Meditation Can Happen Anywhere and Anytime

Sitting is fine, but it’s not the only or best path to enlightenment

Sketch artist Art Lien at work, covering the Senate impeachment trial on January 30, 2020. Photo: Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc./Getty Images

In the decades that sketch artist Art Lien has covered the U.S. Supreme Court, he has been the eyes of the people. At the nation’s highest court, where there are no cameras allowed, the sketch artist for NBC News and SCOTUSblog sits through hearings with a small pad of paper and a bundle of colored pencils. He watercolors the images immediately afterward in the press room and scans them for publication before the rest of the reporters have even begun typing their stories.

You might imagine that an artist as skilled and accomplished as Lien would feel supremely confident. But in my time as a reporter covering the Supreme Court, it became clear to me that wasn’t true. Lien once told me that he’s still plagued with doubt, sometimes telling himself, “Oh shit, I can’t draw anymore.”

So to get his work done, he stops thinking.

When a hearing begins and he starts sketching, Lien becomes fully absorbed. He stops listening to his internal dialogue. He lets the pencils find their way around the paper. Within the limitations of time, space, and subject, in the ruts of routine, creativity is somehow unleashed. And from this, an image emerges — something from nothing.

That’s applied meditation. It is Zen practice in action.

Sitting still is often seen as the standard way to meditate. And sitting still for a spell can certainly be a good corrective in a scurrying culture.

But sitting is not the only way to meditate nor is it the pinnacle of spiritual discipline. On the contrary. In Zen Buddhism, it’s labor — doing things — that illuminates. The classic path to liberation involves action and alchemy, channeling philosophical understanding into the practice of a craft.

In his seminal 1957 book The Way of Zen, philosopher Alan Watts posited that emphasis on zazen — or seated meditation — has been greatly exaggerated over the centuries. In fact, he argued, it was just a practical innovation unrelated to spiritual liberation. As Zen became institutionalized, and monasteries filled with unruly young men to train, education increasingly centered on sitting still because it kept the youths “out of mischief.”

But early Zen focused on active meditation. Spirituality was channeled through labor — arts, crafts, daily tasks. Indeed, famed sage Nan-yüeh Huai-jang, who lived in China in 677–744, claimed that “to train yourself in sitting meditation is to train yourself to be a sitting Buddha. … If you adhere to the sitting position, you will not attain the principle of Zen.”

Maybe practice does make perfect. The Zen trick, however, is to understand that practice is perfect unto itself.

Adopting this approach solves the psychological problems of reluctance or procrastination. You know what stance to take toward labor, whether it’s onerous, delightful, or daunting — washing the dishes, watering the garden, or pitching a film script. You get the work done.

This decision eliminates the friction of psychic resistance, quieting that voice in your head that’s always calculating, bargaining, and pettily thinking, “Why do I bother?” You bother because you’ve adopted a philosophy that emphasizes light in ordinary life.

The bonus is that this approach also improves your technical skills because practice does perfect. The more you do a thing, the better you get at it, and the higher the chances of magic happening naturally — and of your success and good attitude infecting other things you do.

The Zen notion of enlightenment is not transcendental, Watts explains. The idea is to see the world as it is, with an “everyday state of consciousness.” It’s to actually get into everything, including life’s messes, repetitions, and routines like making dinner, cleaning up our bedrooms, or leading a meeting. A practitioner’s goal isn’t to float above the world but to engage in it — in whatever physical position it requires.

The world is not divided into sacred and mundane in Zen. Sages can be found anywhere, and a laborer’s impressive skills might trigger a princely epiphany.

The parable of the dexterous butcher who reached a state of what we would now call “flow,” by comical Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu, offers an example of one such master of his craft. In it, a prince learns from watching his cook butcher an ox. After years of practice, the cook has absorbed the task of cutting into the animal “with all his being,” until his cleaver seems to find secret spaces of its own accord. Ahead of tough spots, the butcher slows, looks close, and follows the natural pathways until the parts just come loose.

“Then I withdraw the blade; I stand still,” the butcher says, “and let the joy of work sink in. I clean the blade and put it away.”

But this isn’t just the stuff of myth and parables. I know because I’ve seen a master in action: Art Lien. Like the butcher, Lien reaches a state where he stops perceiving concepts and can just observe. Conscious thought stops being an obstacle, and the artist gets out of his own way. Within that space, great accidents can happen, surprises that the creator would never anticipate.

Meditating in action unlocks our capacity to “make magic of the very simplest of things in everyday life,” Watts writes. Or as a Zen poem puts it: “Marvelous power and supernatural activity, drawing water, carrying wood.”

Writer. Lawyer. SCOTUS noter. Ex-appellate defender. Ex-QZ senior reporter, law and politics, DC.

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