Why Do We Do Long Sittings?
Our meditation group had six stalwart sitters yesterday for our four-hour block sitting, in spite of the our city’s annual summer festival being in full swing, the gorgeous weather, and the Fourth of July weekend. Since we don’t discuss our reading on the block-sitting days, I thought I’d say a bit about why we do long meditations.
The goal of all our searching is to quit searching. If we think about it, we know that’s true. We’re tired of chasing after this “goal” of spiritual fulfillment! Some of us have tried several spiritual traditions, really committed to them, and still feel unsettled. We don’t even know what that fulfillment would look like if we found it, but we do know we want peace. We want to be able to quit searching.
Every spiritual practice is leading us to surrender. Native American sun dancers dance without food or water until they quit fighting the urge to quit and just dance, surrendered. Christians and Jews have dozens of practices that are intended to lead to surrender to the will of God. Some Buddhist practices involve thousands of prostrations intended to teach the body/mind to surrender.
What is it that’s surrendering? It’s our invented self, our “will,” that thinks it can control, regulate, and manage. On one level, we can and ought to do that. We can’t let our children run out in the street. We can’t let people starve if we can help it. On another level, we just have to quit fighting with what is. If we don’t, we’ll always be unhappy and frustrated, even if we manage to cover it up with obsessive activity.
Most of us must stay on the cushion (metaphorically speaking) a long time before we give up the fight. We sit for a while and we can congratulate ourselves for being good meditators. The ego is happy to feel in control. Then if we sit longer, we start to squirm. We feel like bad meditators. We lose our sense of control of the situation. But we keep sitting anyway.
We keep observing what is. We observe how our mind is out of control. We just watch it be out of control. What are we thinking? Heaven knows. Why are we here? Heaven knows. As we sit, we go through times that feel peaceful and some that feel awful. But we don’t quit. Gradually, the ego that has thought it had control begins to see that it doesn’t at all. Things come and go no matter what. At some point, we give up: I can’t do this. I can’t become perfect, which is what I thought I might do. I can’t become peaceful. I can’t “win” at this game. That’s when surrender happens.
Notice I didn’t say that “we” surrender. The “I” doesn’t surrender. That wouldn’t be any kind of surrender at all. The “I” could feel proud. “I” did it. There is a surrendering. That’s all that can be said.
It’s even worse than that. Eventually, we see that there wasn’t even an event, a “surrendering.” We just are what we are. Things just are. But they are, without our warfare with them. They are perfectly, simply, what they are. This is where the “peace that passeth understanding,” as Christians would put it, comes in.
A lot of people have talked about this with much more authority and background than I have. I suggest you read some of them, maybe starting with Bante Gunaratana’sMindfulness in Plain English. All I can offer here is my personal take on why it’s important to sit for a long time. Sometimes if a friend like me says these things, it gets us started and leads to more exploration. We have to see if this is true for ourselves. Don’t take my word for it, for sure.