choiceless awareness

Sitting without a sitter: the practice of “Just Sitting”

When I was on my first ever meditation retreat — two weeks of intensive meditation in the Scottish Highlands — I’d sometimes hear the instruction, “And now we’ll just sit.” No further instruction was given! And we’d sit there for a period of time — maybe ten minutes, maybe thirty minutes.

It was at first deeply confusing. I was sitting there waiting for further instruction. I wanted to be told what to do. Then I’d get bored and restless. Thoughts would come and go and I’d get caught up in them.

As the retreat went on sometimes those thoughts would begin to clear, and the mind would become alive and yet alive and vibrant. I wasn’t focused on any one part of my experience. It was as if my senses were wide open, and I was aware of everything at once: sounds, light, space, the sensations arising in the body, my emotions, and the odd stray through that would pass through.

There was a “field of experience,” and if there was a center to this field, it was the breathing, but it was there as a lightly held focus. It was there as one experience among many, and just happened to occupy the center by reason of its centrality in the body. But often it would seem as if there was no distinct center to the field of experience. There simply was a field of experiences, which would arise and pass away. There’s no “activity” going on when this state arises (although there may be activity leading up to this state appearing).

Sometimes our mindfulness gets to the point where it’s well established, and it’s time to stop doing and simply be. In the earliest Buddhist texts this is called apanidhaya bhavana, or non-directed attention. It’s also known as “choiceless awareness.” In the Zen tradition this meditation is called shikantaza, or “Just Sitting.” In Tibetan meditation there are similar meditations in the Dzogchen (Great Perfection) and Mahamudra (Great Seal) traditions. All have the characteristic of simply allowing experience to arise. There is little or no activity going on. You’re neither meditating nor not-meditating.

This might all sound rather mysterious, but there are ways that help us enter this kind of meditation — activities that we do in order to get to the point of non-activity. And we can also begin and end our meditations (including mindfulness of breathing and metta bhavana) with Just Sitting.

Beginning and Ending Meditations

At the beginning of meditation I encourage people to develop an expansive awareness of the world around them, and to allow a sense of equanimity to develop. We notice the sound and space and light around us. We’re simply accepting whatever is arising, and we’re not doing anything with what arises beyond noticing it.

In a sense, noticing isn’t even an activity. The mind is “noticing” all the time, in that impulses are continually flowing along nerves into the brain. It’s paying selective attention that’s the activity — for example focusing our attention on the computer screen in front of us — and it’s this selective attention that causes us to filter out other perceptions that are arising. For example, when we’re reading on a computer screen, as you probably are now, we often filter out what’s happening in the world round about us, so that we fail to hear someone talking to us, and we tend to filter out sensations from the body, including sensations of discomfort that are arising because of the way we’re sitting. But the sensations are still arising, even if we’re focusing on something else. The mind is naturally open and spacious, but we fail to notice this because we narrow down our field of awareness.

In Just Sitting we let go of our narrow focus, and simply become aware of these sensations that are already arising. You don’t need to find those sensations. You don’t need to make an effort to discover them. They’re already coming to you. You just need to stop avoiding them.

Sometimes at the beginning of meditation, we’re able to include an awareness of both our inner experiences (the body, mind) and our outer experiences (contact with the world) at the same time. I encourage people to do this if they can. But sometimes people find the have to let go of our contact with the world in order to focus on the inner world. That’s fine. But having cultivated an open, expansive, and equanimous state of mind, we then move into focusing more narrowly on the breathing, or on cultivating lovingkindness.

At the end of the practice we reverse this narrowing process. We let go of any activity we’ve been making in the meditation, and we gradually allow more and more of our experience to come into conscious awareness. We move from, say, noticing mainly the breathing, to noticing the rest of the body, our emotions, our state of mind, our contact with the world.

And — and this is a very important part of Just Sitting as the conclusion of a period of meditation — we allow ourselves to become aware of the fruits of the practice. Sometimes we’re so busy doing that we don’t notice the effects of what we’re doing. It’s not uncommon to think your meditation isn’t going well, or hasn’t gone well, only to realize that there’s an emotion of joy present, or that the mind is actually very clear and still, or that there are pleasant sensations in the body. Simply opening up to what’s present allows us to appreciate what’s happened as a result of our practice. Sometimes this is full of surprises.

Our meditation practice can become a bit imbalanced, with too much emphasis on doing and not enough on being, with too much emphasis on activity and not enough emphasis on receptivity. If our practice does become unbalanced, we call this willfulness. We end up focusing on what we expect to find, and don’t pay attention to other aspects of our experience. For example, we might be trying so hard to focus on the breathing that we don’t notice that we’re feeling tense, and that in fact our effort is making us tense. We may bot actually be mindful of the breathing at all, but just paying attention to what we expect the breath to be, noticing only a few token sensations. We may even be trying so hard to cultivate lovingkindness that we don’t notice the actual emotions that are present! This ends up being the opposite of mindfulness. We cultivate a narrow focus and inadvertently repress, or at least ignore, other aspects of our experience.

Activity needs to be balanced by receptivity. In fact, any activity in meditation needs to take place within a context of receptivity. This isn’t saying anything revolutionary. It’s just saying that our meditation ideally should involve mindfulness (sati) as well as focus (samādhi).

Active meditation — cultivating mindfulness or metta, for example — while often enjoyable, can also be tiring. The mind needs periods of spontaneity and freedom, and beginning and ending meditation sessions with Just Sitting helps it to be spontaneous, free, and rested.

We can also periodically check during meditation to see what’s going on, broadly, in our experience. We can let go of any narrow focus, allow the full breadth of our experience to enter awareness, and then return to focusing again. In this way a session of active meditation is interspersed with short breaks in which we Just Sit. If we’re doing the mindfulness of breathing in four stages, or the development of lovingkindness in five stages, then the transitions from one stage to another are an opportunity for us to let go of our narrow engagement with the object of meditation (the breath, our emotional relationships), and to open up to everything else that’s going on. We may find there are things we want to change (adjustments to our posture, changes to our attitude). We gently make any necessary changes, and then move on to the next stage of the practice.

Just Sitting as a Practice in its Own Right

We may Just Sit as a separate practice (or non-practice) for anything between a few minutes or (on retreat) for a few hours.

Just Sitting may be a practice that we do in order to balance activity and receptivity. The flow of our practice may go: mindfulness — just sit — metta — just sit — mindfulness — just sit — metta — just sit.

Many people, after some years of practice, find that Just Sitting becomes the main form of meditation that they do.

When we Just Sit, we begin the meditation, as I’ve explained above, with opening up to the breadth of our experience. But that’s where we stay. We don’t move on to focusing more narrowly, as we do in the mindfulness of breathing and development of lovingkindness meditations. We simply stay in touch with our wide open field of awareness in a non-directed way. Or at least that’s what we do in theory…

In practice, there are several stages we may move through:

  • At first, the mind may need some time to settle. There may be considerable inner distraction. The mind may go on long meanders through thought and memory. At this stage we may have to make an effort, although it’s a gentle one as far as possible. We need to let go of any trains of thought, and relax into the breadth of our awareness. But over time the mind clears and our thoughts settle.
  • Boredom may appear. Ideally we just note boredom as another experience that is arising. We can have confidence that this experience of boredom will pass in time, and that our experience will become more interesting. This is an opportunity for faith (in ourselves) and for patience (with the mind, the practice) to emerge.
  • We find ourselves watching, and taking an interest in our experience. The mind may gravitate toward particular experiences that are either pleasant or difficult. We may find that we do some “creative thinking.” This doesn’t have the same feel as the raw distraction that arose earlier. In fact it feels quite positive, and because of that it’s seductive. We shouldn’t beat ourselves up about this, but we can notice that it’s happening, make a mental note of any “good ideas” that have arisen, and return to the breadth of our awareness.
  • Then there is the stage of clarity. We are just watching, with no distractions, not even positive ones. Thoughts still arise, but we notice them pass by without any engagement with them. We may consciously note that all of our experiences are arising and passing away. They’re all impermanent. We’re no longer caught up in them because we’re no longer identifying with them.
  • Then there’s the stage of non-self. This is a state of complete non-activity, and yet of complete aliveness and spontaneity. Experiences are arising, and we realize that they are just happening. We’re not making these experiences happen. Even the realization that experiences are just happening is just another experience that’s arising. There’s no sense that these experiences are owned by anyone, or that there’s anyone to do any owning. There is just seeing, with no one who is seeing. There is no action, and no one to do any action. There is no effort. And yet this is an emotionally warm state. There is a sense of openness and stillness. There is a sense of meaningfulness and clarity. But there is no longer any “self-ing.”

And then at some stage we find ourselves starting to return to a more normal way of being, and the meditation comes to an end.

The Just Sitting practice is in the end tremendously encouraging and life-affirming. Through simply not-doing, we find that the mind naturally clears itself and reveals a gentle and compassionate energy. It’s like water in which mud has been mixed; all you have to do is leave it undisturbed, and it will settle down. The water will become clear and pure all on its own.

Once a certain amount of momentum has developed in our mindfulness, positive qualities such as joy, compassion, and awareness begin to arise spontaneously. At a certain point “we” no longer need to meditate. In fact there is no longer any “us” there to meditate. Meditation is simply happening. Just sitting is happening, but there’s no sitter.

Read More

Wildmind is a Community-Supported Meditation Initiative. Explore the benefits of becoming a supporter.