What is Actually This Thing Called Meditation?

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By Maarten Hunink

Plum Village summer retreatAnd what does it have to do with tomato soup?

That’s what I was wondering after staying in Plum Village for two weeks, and with quite a surprise because I’ve been practicing meditation for a couple of years now. Or maybe more correctly, I’ve been practicing what I think is meditation…

It all started with a conversation after dinner. A couple of us visitors were staying at the table after finishing our food and one of the monks was with us. He often seemed to enjoy chatting with us. In the past, talking with him has helped me a lot to understand why monks don’t have a partner, what the function of the precepts are, what to do when you see a girl and all you feel is sexual desire, etc…

But this evening, it was about meditation since one of my roommates wondered if he is still meditating when he thinks of random stuff during sitting meditation. The monk said, “No, then you’re just thinking.” The conversation continued; at some point one of us remembered an example given by Thich Nhat Hanh about what to do when you think of tomato soup during your meditation. After a while we found it:

We are practicing sitting meditation and we see a bowl of tomato soup in our mind’s eye, so we think that is wrong practice because we are supposed to be mindful of our breathing. But if we practice mindfulness, we will say, “I am breathing in and I am thinking about tomato soup.” That is Right Mindfulness already. Rightness or wrongness is not objective. It is subjective.
The Heart Of Buddha’s Teachings, Thich Nhat Hanh

I asked him something which had bugged me for the past couple of days after a Dharma talk from one of the elder monks which was partly about how to ‘stop thinking.’ I didn’t understand this because every time I try to stop thinking, it doesn’t work. Thoughts keep passing through my brain, and I get frustrated and irritated. At some point I give up all together.

Then the monk at our dinner table said, “Maybe your idea of ‘not thinking’ isn’t actually ‘not thinking.’ It’s like many things: happiness, love, etc… You can have an idea of what happiness is and then try to achieve it. But what if your idea of happiness is wrong? Maybe happiness has passed by all along, but you never noticed it because you thought it looked different?”

This honestly blew my mind a little because what if – indeed – ‘not thinking’ is something else? What if it looks different and is a different experience? I was sure that I knew what it was, but what if that’s not it? Why am I so sure about that to begin with? And what happens if I accept that I actually don’t know what it is?

Instead of a clear answer I wanted for my question, I got ‘not knowing.’ It felt like a space opened up in my brain where the fixed idea had been before. All of a sudden I felt free, free to just experience and discover what it might be without having a predefined idea of what it was.

Then I asked myself, what do I think is meditation? Why do I think that? And what if it’s actually something different? This made me smile because I felt such enthusiasm to try to find out, as if it was all new, fresh and for the first time again. While at the same time I felt the freedom of not having to know, maybe never. Never having to know anything for sure, but just to experience life with a childlike curiosity.

This article was originally posted on “Going Monk” website.

Maarten Hunink practices with Wake Up Rotterdam and is living like a monk for a year in a pop-up monastery he set up called “Going Monk”.

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