How it works: Basic meditation

I have an informal series of articles called “how it works”. These are my own experiences with different practices.

So what about basic meditation? How does basic meditation work?


The essence of basic meditation is to notice and allow what’s here in our experience.

We notice. Allow. Notice the space it all happens within. And so on.

When attention gets caught up in the content of thoughts, we may – through grace – notice and go back to noticing and allowing. We again notice the thoughts as thoughts.


After a while, we may notice that what’s here in our experience is already allowed. It’s already here. It’s allowed by life, the mind, and the space it happens within.

We may also notice that it is, in a sense, already noticed since it’s already happening within consciousness.

If we assume we notice and allow, we are one step behind. So we can instead notice it’s all already allowed and noticed. We notice what’s already here.


Noticing and allowing can give us innumerable insights into the dynamics of the mind.

For instance, we may find that the essence of this practice is, in a sense, to notice thoughts instead of getting caught in the content of thought. That’s what allows the magic to happen.

We may notice that when we get distracted, we get distracted by the content of a thought. Our attention gets fascinated by and goes into the stories the thoughts tell us. Our attention gets drawn to it because the stories seem real and important one way or another. And that happens when they have a charge for us.

During this practice, we may notice that our attention is distracted and we bring our attention back to noticing and allowing. This is grace. We didn’t make this happened. It just happened.

We may find that noticing and allowing is ultimately what’s most comfortable, even if our impulse is to get caught up in what’s surfacing. We can notice and allow even those impulses.

We may notice that as we get more used to noticing and allowing, it gradually becomes a new habit. It becomes easier. Our mind deepens a new groove. We can train our mind. Life trains itself.


We can train a more stable attention by placing our attention on anything, notice when our attention gets distracted, and then bringing attention back to the object. In Buddhism, this object is often the sensations of the breath in the nose.

Most (all?) spiritual practices involve some discipline and will inherently train a more stable attention, and basic meditation is no exception.

When it comes to basic meditation, this doesn’t come from placing attention on something specific. But it comes from the discipline inherent in noticing what’s here in our experience rather than having our attention to get caught up in the content of thoughts.


Through noticing and allowing, we may notice that all our content of experience comes and goes and lives its own life. Thoughts come and go. Emotions come and go. Sounds come and go. Sensations come and go. And so on. Nothing stays. It all lives its own life.

We may then find that what we most fundamentally are is what all of this happens within and as. We are capacity for it all.

We may have taken ourselves to most fundamentally be this human self, and we find that we more fundamentally are what it all – our whole field of experience – happens within and as.

Here, we also find that our field of experience – which includes this human self and the wider world – is a seamless whole. It’s one. Any boundaries come from an overlay of mental images and words and are, quite literally, imagined.


When we notice and allow, we’ll notice unprocessed psychological material coming to the surface. Old memories come up. Old emotions. Old painful thought patterns.

These always surface, and while in daily life we can often distract ourselves, that’s less easy during a noticing and allowing practice. We may try to distract ourselves, but we are – at the very least – more aware of what’s going on.

If we can sit with this, and we do this over time, we may discover a few things.

We may notice that we shift between several different ways of relating to what’s surfacing. We’ll get caught up in it. Try to distract ourselves from it. Try to push it away. Get curious about it. Befriend it. And we’ll likely keep shifting between these and more ways of relating to it.

We may gradually viscerally get that struggling with what’s surfacing isn’t really working. What we struggle with will keep coming back. And getting caught in the struggle only adds to the discomfort.

We may find that noticing and allowing even this unprocessed material is what’s ultimately most comfortable, even if our instinct is to struggle with it. And that we can notice and allow even our impulse to struggle with it.

We can find a yes to the no in us that comes up in relation to this.

This helps us befriend and find healing for how we relate to uncomfortable experiences. And it helps this unprocessed material to find healing – through it surfacing and us noticing, feeling, befriending, allowing it, and allowing its transformation. (Additional practices and work can help and deepen this process.)


As we get more used to noticing and allowing, it becomes a new habit.

And that means we may find ourselves more often doing it in our daily life, outside of any more formal practice. It becomes a new way of being.

Sometimes, we need to get engaged in the content of thought in our work, when we talk with people, and so on. We may sometimes still get caught up in the stories of stressful thoughts. And more often, we may find we relate to stressful thoughts as thoughts instead of getting caught up in their stories.


Why is it called basic meditation?

I assume it’s for several reasons.

It’s an essential and simple practice.

It’s useful at any phase in our process, from the beginning to the end (death).

It’s a central practice in several spiritual traditions. (In Zen, which I am most familiar with, it’s called Shikantaza.)

Some say that the purpose of basic meditation is for us to find and become familiar with our true nature, and that’s not wrong.

And whether or not we notice what we are, it does a lot more. We gain insights into the dynamics of the mind. It trains a more stable attention. It allows unprocessed material to surface, be befriended, and find healing. Noticing and allowing can become a new habit we bring with us into daily life, and this helps us more often notice thoughts as thoughts without getting caught up in the content of their stories.


As with anything else, this reflects my own experiences, biases, and limitations. It’s also inevitably informed by what I have heard others say about this and other spiritual practices, although I have only included what I have found in my own experience.

Zen teachers like to just give the basic instructions, and this allows us to discover for ourselves without being too colored by expectations. There is a lot of wisdom in that approach. The other side of this is that us westerners like transparency, which is why I am writing this.

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