Atticus Harris

in search of simplicity

Tackling Hard Problems, The Easy Way

Everything demands effort. Getting out of bed on a winter’s morning. Making tea. Going to the gym. Filing your tax forms for the year. To do any of these things, to make the effort, requires a good reason to do so.

I began meditating when I was lost, maybe a little depressed and generally feeling unenthusiastic about life. Meditating was a way to fix that situation. It too required effort, but the more I meditated the better my outlook became. The problems I was facing, while not totally eliminated, didn’t hold the same power over me any more.

After a while, meditation still required effort but the reasons I had started were no longer the reasons I needed to continue. So I started to ask, do I need to meditate any more? What’s the reason to continue if you’ve done what you set out to do?

When you’re getting up at 5.30am to sit on a cushion and meditate, you better have some good answers to these questions.

How Do You Shape A Rock?

It was early in the morning on September the 13th, 1501 that Michelangelo stood looking at a lump of marble. Somewhere within this piece of stone was a sculpture and it was his intention to realise it.

The rock itself was imposing. It had been mined from the Carrara quarry in northern Italy some 40 years earlier, weighed in at over 6 tons and was more than 5 meters in height. During the course of the next two years, Michelangelo methodically set to work, chipping away to reveal the form of David. By the time he’d finished, the sculpture was celebrated as a masterpiece. Indeed, if you visit David today in Florence, over 500 years later, the strength and grace of the statue are still captivating. Michelangelo brought a level of artistry and vision to this sculpture which is evident in the power of the final product.

Rewind the clock much further back, to approximately 6 million years ago. Now imagine what the landscape of Arizona in the United States might have looked like. Unless you’re a geologist, it will be difficult to picture. One thing is certain though, there was no Grand Canyon. And despite how different the view would be, you may be able to find something familiar: the Colorado River. Between now and then the river (or some form of the river) has slowly carved through the earth to sculpt the deep canyon we recognise today. This is a geological process so long in the making, that it would be hard to witness even a small part of it in the span of a single human life. It involves the continual flow of water. Hundreds of unknown events. The idiosyncrasies of the rock bed and it’s different strata. But today we have the opportunity to witness the result of all that work, and it’s breathtaking.

Despite this, what we’re seeing is still just a snapshot in time, because the Grand Canyon is still being made today. It’s still a work in progress. I think it would be difficult to pinpoint the moment that the Grand Canyon became the Grand Canyon. Because it isn’t the result of conscious effort and intention, but instead a meandering process that is continually in flux, there is no ‘peak’ Grand Canyon. Unlike the statue of David, it never reaches completion.

Anti-Self-Improvement Tactics

At work, I spend my time trying to maximise productivity and get things done. I’m always busy setting myself goals and then trying to achieve them. For many of us, our success (and therefore self-worth) is defined by how well we manage to do this. I think of this as deliberate effort, which I’d define as a series of calculated actions with a fixed end goal. From work to fitness, to managing my finances, my primary strategy in life has been to apply deliberate effort in order to achieve something. When it comes to how we’re living our lives, this is only one approach among many. And yet, we often act as if it is the only modus operandi available to us.

This is why I found myself staring at the ceiling one morning, lying on my yoga mat, and thinking about how I’d rather be in bed than downstairs trying to meditate. My reasons for meditating regularly had so far been based on the same approach I brought to my work. I was trying to achieve a set goal. The vision in my head was similar to the statue of David: at some point, I would achieve contemplative perfection and acquire a level of grace and serenity previously unknown.

This is, of course, outlandish. But it’s characteristic of what happens when we apply deliberate effort to all areas of our life. Meditation demands something different from us. If you stick with the practice of mindfulness, you’ll eventually have to confront this head on. Meditation is an anti-self-improvement tool. I’ll rephrase that to make it clear: you practice meditation in order to do the exact opposite of self-improvement.

Breathing is a good example. We can, of course, breathe with deliberate effort. But for the majority of our life, we let our breathing happen quite naturally. It happens of its own accord, responding appropriately to our physical and emotional states. There is no end goal in your breathing, save for the continual supply of oxygen into your bloodstream, so it continues in a relaxed and steady manner. As a result, you can maintain the activity of breathing for much longer periods of time! Instead of deliberate effort, we might call this second approach natural-effort, which I define as an intuitive process without a defined point of progression.

Given the fact that many of us first come to meditation via the desire to improve something in our lives, this can be a strange thought to hold. Learning to let go and just sit on the cushion, with no end goal is both disorientating and liberating.

Acting Without Doing

As I lay there on the yoga mat, I was reminded of this passage from the Tao Te Ching:

“Act without doing;
work without effort.
Think of the small as large
and the few as many.
Confront the difficult
while it is still easy;
accomplish the great task
by a series of small acts.

The Master never reaches for the great;
thus she achieves greatness.
When she runs into a difficulty,
she stops and gives herself to it.
She doesn’t cling to her own comfort;
thus problems are no problem for her.”

For me, this captures the difference between natural effort and deliberate effort. And because meditation is a process of natural effort, no amount of strain or energy will make us ‘better’ in a shorter amount of time. Instead, it is a continual activity, one we must return to again and again in order to slowly acclimate ourselves.

There is no right way or wrong way to do things. You can bring deliberate effort or natural effort to any activity. Value is not the product of a single kind of effort, it’s about bringing the right effort for the right path. And your efforts will be best placed if they align with your intentions.

So when you next sit on the cushion, ask yourself, are you here to sculpt a David, or to carve out the Grand Canyon?

The Restless Present: How Learning To Breathe Can Help You Find Peace

When will this be over? It’s a question, or more of a feeling, that often comes up when I’m meditating. Despite my intentions to meditate and my own desire to do it for a certain time, there’s always resistance inside of me. Some days I have reached down and looked at my timer, giving in for a moment to the need to be somewhere else already. Other days I try to examine from where inside me that feeling is coming. When you try to sit with a restlessness and understand it, you’ll find that it’s hard to define. The shape of it shifts and dissipates. It’s like a mist: for a moment it appears to be an immovable object, but if you shine a light on it for long enough the cloud evaporates and is gone.

What happens in meditation is usually happening in life. So if a persistent restlessness seems to come up, again and again, each time you sit, it’s likely that this feeling is present in life off the cushion too. This is how it was for me – through most of my 20s I’ve been dissatisfied with things in a way that was hard to pinpoint. I could be having a good time with friends, but I’d be uneasy about the whole situation. I might be spending time with my family, but would be unable to shake the sense that I was missing out on something else.

To begin with, I couldn’t figure out what caused these feelings, or even that they might be related. It wasn’t some strong sense of unhappiness or depression, it was more like an undercurrent that tugged at me all the time. A kind of low-level pain that you choose to ignore until it flares up. To understand it you have to slow down, focus and pay attention. Meditation creates the space for you to focus and that’s why it can be so hard in the first place. When you sit on a cushion, as still as possible, with nothing but your mind and body, there is no way to escape that low-level pain. It surfaces quickly because you’re not distracting yourself with other things. A lot of don’t want to examine that pain because we’re so used to coping with it by ignoring it. So we tell ourselves that meditation isn’t for us. It’s too boring or we don’t seem to get anything from it. I did that for a long time until the undercurrent was no longer bearable. I needed to find some kind of solution. So I sat down and started breathing.

The difference between 1 and 2

Writing about meditation is comes with a few difficulties because ultimately it shouldn’t be theoretical, it’s experiential. With that in mind, it might be useful to take a moment and do a short exercise in breathing.

Pay attention to your breath right now. If it helps, count each inhalation all the way up to 10. Then start again. This often allows you to focus more intently on each breath as it arrives. When you count the first breath, the idea is to be that number 1. To feel what that first breath is like as the air fills your lungs. How does the chest expand? Does the right side feel fuller than the left? What about the abdomen, how does that push your belly out slightly as the lungs expand? Then exhale. Focus on the feeling the whole time. Count 2 as you bring in the next breath and see how, this time, the experience is different. No inhalation will feel the same and no number will be a similar experience. Between 1 and 2 there is a world of difference. Now exhale and count to 3 and you breathe in again. Do this all the way to 10 then come back and continue reading…

This is the basic exercise of many meditation traditions. Vipassana, Zazen, or modern mindfulness practices ask you to sit down and follow the breath as a starting point. If you’ve ever tried it, you’ll know it’s not as easy as it sounds. When you start, the mind wanders and keeping your attention in the moment is as much a challenge as counting up to 10 without losing your place. Which is crazy – we all feel like we can count to 10, but the moment you try to slow down and it becomes difficult. Even when you’ve been meditating for a long time, the mind wanders. Trying to focus on your breath, the most immediate sensation of the present moment that you can dial in to, can feel like an impossible task.

Joy is learning to breath

Think of a situation where you’ve had nothing to do. For example, you arrive at the dentist early and have to sit for 10 minutes in an empty waiting room. Or you’re alone on a train during your commute. What do you do in these moments? If you’re anything like me, the natural thing to do is to reach for something to entertain yourself. A magazine, or podcast or phone which you can scroll through. Just sitting there and being is generally out of the question. We don’t entertain it as a possibility. To sit there aimlessly and wait seems like the height of boredom.

We all have these moments in some form or another. They happen every day to some degree. When I began meditating, I noticed that these were the moments when my low-level pain would flare up if I didn’t do something. So I decided to try and do nothing, just to see what would happen. Of course, nothing happens. You just sit there with these sensations and then, eventually, the moment passes and the dentist calls your name or you arrive at your destination. The more I meditated, the more these moments became a chance to sit with my restlessness. To experience it. And the longer I was able to just be, the more at ease I became with these sensations. The perpetual disappointment with the present moment I experienced in my 20s was a product of my expectations – that this feeling of happiness should last longer than it does, or that this sense of discomfort will be here forever. Restlessness, boredom, unease – these things don’t last, despite how intense they feel at times. They are, like all sensations, fundamentally interesting. When you take the time to examine them, they can tell you a lot about yourself.

Each breath feels different from the one which came before. Each moment has a different quality than any that you’ve experienced before. By meditating I begin to see that this difference makes each moment, or each breath, worth experiencing in its own right. And so I began to answer my question – when will this be over? The answer is now and never. Each moment is unique, but the moment will keeping coming, like waves at the shore. Our gift is the chance to sit and listen to the never-ending tide.