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Atticus Harris

in search of simplicity

This Simple Meditation Technique Creates Dramatic Clarity

I was in the middle of working on a presentation when my friend Jorden stopped me and asked if I’d be up for trying out a meditation technique he’d been shown. This isn’t so strange – we’ve created a workshop series together that explores the best of contemplative and philosophical ideas on different topics. I was 100% in for the ride and Jorden began to guide me through a short meditation. By the time we finished, I was astounded at the simplicity and power of what he’d just shown me.

One simple question

Jorden had been introduced to this at a workshop he’d participated in, but after a little research, we found it came from the book ‘The Power Of Now’ by Eckhart Tolle. Here’s Tolle explaining how the method works:

“Try a little experiment. Close your eyes and say to yourself: “I wonder what my next thought is going to be.” Then become very alert and wait for the next thought. Be like a cat watching a mouse hole. What thought is going to come out of the mouse hole?” – Eckhart Tolle

I told you it was simple, right?

The power of this technique is that it engineers a moment of strong awareness that can be repeated throughout any meditation session. I often find that it creates a feeling of stillness, where thoughts disappear and I’m left observing everything around me: sounds, sensations, the objects in my peripheral vision. Of course, I also have moments where I’m repeating this and become distracted. But I find that coming back to this phrase is more powerful than simple breath counting techniques.

How to practice this method

Sitting with Jorden that day, as he guided me through this method, I had a moment of true clarity – just a moment, but enough to open the door to something much bigger – that felt like a breakthrough. Since then I’ve been experimenting with it in my daily practice.

Here are 6 steps you can follow to bring this in your own meditation practice:

  1. Sit up straight, somewhere comfortable and free from distractions.
  2. Place your hands on your knees or with one hand resting on top of another, so your thumbs can meet and make a circle.
  3. Begin by breathing deeply 4 times. This should bring your awareness to your breath and start to centre you. After these 4 breaths, let your natural breathing rhythm return and continue to observe the rising and falling of your breath.
  4. Once still, ask yourself ‘What is my next though?’ And then focus observing whatever arises next.
  5. When thoughts arise, watch them and note their existence then ask yourself the question again.
  6. Repeat until your meditation session is over.
  7. I could go on at length here about why and how this technique is powerful – but that would defeat the purpose. Sit and try this yourself, that’s really what this is all about. This technique is about your mind and your experiences – and only you can experience that. If this tool works for you, great. If not, move on and try another.

    Additional techniques to go deeper

    Simplify and breathe out: I’ve found that simplifying the phrase to ‘My next thought’ also focuses the mind in a similar way. Then by repeating this on each out breath it almost becomes a mantra that provides a clear line of focus throughout a meditation session.

    Where does the thought come from: a similar technique – one I found while practising ‘my next thought’ – is to observe where the words themselves arise from in your mind. Try and locate them physically in your head as they arise. This can lead to some interesting insights about the nature and origin of your thoughts.

Meditations On Urinals, Still Mind and Cloudy Weather

Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.

A urinal sits in the first art gallery at the Tate Modern. I should write Art Gallery – this is, after all, serious art. To be precise, this is modern art from 20th century America. The urinal or ‘found-item’ is called ‘Fountain’ and is the work of Marcel Duchamp. To look at the urinal now, just as when it was first shown, is to look at any other urinal you might find in the men’s restroom. This urinal is different because it has reached the venerable status of true Art. It’s now marked as a turning point in modern art history. It’s taught as part of the official syllabus at colleges and universities. It’s shown at the most prestigious art galleries in the world. The urinal is still a urinal. It’s placement and the scrawl of a signature ‘R. Mutt’ set it apart but the essence remains unchanged. What we study and discuss is the idea.

By now, the debate of whether this is art or not has been settled by curators and critics. But that doesn’t stop us from questioning other things, such as ‘what isn’t art?’ or even ‘is there anything that isn’t art’? More often we find ourselves questioning the skill involved in art if art can be a urinal. This is to miss an entertaining and challenging point. The pleasure of art may sometimes be the appreciation of a skilled craftsman’s ability to coax beauty and aesthetic balance from otherwise mundane materials. The true pleasure of art is to have your brain and emotions stirred up until you no longer no up from down. The pleasure is to feel something.

When a man puts a urinal in an art gallery is it art? When a woman sits in tattered clothing on the street, is she buddha? I find myself looking at the difference between good and bad, meaningful and absurd only to become confused. I thought it all existed on a linear spectrum that could be organised from A to Z, quite neatly. But the truth is that is all circles back on to itself, like a snake eating its own tail. At some point, the distinctions get lost.

The urinal might make us feel annoyed, frustrated and confused. But that’s not to say these things can’t be enjoyable given the right context. If we’re letting go of our assumptions when we enter the art gallery, then surely anything we encounter – a urinal, feelings of anger, an object we can’t make sense of – is worthy of examination.

When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.

We don’t move much further than the jetty on the lakeside and the fridge for cool drinks. This summer there has been a heatwave in England. Temperatures have reached record highs for July. The last summer as hot as this on record was in 1976, over 40 years ago. As a country where extreme heat is a rarity, this feels like a big win. I’ve spent the past week of it in the Lake District. This is an area known for its glacial mountains, lakes and lush landscape. In the heatwave, it’s felt akin to Provence or Tuscany.

On a cloudy day, there are brief intervals when the sun breaks through casting a brightness upon the world. Everything around you appears in sharp contrast: brilliant light, deep shadows and vivid details. But it is only fleeting. As clouds pass over the sun once more everything that rang so clearly only moments ago returns to its grey and listless state.

Meditation is often like this. A sharp insight, followed by a return to our humdrum mind. We might sit for several weeks with no real sense of progress. We continue with our days and everything seems the same. But every now and then everything seems clear, if only for a moment. It’s often as we’ve just woken from a dream. The truth seems so clear and bold but it quickly slips from our tongue as we try to describe it. Back to the quiet sitting. More meditation.

My question is can we have one state of mind without the other? In order to find that deep satisfaction in our own skin, can we avoid the nervousness that seems unavoidable if you’re human? It would seem that sitting regularly and meditating does not change me in the sense that I am radically transformed. Instead, it’s helping me see the light when it’s shining and the darkness when it’s grey. To chase after one at the expense of another seems to be missing the point.

The Lake District is synonymous with rain. In the UK we have lots of words for rain – it can be raining cats and dogs, spitting, pissing, torrential. For the past month, these mountains have not seen even a dribble of precipitation. The heat and lack of moisture have left large areas of grass bleached dry. While the temperature makes for good swimming weather, it’s also slowly eating away at the vegetation. The rose bush outside our front door is now wilting in the prolonged heat. It’s fragrant, but for how much longer? To enjoy the Lake District is to embrace the rain, not to avoid it.

Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.

I walk into the next gallery. A Jackson Pollock hangs on the wall. More capital A modern art. Jackson Pollock is the drip painter. His canvases large and expansive, like a landscape painting. His method was to paint without thinking. He let his intuition and physicality of the brush, body and floor create the work. Layers of paint sit one on top of the other creating dense streams of colour and motion. If Pollock had tried to create these works by thinking too much, he would never have made a mark.

When I look at the painting, I see a lot of different things. I see paint. I see a broad vista. I see dancing. I see scribbles made by an alcoholic. Art is about context and this painting, in my eyes, can be all of these things and none of them at the same time. Duchamp’s urinal is Sculpture with a capital S. It’s also a pot to piss in. Pollock’s canvas is a captivating masterpiece. It’s also a mess of house paint on stretched canvas. This summer is a series of long nights on the lawn beneath the pine tree. It’s also the death of what makes this landscape so sweet.

To paraphrase Bertrand Russel, it’s all vague to a degree that you don’t appreciate until you try to define it. I’ve always tried to look at capital a Art and see raw materials – the paint in the tin and the canvas un-stretched. Imagine these things before Pollock got his hands on them. Where they not special in some way then? And the urinal, how different is it now than before Duchamp placed it upon this plinth? Or the worms, bugs and dirt that give this land its vitality. When we try to point to what makes anything special, we abstract it from the very things that make it what it is.

This is the paradox (and fun) of polarity. We see something as beautiful precisely because we have a concept of what is not. So when we try to flip things – see the beauty in the repulsive, the joy in that which is gloomy – things become deeply fascinating. This is the wonder of good art. We can observe it by slowing down our critical mind and letting what is just be. This brings us to a point where a cloudy day, filled with spatters of rain, can make us smile deep inside.

Tall mountain, no zen

This is the top of a mountain. Before you is a broad landscape over which the sun is rising. Towns in the distance, a lake in the foreground. The water of the lake shimmers in the early evening light. Birds migrate east across the golden sky. All is silent as clouds drift by the path you just walked up. A fresh wind blows ripples across your clothing and cools your face. You slide your shades down over your eyes to get a better view. There is no one here but you. This is the top of a mountain that you have climbed. This is all out there. And inside, no zen.

If you’ve ever tried to meditate, it’s probably because you were sold some idea about how it would improve your life. Less stress. Fewer worries. Maybe inner peace? What we soon learn when we sit down to meditate is that these are just some of the benefits. But, just like exercise, we must sweat if we are to experience them in any meaningful way. Training for a marathon is hard. It takes several months at a minimum and over that time your body is going to ache and complain. You’ll see things changing when you look in the mirror. You’ll feel them changing inside. Then the marathon arrives and despite all this work, it’s more demanding than anything that came before.

When you finish, you’re broken. The process is over and it’s up to you if you want to do it again. It doesn’t matter what sold us on meditation when we started. The road is long and it’s going to challenge you. And finally, we realise, that the meditation part is simply training. The real test starts when we stop meditating and start living.

The Beach

This is an empty beach. Your feet in the sand, eyes toward the endless blue sky. The temperature is warm enough for t-shirts but not so hot that you become uncomfortable. It’s midday and you’re making use of the shade from a nearby tree. In the distance, you hear the sound of a waiter making drinks at the hotel bar. You sip the drink he made for you earlier. Then you listen to the soft rhythm of waves against the shore. This is the corner of a beach you have travelled to. This is all out there. And inside, no zen.

At various points in my career, my job has required me to write code for websites. Outside of any formal sitting meditation, writing code is the only time I’ve achieved a state of flow. For those unfamiliar with the concept, flow is a state of total immersion in a task. It is at once intense and subtle. All-encompassing and extremely focused. Everything falls away to the point where you are no longer conscious of time, self and memory. There is just what’s happening and that’s it.

You can experience this playing sport, in your work or while doing any task that is both challenging and interesting to you. When you finally come out of this state, you realise how magical it is. When I think of enlightenment, I think of these moments extended indefinitely. In fact, scientists have discovered that people who experience flow often are susceptible to becoming addicted to the state (who knew that even enlightenment could be a diagnosable condition?).

Of course, when it’s happening you don’t think about it. To do so would be to step outside of yourself and break the state of flow. And you can’t make it happen either. Flow will only happen when you’re not trying to achieve it. Because to seek it out would be to miss the point completely.

The Train

This is a crowded train. It’s rush hour and you’re unable to find a seat in the mix of commuters. Backpacks and bodies crowd you into a sliver of space that could easily induce claustrophobia. When strangers are forced to stand in this kind of density nobody looks at each other. People balance themselves with one hand on a railing, the other hand scrolling through their phone. When you have to do this twice daily any distraction is welcome. You close your eyes and breath deeply. This is your journey home. This is all out there. And inside, some zen. Finally, some zen.

An old man lives in our neighbourhood and he cycles through the streets every day. His bike is covered in all kinds of colourful junk and he is usually wearing an assortment of eye-catching mismatched clothes. But you don’t need to see him in order to know he is nearby. He sings this one song he wrote, at full volume, on repeat. I can already hear it as I write this (I’m silently humming the tune).

People chuckle and call him a fool. He’s the friendly, harmless, neighbourhood fool. When tourists see him they want to grab their camera and film as he passes by. In my mind, he’s the closest thing to a monk that I know. Maybe he’s reached nirvana. Or maybe he doesn’t care. Perhaps that’s exactly what’s required to get there.

What you’ll find at the top of the mountain

This is the silent mountain. This is the pristine beach. This is the secluded monastery. This everything you’re trying so hard to do. No zen.

This is the overfilled train. This is the long line at the checkout. This is plane you just missed. This is everything you’re doing your best to avoid. Some zen.

The biggest irony of any meditation practice is that the reason you get started is exactly the thing you end up trying to undo. There is no stress to avoid. No freedom to ‘reach’. By trying hard to relax you will tense up. By trying to de-stress you become anxious.

Meditation will lead you to a point where you realise that all the things you’ve been working toward, training yourself for, are there all along. The activity is less of a building up of something new and more of an uncovering of what’s already there. It’s easy enough to know this intellectually. But to know it we need to get our head around not knowing it. Because you can’t find what you’re searching for and you can only walk the path when you stop following it.

The saying is ‘the only zen you will find at the top of a mountain is that which you bring with you’. You don’t need to be at the top of a mountain. You don’t need to be on the beach. Zen is here. Outside and in. You’re already there.