Openness: What Meditation's "For," and How it Feels

It's a warm, calm summer night. You are twelve years old, vacationing with your loved ones at a cabin on a lake. You've ventured out onto a small dirt path through the woods along the lake; you are alone, but your loved ones are nearby. The foliage is dense overhead, and in the dark, the shapes of trees appear as faint silver outlines around you. Each step you take crackles distinctly as you move through twigs and leaves, and in between steps you hear the rustle of the trees and the buzz of cicadas. The woods have a sharp, fresh, alive scent. The air feels humid with magic.

The path twists, and you are suddenly on the lake. The first thing you see is moonlight on the lake: a shimmering path of white gold, sparkling brightly at the edges. At the lake's edge, there is no longer a dense canopy above you, and your eyes turn upward. The sky is a vast spray of stars, tiny clear lights in the blue-black depth.

The breeze stirs, then calms. The cicadas thrum. You and the world rest together in a wordless intimacy.

Openness: The Heart of Meditation

Everyone has experiences like the one we imagined above: moments of somehow dropping complexity, of seeing and feeling and being alive in a way that words strain to describe. These moments may be rare, and we may not know what will bring them on—or "what to do with them" when they happen. That time we saw a red maple tree in full bloom at the side of the road, and we had to pull over to cry and we were late to work: What was that?

On the other hand, in these moments, we connect with life somehow. Somehow, these are the best, or maybe the truest, moments in our lives: they're when we are "really who we are," most intimately, nakedly, directly. For some reason, that carries with it a unique beauty and power that we can't forget—even if, again, we don't know what to do with our memories of these moments, or how to make new ones.

The term I'll use for that experience of intimacy and simplicity is Openness. Openness goes by dozens of names, many of which are religious in nature—especially when the discussion turns to "Openness all the time," which might be a simple definition of enlightenment in the Buddhist tradition I practice.

But, of course, Openness (I'll capitalize it to indicate that I mean this kind of openness specifically—it's not my intent to make it a big deal) isn't exactly a religious experience, in the sense that it's part of a specific belief system, or that it's impossible to experience without religious training. Rather, it's just a moment of ease and intimacy with oneself and with life. You could have it at breakfast.

How Openness Feels

Below are some of the hallmarks of Openness in my experience. For each one, I've also included a bit about what Openness is not: on my journey, I often find myself detouring into experiences that are Openness-like, but don't carry the same truth, intimacy, and magic, so this is a report from both sides of that journey.

Present

Openness includes a feeling of being right there, right with what's happening. There's no need to find entertainment (internal or external) to distract from or improve on the present moment.

(...And not vigilant)

Openness is effortlessly there. Presence or, especially, mindfulness can often seem to have a deliberate, willful quality, like remembering our diet while walking past chocolate shop after chocolate shop at the airport. Openness is much gentler than that.

Peaceful

Openness includes a sense of ease: for a period of time, our various struggles, projects, insecurities, and complaints don't apply with their usual urgency. Speaking for myself, since I'm often so bound up in those things, this peace is one of the most unexpected and powerfully beautiful experiences I can imagine.

(...And not numb)

This isn't the peace of "severing all worldly concerns" or "shutting off the mind's chatter for good" or something like that. The peace of Openness has an accepting quality—everything is naturally welcomed—much more than it's about "getting rid of" or "silencing" anything.

Loving

Openness carries a strong sense of love: fresh, innocent, childlike, soft.

(...And not conditional)

In my experience, the love of Openness isn't love of anything in particular; it's just love. It's not tied to "these trees" or "that poem": although it might be provoked by those things, it's more like finding a large lump of warm, soft, glowing gold in the middle of my chest. That feeling's not about anything; it's been there the whole time, and one element of Openness is noticing it.

Wordless

Openness has a silent quality. Seeing the silvery outlines of a family of deer on a moonlit hill: the mind softens, and doesn't grasp for labels.

(...And not muzzled)

As we've discussed, thoughts are a natural ability of mind, and always continue, including during experiences of Openness. The silent quality of Openness isn't about the mind losing its ability to reason (which is not something to seek out!), but simply about the mind relaxing the impulse to search for, crystallize, and categorize Openness itself.

Spacious

Openness carries a sense of not being in a hurry, of things occurring in a basically peaceful context rather than coming up as a string of enormous world-threatening crises.

(...And not spacey)

However, Openness is not a pleasant, muffled daze; in fact, it makes it possible to deal more directly and skillfully with life. You might find yourself, for the first time, actually looking into the eyes of your barista—and realizing that she's having a difficult day, and giving her a gentle smile of encouragement. Openness isn't a retreat from life, and in fact there are certain powers in life that only Openness unlocks.

Gentle

Openness is opening to a very soft and very innocent place in ourselves. That place feels a bit like a field blanketed in virgin snow. Openness has that quality.

(...And not fragile)

On the other hand, Openness carries a sense of doubtlessness, and that brings real, unforced strength. At times when I've connected with Openness, I've found myself able to do things I'd normally be too scared or shy to do, if the situation called for them.

Intimate

Openness carries a strong sense of ease with life itself: this could even be called oneness, in the sense of "nothing needing to poke its head up and demand special treatment."

(...And not clingy)

This intimacy is so intimate precisely because it's unforced. We don't have to try to belong: we belong.

Embodied

Openness does carry a bodily sensation. For me, I can feel it most directly as a sense of "peaceful heart": a physically relaxed and opened chest space, that also carries a warm and glowing quality. I also notice an ease throughout my body, and much less tension in my facial muscles.

(...And not confined)

Openness isn't "trapped" in the body: we feel Openness both in the body, and in the rest of our experience, and in fact Openness starts to dissolve the barriers between experience of the body and experience of life altogether.

How We Can Encourage Openness in Our Lives

Sounds good, right? I don't have to tell you—you've had moments of Openness in your own life, and you know what they mean to you. So where do we go from here?

It is possible to build a life around deeper and more regular experiences of Openness. In fact, there may be many approaches to this: studying poetry, spending time in nature, and so on. In my experience, though, the most important element, and the one that is always relevant no matter your life situation, is meditation.

Meditation: Learning to Be Who You Are

Meditation is unique in the range of human activity, because it simply asks you to be who you are. Who we are is Openness itself, and so meditation is a direct pointer toward a deeper and deeper direct experience of Openness.

Of course, meditation's not as easy as sitting down once and finding your life transformed. In fact, many people's first experiences with meditation (mine very much included!) are distinctly unpleasant: disturbing, chaotic, discouraging, seemingly impossible—and, above all, hellishly boring.

So our main focus is not to continue to describe the beauty of Openness. Rather, we'll focus on offering tools and perspectives for working with your meditation practice, so that it becomes a clearer and clearer signpost for your experience of yourself—that is, of Openness itself.

Start With the Right Attitude

You can't will Openness itself, but you can take an attitude toward both your meditation practice and your life that puts your mind in the right environment for Openness: a gentle approach, one that doesn't include harsh judgment or alternate between lofty goals and fierce self-condemnation. This approach is something you can start doing today, and when we refer to "Openness" as a practice (rather than as the fruitional experience we described above), it's generally what we're talking about.

The first step toward this gentleness is to let go of its opposite: guilt. One form of guilt you might be working with already is guilt about meditation: "I should meditate," "I should meditate more," "I'm not good at meditation," and so on. This sense of judgment around our meditation practice is one of the most common and most harmful forces that meditators encounter in our journey toward Openness.

Next time, we'll discuss working with guilt about meditation, and what its healthier alternatives look like.

Fred Meyer