Dear Donagh,

I joined a meditation group a couple of months ago.  Of course it had to be by zoom.  They used to meet at a centre in town and they’re planning to get back to it after covid.  It wasn’t what I was expecting exactly, so I dropped out after 3 or 4 weeks.  I was hoping for guided meditations where someone talks you through, getting you to imagine peaceful scenes and so on.  But they just sit there in silence, with a few words at the start.  I didn’t think I was ready for it, and there was no one to ask, because they were all as silent as statues.  I know there are different kinds of meditation.  Could you recommend one for someone who knows nothing about it, like me…?  Gordon

Dear Gordon,

I'm glad you are still searching.  The search itself is useful, and not just the result of the search.  The time spent searching is not wasted; it will help you clarify why you want to meditate.   

Meditation usually means silence – at least in modern usage (there was a time when it meant thinking).  I know the kind of lullaby meditation where someone takes over your imagination (like dual controls) and leads you into imaginary scenes, but I’m not aware of any group that does that as a normal practice.  If you want to do it, why not do it yourself, without an instructor?  Everyone daydreams; everyone has the capacity, and so do you.  I'm sure it can be an enriching practice in some ways – and in small doses.  We all do it,  probably to excess. 

But while we are imagining beautiful scenes far away, there are real scenes in front of us – in fact closer still: we are up to our necks in them.  They are richer than any imagined scene because they have the ability to surprise us.  Real situations challenge and surprise us more than any imagined scene could, because the imagined ones are of our own making. 

What kind of situations?  I don’t mean dramatic situations; I mean something much simpler like watching raindrops on a window pane, or sitting in the garden looking at a plant…. This counters the tendency of the mind to see things only as generalities and not as particular things: to see ‘dog’ instead of Buddy or Biddy, to see ‘tree’ instead of this particular tree in front of me.   Someone surprised me once by saying “Zen is nothing in particular.”  He followed up by saying it was “just everything in general.”  No, it is neither of these, but these suggest a good way to describe it: it is everything in particular.  But you don’t need to have a Zen practice to see things in particular.  Sit in your garden or in a park and look at one plant until you see it.  In a story by Edgar Allan Poe a child runs breathlessly into the house, spluttering, “I sawn it!  I sawn it!”  He had seen many insects in his short life, but this was the first he had really looked at one, the first he had really seen.  

Today people would call this a mindfulness practice.  There are many mindfulness groups in the city, and in fact just about everywhere.  Google a local one and go along; they will soon be reopening after Covid.  Mindfulness is nothing special; there’s no secret, no trick.  It is like relearning to see things as a child sees them.  The distracted world around us doesn't encourage that, so such a group is very helpful.  After this practice takes hold of you, silent meditation will begin to make sense.  Then you can look around and find a group that is just right for you.  


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