pausing and to use pauses to intervene on the already-underway. To play temporality and rhythm with increasing ease and potential virtuosity.
I considered for a little while making the contrived conflict of this essay about a semantic tension, a valid one admittedly, but still—upon reflection—a needlessly fussy angle. There is this “activity” that mostly gets called meditation (and this name is excellent, good enough, absolutely fine) and there is also an inflection of it (with a long history, dense with nuance and hair-splitting) that is called sitting, or “just sitting.” The difference between these terms, and that to which they refer, is really interesting. I plan to flesh it out for you. It might open something up about what you think the former is—thus potential worries about being able to “do it,” or fearing you do it “badly” or don’t have the knack—as well as offer a whole other way into this Sitting-Still-with-a-Straightish-Spine-for-a-Specified-Time business.
That thing. Meditation. Sitting. Just sitting. In Soto Zen it’s called Shikantaza.
Sitting is so dear to me. I’m telling you about something that lies at the core of my life. (A wave of shyness heaves through me, leaving a salty, surface prickle.) Sitting has saved my life, steadied relationships, enabled me to keep going in phases of the utter worst. It’s also completely banal—the epitome of Nothing Special at the same time as being Couldn’t Live Without. Maybe it’s how people feel about their spouses or children. I contemplate this—that I am kind of married to it. A generous marriage—with it as a fixed angle in my relational geometries?Sitting has saved my life, steadied relationships, enabled me to keep going in phases of the utter worst.
How did we meet? What’s The Getting Together Story? Well, at 21, after hospitality-funded, lengthy European rite-of-passage travels, I returned to a damp-infested, pokey, newly-formed group house in a now-unaffordable inner-city precinct of Melbourne. I was back to continue a degree I had little affection for, along with the work of Feeling a Lot of Feelings, constructing (because they are constructions) a Sustainable Self and finding money to afford a thin futon, so I had somewhere to sleep. I was living with two brilliant women and we were all on different kicks. I was on the Radical Lesbian Separatist Feminist kick. The second was on the Interpretative Dance Very Long Hugs Floaty Materials New Age Psychology kick. And the third, after some time (as you’ll shortly read), went on the Austere Zen in Monochromes of Grey, Beige and Black kick.
We were a reality TV show waiting to happen. I’d plaster the walls with quotes from very, very angry or very, very vulnerable feminist icons, and my Zen housemate would complain about the visual and conceptual noise. The other housemate would look on, with soft eyes, quietly assuring us that everything was o-kay. We—the Zen one and I—got into sitting (I with my shaved head and lavender op-shop suit; she with her uniform of black, loose, handmade trousers) not because of wanting to be spiritual, or wanting to learn focus or anything so bracing or lofty. We got into sitting because there was this hot “older” guy, of that tanned-skin, lean-body, plaited wrist-bands, unruly head-and-facial-hair masculinity, and she badly wanted a piece of him. It turned out a place he reliably visited was a nearby Zen group. (Sitting and desire: no conflict here. None whatsoever. No matter what your 101-Buddhism seems to imply.)
She started showing up to their weekly sit. And I—savvy to the ticks of both desire and territoriality—left her to it and did the very same sitting (or so I hoped) in my damp bedroom, on thrift-shop cushions, feeding off tips she brought back from the group. She and I chatted “Zen” stuff around the milk crates we used as coffee tables, or on the concrete stoop out front. I hoped I was doing “it” right, whatever “it” was. Somehow “it” got traction. (Minimal instruction is a good way to learn sitting.) It didn’t feel like falling in love, or maybe it did. It felt like family, felt like—in the midst of renting and having no concept of future career or income source—home. That Homeless Home.
She never did pash him—the taffee-limbed one—but she found another, not so dissimilar, and promptly moved interstate to be with him. This made the nearby Zen group free game for me, and so it intensified. Something must have made me keep going with it. Some atmosphere in my life must have shifted just enough for me to attribute it to the regular and concerted Doing of Nothing. A long-term sitting colleague of mine always says that people may start practicing because of a crisis, but they continue due to a profound ontological curiosity. More like making than fixing. How to Live. Why we’re Alive. What are Desire, Pleasure, Ethics and Self? I also like to quip, only semi-humorously—that when I sat regularly—I also didn’t want to top myself so much.
Said less provocatively, practicing—and here I mean sitting (but all the kinds count)—intervenes in the direst moments, when we have nothing and no one, or feel like we have nothing and no one. Neoliberalism is hard. Relationality is treacherous and fraught. Authority is often capricious and carelessly or intentionally cruel. Class fallout is horrifying and pervasive. Illness is excoriating. Envy wracks and paralyses us. Financial instability is terrifying, exhausting, and the precariat is our New and Nasty Normal. People we love are mortal. Our time on this planet is looking more and more curtailed. Cultural genocide, while contested, is still everywhere and dogged. Discrimination awaits you (it’s only a matter of time). We’re neurotic (on the whole) and our bodies are impermanent … okay, I’ll stop now.
Feelings, in other words, can get bad… real bad. Some readers of this essay will regularly manage feelings of a very difficult ilk. Dysphoria is the fancy name. Medication is the common stop-gap. But it can be costly, in unseen ways. It is definitely profitable, but not always for you. (On the other hand, it is totally possible to meditate well while medicated. Respected Zen teachers have taken anti-depressants, because it was right for them.)We got into sitting because there was this hot “older” guy, of that tanned-skin, lean-body, plaited wrist-bands, unruly head-and-facial-hair masculinity, and she badly wanted a piece of him.
Sitting is dear to me because—at some quiet level, in certain years and moments—it’s certainly helped me not to want to top myself. People do a lot of things so as not to want to take a permanent rest from the slosh of existence’s anguish. A friend of mine, who grew up in between horrific foster homes says that skateboarding was the ONLY thing that kept him alive in those years. The ONLY thing. (He took drugs, of course, but he is clear that the skating saved him.)
This is what a practice is.
Of course, it involves building a set of skills, and eventually it can turn into some kind of accomplishment. One becomes very impressive on a skate ramp, or can make an oboe sing, or can cultivate flourishing plants in exhausted soil; one can cook as an elite sport or know the intricacies of Indian Classical Dance. But let’s be clear, a practice is something that (when you can manage to do it) may help you to pause wanting to top yourself, today, now, for a little while, and which—in itself and as its activity—doesn’t harm you either. So, drugs (the illegal and the pharmaceutical, and depending on quantity), and compulsive entertainments, and the violence of over-work, and that kind of stuff, aren’t really practices. They are something else, and not the topic of this essay.
Practices (of the kind I mean here) need to be benign enough, and complex enough, so that you can keep doing them, plumbing their depths, finding more to find, while not getting harmed in the process. That’s what I’ve discovered this far in. And, given I’m not so charmed by the affectations of conflict, we won’t get busy with debating it now.
A while ago, I played around with an alternative definition—to the usual “financial” one—of impoverishment. (Let’s be clear that the notion of “practices,” in what follows, implies both solo and communal ones.) My sense is that not having a practice that you can do sometimes is what real poverty looks like. The point of practicing, too, becomes with time more and more immaterial. (You start it, say… to reduce cholesterol; you keep going because you want to see the face of god.) Practicing shifts how you think about what matters. And the strengthening and steadying effect of practcsing, too, is why those who would dominate you or your fellows always get straight on with diluting or forbidding the personal or shared cultural practices (including language), of whomever they’re trying to conquer or disassemble. (I’ve had lovers who get sulky or make trouble “a bit later,” when I’m practicing. “Had”: past tense.)Neoliberalism is hard. Relationality is treacherous and fraught. Authority is often capricious and carelessly or intentionally cruel. Class fallout is horrifying and pervasive. Illness is excoriating.
It’s not about whether you have a nice house, several automobiles, or a fat share portfolio of Fossil Fuel companies. Impoverishment, as I’m defining it here, can feature at every level of the socio-economic ladder. It can exist at the very top and, in these cases, you get very bad decision making; you get a certain kind of heartless, brutal and grinding capitalism; you get vulgarity, greed and you get unwisdom. (Practice can feature in the most economically-squeezed of lives. Learning it can be expensive. Doing it doesn’t have to be too expensive. In the film Searching for Sugar Man, the family are very poor, but Rodriguez knew to take his kids to free exhibitions at art galleries. He knew how to make music, make poetry, and he passed this on.)
Because the thing about having a practice—which might be Sitting Still (I’ll give it a little spruik in a minute), or something else entirely—is that you “need” a whole lot less, or your “needs” are re-paradigmed (—often you cease to believe in them at all). Confusingly, those of the so-called upper classes are in some cases less “impoverished” (my definition) because their expensive schooling, or stable or open-minded home life (if only…), introduced them to various kinds of practices—art, sport, music etc. Lucky them. Nice practices like playing an orchestral instrument, classical ballet, road cycling, snowboarding, sailing and so on. (Quite pricey practices—requiring gear—but practices, nevertheless.)
Yup. The kinds of practices we like to have may be classed; this is utterly true. But despite this ickier aspect, the basic thing remains the same: we can hope to have practices. There are endless practices existing beyond these snooty ones. Life is crappier when we don’t have practices. Either we’ve stopped visiting the good-enough ones we had, or we might need to get a new, fresh one and start from scratch. If you’ve never had one, you’re allowed to get a couple (—three is usually too many). Hopefully they’re benign enough, and we do them in our scenes and/or alone, and at different stages of our life, and we get absorbed, or we don’t, and we return to them when we thought we’d gotten over them—blind contour drawing, walking early in the morning in silence, sitting around with elders, listening or making something, cooking a meal with your grannie, weeding the garden, goin’ fishin’ (especially if one never actually catches anything). My father, I realise now, has had a driving practice and a cow-husbandry practice. Neither of these are particularly sustainable. Thus, we also have to shift our practices over time and with a sensitivity to our current predicament. Give some up. Invent new ones and learn commitment to them. (Recently, he’s taken up reading.) We hold on to their contours and repetitions for dear life, in dire times, when we just don’t know what else to do.
If you take away or hamstring people’s practices, or if you never let them develop any, they will self-medicate with alcohol, with narcotics, with self-harm, with (a kind of) sex, with “entertainment,” micro-delivered dopamine-hits, with over-work and perfectionism, and all number of other activities and stuff (perfectionism has no relation to what practising is or requires. It will show up in its lens, however. It will show up there for sure). This is certain. It’s not rocket science. And you can’t force your practices onto people. Unless they ask. Unless they’re looking. (They may already have good-enough, lapsed ones.) It’s delicate.
Is this a proselytizing essay about meditation? I doubt it. I don’t care which practice (you do, we do, they do). I just reckon that without practicing (widely, very widely defined), you’re both too exposed and not exposed enough. You’re too exposed to contingency, to life’s catastrophes and harshness. To lurches in fortune. To neurosis, unlove, and aggression (your own and others’). But you’re also not exposed enough, in that you’re probably using a lot of energy to defend against the delicacies of being alive, against vulnerability, against loss and surprise. (When you start sitting, you tend to feel more, sense more, see more. When I sit a lot, I always know that my mum (or someone else) is just about to text me… spooky. The Yoga Sutras call this Vibhuti: the trippy up-skilling that comes from practicing.) Something, therefore, is different. That’s all. Practicing is this minimal difference that’s so hard to explain. (I know you know what I mean.)
The hiccup with practicing, in these times, is that it’s not so much an exchange (a concept we understand too well, have been conditioned to place as lens over everything) as a devotion.
Overly quaint word? We don’t use it much anymore. If we’re “secular,” it can feel out of place. Devotion seems risky and often is. To devote oneself—as the texts might say—to that which is (strictly defined) impermanent, prone to decay, likely to betray, wobbly and inconsistent seems a fool’s errand. (Make your own list: partner, money, celebrity, comfort, ‘wellness’, knowledge, happiness… etc.) Devotion to practice is about returning to a process or way of operating that has, on the other hand, been ontologically tested for millennia. It is neither a someone, nor a something. Devotion seems weird because mostly—these days—we have “drive” or ambition. We have self-interest, self-branding, fixations, addictions and OCD. Devotion?
The difference between meditating and sitting might seem a mere grammatical one that, nevertheless, has practical, and also arguably radical, consequences. The two have a slightly hazy boundary, also. “To meditate” is technically a transitive verb that requires the preposition “on.” We meditate on stuff.
Stuff like: the flat (or scrunched) bit of skin between your eyebrows; your breathing; the shape of your hand’s mudra; the view from a lookout; a candle flame; your little toes in dog pose; the placement of a stem of foliage; your fingers during a very difficult bouldering problem; the steam from a cup of tea; a pale plume of incense folding itself upwards; or light moving in the gnarled boughs of an old tree.
What’s excellent about meditation is that it does train the mind, eventually—and the heart. Concentration is not to be sneezed at. Focus seems to be an endangered species; getting absorbed in a task, as we know, tends to feel more nourishing than a state of jagged distraction. In the Yoga Sutras, the first limb of the trio called Samyama is indeed Dharana: concentration (the next two are Dhyana—absorption? sitting?—and then Samadhi). It means being able to coax the mind towards stickiness on something (see list above). It’s technically the precursor to what I’ll get to in a minute. Zen, as I’ve understood it, however, recognizes that this seemingly innocent rung on the ladder can be—for some—the obstacle, a crutch that we problematically cling to. We feel too proud of it, mistake it for the point.Devotion seems weird because mostly—these days—we have “drive” or ambition. We have self-interest, self-branding, fixations, addictions and OCD. Devotion?
If we understand meditation in this transitive way, a caution, then, is warranted. Once we begin flirting with any internal instructions, meditation-as-activity becomes associated with a supposed, self-evident cluster of aims: to concentrate, focus, or to remain a little tethered-to the object of the meditation, (and the real doozy) to “have fewer thoughts.” At one level, by being transitive, being directed at something, meditation to the beginner seems a little closer to the logics of the everyday. It’s an activity like any other, insofar as it’s directed activity.
Most of us aren’t baffled or unsettled by trying to do stuff. Our whole lives are structured as a trying-to-do. We’re never done with it. I think people find the idea of (popularly-described) “meditation” approachable because meditation seems to validate the whole paradigm of Trying To Do Something Productive. Trying as cover for Acquiring? While it aligns with a common sense for the newcomer, this fact (of having an aim) doesn’t always help with on-going practicing, since a spinoff of the latter is (arguably) to mess with your very idea of purpose, aim, goal and having.
People love the concept of meditation (hence it features in late-night bar conversations, radio shows etc.), but they bump into the slipperiness of how the transitivity plays out. The so-called aims in meditation practice are very frustrating, slippery, vague, hard to “do” and… a New Source of Failure. The Super Ego saunters in—better dressed and more implacable than before. This thing you’re “trying to do”—inside yourself, unseen—isn’t objectively measurable. If you’re not in a psych-lab with machines-that-go-beep, but in your smallish bedroom, you’re MORE alone with the Super Ego’s cruelties and sleights, with the certainty that you’re not doing it well enough. (This definition of) meditation’s concealed treachery is simply that, once it has a goal, it offers a murky scale for assessing yourself. Chances are you won’t be a model of support or encouragement. People tend to be unkindest to themselves.
Being transitive, having a purpose, means you (think you) can fuck up, and while this isn’t terrible, it constitutes two different activities. Meditation, therefore, is not quite the same as Sitting. If you can foreseeably meditate well and less well, meditation remains of this system. That of goals, of annual targets, GDP, profit margins, KPIs, self-improvement, The Quantifiable Self, Your Apple Watch giving you little smacks and little pats—all that stuff we know so well and for which we are very well-programmed. Beep whirr clack.
“Sitting” may be distinguished rigorously from meditation, because sitting has no object. A grammarian would deem its verb “intransitive.” The verb of the sitting, the substance of its activity starts and ends there: sitting. No point. Nada. It achieves Nothing. It seeks Nothing. Got no direction. Got no outcome.
A newer student came along to my yoga class recently and asked the question about what we’re doing when we’re sitting, and how to deal with vagueness and “all the thoughts.” That question. I was in a lively mood, so she was subjected to an enthusiastic version of the answer I’ve given so often and will never tire of giving.
This answer changes everything. It constitutes the wondrous cusp between meditating (as defined above) and sitting, as I’m about to define it. It’s shot through with dense, dense kindness. It’s meant I could spend the last two-plus decades regularly doing something that pretty much harms neither me, nor the world. (For those 15, 25, 40 or 60 mins.) Something that’s radically non-destructive.Don’t take your hate to Twitter. Take it to a cushion. Or a bolster. Or a chair with a firm, flat seat. Or to a flat, warm surface where you can lie down.
When you “just sit,” there’s nothing you need to do. You—in your brokenness, your learned and inherent aggression, in your petty resentment, your fear and cowardice, your delusion (especially your delusions, the Zennies are adamant about this), your salacious or violent fantasizing, your untrammeled envy and greed, your tenderness, your raw, unbearable vulnerability, your hyperbolic neurosis and avoidance, your hidden shame and infinite doubt—are all welcome. You don’t have to be more or less. Often you’re exceedingly tedious. You can bring all that to the cushion, and just let it gather and huddle around you. The cushion doesn’t forgive you—this isn’t so much a Christian paradigm—nor does it refuse you.
Sitting is not a means. This is its stern politics and genius. It’s rather a chance to express a certain unthinkable velocity. A velocity approaching zero—this strange, morphing limit function—edging you towards all and every velocity simultaneously, canceling—for a flash of non-time—your inertia wholly. Maybe, when movement starts up again, you-as-movement are, for a blessed chink in spacetime, unknown to yourself. Nothing to Know. No difference-between.
People ask about the thoughts. How to stop the thoughts?—since isn’t meditating about getting respite from the tortuous thoughts? Or stopping them, in some athleticism of restraint, of refusal or artful abstinence.
Nup. ‘Cept it isn’t about that. Well, it doesn’t have to be.
A favorite Zen moment of mine happened while standing around, on the pungent ground of a mountain setting, after an eight-day silent Zen retreat (called a sesshin). I joked to my fellow sitters: don’t you love sitting? By the end of the eight days, you’ve basically murdered and had sex in your head with everyone in the room [side-splitting emoji]. Some folk chuckled assent. Some stayed dazed in the aftermath of the eight-day marathon. One quite prim, sweet person, who’d indeed been molested and murdered in my head during that time, just turned to me in horror and sternly said: I haven’t.
Hahahahaha. Bless her. I haven’t. She’d have done other things in her head/body (when you sit the difference becomes very vague indeed…) Unique, strange, boring, repetitive, predictable and shocking things. Her own schtick. Just like I’d done my killing and seduction (which I’m playing up, to make a point). Don’t get me wrong, I’d also have done plenty of aimless fretting, bitching, fearing, dreaming, pondering, making, storying… all of that—probably and can’t remember (our “thoughts” are so ephemeral, one becomes less and less interested). The gore-and-slutting angle was just an effort to lighten the mood. Not so prim, because sitting isn’t nice. It includes all the bits of us, and without agenda. Definitely without anything like a moral slant. (You’re sitting still, remember, you aren’t behaving any of this stuff. Sitting’s ethics are that you can no longer justify/believe that thoughts bear any irresistible relation to behavior. No Thought Police, as well as No (claim to) Couldn’t-Help-Myself.)
The lack of agenda is precious. Nothing for you to be or become. It’s like some fantasy of Unconditional Love except that it doesn’t involve flowers, anal sex, or a mortgage, and your knees do sometimes get sore, and you end up throwing New Year’s Eve parties with dubious group activities like… well… sitting. I once taught a six week “meditation” course for the staff at a (now hugely successful) cosmetics company. In the final session, I asked the small group if they had any closing comments. One woman, who’d been fairly quiet, simply said: well, I think I now know that there is a place—the cushion—where I’m always enough.
Oh. Very moving. So achingly precise. Nothing more to teach there. Go your wondrous way. A place where you are always enough. Even when, inside yourself, you feel you “aren’t”—because you’re also sometimes wanting to top yourself, or you’re drowning in seas of terrible affect, or you’re sure you’re not interesting at all, to anyone. Or you feel culpable, flimsy, wrong, embarrassed and hateful.
Don’t take your hate to Twitter. Take it to a cushion. Or a bolster. Or a chair with a firm, flat seat. Or to a flat, warm surface where you can lie down, because you’ve a hip problem, or back problem, and you can’t sit easily. Take it walking, slowly, anywhere you can slowly walk. All of this, I’d call “sitting.” The minimal difference is tricky, because you might now think: ah, well, I walk a lot, or lie down a lot, without mind-censorship. I don’t even need to “sit” now, do I? And I’d say—sternly in that special Zen way—no, that’s quite something else. Just sit.Sitting will peel away all your brittleness and knowing. It will leave you sober and quieter and in contact with your rage, disbelief, fear and extreme weirdness.
This brings us back to constraints, to containers, and what they allow and invite. The magic of sitting is its container, which consists of the following: a timer that you set (clock, or incense stick traditionally); a physical posture that is stable without requiring much effort. You structure time. You structure the body-as-container. At the outset—and that’s all. To construct a space in which things (thoughts, sensations, feelings) can happen spontaneously and safely—as if placed on a plinth. The framing changes everything—including “you” and what you think you are.
We turn up for and to structure, and then life (aka desire) takes care of the rest.
I’m less of a basket-case/unchecked missile when I sit regularly. Sitting is a reliable gateway to dignity, and it tends to help us leave others to theirs. Sitting—because it doesn’t need anything from you—has no demands, no scale of better or worse, no opinions, no ideology, no resentments and no fixed concept of who you are—is hyperbolically kind. It’s radically, consistently, unfathomably, breathtakingly kind. Sitting will peel away all your brittleness and knowing. It will leave you sober and quieter and in contact with your rage, disbelief, fear and extreme weirdness. It won’t let you off the hook.
There’s an idea in practicing circles that’s called transmission. It’s a little like an STI, in that you have to catch the bug from someone. The transmission goes body to body, usually (maybe it travels in text or words, too, because that story takes over my body, without fail, with dripping tears or a scrunched up face—every time). The body catches the tune of the practicing from another body that knows this tune due to years and years of devotion, in the cells, the (non)movement. There’s no fudging and no fast-track. Their body has to have undergone every hour, every year of the practicing which forms the substance of the transmission. Otherwise it’s just guff.
It’s hard to find practitioners. They’re often terrible self-promoters (self-promotion takes time away from practicing.) The real teachers aren’t always charismatic or easy. They may be very poor at using Instagram. Find ‘em. Try to share a lodging, or a workshop, with them. You, too, may eventually “experience great clarity.” Or, more humbly, you might just not top yourself, for another week. Or you might accidentally, on the odd occasion, bump into drenching, unresentful elation. Simple elation that isn’t winning, or success, or hacking life. For free. No come down.
Sitting is the most affordable practice going. It does take longer than certain strains of CBT, or other currently-popular modes of relief. If you ditch it, though, there are no violent side effects. It has endless patience for you. Often it changes nothing and everything almost immediately. Its barometer is steadiness and quiet joy. You won’t notice its doing you any good. Others will query what’s different in you.
Sitting offers a space to lay down all your questions.  For a while, while you sit. There you are, for those timed minutes—with your confusion, pain, tedium and adamant certainties spread around you, like as many petals, in every colour. The bell goes, and you gather them to you (because all we have is our unique suffering; practising is a slow, intricate process of loss). Now—despite (and due to) Nothing having been added and subtracted, what you find yourself holding is not quite what you assumed it was.
With thanks to Paul Boston, Clifton Hill Zendo, Melbourne and to Justin Wolfers.
 If you call what you do “meditating” and yet evade effectively—via hunch or experience—what I inventory above, please forgive me. I said it was a semantic, and also not very interesting, tension. Don’t worry, keep calling it “meditation,” we both know what you’re up to, and it is wild, and wildly crucial. Don’t stop. I know you won’t, whatever we call it.
 Don’t get me wrong, stuff also starts to happen if you just give concentration a go. Do give it a go. But don’t worry when it doesn’t “work.” When it drifts off. When you start to plan your weekly shop. This is all part of it. This is also what it’s for. That’s the confusion, and the open secret.
 This quote comes from a Zen story recounted by my yoga teacher, Orit Sen-Gupta.