A quote about the nature of meditation (and life) from Jon Kabat-Zinn:
When we practice meditation, we are really acknowledging that in this moment, we are on the road of life. The path unfolds in this moment and in every moment while we are alive…This means in part acknowledging that sometimes, often at very crucial times, you really have no idea where you are going or where the path lies. At the same time, you can very well know something about where you are now (even if it is knowing that you are lost, confused, enraged, or without hope).
– Jon Kabat-Zinn, from Wherever You Go, There You Are
The topic of formal vs. informal meditation came up in a personal correspondence I had. And so I share some of my thoughts below. They’ve been edited and expanded since my conversation.
”Formal” meditation — the kind where you set aside a specific time and sit on a cushion…I don’t do all that often anymore and that has been the case since I’ve been seriously ill. First it became impossible, but then I found another way of meditating deeply. What happened with my illness is that I learned that formal meditation is not always necessary for everyone, though I did start with more formal sitting years ago and it’s likely that it’s a good place to start, in general, if at all possible.
I am still a serious meditator regardless of my lack of “formal” sitting. My life is a meditation…I sometimes wonder if I should be more clear when I share information about meditation on this blog…what I share I often share knowing that many readers are likely to be beginners at meditation. The beauty about many of the quotes I share about meditation, though, is they touch that place in which we all remain beginners always. (think: “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind“)
So I often share meditation instruction that was written with formal meditation in mind…but the fact is…pretty much all of that instruction can be used towards informal life meditation too because that is how I read it, for the way I do my meditation practice in my daily life…I figure those of us who meditate in the moment…will recognize that and those who need a more disciplined practice will read it that way. That too is part of the beauty of it. It’s very flexible.
My life is such that meditation was thrust upon me via grave illness…I had no choice…I was too sick to sit at all for a couple of years (while bedridden I literally could not sit up at all) and during that time the multiple symptoms I had were screaming, crazy loud pain and chaos in my being such that my only meditation was to sit with the agony a minute at a time…two minutes…three minutes in acceptance…slowly I built my capacity and slowly over years now the tone of the symptoms have diminished too. They’re still often very loud and difficult and I still often need to use a combination of meditation and sometimes simple distraction. Nothing wrong with distraction when one is in great pain. I’ve learned that too. Being kind to oneself is so important.
In any case, my meditation with my pain carried over into meditating with what I did in my life. It happened organically. I went from often being inert in bed while bedridden, with nothing to do but meditate to then slowly getting up and, well, continuing meditating. When I got well enough to cook more, to wash dishes on occasion, to work in the garden for a few minutes at a time — all of it became opportunities for mindfulness movement meditation. And WOW!! the joy of being with my body as it began to once again be able to do things. Chores were sheer joy and bliss. Washing the dishes, what a delight! Pulling weeds, how wondrous that my body can do this!! Walking in the neighborhood too, simple joy and what was better than to mindfully pay attention to all the things I hadn’t been able to see while stuck in the house and bed. Now two years into my slow rehab, none of these simple delights have diminished. What a gift to no longer take such things for granted.
I’m also still often reminded of how painful it is to not be able to do them at all. At those times my husband picks up the slack and I must mindfully sit with the pain of illness and the difficulty of dependency. That too is part of meditation, embracing as best as possible both the joys and the sadness of life.
Yoga, practiced with careful mindfulness, too, has been a great part of my rehabilitation. And yes, I now also meditate sitting at times, but I don’t call it formal because I just do it in the moment as I am living, moving, breathing…it comes to me, simply making sense to pay attention to this moment in time, now. Meditation is with me always in this way.
And to be clear, there are times when I meditate for several hours at a time. Often at night before I go to sleep or also when I am having certain particularly difficult symptoms as well. Pain and illness are amazing teachers. Harsh, but very effective. So in this way I’m very serious about meditation, it’s just I don’t think about it pretty much at all…it’s simply seamlessly intertwined with my daily living.
Meditation has lost most of all its mystique. It’s simply a part of my life as I choose to be as aware as possible.