Relax, observe, immerse. That’s the practice in a nutshell.
Some people try to skip the relaxation step, but that makes it more difficult to observe something completely and without bias. And it makes it impossible to immerse ourselves in what we’re observing.
Any relaxation method is fine, but I recommend one you can use on the go. Meditation isn’t something we do 25 minutes once a day; it’s a way of life, a way of being in and viewing ourselves and the world.
I’m a fan of the philosophical technique “bracketing.” That means we’re temporarily suspending some of the ways we view and process things. This eases a lot tension in itself, and it lets us observe life without ourselves blocking the view.
In day-to-day life, we’re bracketing 1) the past and future, 2) judging things as good and bad, 3) ownership, 4) the empirical and logical explanations behind what we’re experiencing, and 5) all faith-based explanations.
A ray of sunlight on the floor isn’t in the past or future—it’s right now. It isn’t good (because sunlight can cause health problems), and it isn’t bad (because it, well, it’s sunlight). It doesn’t belong to us or to anyone else. And it isn’t a stream of photons alternating between particles and waves, because we can’t experience that. Unless you’re a physicist, it’s not part of life as-lived.
Unless you’re a physicist or engineer, there’s really no solid reason to think of light in such objective terms. That objective knowledge covers up what we’re experiencing firsthand.
Faith covers up life as-lived as well. If we think that light was created by God or some other fantastic force (including our own minds), then we run into the same problem of putting ourselves outside of… ourselves.
At the same time, we’re bracketing objective existence and non-existence altogether. There’s a good reason for that. Take depression. If we think of it as something objectively real, that only intensifies our suffering. “I’m depressed, I have depression.” If we think of it as objectively unreal, then we’re denying our experiences which also causes suffering.
The most we can say about depression is that we experience it; it’s apparent. We don’t have to read into it anymore than that. The same goes for everything else.
If we can concentrate and relax, then that makes it easier to observe things in such a way. No judging, no sorting into was and will be, no claiming, and no explaining. That’s the foundation of open monitoring and skillful introspection.
Practice takes us from a scattered mind to a concentrated mind. Once we can concentrate, we can start open observation and immersion.
Start with an ordinary object. Maybe it’s a sock, a wall, a glass of water, or an apple. Concentrate on it, really look at it, really experience it. Experience yourself experiencing it. You can use inquiry to help out.
“What’s it look like?”
“Um, a wall…”
“Obviously, but what else?”
“Well, it’s solid and flat.”
“Like a vertical table.”
“Yup, or a sideways floor. What does it feel like?”
“Smooth, cool. Not totally smooth, though. There’s a texture to it. A slight grain.”
“What does it sound like when you glance your hand across it.”
“It’s a swooshing sound.”
“Is it soft or abrasive?”
“Soft. Delicate. It makes me think of an eraser for some reason.”
“Good, now push on it.”
“It doesn’t move. But I can feel my hand conform to it.”
“What color is it?”
“Like sand. How does interacting with it like this make you feel?”
“Just like the wall. What do you want to do?”
“I wanna put my back against it.”
“Go ahead. What does it feel like leaning against it?”
“Soothing. But… not dulling. I feel attentive. Crisp.”
“Do you feel your feet on the floor?”
“Yes. Planted like a tree. I wanna spread out my arms.”
“Go ahead… What’s it like?”
“It’s like… I’m growing.”
“You are growing. That’s what life’s all about. Now, just close your eyes and rest with this experience. Let your thoughts, feelings, and urges come and go without judging them or getting wrapped up in them. Stay with the wall for as long as you can, being aware of what it’s like to just be here with it.”
This all gets easier with practice. Over time, we can immerse ourselves into several things at once until we cover the whole, dynamic experience.
Full immersion is called samadhi. It takes us from a concentrated mind to one mind or unified mind. The preconceived idea, “I’m separate from this,” is gone. When that happens, we’re no longer meditators—we’re meditation.
This isn’t something to settle with. A lot of practitioners find it so rewarding that they call it enlightenment and camp out with it. Old Chan Masters called this Illusion City. It’s a kind of way station to Bodhi, but it’s not awakening.
To keep moving forward, we just stick to the method: relax, observe, immerse. At this point, comparisons aren’t applicable anymore. One mind isn’t like anything. We can’t even compare one samadhi to another.
At this point, the method is circular. We’ve relaxed into immersion, we’re observing observation, and immersed in observing. This opens up a state called no-mind. It doesn’t mean there’s not a mind there, or that it’s a totally zonked out, unconscious state. It means we don’t know anymore. There’s no grasping, no selfish feelings, no destructive urges, and no trivial or fixated thoughts.
The only thing we’re still caught up in is the method itself. During no-mind, even grasping at the method disappears. Then, there’s what’s called silent illumination. The about face, or as Hongzhi called it, “Wander into the center of the circle of wonder… romp and play in samadhi.”
Once we’ve actualized no-mind, it’s like enlightenment spits us out back into the world. Everything’s just as it always was, but it’s different at the same time. It’s all so… alive.
This isn’t an end to practice, it’s the beginning. Now that we’ve gone through it, the task is to bring it into daily life anyway we can.
Now we can remove those brackets we were using because the things they were holding are no longer dangerous to us or others. We can just live without seeking some other life or self beyond Just This.