Many years ago, I spent a year teaching outdoor education to grade school children. The students would be bussed out from the city for their once-a-year instruction about wild nature. In addition to providing the scientifically-oriented subjects that were the core of our outdoor education curricula, I attempted to get students to sit quietly for a few minutes and attend to the sensory qualities of nature. To get them to quiet down, I would tell them: “if we sit quietly, something special might happen.”
Usually I did not have much success getting the kids to be still, but one morning I had a group sitting quietly when two fawns walked right into the middle of the circle we had formed. Wow, I thought, this is special! Strangely, it didn’t create nearly the buzz among the students I expected. Later I asked the teacher why the students were not more impressed. She said, “They think you do this for every group.” Oh well!
In the lingo of outdoor education, the technique of sitting quietly in this way is called Seton Sitting. It was named for the naturalist Thomas Seton. It is nothing more than trying to sit very quietly in a natural area until the wildlife forgets you are there. Some people call it “still stalking.” Once while Seton Sitting a Northern Goshawk landed on a ledge a few feet from me and graciously ignored me for about ten minutes.
Though its goals are not quite as lofty as enlightenment or attaining oneness with God, Seton Sitting is not too different from the formal practice of meditation. In both Seton Sitting and meditation, you have to ignore the ants that crawl on you and a lot of other stimuli – you have to become somewhat ignorant.
Breaking habitual responses
In practicing meditation, we create a “space” between stimulus and response. Our ordinary response to an ant crawling up our leg is to brush it off. To meditate, we have to break our habitual responses – let the ant be a part of our world and our body be part of the ant’s world.
Once we become proficient in creating this mental space, we can do a couple things with it. We can remain in the silence and emptiness of this space or choose some object of attention, such as an idea, symbol, or impression, and become deeply immersed in it. Both have their distinctive values.
In the practice of meditation, we learn to become non-responsive to both external and internal stimuli. The external stimuli cannot be shut out; the internal stimuli – thoughts, emotions, desires — can be slowed, but not stopped. The practice of meditation deepens as we learn to let both external and internal stimuli pass through us without our getting caught up in them.
This is not easy. Most of us have a strong inclination to respond to a thought or image by thinking it through. In the early stages of learning meditation, again and again we find our self abstracted from the present moment, entangled in a thought or image. With time, though, maintaining this space between the stimulus and the response becomes easier; when it becomes truly easy, this inner space provides a haven of self control and serenity.
Something special may happen
The poet T.S. Eliot described the modern condition as being “distracted from distraction by distraction.” Our world pulses with disjointed stimuli, blowing the mind this way and that like leaves in the wind. The distracted mind’s readiest refuge is in entertainments abundantly supplied by the popular media. But, these entertainments are just “distraction from distraction.” To gain clarity and rootedness requires a different approach.
A formal meditation practice may be the right approach for some, or just sitting quietly with nature might work better for others. One has to try a few things to find what works best.
Is it worth the effort?
As I told my students many years ago, “if we sit quietly, something special might happen.”
Thomas Schenk: “If asked, I’d call myself a Space-age Taoist, Black Sheep Catholic, Perennial Philosophy Pantheist, Dharma Bum. In other words I am a kind of spiritual and philosophical mutt. I’m not out to change the world, for I believe the world has a much better sense of what it is supposed to be than I ever could. But I do try to promote the value of the contemplative life in these most un-contemplative of times. I don’t know if the piece presented here has any value, but I feel blessed that I can spend my time thinking about such things. My version of the American dream is that here, as the child of a line of farmers and peasants going back through the ages, I have the privilege to live with my head in such clouds.”
Thomas is also the author of the naturalistic spirituality blog Golden Hive of the Invisible.
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