Start by sitting on a cushion or chair.
The longer I happen to sit, I realize the weight pulls me down, as much as I can feel myself pushing upward, maintaining my posture. Often, I close my eyes, though I can still see the tones left behind in the visual field. The room I sit in to meditate, with the antique furniture, includes a matte yellow armchair that I sit in cross-legged. The room is flooded by window light. When it rains, my visual field is dark, in tune with sleep. When it is bright outside, the room echoes the experience, and I am bathed in it. I used to be told to focus on the breath at first, or become “aware of the sensation of sitting” but now after a hundred hours, I go where I like.
The assumption people have made with artistic expression for a long time is that it was designed for eternity, whether that be it or ours. And for the decade of my twenties, I had invested myself in the idea that creation was happiness, full stop. In some ways, I still linger in these things, but I had not counted on the power of the body to erode. The older I became, the less I seemed able to concentrate. My mind became fragmented, urged on as it was by my students who seemed eager to catch my attention and hold it for as short as two seconds. It was winter, and I had turned 30, and I could not finish a paragraph of contemporary fiction. What is this? And who am I?
The body repairs itself almost in entirety every seven years, so this question is not without merit. We create ourselves in our inputs just as much as a painting is marked on a canvas. The material of our bodies is as much a factor as the ideas in our mind. For some, those who do not believe in the Self, or who have relinquished the chains of free will, they see these features as one in the same. Most people, particularly Americans, are dualist. There is no limit to food, or bodyweight, and there is no amount of television that could blunt our observations. For a country built on optimistic and hopeful change, we find ourselves gothic and fatalistic when it comes to our bodies and minds.
Joan Didion once remarked that we should be on good terms with the people we used to be. I happen to think that the same holds true for the other direction. If this was how my mind would operate, and only at the age of 30, there was something terrifying in the logic continued, in a straight line, to mental disarray. In the 21st century, the elderly are already made irrelevant by the sweeping pace of change. I did not want to become irrelevant to myself. Other authors have remarked that the mind is the most complex object in the universe, which I myself happen to believe in. While there was a case to be made for cooking, for food and hardware, or for gardening, it seemed odd that the one thing we were forced to become companions with, that of our own mind, was ignored. “Old men ought to be explorers” T.S. Eliot wrote. Surely this adventure was based on the mind?
It suddenly became obvious that the context for meditation was guaranteed. We were placed in a position to be at home, doing nothing, for hours at a time. I had decided not to teach the following year. The attention to children having gone from the classroom, replaced by a kind of inertia of “doing the work” was so unfulfilling creatively, for both me and for young people, and yet it was the kind of education that most people dreamed of, that the resulting crisis of conscience left me with my own mind. No force on heaven or Earth could have prepared the table for the most perfect arrangement of a new creative hobby. And so I began to meditate, seriously this time, for in the past I had tried and failed and felt it to be impossible. This time — thanks to the world stopping — it worked.
It did not work at first. One of the first aspects of meditation happens to be the realization that, try as you might, concentrating on the breath for longer than five seconds produces a kind of anxiety for some. They feel as though, perhaps like Stephen Fry did when he debated the effectiveness of meditation, that we are missing out on more experiences. But if more could be stuffed into each hour of the day, we would be the happiest generation of human beings to have ever lived. Clearly density was not a desirable feature. Nor is meditation simply negation. It is not the absence. Reports from measurements of the brain during calm breathing or meditation indicate that the mind is alive with possibility. Strange that. But while this is charming to the scientist, it is painful for the person who meditates, who must grapple like a long lost parent does with their child reunited, who has quite a bit more energy than expected. Occasionally, the planets align, and the meditator feels the “altered state,” or the sensation of calm that arrives when the breathing becomes long, and when they are finally able to pay attention closely to — not just the breath — but to sounds and sensations.
In those first ten hours of practice, one can find the meditator naively bragging about their calm experience. It is the Dunning-Kruger effect at its finest, with the individual thinking that they have mastered the trick. I myself was explaining to my friends, on Zoom, the power of the transformation in my life. They nodded and looked for all the signs of Eastern enlightenment lurking in the depths of the background of our house. The crystals. The incense. Many of our parents lived through the 1970s, and spoke of it with horror, so it was natural for them to suffer a kind of wariness-by-proxy. But soon after, I regretted my shout out to meditation. In the weeks that followed, sitting still was miserable. Meditation was a practice of self-delusion, where as soon as I was able to hold a thought, (daydreams of my ego telling another driver off in an act of road rage, regrets of my past in arguments and embarrassments, throwing my graduation cap too early at high school graduation, strange sexual fantasies leading nowhere) another one would take its place. We may talk about the mind as a companion, but this was the moment I felt my mind to be the antagonist, where I believed that the mind needed to be wrangled, by force if necessary. Outside, it was pathetic fallacy: the George Floyd protests indicated that we had all been made to feel foolish for thinking that the country operated with our best interests. Like the reactions to those protests, where rioters were faced with little response from law enforcement, yet peaceful protestors suffered a violent backlash, I was handling my mind all wrong. The truth was I was concentrating too hard, experiencing moments where one hemisphere of my brain seemed to dominate my field of vision, causing an asymmetric throb of stress that did little good to the cause of relaxation. Meditation is a creative act that calls for a connection to one’s own mind, and to do so proves to be subjective, idiosyncratic, and forces one to contend with all of those moments in one’s past that makes us susceptible to mental pain. While America reconciled its own history, I had to make good on mine.
If meditation makes a difference, it must do so like other creative endeavors, which is to say it must be routine. The professional knows that, whether with an idea or not, they must arrive each day to do the work. That is because they have realized that there is more to the creative process than the explicit. Ideas may be a catalyst, but it is not what turns the gears. That pre-destination of the artist, where they decide they are going to be one, even if only in their own minds, actually occurs in places like the hands, or in the sinews of the legs. In the same way that melancholy is the default state of literature, pain is the default state of ballet, yet in both they have surmounted the difficulty of writing or dancing for the chance to “be.” The state of being as a creative person involves showing up. The rest is form and time, more like the slow movement of tectonic plates, a gradual geological shift. Most people, when they meditate, become upset that the “altered state” does not arrive each time. They claim they are not doing it right, that they could not — in the twenty minutes they sat that day — get their mind in order. There are several reasons why walking away at this moment is based on the wrong premises. First, realizing that our minds are at war with us is proof that it is working. Like religious belief, doubt is the spice in the recipe. Second, the assumption that an altered state is all that occurs in meditation misses the far larger changes that we see in yogis all around the world. What is really sought after is the “altered trait.”
One learns the rules of a craft for the knowledge of how to break them. I had learned in my life that the world gives me a set of assumptions only to survive in its context. People create art out of discontent for that context. Why, in my teaching, was I made to coerce young people to do what they did not want to do? Why had I not, instead, rather than insist and pressure my students, given them the chance to decide their destinies for themselves? Some would argue that, to prepare young people for the “real world” they must come to realize “utility” and “cost/benefit calculations” and must only see the world as stemming from the directive in Genesis: to subdue the world. We assume tough love is better than love itself.
If a hundred years of teaching had led us here, there was no guarantee that the next century would be the same at all, which meant that creativity defined our time, not stasis. But coercion needs stasis. The rules of our mind are made so by the world in order to create legitimacy. This is a lie.
Each day I sat, and each day I was discovering in myself something that no book could ever uncover. Altered traits occur for those meditators who regiment themselves each day, hopefully for ten to twenty minutes, and begin to draw closer attention to objects and people around them. The lingering effects of empathy I felt towards my wife, and the lives of my students, reached new ground. The level of immediacy, the flow state of being, and the culled anxiety from inwardness. It was all there, though blunted by my amateurship.
Creativity is such a large word these days, thrown around by those in Silicon Valley by colliding together two opposing objects, concepts, or ideas, in order to achieve “wild” results. When it goes poorly, it is embarrassing for the entrepreneur. When it goes well, it destabilizes whole industries. But often, if we take care to investigate our own history, we discover that creativity often arrives subtly, and after years of dedication. It is not the flower picked, it is the tunnel mined. People see meditation as a gimmick only because they give their own consciousness short shrift, when really, when it comes down to it, all we have is our own minds. The only thing I can be sure of at this moment is my state of being, as I write this essay to you. Which would mean that, just as much as time is a fundamental part of the universe, so is attention, a word I have grown to love and admire in my time in meditation.
Attention is a creative project.
That is the beauty that meditation unveils. Much like David Hockney’s condemnation for photography in favor of painting, the difference lies in attention. The painting is depth, the photograph is flat. The painting requires both eyes, both hemispheres. The photograph relies on verisimilitude, and leverages your distraction.
In the movie Ladybird, the high school titular character is anxious to leave Sacramento for university across the country. Her college entrance essay is read by her counselor at the Catholic school, Sister Sarah, who reveals that she writes well. “You clearly love Sacramento.”
Ladybird is stunned. She was trying to leave, after all. “I don’t know,” she says, caught between cynical cool and earnest passion. “I guess I pay attention.”
“And do you not think,” Sister Sarah asks, “they are one and the same? Love and attention?”
Close your eyes, and become aware of the sensation of breathing.