By Duane Toops
Some days are better than others when it comes to my daily Samatha meditation practice.
Hell, if anything proves that point, I posted a video on my YouTube channel titled, “I Suck at Meditating.” I talk about many of my meditation frustrations, including, but also not limited to, what I feel are my meditative inefficiencies. One of the analogies I use in the video to describe the state of my mind during many of my sittings is a toddler high on Mountain Dew and cracked out on Pixy Stix. Picturesque, I know.
I won’t rehash all of that here. If you want to hear more, you can check out the video. Suffice to say, as a wise, old Zen master once said, “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.”
In some ways, maybe we could say the same thing about meditation practice. Bless you, Master Gump.
Now I have to admit, although I’ve been doing some form of contemplative practice or another since I was a teenager, and although I’ve been dabbling in meditation for the past several years, it’s only been in the past two years I’ve gotten more serious, more committed, more disciplined and more formal in my meditation practice.
However, if you’re looking for an expert opinion, you’ve come to the wrong place, you’ve got the wrong guy.
Every morning I get up early, grab my cushion, let the dogs out, set my timer, and meditate on my patio for about 45 minutes. On paper, that sounds more serene than what it actually is. Don’t get me wrong, some mornings, when I have enough awareness, or when I’ve gotten enough sleep the previous night, the sound of birdsong and the whispers of a slight breeze softly pirouetting through the trees in my backyard are meditation gold. Picking an object of concentration in such a setting is like being at a buffet. Unfortunately, this isn’t actually the most accurate portrayal of the soundscape.
Remember those dogs I let out? Yeah, let’s talk about them for a minute.
I have a Chiweenie who has made it his personal mission—his quest—to vigilantly defend the yard against every rustling bush, viciously hunt down every intruding lizard, and vehemently bark as if sounding the alarm against the evils of the squirrel menace.
I also have a neurotic Jack Russell Terrier mutt, who noisily and aggressively rushes to the aid of her pint-sized comrade in arms, unquestioningly seconding the commotion, yelping without ever having a clue as at what is being yelped. She quickly grows tired of the traumas found in the backyard battlefield. Whining, panic stricken, and in a state of utter despair, she scratches at the patio screen door seeking asylum, calling for canine sanctuary.
If that wasn’t enough, throw in an indoor cat meowing incessantly at the sliding glass door, desperately yearning for the outside world. Not so serene now, is it? Try meditating through that shit.
Compounded by a restless mind easily distracted, caught in thought, and lost in planning, this is a powder-keg cluster-fuck.
Yet, somehow, it is still good practice. I’m learning to gracefully accept the tempestuousness of these surroundings and the temporal chaos of my own mind, allowing it all to just be what it is, with as little judgment and with as little reactivity as possible. It’s all observable phenomena.
Inhale. *birds chirping* Exhale. *barking* Inhale. *swishing branches* Exhale. *meow* Inhale. *growling* Exhale. *whining and scratching* Repeat.
One of the practices I’ve started adopting within my sitting meditation is what I call “Touching Stillness.” I know that sounds a little too touchy-feely and kind of woo-woo, but I’ve yet to come up with a better moniker. I’ve begun to see regardless of the torrent of external and internal activity, I can physically locate a stillness, a quiet, somewhere within myself. In his book, Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, Dan Harris expresses a similar idea, noting that “a subtle quality of stillness or silence already exists in some part of our experience: under the softest part of our breath, or at a point in the belly, or as a noticeable quiet around us or even inside us.”
Often while I’m watching the breath and becoming distracted by the cacophony of diversions both my mind and my environment elicit, I search for that stillness, and, like the Buddha touching the ground at the moment of his awakening, I try to see if I can I touch this stillness, even if but for a moment.
Sometimes I find it in the stability of my hands as they rest together on my lap. Sometimes I find it in the brief pause between breaths.
In Buddhism this stillness is sometimes called Samatha: tranquility, calm abiding. Samatha also refers to a specific form of meditation aimed at cultivating and developing a concentrated calmness of mind.
The suggestion here is this calm stillness, this Samatha, is not something that we are lacking, it’s not something to be garnered, or attained. Instead, it is something we already have, something that is always already there, ready and available. It simply needs to be nurtured, and allowed to expand and flourish. We need to look deeply and touch peace as Thich Nhat Hanh would say.
The question is how long we can hold it? How deeply can we reach into the reservoir of this stillness?
For me, it’s not always for very long. Sometimes I can’t touch it all. Sometimes I can only see it, and even then, it may be a momentary or partial view. Like clouds passing in front of the sun, sometimes I catch brief glimpses of stillness radiating between the shifting shrouds of thought. Sometimes it’s looking through the pickets of a fence; it’s an obstructed view but, I can see enough to know it’s there.
However, there are moments when I can pierce the veil of planning and thinking, when the fog of attachment, aversion, and delusion thins and clears enough for me to reach through and gently touch the ground of calm, quiet, stillness—the ground of Samatha. It may only be for the briefest of moments, but when it happens, when I can manage to touch that ever-present stillness within myself, I simultaneously touch the stillness present in everything else around me.
There is a stillness in the trees as the wind caresses the leaves. There is a calm in the chirping of the birds. There is even a quiet stillness found present in a barking Chiweenie, a whining Jack Russell, and an incessantly meowing cat.
Maybe there’s even a still silence that can be touched in the attempt. Dōgen says “Wisdom is seeking wisdom.” Perhaps, stillness is seeking stillness. Maybe Samatha is seeking Samatha.
If that wasn't enough, throw in an indoor cat meowing incessantly at the sliding glass door, desperately yearning for the outside world. Not so serene now, is it? Try meditating through that shit. ~ Duane Toops Click To Tweet
Duane Toops is a husband, a father, a fledgling Buddhist, a struggling meditator, and a self-proclaimed writer, thinker, and content creator. You can read his writing on his blog and watch his videos on YouTube.
Editor: Alicia Wozniak
Did you dig this post? You might also like: