“You can be sick and happy at the same time,” said my six year-old.
His mom had just asked him what he learned at Dharma for Kids. That day, Tangpa had taught the story of the mustard seed, which shows that sickness and death touch everyone. The lesson is that by consistently applying Dharma in our lives, we can remain happy, even under the most painful circumstances. This is a mind-bending promise that I’ve only begun to understand.
“We also did block of wood,” he said.
In the weekly Dharma for Kids and Families class, a dozen children sit (more or less) quietly in meditation for two three-minute sessions, and in between they hear a story. Today they were imagining themselves to be a block of wood. Here is the meditation, but it’s not just for kids.
Block of Wood Meditation Instructions
Meditation is a mind that is single-pointedly focused on a virtuous object and whose function is to make the mind peaceful and calm. The Block of Wood meditation uses the sensations of the breath as the object, and adds a visualization to help quiet the body and draw our attention away from distracting mental activity. You can do this meditation for as little as three minutes, or up to ten.
Find a quiet place to meditate and sit in a comfortable position, either on a cushion in the traditional cross-legged posture, or on a chair. The most important thing is to keep the back straight to prevent the mind from becoming sluggish or sleepy.
- Begin by focusing your attention on the breath, allowing your awareness to settle on the sensations of breathing. Watch the inflow and outflow of the breath for a little while.
- Now, imagine that your body and mind have become like a block of wood (or a stone statue if you prefer). The body is solid, inert, and unmoving. Use your imagination to see your body this way, becoming physically motionless as you continue to watch the breath.
- For the duration of the meditation session, maintain a visualization of yourself as a block of wood or statue. Imagine that even the contents of your mind have become more dull and less focused.
- As soon as you notice any thoughts, feelings, or sensations coming into focus, withdraw your attention from them, as best you can, before they become sharply defined, and return your attention to the breath.
Training in Block of Wood
The Block of Wood meditation trains the mind in two ways. One is to teach us how to still the body – for if we cannot still the body, then we will have great difficulty stilling the mind. An itch, a leg that’s falling asleep, an urge to swallow: the block of wood meditation invites us to abide calmly with whatever sensations arise. Then, if we can remain as still as a block of wood, we are training our mind to resist distraction, a most useful skill in meditation, and in life.
Block of Wood also shows us how we should perceive sensations and other distractions during the meditation session. In How to Understand the Mind, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso writes:
“At the moment, when we meet an attractive object we usually pay considerable attention to it and try to gain as vivid a perception of it as possible. Similarly, when we meet an unattractive object we dwell on its bad qualities until anger develops. Instead of paying so much attention… it would be wiser to develop non-ascertaining perceivers with respect to them.”
A non-ascertaining perceiver is a technical term for a type of awareness, in which an object appears clearly without being fully comprehended. For example, if we become accustomed to the sound of traffic in our neighborhood, we may then “hear it but not hear it.” Even though the traffic itself may be louder than something else we want to pay attention to, if we have decided to ignore the traffic it does not disturb our attention. Similarly, in meditation we can make a determination to perceive a distracting object (say an itchy leg) only peripherally, without dwelling on it so long that we increase its vividness or develop feelings about it (such as irritation or dislike). Rather, we can allow the object to remain out of focus, at the edge of our awareness, without commenting or elaborating on it, until it passes away. Just as a block of wood might do.
“You Can be Sick and Happy at the Same Time”
If a six year-old can understand this so easily, we can too. When we are sick we may have any number of unwanted sensations arising in our body, and our usual reaction is to attend to those sensations, elaborate on them, decide we don’t like them, try to get rid of them, worry that they’re permanent, fear the worst, and construct a dramatic story about our suffering. But if we check, we may see that those ways of paying attention do not give us the relief we’re looking for, and in fact they may make us even more uncomfortable and unhappy. At times like these, we would be much better off as a block of wood.