I woke up in the middle of the night last night, and when it became apparent that I wasn’t getting back to sleep in a hurry, sat up and meditated. I don’t know how long I sat, but after a while I noticed something soft but insistent pushing against my thigh. Maggie’s cat, Presto, had come up beside me and was purring and rubbing his nose on my knee. Cats like to meditate.
The practice I’m doing these days consists of looking into the mind, noticing where thoughts arise from and where they disappear to, and then focusing on that thought-free space.
The process is a bit like looking at one of those three-dimensional pictures that were popular a few years ago. The picture shows a geometrical pattern—diamonds and squares, or sometimes wavy lines. If you look at it in a certain way, not dead on, but focusing on the sides of the picture, a figure will emerge from within the pattern. It takes a particular kind of soft-focused concentration to “make” the inner figure emerge. In fact, it’s the same sort of soft-focused concentration that you need for meditation.
As my mind gets quieter, I start to become aware of the witness, the watching presence in the mind. That’s when I practice soft-focus. If I stay with it for a while, then eventually the inner presence moves out from behind the screen of thoughts, and into the foreground.
The best days for me are those when I’m inside that witnessing presence all day. This doesn’t preclude getting excited, or sad, or irritated. But when I’m “in” the witness, there’s always a part of me that is aware and peaceful, even when my body is rushing and my mind in a whirl.
This afternoon, I drove out to Santa Monica to teach a small class. I decided to skip the freeway and drive out on Sunset Boulevard, because I enjoy the languorous, almost dreamlike feeling I get on Sunset when there’s not much traffic. I love the tall hedges and swaying palms, the glimpses of impossibly glamorous houses hidden behind hedges, the terraced hills that rise up in the distance, the wide vistas that open up as you get close to the ocean. The same expansive, dreamlike atmosphere that makes it so easy for people in L.A. to get caught up in fantasies also inspires meditation, if that’s how you’re inclined.
The class is for people who’ve been practicing for a while. We talk about the practice of being the witness, and one man, Mel, tells us about the time he found himself running a department in the state government. It was a new department, and everyone in it was in terror of getting fired or having their programs cut. Meetings would turn into shouting matches. In the midst of it, he would access the witnessing presence inside. He told me: “I’d get into this quiet space, and I’d start realizing it was all pretty funny, and after a while I’d say something. I’d notice that people were actually listening to what I said. After a while I realized that the only time they did listen was when I was in that space. Actually, when I talked from that space I sounded kind of wise.”
His problem these days, Mel goes on to say, is that he feels resistant to doing any kind of practice. “Where does this come from?” he asks rhetorically. He makes a list of all the activities he came up with this morning to avoid meditating. “I thought I’d make one phone call. Then I made a cup of coffee. Then it was 7:30 and my daughter was up, so that was that.”
“Where does your resistance come from?” I ask him.
He thinks for a minute. “It’s two things,” he says. “There’s a part of me that thinks it’s unproductive to sit still when I have so much to do. And there’s another part of me that thinks it’s selfish or something to give that much time just to my inner life.”
“So, what would it take for you to get yourself to give the time?” I ask him.
“That’s easy,” he says. “I just have to remember that if I take this time to get quiet, I’ll feel rejuvenated, and then I’ll get more done, and I’ll be more effective, and I’ll be more helpful to other people.”
“That’s easy,” I say.