An Introduction to Meditation



By Alan Watts

What we call meditation or contemplation — for want of a better word — is really supposed to be fun. I have some difficulty in conveying this idea because most people take anything to do with religion seriously — and you must understand that I am not a serious person. I may be sincere, but never serious, because I don’t think the universe is serious.  And the trouble comes into the world largely because various beings take themselves seriously, instead of playfully. After all, you must become serious if you think that something is desperately important, but you will only think that something is desperately important if you are afraid of losing it. In one way, however, if you fear losing something, it isn’t really worth having. There are people who live in dread, and then drag on living because they are afraid to die. They will probably teach their children to do the same, and their children will in turn teach their own children to live that way. And so it goes on and on.  But let me ask you, if you were God, would you be serious? Would you want people to treat you as if you were serious? Would you want to be prayed to?  Think of all the awful things that people say in their prayers. Would you want to listen to that all the time? Would you encourage it? No, not if you were God.

In the same way, meditation is different from the sort of things that people are supposed to take seriously. It doesn’t have any purpose, and when you talk about practicing meditation, it’s not like practicing tennis or playing the piano, which one does in order to attain a certain perfection. You practice music to become better at it, maybe even with the idea that you may someday go on stage and perform. But you don’t practice meditation that way, because if you do, you are not meditating.


The Practice of Meditation

The only way you can talk about practice in the context of meditation is to use the word practice in the same way as when somebody says that they practice medicine. That is their way of life, their vocation, and they do it nearly every day. Perhaps they do it the same way, day after day — and that’s fine for meditation too, because in meditation there is no right way and there is no idea of time.

In practicing and learning things, time is usually of the essence. We try to do it as fast as possible, and even find a faster way of learning how to do things. In meditation a faster way of learning is of no importance whatsoever, because one’s focus is always on the present. And although growth may occur in the process, it is growth in the same way that a plant grows.


The Perfect Process of Growth

Once upon a time in China, there was a farming family, and they were having dinner. The oldest son came in late, and they asked him, “Why are you late for dinner?”

“Oh,” he said, “I’ve been helping the wheat to grow.” They came out the next morning and all the wheat was dead. It turned out that the son had pulled each stalk up a little bit, to help it grow.  The point is that growth always occurs in a being as it does in a plant, and it is perfect at every step. No progress is involved in the transformation of an acorn into an oak, because the acorn is a perfect acorn, and the sapling is a perfect sapling, and the big oak tree is a perfect oak, which again produces perfect acorns. At every stage perfection is there, and it cannot be otherwise.

Practicing meditation is exactly the same. We should not talk about beginners as distinct from experts, and we should develop, if we can, a new vocabulary because it is very difficult in the context of our competitive world to speak about things like this. To bring across the idea of doing something that is not acquisitive — something you are not going to get anything out of — is difficult. And it’s even more difficult when there is no one to get anything. When “you” understand the art of contemplation, there is no experiencer separate from experience, and there is no one to get anything out of life, or therefore to get anything from meditation.


Reversed Effort

We have a principle here of reversed effort, something to understand as a background to anything said about techniques — because whenever we talk about techniques, we seem to be talking about the competitive, and about mastery. The idea of mastery of technique is very important if you play a musical instrument, because technique is the key in the making of a satisfactory sound. But if you force the learning of technique, or force the performance of it, everyone will hear it, and you will hear the forcing yourself.

To be musical you have to address yourself to the playing of an instrument without hurrying, and without forcing anything. You will find there is a point then where the instrument seems to play itself, and when you get the peculiar feeling that the sound coming out of a flute or a violin string is happening of itself. Then you are playing the instrument properly.  It’s the same when you sing: there comes a point when your voice takes over.

This is the difference between perspiration and inspiration.  You may say, as Christians do, that the act of worship is inspired by the Holy Spirit. When monks are chanting, they believe that the Holy Spirit is chanting through them, and they are flutes for the Holy Spirit. This is a very precise and particular phenomenon because there is a way of resonating the breath and of harmonizing sound so that it comes of itself and you don’t do it. We attribute that way of producing sound to the “Holy Spirit,” but it is based on breath.


Watching Breath

Breath is a curious operation, because it can be experienced as both a voluntary doing and an involuntary happening. You can do a breathing exercise and feel that “I am breathing” in just the same way as you can feel “I am walking.” Yet on the other hand, you breathe all the time when you are not thinking about it, and in that way it is involuntary. You must breathe —and so it is the faculty through which we can realize the unity of the voluntary and involuntary systems.

In Buddhism, this is called mindfulness of the breath, or watching breath.  And watching breath is fundamental in meditation because, like sound, it is easy to see the happening in it, as distinct from what we thought of as the doing of it. Breath happens, but the curious thing is that you can get with the breath, and in getting with it, extraordinary things can happen.  Anyone who swims knows this, and anyone who sings knows that breathing is important. In archery, in any athletic discipline, the alignment of body and breath is critical. The synchronization of what you are doing with your breathing is the whole art. But powerful breath is not accomplished through muscle power. It is accomplished by gravity, by weight.


A Meditation Exercise

I would like you to sit upright, either in a comfortable chair or on the floor on a cushion or pillow. The reason for sitting straight is so the part of your body in which the breathing is occurring is unencumbered. Also, when you sit upright on the floor you are slightly uncomfortable, and you won’t go to sleep, because in any peaceful and quiet state of mind it is very easy to go to sleep.

Now in this position, simply become aware of your breathing, without trying to do anything about it at all. Let it happen, and watch it.  At the same time, let your ears hear whatever they want to hear. In other words, let them hear in the same way you are letting your lungs breathe.  Now beyond this, you can breathe out by letting the breath fall outward without pushing it, and as you get to the end of the out breath, let go with the same sort of feeling that you have when you let your body drop into a very comfortable bed — let it drop out and fall. Let the weight of the air do it. Don’t push, drop. Then after a while, the breath will return. But don’t pull it in, let it fall back in. The breath will drop in until you’ve had enough; then let it drop out again.

It’s a good idea in this exercise to breathe in through the nostrils and out through the lips, allowing there to be a slight sensation of moving air on your lips so that you know you are breathing. Never force anything — just have the feeling of going this way and that way by virtue of weight, and of gravity.


Adding Sound

Then, if you wish, as you let the breath fall outward, you can simply float a sound on it. First, you can just do this mentally. Think of a sound that pleases you, a note that seems agreeable to your voice. As you breathe out heavily, imagine that sound to yourself, whatever sound you feel like. Now if you’ve got a humming sound in mind, on the next round of the out breath, hum it out loud, and keep it going.

At first you may be a little short-winded and uneasy about something like this. As well as allowing the sound to hum and happen with the breath that is falling out, you can, as it were, simply request it to increase in volume without forcing it.

And when your sound ends, bring it in again quite softly, and then allow the volume to rise. You will get an almost continuous sound, and if you do this in a group, the sounds will run together.

Try it now, if you wish, picking your own note.

Try it again, once more.

Now ask it to increase its volume. Listen a moment. What we are working into is the completely liberated, yet soft and gentle, act of letting sound happen through us without the slightest sense of strain, so that you are not singing it, but it is singing with your voice.

Don’t premeditate a tune, but let it come, so that it’s almost as if you were talking nonsense. Let it play gently with your voice. You are simply preoccupied with it, like easy humming to yourself.


Or, Ahhh....

Or, Oooommmm....

When you are thus absorbed in sound, where are you?  You are in a state of consciousness that is, even at first, at least a primitive form of samadhi; that is to say, we are happily absorbed in what we are doing, and we have forgotten about ourselves. You can’t very well do that and still worry or think about anything serious.  Notice that there is a special way of doing it. We can get wild with it and do a kind of Native American chant or one of the more vigorous and forceful Tibetan Buddhist chants, but that form of chanting can be straining, unless you’re in a large group and can soar on the group’s energy. If you keep it down to a soft tone, you will find the floating feeling of the voice. If you feel any sound that is uncomfortable, you can instantly avoid it. Slip down if you are going too high, or slip up if you are getting too low. If your voice tends to change, follow its change, so that you are just going along with it.


The Divine Element

This is why, from ancient times, people have discovered humming and singing, and everybody used to sing while they worked. But you’ll notice that today very few people sing at all; you have to make a point of it. People are afraid of their voices — that is, their melodic voices as distinct from the spoken voice. I know an enormous number of people who never sing at all.  In India to this day when the scriptures — the Upanishads and the Sutras —are read, they are invariably chanted, because as soon as you bring a note into it an extra dimension is added to the voice. That is the divine element, which is symbolically the singing sound of the universe.  This is a form of what I would call free mantra chanting, which isn’t used much. But as you do it, it will give you a very good idea of what the meditative state is. It isn’t just letting things going on around you happen, it is inside you as well. In free mantra, as distinct from prescribed mantra, each spontaneous chant has a different feeling to it.  The Tibetan monks go down to an extraordinarily deep sound — they go as deep as one can get. There is a reason for this, but it is very difficult to explain because you have to do it to understand it. But when you get as deep down into sound as you can go, you are going to an extreme of the vibration, and you feel naturally that what is deep is part of the underpinnings, the foundation. When monks go into that deep sound, they are literally exploring the depths of sound, going into it deeply. They will get down somewhere on an Om, and take it to what feels like the center of the earth.  When you try the meditation we have just been through with sound, you might sometimes find that you hear your voice go wrong, but you always get a sensuous feeling of the breath, and of course it is very enjoyable to breathe. You will find this enjoyment will help in the quality of the sound you produce — although we have to get away from some of our musical prejudices when we do this. You can make up your own nonsensical mantras, and there are lots of traditional mantras as well. But to make one up, just absorb yourself in a vibration that gets you going and then play with it.  Play with the sound you are making, and when you stop you will still feel the pulse going through you. These sounds are easy to run along with.


Deep Listening

Some people think that to spend a lot of time gently humming nonsense to yourself is a waste of time. But ask yourself, What are you going to do with the time that you save?

With all this, the first thing we have to understand is what I call deep listening. Very few people ever really listen, because instead of receiving the sound, they make comments on it all the time. They are thinking about it, and so the sound is never fully heard. You just have to let it take over, let it take you over completely, and then you get into the samadhi state of becoming it.

This also means that you abandon your socially nervous personality. One of the reasons why people don’t sing is that they hear so many masters performing on records that they are ashamed of their own voices. You may think there’s no point in singing unless you are good at it, but that is like saying there is no point in doing anything at all unless you are particularly gifted at it, which is ridiculous. Of course singing is very good for you, but we won’t dwell on that because it brings too much purposiveness into it — having to fulfill a conscious purpose and design.


Any Sound from the Source

Instead we are like children making noises because of the absorbing sound they produce. Children make all sorts of noises to explore the possibilities of what they can do with their voice. But you don’t see adults going around humming and burbling, even though it is tremendous fun. All of this is perfectly at home within meditation.

Joshu Sasaki, a Zen master from Los Angeles, tells his students to stand up and laugh for five minutes every morning because that’s a better form of meditation than sitting for a long time getting sore legs. It embarrasses the hell out of some people to even try it, and instead when they see someone doing it they ask, “What are you laughing at? You know I don’t see any point in laughing unless there’s something funny.” I had a friend, a very fat friend, and he was a theological student. He used to take the elevated train that went from Evanston into Chicago and sit in the middle of the car where everybody could see him. He would sit there with a kind of vacant look and chuckle to himself. And slowly he’d work it out, laughing louder and louder with all his flesh vibrating. By the time they got to Chicago, the whole car was inevitably hysterical with laughter.  I tell you this story to illustrate that any sound you feel coming from the inside can be used as mantra meditation, and the deeper the source, now matter how ridiculous, the better. 

From Still the Mind: An Introduction to Meditation by Alan Watts. Copyright © 2000 by Mark Watts. Excerpted by arrangement with New World Library. $12.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800-972-6657 ext. 52 or click here.