There are two fundamentally different but complementary states that we can be in—being or doing. We live in an action-oriented, “doing” culture, where efficiency and achievement are valued. “Being”, on the other hand, is associated with idleness, having nothing to do, simple relaxation, or taking time out for reducing stress. Being is commonly regarded as a valueless interval between doing necessary things, as having no intrinsic meaning, value, or purpose in itself. However, from a meditator's perspective, being is the only time when we’re without our agenda, where our mind and heart are unguarded, where we allow ourselves to experience the moment without manipulating what arises.
Meditation is like sitting by the bank of a great stream. The stream’s relentless currents carry our many memories, our rich tapestry of experiences, both painful and pleasurable, as well as our anticipation of what’s just yet to come. Our job as a meditators is to remain on the bank of the stream without falling into it's turbulent currents.
We simply observe the stream of psychic jetsam and flotsam with interest, but without becoming overly fascinated by its contents. If our attention gets hooked by a provocative thought our image, we immediately fall into the stream and become part of the swirling debris, instantly losing our capacity for unbiased observation.
Meditation is the practice of recognizing when we've fallen into the stream. That very noticing immediately brings us back to our position on the bank as an observer. There’s no need to be discouraged if you find yourself spending more time in the stream than on it's peaceful shore. Your attention will alternate between witnessing and falling into the stream. That's what Buddhists call the path.
A key point to understand is that there aren't two steps—-one of recognizing that you've fallen into the stream, and the other of getting back to the shore. When you recognize that you've fallen into the stream by having become distracted or preoccupied, you're already back on the bank of the stream as an observer. You've come back into presence—being here, now. It is likely that you become distracted again, and so you repeat the process of returning to the immediacy of now, again and again.
One of the powers of this practice is that it brings our mind and body together, in the same place and at the same time, so that we’re synchronized. Most of the time our body is in one place and our mind is elsewhere. Our body is sitting as we’re having a cup of coffee, while our mind is preoccupied with the day’s agenda or with an unresolved issue. Few of us realize the implications of this phenomenon. In the usual state of mindlessness, we’re lost in space, fully identified with our rambling, free associative thoughts. They continually trigger a chain reaction of further thoughts, images, and feelings, and these make up our compelling inner narratives, which kidnap our attention from the tangible living quality of what’s here, now.
The essence of mindfulness meditation is that flash of recognition that notices that we’re distracted, which signals a complete reversal of direction, bringing us instantly back to our body or our breath. By interrupting our story lines, our compelling narratives of like and dislike, love and loss, the hope of success and the fear of failure, we're brought back to the immediacy of this present moment. Like a magnifying glass that gathers the sun’s rays into a laser-like beam of intense light, meditation intensifies our attention to reveal that only one thing is happening at a time. The discipline of mindfulness is to be there with that one-shot perception of nowness from which there is no real escape. Even when we’re fantasizing about the future or reminiscing about the past, we're doing it now! According to Buddhism, that dimensionless point of awareness is the key to our true identity.