The process of meditation

The process of meditation – swimming not drowning

Someone once said to me that she had heard that “learning mindful meditation could be likened to learning to swim. If that’s the case”, she said, “I feel as if I’ve been thrown into the swimming pool at the deep end, and I am in danger of drowning”. This made me ponder on what advice I would give about the process of meditation that might be helpful in learning to swim rather than drowning.

Please keep in mind that the following brief suggestions are based on my fifty-odd years of Zen meditation practice (zazen). What works for me may not work for you. It is vital to test my advice against your own experience. Although the parts of the process are listed sequentially, the order isn’t meant to suggest a progression or ladder of accomplishment. The time you give to each element of the process may vary – sometimes a particular aspect may become the focus of attention for the duration of a period of meditation. With experience, the ‘non-dwelling mind’ aspect may be most useful – in a use-less way – there is no purpose to meditation other than to be here, to be awake. Meditation in this sense is its own reward.


Begin by focusing on the outbreath – feel it, observe it, be it – be one with the breath – moving from “I am breathing” to “there is breathing”. Allow the inbreath to happen naturally – there is no need to apply extra force. Just be aware of the breathing process …..

Extend awareness to the body – posture, limbs, skin, tension and relaxation, stillness and movement, is there fidgeting, how are the hands lying, what are the feet doing, feel the weight, feel the contact between buttocks and sitting surface, are there itches, aches …..

Extend awareness to perceptions – to sounds, smells, taste of the air, changes in light, movements in the space around …..

Extend awareness to feelings – positive, negative, excitement, trepidation, anxieties, calmness, joys, worries, neutral feelings, irritation, anger, love, friendliness, acceptance, rejection …..

Extend awareness to thoughts – what is coming and going – is there internal chattering, thinking about the past and about the future, planning, rehearsing what one will say to so-and-so, what did I say, what should I have said, what will I wear, I wonder what so-and-so thinks of me, I wish I could have one of those, what should I do, questioning, ruminating, am I meditating correctly, why am I doing this, arguing with oneself or an imaginary other. Let the thoughts be – no need to interfere – don’t dwell on them or analyse them or comment or make judgments – just watch them come and go …..

Maybe, move from “I am thinking” to “there is a thought”; from “I hear a seagull” to “there is a sound”; from “I feel unhappy or unhappy” to “there is a feeling of happiness or unhappiness”. This breaks the chain of identification with perceptions, thoughts and feelings – enabling one to see clearly what arises without attachment or judgment or commentary.

Extend awareness to whatever arises in consciousness without dwelling on anything in particular – non-dwelling mind …..

Apply no force or intention – bare attention – just sitting, awake to what is …..

Balancing on the tight-rope between thinking and not-thinking …..

Adding nothing – letting things be – letting go of reactive habits: such as chattering, commenting, judging, analysing, desiring or rejecting ….

Being awake and alert – awake to whatever arises – experiencing how things are: the flux of existence – ever-changing, fluid, temporary, interdependent and contingent ….

Clear-minded, transparent, at peace ….