As a teenager, I spent a few summers on an island in southern Thailand. Then a backwater (you had to take the ferry to get from the mainland to the island), it’s now famous. Both as a resort and as the site of a horrific tsunami.
Phuket. That’s where I spent school holidays, at a villa nestled between a crematorium & a slaughterhouse. Really. But while the crematorium/ slaughterhouse combo make good telling, what was magic were, of course, the beaches.
There were places you could walk a mile out, without the water reaching your chin. And the water was breath-takingly, heart-stoppingly clear. Whether the beach was like this one — creamy white sand and sky-blue water — or black rocks and water as green as glass, it was all crystal clear. In a boat between small offshore islands, you could see all the way to the bottom, no matter (it seemed) how deep it was.
If you study meditation, and/or mindfulness, you know that they are linked inextricably. You come to mindfulness through a meditation practice. And you come to clarity — to that still, clear water — through the two together. Through being still, and focused. Here’s my problem: I fidget.
My paternal grandmother used to tease me that I had St. Vitus Dance — a not rare occurrence in the days when many children had rheumatic fever. It’s now called Sydenham’s chorea, and it still happens: rapid, herky-jerky movements of the face, hands, feet. My grandmother just said I was too fidgety. And I am. At those events where you’re supposed to sit still? You know: weddings, funerals, movies, lectures… Well, I fidget. Cross my legs, uncross my legs, kick my feet, jounce my knees… I am NOT still.
But as I said the other day, meditation isn’t rigid. It’s fluid, like water. And it’s called practice for a reason: you don’t worry so much about the right or wrong of it. You don’t beat yourself up, like over a bad exam. Any more than you beat up yourself up over the difference between black beaches with greenglass water, and white beaches with skyblue waters. Both are beautiful. You just keep practicing, trying to get better.
I suspect this is why so many of the arts — martial, visual, abstract — serve as aides to Buddhist practice. You can ‘practice’ Zen through Ikebana (flower arranging), or the Way of the Sword, or the Way of Tea, or the Way of the Brush.
The stillness, though? That clear seeing to the very bottom, where the Durban dancing shrimp vacuum the rocks? It’s going to take me a LOT of practice to see that. And, I suspect, a heavy dose of still.