“It seems that perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to remove.”
Antoine de Saint Exupéry
When he wrote these words the legendary aviator and author of the children’s classic, The Little Prince, was talking about the evolution of flying machines, but they apply equally to meditation.
One of the traditional terms for meditation is “bhāvanā” which means “cultivation,” “producing,” or “developing.” We use that term when we talk about lovingkindness meditation, for example: mettā bhāvanā. And this can give us the impression that meditation is something we do. But essentially meditation is about not doing. It’s about letting go of all effort that interferes with our well-being and that hinders our being in harmony with ourselves and others.
Where we’re headed in meditation — our “goal” if you want to use that language — is a state of natural ease and awareness. Resting in natural ease and awareness is not something you can “do.” It’s something that emerges as we let go of unnecessary effort. By way of an everyday analogy, sometimes when we’re tense we unconsciously make a fist. The muscles in our hands tighten, and so our hands ball up. Tightening your muscles is doing something. It’s an example of unnecessary effort. What we call “relaxing” isn’t doing something. It happens when we cease to do something that isn’t necessary and isn’t helpful. When our hand is not doing anything it is naturally open and relaxed.
Meditation involves ceasing to do things that aren’t necessary or helpful. It’s about becoming naturally open and relaxed.
Every time we let go of distracted thinking and let our awareness settle down into the body, we’re letting go of unnecessary activity that makes us unhappy. That’s what distracted thinking is: unnecessary activity that makes us unhappy.
When we let go of unnecessary thinking, we start to become happier. Happiness isn’t something we do. It’s something that starts to happen naturally when we stop pummeling the nervous system with thoughts of worrying, wanting, disliking, and doubting. When the nervous system is at rest — when we’re at peace with ourselves — we feel happy and balanced.
We often talk in terms of “bringing our awareness back” to the breathing or to the body, but actually our awareness has never left the breathing or the body. Our nervous system doesn’t stop functioning when we’re not paying attention to something. So even if we aren’t consciously aware of the body or the breathing, nerves are still carrying sensations up to the brain. This is happening in every moment. We’re never really bringing our attention back anywhere: we’re simply letting go of focusing unnecessarily on something else. As soon as you start to let go of unnecessarily and unhelpfully focusing on your thinking, sensations from the body (which are always there) are noticed. Your attention brings itself back to the body, by no longer excluding it from conscious awareness.
As we spend more time in the body, pleasant feelings of relaxation and aliveness begin to emerge. Again, this isn’t something that we do. It’s something that simply arises as the body responds to being noticed, and as we stop flooding it with stress hormones.
I’m not making the argument that we shouldn’t ever do anything in meditation. For a long time it’s inevitable that we’re going to have a feeling we’re doing something. There are times we might want to direct our thoughts — for example when we’re cultivating compassion and we direct the mind toward suffering, or when we’re cultivating appreciation and turn the mind toward things that are good.
But the more there’s a quality of allowing, the more alive and vital our meditation practice is likely to be. Allowing brings with it openness and receptivity, and those things enrich our experience; sensations and connections we hadn’t noticed before become evident, and there’s a sense of joyful discovery. The more we think in terms of “doing,” the narrower our focus becomes. And this kills joy.
So I suggest that you think less in terms of doing and more in terms of letting go and allowing. Think less in terms of “meditating” and more in terms of simply sitting and allowing what is unnecessary and unhelpful to fall away, revealing joy, beauty, and presence. And as we allow this to continue, day after day, moment after moment, we let go of everything that diminishes our wellbeing, until there is nothing more to remove.