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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.

One Bird One Stone

Finding the right pace to cycle at in Amsterdam takes time. First, you must cycle often. Then you need to try different speeds.

It may sound prescriptive, but there is a right way and a wrong way to cycle through the city. I can spot someone on a bike who is not a local from half a canal away. And that’s not just because the locals are giving them a wide berth. Figuring out the city by bike is not a matter of me telling you what’s right or wrong. You have to learn it yourself. It’s something that comes from experience and feeling.

At some point, you find the speed of the city and cycling clicks into place. You don’t want to sprint through Amsterdam. You can get some speed up, for sure, but the tempo is generally slower. One foot. Then the next. Woosh. Woosh. One then another. It feels natural and satisfying. The city flows past you and the bridges sweep you up. And then down.

What it feels like, when you get it right, is a small freedom.

A Modern Koan

A koan is a kind of spiritual riddle used to help Buddhists in their search for enlightenment. Zen masters give a koan to students for them to work on. These paradoxical questions often come in the form of stories about old teachers and their students. More recently I came across a story from Mel Weitsman, a student of Suzuki Roshi, that stuck with me. It’s the perfect example of a modern Koan:

One day he showed me how to wash a kimono, inching around the entire perimeter using the part held in one hand to scrub the part held in the other, until the whole thing was finished. One time he said, “You have a saying, ‘to kill two birds with one stone,’ but our way is to kill just one bird with one stone.”

The whole idea of a Koan is that it does not require a long or intellectual explanation. In fact, most koans are impossible to answer in this way. All the intellect and thinking one might do to understand it must fail. Only then are we left with a true insight. Maybe we feel it instead of knowing it. Of course, there’s a big difference there.

So is it useful for me to write about ‘one bird, one stone’? Probably not. If the story above is to provide you with anything, it will be because you spend time with it. Working it over and thinking it through. You will create the insight. Not the words that I write here.

Instead, I have a few exercises I’ve been practising this week after contemplating Suzuki’s words:

  • Try to do one thing and only one thing. Think of nothing else while doing it.
  • Do something manually that you would usually automate.
  • Try to be a master craftsman at even the most mundane of tasks. How could you clean the toilet most effectively and with the least waste? Is there a simpler way to take out your trash? How can you brush your teeth more carefully?
  • Next time you get bored or frustrated with a task, stop and try to examine where that impulse is coming from. Decide to continue a little longer. See how long you can do this for.

The Morning Ritual

Waking up and washing the dishes. Each morning there are dishes to be unloaded. We wait until bedtime to put the dishwasher on, that means we capture all the tea mugs and other bits of crockery still being used late at night. While we drift off to sleep, the machine gets to work. My work continues when I wake.

I first started making this small cleaning ritual part of my routine after reading an interview with Tim O’Reilly. Zen masters, he points out, say to ‘Chop wood. Carry water.’ so his version is:

“Make tea. Empty dishwasher. Hang laundry.”

The first thing I do is practical and in service of the greater household. The centre of your day is established. It’s easy to get caught up in mindlessly going through your day. To hurry through it and let your mind wander. The simplicity of stopping and doing something practical is what makes it effective.

When we think of a monk’s path toward enlightenment, we might imagine her sitting on a cushion in deep meditation. But this is one part of the practice. What use is it to be in deep meditation all the time, pondering big questions? That’s just navel-gazing. To live is to require some form of work in your life.

In a Zen monastery, each monk is given a role and associated tasks to perform in service of the community. Mindful work is called Samu. This is as important as her meditation practice. A monk who thinks she has found some kind of spiritual insight but fails to do her work diligently is a monk en route to disappointment.

So every morning I am unloading the dishwasher. I aim to do it well. I watch to make sure each knife finds its place. That each bowl is turned over and patted dry before being stacked away. It’s not about speed, it’s about being careful and considerate. Some mornings I bash a few things, still half asleep. This quickly wakes me up and brings me back to my purpose.

Reasons not to stop

Reach a certain level of fitness and you’ll find a meditative rhythm in the act of running. In order to run you’ve got to engage all these systems in one activity that propels you forward. The harder you pump your arms the quicker you’ll lift your knees and the faster you’ll move. Each breath is synchronised to fit around the movements of the body.

As you go further this perfect cycle of breathing and running begins to break apart one step at a time. Legs get heavy. Breath gets short. It becomes harder to keep the whole thing going. This is when the mind starts to complain, a little at first and quietly too. Then it gets louder and more convincing.

‘Why bother with this right now, you could stop right here and walk the rest of the way back?’

‘How about we just walk that small stretch of pavement, who’ll care?’

The mind becomes tired quicker than the body. And so any runner must contend with an internal dialogue about what to do next and why. For beginners, this is often a short conversation because the mind wins very quickly. Anyone who had run a marathon may have contended with these discussions for hours. This is where the meditative qualities of running come to the fore.

To continue running, forget the watch and the number of kilometres left to complete. Focus everything on this breath. This step forward. Nothing more than the movement you are making now. There is a stretch of pavement before you, 1 meter by 1 meter. It keeps changing. This is your canvas to work on, everything else is just a distraction.

This is one bird, on breath, one stone, one step. You finish the run. Stretch your legs. You drink water.

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.