Chapter 2: Unexpect the Expected

A Guide to Effortless Meditative Practice

by Dean Sluyter

Copyright © 2015 by Dean Sluyter
All Rights Reserved
Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin
ISBN 978-0-399-17141-3 



Here’s a conversation I’ve had about a hundred times, in various forms, when meeting a new acquaintance at a social gathering:

NEW ACQUAINTANCE: “So … what do you do?”

ME: “Oh, I write and I teach meditation.”

NEW ACQUAINTANCE: “Meditation? Jeez, I could never do that. I can’t concentrate to save my life.”

ME: “Me neither.”


NEW ACQUAINTANCE: “Have you tried the shrimp?”


“So … what do you do?”

“I write and I teach meditation.”

“Meditation? Boy, that must take a lot of discipline.”

“No, not really.”


“Have you tried the shrimp?”


“Meditation? I’m not the type — too fidgety.”

“Actually, I’ve taught a lot of fidgety adolescents and convicts. They do fine with it.”


“Have you tried the shrimp?”

I don’t try to push these conversations any further, not being a pushy guy. (And besides, I want to get to the shrimp before it’s gone.) But the fact is that many people have preconceptions about meditation that have little to do with the reality of the thing. And when new evidence doesn’t square with our old opinions, we’re often more comfortable sticking with our old opinions. (That’s certainly true, for instance, in politics.)

So, when you’re trying to communicate what something is, it’s often easier if you first eliminate what it isn’t. Imagine trying to teach someone to ride a bike, someone who’s convinced it requires them to wave their arms around wildly. Or imagine going to a play and bringing your own program, one you’ve made yourself, based on what, for some reason, you think you’re going to see. Onstage, the action may be unfolding beautifully, but if you keep looking down from the play to your program and trying to reconcile the two, you’re going to get confused. “Wait a minute … where’s the part where Hamlet meets Juliet?”

I invite you, then, to burn your program — to unexpect the expected.

If you never meditated before opening this book, your program is based on what you’ve heard or read or speculated. Burn it, please. If you’ve done other forms of meditation, your program is also based on whatever you were taught (or thought you were taught), and whatever you ran into while practicing it. In that case … burn, baby, burn. What we do here will be simpler and easier than what you did before; if you try to filter the new stuff through your memories of the old stuff, it’s going to introduce needless complications.

In either case, to help you burn your program thoroughly, let me point out some of the most common expectations. All of them, as you’ll see, turn out not to be true of natural meditation.

Some expectations:

Meditation is hard.

It requires you to concentrate and make your mind a blank.

It requires a spiritual attitude. (Whatever that is.)

It makes people passive and apathetic.

It can only be done by mellow, relaxed people. (Can you see the backwards logic of this one? It’s like saying only people with a full tank can stop for gas.)

There’s only one right meditation technique.

You’ll have to master lots of meditation techniques.

It takes a long time to get results.

It’s not for you because you _______________________. (Fill in the blank: have kids, work nights, play football, play the stock market, whatever.)

It conflicts with your religion.

It’s only a form of relaxation, like getting a massage.

It won’t help your problems.

It will magically and immediately solve all your problems.

To meditate, you need silence.

To meditate, you need a mantra.

To meditate, you need to be a vegetarian.

You need to believe in karma, or dharma, or some version of Eastern philosophy.

You need a guru.

You need a cushion.

You need solitude. (As you’ll see, meditation can be a great workplace skill.)

You need to sit in a difficult position.

You need to sit with your eyes closed. (Even that’s not necessarily true.)

We could go on. So whatever concepts you may have picked up along the way, please just drop them for now. Don’t take my word that they’re mistaken. Just burn your program and see what actually happens on the stage.

That’s called the scientific method, and it’s what great sages, both Eastern and Western, have advised for centuries. Socrates roamed the streets of Athens, engaging people in probing dialogs that systematically deconstructed their stale concepts till they fell apart; then they could look with fresh eyes. Seng-ts’an, the third Zen patriarch, said, “Do not seek truth; merely cease to cherish opinions.” Both the Old and New Testament are filled with prophets saying, “Lo and behold!” — that is, “Look and see!” And the Buddha said:

Do not believe a thing because many repeat it. Do not accept a thing on the authority of one or another of the sages of old, nor on the ground that a statement is found in the books. … After examination, believe that which you have tested for yourselves.

Part of the problem is the word meditation. That’s a big word — four syllables. It sounds as if the thing it describes must be a big, arduous task. And everyone has their own associations with the word, whether it’s bells and incense or stained glass and organ music. When you drop all those associations, what’s left? If it were up to me, I’d do away with that word entirely, but then what would go on the cover of this book? The Tibetans have a much smoother, mellower word for it: gompa. And they’re so clear that it’s not about gritting your teeth and banging your head against the wall of your cave that they have a saying: Gompa ma yin, kompa yin. “Meditation isn’t, acclimation is.” It’s so simple and natural that there’s ultimately nothing to do; it’s just a matter of acclimating to doing nothing. I know, that’s hard to believe … till you get a little taste and you lo and behold it for yourself.

It may also be a bit less unbelievable if you have a sense that the person saying it has some kind of qualifying background, so I suppose I should mention that I’ve been at this for most of my life. When I was five or six I started asking the deep life questions that most kids ask — but I never stopped. By the time I was seventeen, I was in full exploration mode: hanging out in San Francisco with the local Zen masters, dancing with the Sufi masters, chanting with Swami Bhaktivedanta at the Hare Krishna temple, and singing and dancing through the Sabbath with Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and his joyous band of hippie Hasidim. Hey, it was 1967, and San Francisco was a seeker’s feast.

My early, brief forays into Zen turned out to be instructive in a backhanded way. I’d always been a fidgety type (like those adolescents and convicts), and the Zen teachers expected me to sit motionless, like a Buddha statue, for long periods. If my nose itched or my knee ached, I had to tough it out. I was also supposed to be doing some very intense concentration, which, again, is not in my bag of tricks. To this day, I have great respect for the sit-like-a-rock stillness of Zen practitioners, but I could see I wasn’t going to be one of them.

I moved on, and found teachers who showed me that there are ways to meditate that are more suited to the rest of us — natural, relaxed, human ways. They showed me that we don’t have to impose stillness on the body and mind. We are the stillness that underlies body and mind, the innate I-sense that just needs to be noticed. For some years I practiced Transcendental Meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, then moved on to explore Vajrayana Buddhist methods with a number of lamas, the heart-based approach of Bhakti Yoga, and the penetrating self-inquiry of Advaita Vedanta. I went on pilgrimages and long retreats in the U.S., Europe, India, Nepal, and Tibet.

Several of my teachers encouraged me to teach, which I did from Los Angeles to Philadelphia to New Orleans (where one of my talks was drowned out by an early Mardi Gras parade) to Iowa to Las Vegas. I landed in New Jersey for a few decades, where I raised a family, taught English and meditation at a top-drawer prep school, and volunteered as a chaplain (a.k.a. meditation teacher) at a maximum-security prison. On and off I’ve led courses and workshops at conferences, universities, yoga studios, and retreat centers throughout the U.S.

My life has been very, very lucky. I’ve had a chance to learn from sages in a variety of traditions and to identify the distilled essence of their teaching: simple, natural nondoing, the delicious ease of just being. I’ve practiced it through easy times and hard times, including serious illness, romantic crises, and the deaths of people closest to me. And through my teaching, I’ve had a chance to see that it works just as well for teenagers and grandparents, valedictorians and grade-school dropouts, indie filmmakers and corporate samurai.

When we say “It works,” what do we mean? What does it do? Certainly relaxation, energy, mental clarity, patience, centeredness, freedom from stress and various dependencies … all those benefits do tend to accrue. But they’re really symptoms of something bigger:

The way you experience your life in each moment is transformed.

What exactly is that like? Well, rather than create a whole new set of expectations, we’ll explore that in detail as you start to practice and your own experiences naturally unfold. I want you to test it, to lo and behold it yourself.

For now, though, we can say this:

Remember, when you were a kid, the feeling of being “in trouble”? Dum-da-dum-dum! That sinking, overwhelming, all-is-lost feeling of hopeless, inescapable, irredeemable doom? This is the opposite … permanently.

Or we can say this:

Perhaps you’ve had the frustrating experience of trying to get some gadget or appliance to work. You keep punching different buttons in different combinations till suddenly, “D’oh!” — you realize you skipped Step 1: “Be sure power cord is connected to wall socket.” We’ve been trying to get our lives to work, but we’ve skipped Step 1. We need to connect to the power source: our basic beingness, our unmoved awareness, our real self. Then a whole lot of frustrated punching of a whole lot of buttons drops away.

And we can say this:

Gradually — and sometimes not so gradually — that inner ahhhhhhh we spoke of grows clearer and clearer, and abides longer and longer. One day it becomes like a light that’s so steady it can never go out, so brilliant it pervades and illuminates every bit of your life. Then people give it names like awakening, transcendence, enlightenment, self-realization, moksha, nirvana, hashra’ah, fanaa, the kingdom of heaven within.

But don’t let the exotic names throw you. What they point to is the core of your own being, more intimate than your own breath, more natural than the flow of these words through your consciousness right now. It’s just been temporarily overlooked. Our project together is to stop overlooking it.

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