Friday, July 24, 2009

Sit Slowly

Alexandra David-Neel was a shockingly independent and defiant explorer who traveled to the most rural and forbidding areas of Tibet in the early part of the twentieth century, when the entire country was closed to foreigners. She wrote several accounts of her travels there, one of which -- "My Journey to Lhasa" -- I'm reading now.

In a throwaway passage of the book, she relates a chance encounter with an unfortunate pilgrim who was near death in the wilderness, far from civilization, and the words that were exchanged as she and her traveling companion left the man there to his fate, after doing their best to make him comfortable.

"Kale pheb," the man said to them -- a polite Tibetan farewell to those who go away, which translates as "Go (or proceed) slowly."

"Kale ju," the departing ones replied -- a polite farewell to those who remain behind, which translates as "Sit (or stay) slowly."

The bizarre advice to "sit slowly" -- while perhaps not intended as such (or perhaps it was; you never know with these Tibetans) -- struck me as a beautifully simple and profound meditation instruction.

On its surface, to "sit slowly" seems absurd. After all, sitting meditation is essentially doing nothing. How can you do nothing slowly -- or quickly, for that matter?

Alas, sitting quickly is so often precisely what we try to do. Our minds are so caught up in the habit of speed and busyness: we are always doing, doing, doing, always leaning forward into the next thing on our To Do list. Even in meditation, we lean towards the next moment, the next thought, the next breath. "Okay, I was daydreaming that time, but this next breath I'll really be present." When we are sitting in the shrine room, we can't wait for the umdze to ring the gong so we can get up and do walking meditation, and then when we are walking we can't wait for them to clack their wooden sticks so we can sit back down again. This mind of speed and busyness is such an intrinsic part of the way we experience the world, it is difficult for us to drop it when we arrive at our meditation cushion.

To sit slowly is precisely that: to sit without rushing ourselves, without trying to amp up our meditation into something it's not, without expectation or hope for a better kind of meditation experience to arise in the next moment. There is no next moment. To sit slowly is to take the time to fully experience each breath, each perception, each thought, each moment of experience, as it is happening. To truly step into and inhabit the present moment, we must shake ourselves out of the trance of speed and busyness.

"Sit slowly." I think I need to make this my personal meditation mantra for a while. I invite you to make it yours.

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