The Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh tells this story in his book, The Sun My Heart:
Today three children, two girls and a little boy, came from the village to play with Thanh Thuy (pronounced ‘Tahn Tui’). The four of them ran off to play on the hillside behind our house and were gone for about an hour when they returned to ask for something to drink. I took the last bottle of homemade apple juice and gave them each a full glass, serving Thuy last. Since her juice was from the bottom of the bottle, it had some pulp in it. When she noticed the particles, she pouted and refused to drink it. So the four children went back to their games on the hillside, and Thuy had not drunk anything.
Half an hour later, while I was meditating in my room, I heard her calling. Thuy wanted to get herself a glass of cold water, but even on tiptoes she couldn’t reach the faucet. I reminded her of the glass of juice on the table and asked her to drink that first. Turning to look at it, she saw that the pulp had settled and the juice looked clear and delicious. She went to the table and took the glass with both hands. After drinking half of it, she put it down and asked, “Is this a different glass, Uncle Monk?” (a common term for Vietnamese children to use when addressing an older monk.)
“No,” I answered. “It’s the same one as before. It sat quietly for a bit, and now it’s clear and delicious.” Thuy looked at the glass again. “It really is good. Was it meditating like you, Uncle Monk?” I laughed and patted her head. “Let us say that I imitate the apple juice when I sit; that is closer to the truth.”
I’ve had the opportunity to go on a few silent meditation retreats, and it’s true – mindfulness meditation does have this settling effect on the mind. I could see a profound change from the first day of the retreat to the fifth – on the first day, my mind was racing with so many thoughts that I didn’t think I’d ever settle down. But as the retreat went on, things got calmer. We started with focusing on the breath, and then moving on to noticing different prominent sensations in the body – pain, twinges, soreness, and especially feelings that were arising that could be traced back to a particular location in the body. Thoughts would of course still arise, but at a slower pace, and by this point, I could notice them more easily and usually come back to the breath or a feeling in the body.
I noticed that even once my thoughts had a chance to settle, it wasn’t as if there was nothing else going on inside the mind. Rather, there was a whole world of feelings and emotions with its own tumult that’s hiding just under the surface of our crazy mind. Our internal emotional climate has its own arc, moving from joy to fear to anger to sadness to peace and around again. It’s profoundly unsettling to be in this perceived settled state. Looking around at the closed eyes and occasional smiles of the other meditators at the retreat, you’d think that everyone is experiencing a state of peace and inner bliss, but that’s often far from the case.
This was the biggest misconception I had about mediation before actually doing the practice myself. I thought that meditation was about detaching from reality and achieving a state of bliss that couldn’t be accessed in the real world. Meditation, I thought, was for yogis and hermits, but not for normal, intelligent people who actually want to live in the real world. But the goal of the practice is precisely the opposite. The goal of the practice of mindfulness meditation is to live in the real world and be able to be present with whatever feelings arise, whether they’re pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. During the practice of meditation, we can begin to see just how open we can be to our internal unsettled state, and then live this same way in our moment to moment life experience.
There is a deep allure to settledness. I’ve certainly had the thought many times that if I just get that one thing that I’m looking for – the good grades, the job, finding the perfect partner – then everything will all be settled forever. But that’s an illusion – there’s no such thing as real settledness, because the nature of the world is change and impermanence. So the best we can do is to learn how to be with whatever arises, training in the practice of meditation, and then striving to live this way in the real world as well.email print