Asheville Sangha

Supporting the Awakening of Consciousness in Asheville and Beyond

JUST SIT - Stillness is the key to sanity

What do we want from life?  Universally, people want happiness.  The problem is that all too often what people think will make them happy fails to do so; it may even end up making them miserable.  We are looking for happiness in things and circumstances and relationships when this is a short-sighted understanding of the true nature of happiness.  It is the most elemental teaching of Buddhism that all things, circumstances and relationships are inherently unstable, and when they change or wear out or go away, so does our happiness.  Because of this, our lives are dominated by continuous movement of action and mind pursuing circumstances that will bring happiness, and this is an invariably failing strategy.


There is an alternate translation for the word that is usually translated as “suffering” attributed to Buddhism, and it is, “unsatisfactory.”  This is much closer to what Buddhism is getting at than the overtly terrible experiences we usually attribute to the word suffering.  It’s the itch we cannot scratch, the general feeling that our lives are not as balanced, peaceful, wise, happy as they might be.  It’s just OK – with some sense of an unsatisfactoriness that we are always running from while we run toward what we think will bring us more happiness, or at least, hold unhappiness at bay.  Our lives are marked by endless movement and distraction, beginning with endless movement and distraction in our minds, reviewing and planning our strategies in the pursuit of happiness and the avoidance of unhappiness.


So what is this “sitting” that is at the heart of Buddhist practice?  In a way, it can be looked at as a way to work with, understand, and master the restless movement and distraction in our lives, to really get in touch with this “unsatisfactoriness.” We will come face-to-face with this unsatisfactoriness when we sit in meditation as boredom, restlessness, and aversion to just letting things be naturally what they are as  we encounter what it feels like to be still, to stop our habitual movement and searching for stimulation. 


We experience that while, for a short time, anyway, it isn’t a problem to make the body still, what we soon realize, in a manner we only dimly understood previously, is how resistant our minds are to being still.  And so, we sit there, attempting to follow the instructions for meditation – focusing awareness on breathing, noticing the activity of the mind and how it distracts us from focusing on our breathing, and returning awareness to the breathing.  Simple instruction, but - it is unbelievably challenging.  Along the way, since we are focusing awareness, and experiencing the breathing and the activity of the mind, we begin to notice the content and themes of the mind.  We notice how judgmental our minds are.  We notice how it has difficulty staying in the present moment, how it careens between past and future.  We notice how when judgmentalism and past and future come together we experience distressing and uncomfortable emotions.  We want to stop this.  We want to be distracted from this.  We want to stop sitting and go “do something.”


And then…. As we stay with the sitting, as we stay with the breathing, as we stay with awareness, for a moment, the mind becomes quiet.  There is an experience of balance.  There is a feeling of what it is to just be.  It is spacious and comfortable. It has the feel of absolute sanity. Then, the compulsion of the mind to go back into movement, into judgment, out of time, returns, and we’re back to our anxieties, our tensions, our unsatisfied mind.  A great discovery is made.  We have touched Heaven while doing nothing – not even thinking, - and we have gotten a glimpse of the source of Hell.  We discover that we are capable of happiness and well-being, not as the result of something we do, but by stopping all the doing to discover who we really are.


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