I open my eyes—and the world comes into being again. I pause for a moment, welcoming the light.
"Preetam, is there really a point to just sitting around like this?"
There's the sound again—more insistent this time. I turn and find Lila staring at me expectantly. She's sitting in a half-lotus position, a perfect copy of my posture.
I laugh, then respond with another question, "Why laugh?"
"I'm not trying to be difficult," I say. "Seriously, why do humans laugh?"
"I don't know...because something's funny?"
"Yes!" I exclaim. "You laugh because something's funny. You laugh because you can't help but laugh! It's a perfectly natural and spontaneous reaction you have to something funny."
Lila raises her eyebrows.
I sigh. "Don't you see how silly it is to ask why we laugh? Isn't it enough that we spontaneously laugh?" I shake my head. "Everybody nowadays needs to have reasons before doing something—otherwise we have a hard time justifying it to ourselves rationally."
"I don't get what laughing has to do with meditation," Lila interjects. She groans as she pulls her left leg off her right thigh, breaking the half-lotus and squirming into a more familiar cross-legged position. "It's not that I can't help but meditate—it's boring and really uncomfortable." She rubs her thighs, desperately trying to restore some blood flow.
I smile. "Meditation is annoying right now because you're not used to it—it was that way for me when I started too. Honestly, it still is sometimes!" I drop the half-lotus too, and stretch my legs out in front of me. Leaning back on my hands, I stare at the ceiling for a while, gathering my thoughts.
"See Lila, the one thing you can't help but do, as a human being, is search for peace of mind. It's a perfectly natural and spontaneous reaction we have to the chaos of existence. Everything we seek after, be it material things, pleasure, belonging, happiness itself—all of it is really just the pursuit of peace of mind. It underlies everything we do. And it just so happens that meditation is one of the best methods of finding it."
"But if it's so natural, why is it so difficult to do?" Lila pulls her legs in close and hugs them tight. Tilting her head, she rests a cheek on her knee and looks at me, puzzled. I notice, as I always do, how striking her eyes are: two perfect almonds, each framing a delicate iris dyed a rich shade of green that I've never seen before.
"Now we're getting somewhere interesting." I smile again, knowing this is where things were going all along. "I think there are a few reasons why."
"And so the lecture begins," Lila grumbles.
"Hey! You're the one who said you wanted to know why we meditate, ok?"
She sighs and motions for me to continue.
I hold up a finger. "The first reason is that quietness has been drilled out of us by modern society."
Lila always protests when I start one of these philosophical explorations, but I can see that she’s paying close attention to every word.
"You see," I explain, "right around the time of the industrial revolution, we began thinking about efficiency in the context of factories—assembly lines and all that, you know. Our obsession with optimizing the production of goods inevitably led to a mindset where idleness in the factory was shunned. Every machine had to be kept at full capacity, all the time." I make a circular motion with my hands, one finger following the other, tracing an invisible wheel. "The gears had to keep turning 24/7, and anything that got in the way was branded wasteful and quickly but surely eliminated." I let my hands drop back to the floor.
"That industrial mindset, successful as it was for producing things at scale, seeped right through the very bedrock of our society and embedded itself into the fundamental values we share." I shake my head. "It's gotten so bad that the very idea of being idle seems wrong to us. We start getting nervous when things are quiet—we've just got to be doing something all the time. It's the jitteriness you feel when you first start meditating. That conditioned anxiety to quietness is a symptom of a maladjusted society, one that's been optimized for machines, not humans."
She's silent for a moment, thinking of another place and another time. Then she slowly nods. "I know what you mean...that's why I left my job. There just wasn't any time to think or try new things—it was always get this done by this date over and over again." She sighs. "I don't work like that. I need quiet time—you know, just to try new things without placing a condition on myself to always deliver something. I couldn't keep compromising myself anymore. I had to leave."
"Yeah, I wouldn't last two minutes in a place like that," I say.
"That was one of the best decisions I ever made," Lila says, "even though everybody told me I was crazy for leaving."
"Of course they'd say that. Misery loves company."
I want to say more but manage to resist the urge. There's a compulsion to continually criticize when you step out on your own and put enough distance between yourself and society that you escape its bubble. Breathing freely at last, all you can see when you look back is a poorly engineered system that coughs and sputters, designed to run on crude oil, but just as happy to gorge itself on hopes and dreams. But complaining about the world all the time doesn't really help—it just strokes your ego and diverts attention from your own shortcomings. It's better to complain once, get it over with, and move on to what can be done about it.
I hold up another finger. "The second is that we have the wrong image in our heads when we think of meditation. We think meditation means sitting here in this painful lotus position with our hands folded and our eyes closed while breathing in a particular way. But meditation is much, much broader than that. Meditation is really about getting with it—grooving with it. It's about really being there when you do something."
I point to one of several guitars against the wall. "When I play guitar well, the guitar, my hands, and my mind are all in sync. There’s no division between instrument and musician; there’s only sound and rhythm. That's what I mean by getting with it. Every time I'm really playing the guitar, I'm meditating."
Lila straightens up a bit at this. Of course, I think to myself, she's an artist—a damn good one too—and she knows exactly what I mean by losing yourself in something.
"Now," I continue, "there are other times when my hands are making the motion of playing the guitar, but my mind is somewhere else—maybe I'm thinking about a problem at work or some chore I have to get done later. It's those times that playing the guitar doesn't really excite me and my playing itself isn't inspiring." I hold my hands out in front of me and gradually spread them apart. "The gap between me and the guitar grows wider—you can just feel the distance between us."
I think back to what feels like forever ago.
"And when I first started playing the guitar, that gap was as thick as a slab of iron. When I sat down to play, it was all about me, me, me—my fingers hurt, the pick keeps slipping from my hand, how do I squeeze all my fingers into the right places, how long will it take before I can play this right, why are the frets buzzing so much, maybe the problem is with the guitar not me—the problems my mind generated were endless. My attention was on everything wrong with me or the guitar. There just wasn't any connection at all...that is, until I learnt to just accept my current level of skill, make the best of it, enjoy whatever I could play, flawed as it was, and just keep practicing."
"What I'm trying to say is that the most meaningful moments in our lives happen when we are really present, and that in all of those moments we are meditating, whether we know it or not."
Lila raises her head from her knees. "But then why sit like this and meditate at all? Why not just be present doing things I like? I may as well meditate while doing something I like, like drawing, or singing, right?" She tucks a loose strand of hair behind her ear and frowns.
I laugh. "Hey, I'm with you. I'm not a fan of meditating all day like some monk. But there actually is something special about what we're doing here."
I move into a half-lotus position again.
"By practicing meditation like this, without any external stimulation like the sound from my guitar, we’re learning how to really be with it regardless of the situation. That's why it's so hard—we don't have an obvious point of focus like we do when we lose ourselves in something."
Suddenly, I clap my hands together. The sound fills the room for a brief instant, piercing our stream of consciousness like a bolt of lightning.
"In some practices, in order to make meditation easier, it's common to use an anchor like the ringing of a gong or the chanting of a mantra. But in zazen, which we are doing here, there is only sitting." I close my eyes, rigidly straighten my back, and mimic an extremely stern Zen monk.
Lila laughs a little at my caricature.
Then she says, "But if there's no anchor, what do you focus on?"
"Mmhm...what's left when you let go of everything?"
Lila thinks for a good while, then shrugs. "Go on, enlighten me," she says grudgingly.
I grin. "Consciousness itself."
Lila looks surprised. "Oh," she finally says.
"And focusing is not really the right way to think about it. You can't focus or not focus—it just is. It's as though there's this gentle cosmic background radiation in your mind. It's very faint though, and easily gets lost behind the whirlpool of sense experience and thought that forms our lives. Zazen fully drains that whirlpool so you can notice this background awareness, that's all."
I let that sink in, then continue. "The payoff from this simple practice of just sitting is that we don't need an anchor other than our own consciousness. After zazen, we become extra-sensitive to the present because we learn how to get with it, even in the void. We learn how to groove with our consciousness in the most boring situation ever."
She watches closely as I reach out with both hands and tug on an imaginary rope. "If you practice zazen regularly, you'll be able to find that thread of consciousness in any situation you're in, and follow it all the way back to the present moment."
She smiles at that.
"So you can think of formal meditation like we are doing here as training to more easily be present at all times. That helps set the stage for peace of mind more regularly." I hesitate. "But even that's not quite right, because just by performing zazen we obtain peace of mind. And remember, searching for peace of mind is what really drives everything we do. So it’s both a training and an end in and of itself."
Lila looks down at her toes and wiggles them back and forth. "I think I get it now. It's kind of like having a great workout in the gym. At the beginning you force yourself to go because you know it's good for you, and that's true. But eventually, you end up enjoying the workouts themselves." She thinks a little. "And that's the only real way to make going to the gym a long-term habit, isn't it? The workout itself has to become its own meaning."
I smile. "You can see a workout as both training your body to perform better, and as a fun and meaningful experience on its own. Meditation is just like that."
"So it's kind of pointless to ask why we meditate after all huh." She shakes her head.
I nod, but then caution her. "By the way, I could be totally wrong here. I haven't studied meditation formally and I'm sure as hell no Zen master. But this is the best answer I've got."
"Yeah, you're definitely no Zen master," she agrees, laughing. "But I like the way you explain things. Whether it's right or not—I don't know. But it's helpful."
Grinning, I get to my feet and extend a hand to help her up. "Same time tomorrow?"
Lila smiles back and clasps my hand as she pulls herself up. "See you tomorrow!"