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.
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.
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.