At Ease Amid Activity

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The question is how to engage without losing the contemplative life.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Meditation fosters the ability to remain centered amid ordinary activity and extreme conditions, so contemplation is integral to this path. In Buddhism, to be contemplative is not to be lost in thought. Far from being lax or passive, proper meditation requires active attention to experience, moment to moment. Meditation is itself an authentic response to suffering in the world. Engagement, when needed, calls for qualities that sitting practice cultivates, such as clarity, openness, and perseverance. Some Buddhist activists maintain that one cannot really change the world unless one sits. The challenge is not whether to meditate or be engaged, but how to meditate and be engaged.

Basic guidelines for Buddhist-style meditation can be found in many sources. Stephen Batchelor advises:

Find a quiet, comfortable place. Sit still. Make sure the back is unsupported and upright, but not tense. Check to see if there are any points of tension in the body: the shoulders, the neck, around the eyes. Relax them. Take three long, slow, deep breaths. Then let the breathing resume its own rhythm, without interference or control.

The formal practice of mindfulness begins with a heightened awareness of the sensory array that is the body. Central to this is breathing. When meditating on the breath, let go of any picture you have of some invisible stuff being sucked in then pumped out of the lungs. . . . Only when you start paying careful attention to the breath do you notice how complex and subtle are the range of sensations involved. As each inhalation and exhalation take place, delve deeper into the multilayered intricacy of this vital act.

One might expect engaged Buddhists to take a dim view of monasticism and long retreats, which seem to point in an unworldly direction. Yet that is rarely the case. Robert Thurman, for example, supports monasticism and engagement with equal fervor:

The most activist thing the peace movement, the engaged movement, in the West could do would be to crank up the generosity to provide a permanent free lunch to any group of people who want to take serious ordination, remembering that the key to monasticism is that you can be useless.

According to individual circumstances, most engaged Buddhists renew themselves periodically through contact with a spiritual teacher or attendance at retreats. Sulak Sivaraksa describes a typical regimen:

Even those of us who are in society must return to these masters from time to time and look within. We must practice our meditation, our prayer, at least every morning or evening. . . . At least once a year we need to go to a retreat center to regain our spiritual strength, so we can return to confront society.

What appears to be withdrawal (or may indeed begin as withdrawal) can turn into something else. Michele McDonald-Smith, who leads Vipassana retreats, speaks from experience:

What's ironic to me is how much a deep sense of connection comes out of the profound solitude and silence of a retreat setting, how the ability to connect is related to the ability to have intimacy with oneself.

If you do not currently have a meditation practice, take this opportunity to begin (or begin again). Start gradually, and don't worry about "progress" or "no progress."