One of the most difficult things in meditation is to not contract. We tend to equate doing something well with some kind of focus, so we imagine that to do something very well, we need to focus really, really hard. If we practice in a tradition in which there’s some object of attention—cultivating compassion, for example, or counting the breath—then we contract around that, squeezing everything else out until there’s only space for that one thing. If you’re in a tradition like mine, and no one’s really told you what to do with your mind, you might choose a spot on the wall (your eyes are open, after all) and bore into it, narrowing your vision to a speck of paint half a centimeter across, drilling like a laser to see what might be on the other side. After twenty minutes, you’re sweating.
Practicing in that way is exhausting. But it’s also easy—contracting comes naturally to us, even if we’re straining. What’s hard is to expand.
Many people, if you tell them not to contract, will instead try to relax. They’ll imagine that since contraction feels tight and hard, they need to get loose and soft. But meditation isn’t meant to be mushy—the whole thing rests on the idea of being awake, so alertness is key. The issue with contracting isn’t so much that it makes you tight but that it makes you small. The antidote, then, is to expand.
I read years ago about a study of experienced and inexperienced Zen meditators—a ticking clock was in the room, and whereas the beginners reported eventually tuning out the clock completely, those who had been sitting for years never did. I had to smile. Is it irritating to always hear that tick-tick-ticking? Maybe. But being present, being here, means being alert to what’s actually happening now, in the room. Being in the zone doesn’t mean you tune everything out; it means you tune everything in.
One technique (trick?) I encountered years ago, and still turn to, is the practice of gathering sounds. After you’ve found your posture and settled into your breathing, make it an active project to notice all the sounds you can. No matter where you are, there are probably a lot—maybe big noises like sirens going by or neighbors slamming doors, but under all that, soft sounds like the hum of the refrigerator, or the rumble from the vent, or your own breathing, or a light buzz from a light fixture. Or a clock ticking. They’re all there. Stretch out your ears, find each one, but as you do, make space to hold them all. Don’t concentrate on one sound at a time—that’s just another contraction. Rather, choose to hold each sound equally, making space for the whole cacophony in your head.
Is this the open, formless meditation that’s been handed down for centuries? No—this is a project, an exercise. But it offers a taste of the kind of permeable alertness that formless meditation calls for. It offers an alternative to contracting without simply relaxing. If you want to learn to sit in a way that leaves nothing out, that holds the entire moment, you might need first to explore how much there is to include—and how much you take for granted or just don’t notice at all.
Try it. It’s harder—and more interesting—than you might think. It isn’t limited to meditation. You can do it in the kitchen, or in the bathroom, or instead of looking at your phone. At any moment, you can just open up your ears and try to gather up all of now. How far can you expand? You might be surprised. You might be able to fit it all.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Zen Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the ZNS Podcast.