It’s not meditation

A student asked Zhaozhou, “What is meditation?”
Zhaozhou replied, “It’s not meditation.”
Dumbfounded, the student asked, “Why is it not meditation?”
Zhaozhou replied, “It’s alive! It’s alive!”

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what meditation is. I’m not sure why. It generates a series of questions that just seem to go around and around and contradict each other.

There are lots of meditation schools that offer very clear practice instructions: where to meditate, how to breathe, how to sit, what to do with your hands and your eyes and your mind. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t interest me all that much. It might have something to do with my allergic reaction to being told what to do, but also, when I do meditation like that it feels like there’s a bit too much of me in it, like I’m trying to run the show.

WP_20150212_005I like to be surprised, I guess. That’s the best thing about jokes: the surprise. We think we know what’s coming, but we get sideswiped. It’s disorienting. It blows up our expectations and our perception shifts. We laugh. We feel happy. Enlightenment happens like that—out of nowhere, by surprise. You’re just minding your own business and

the world



Okay, I’m back. Between the last paragraph and this one, I went looking for a good joke to illustrate my point and ended up spending an hour on Reddit and Youtube. I did bring one back for you:

Two older couples were having breakfast.
Old Man 1: We went to the best restaurant last night.
Old Man 2: What’s its name?
Old Man 1: Oh, I have such a terrible memory. What’s that red flower?
Old Man 2: Carnation?
Old Man 1: No, the one with the thorns.
Old Man 2: Rose?
Old Man 1: That’s it! (Turns to his wife) Hey Rose, what’s the name of that restaurant we went to last night?

Meditation imitates life. Or maybe life imitates meditation. I’m not sure. Either way, just like the rest of life, I never know what’s going to happen in my meditation (I think I like it that way). So I never know what my meditation practice is going to be—I just show up and greet whatever comes. It’s a kind of a DIY discovery process.

WP_20150218_001Sometimes my mind is wild, making plans for the future or gathering evidence to justify why I don’t like someone; sometimes it’s still and quiet, as empty and vast as outer space; more often, it’s somewhere in the middle. Sometimes I’m distracted and sometimes I’m focused; sometimes I have insights and sometimes I feel dumb as a brick; sometimes I have a lot of physical pain and sometimes my body seems to disappear altogether. I might plan a road trip, have an argument, or visit with dead relatives.  I don’t think it’s my job to decide whether or not something should be happening. When I argue with The Universe, the score is always

Me: 0
Universe: ∞

But that’s OK, because actually we’re playing for the same team. So maybe it’s more accurate to say the score is

Me: ∞
Universe: ∞


The point is that we don’t have to drag meditation into the tiny closet of right and wrong where we keep most things, because then it’s “not meditation.” We don’t have to know what good meditation looks like or how to fix crappy meditation. We can WP_20151112_003just fall into the aliveness of the process, because it’s really our own aliveness. And if we’re just in our own aliveness, then perhaps we can accomplish superhuman feats like hanging out with ourselves whether we’re angry or bored or sick or happy and meditation isn’t some special thing we do for a certain amount of time in a quiet room on a special cushion, but something that’s always happening whether we think it is or not.

Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

If you’ve got a few more minutes, comedian Norm Macdonald will upset your expectations:




The older couples joke was posted on Reddit by user Mordeci00

The Norm Macdonald video was posted on Youtube by user Eva Griffin is sound



1 thought on “It’s not meditation

  1. Very helpful! That’s one of my core problems: not to judge the meditation:”too many thoughts” etc
    Warm regards from Germany, Philipp

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