Updated: Jan 10
The January full moon over the Seven Sisters, 2022.
WHAT IS SITTING OUT?
I’ve been exploring a practice called ‘sitting out’.
It’s not a meditation practice, strictly speaking. It’s more of an anti-meditation. But for all intents and purposes, it is a very powerful spiritual experience.
It’s extremely simple. You head outside into the natural world, find a spot where you can sit or stand or lie down without being disturbed and you stay put there. For a couple of hours. Or longer. (And you do not have a smartphone with you!}
I took some water and sat on a bench and was immediately hooked by the exhilarating freedom of it
I originally heard about this practice from a friend who had done it as a shamanic exercise. He sat out in the open air for 24 hours, without food only water, not leaving his patch. Just watching the mind - through the day and through the night.
I couldn’t quite see myself doing 24 hours but I was immediately magnetised to the idea, so I went straight outside and sat in the garden for an hour. I took some water and sat on a bench and was immediately hooked by the exhilarating freedom of it.
The trick is that you don’t meditate. You don’t do any of the things that you might have habitually trained yourself to do in meditation: count the breath, recite mantras, visualise deities, send out universal love. You don’t DO anything. You just stay put and see what happens.
WHAT DOES HAPPEN WHEN YOU DO THE SITTING OUT PRACTICE?
No meditation! No special tricks! I could move around when I wanted to. I could think about what I liked. I could look at this or that. Stretch my legs, Hum or talk to myself. Lie down and daydream.
Because the stretches of time are so long it completely frees you up from worrying. I mean, you could worry for a stretch but how long can you worry for? Certainly not 3 hours straight. You might let yourself do a bit of worrying and then you notice that your mind has worn out its worry and is now thinking about something that happened yesterday. Or you might watch the clouds go by or think about meteorology for a bit. But again, it doesn’t last for 180 minutes.
That anxiety also passes. Or rather it gets knocked off its perch by some other event. A bird singing perhaps.
The first time I did it got quite giddy with the liberty of it. The permission to just follow the moment and watch a ladybird climb up a plant. Or think about a holiday in Cyprus I went on years ago. So much of my mental space these days is very disciplined : getting things done, concentrating, streamlining. Meditating! To just let the mind float around was intoxicating.
For a while. And then time stretched on. I looked at my watch and only 13 minutes had passed.
At a certain point, I might start to get a bit anxious. “How long is this going on for? Surely there must be more to it that just this?” And then that anxiety also passes. Or rather it gets knocked off its perch by some other event. A bird singing perhaps. Or plans for what you’re going to do once this is over.
Moments where I was bored in a sort of cosmically bored way.
The mind does so much crazy stuff in an hour. There are emergency scenarios: “The house might have caught fire! Wasn’t there something I was supposed to do? Did I leave the oven on?” And then there are rationalising debates: “I think I’ve got this now… I should be doing something more meaningful. This is just navel-gazing.”.
But then there were beautiful stretches where I felt really gooey about my mind - and how clever and evolved and amazing it was. The miracle of consciousness on a planet in a solar system that is mostly toxic gas, barren rocks or empty space.
And then there were moments where I was bored in a sort of cosmically bored way. "What is the point of this? Of any of this?"
I loved it and immediately cleared the decks the following day to do three hours.
THE ANCIENT ROOTS OF SITTING OUT
And the next day was rainy. But I did it anyway. Wrapped in a tarpaulin with my waterproofs on. For three hours. And the rain barely stopped.
I guess, back in the day, we lived outside 24/7. Our palaeolithic brethren were basically outside folk. They hadn’t made the move indoors. And there is something magically ancient about sitting out in the rain and NOT trying to escape it.
Of course, we have modern anxiety about chilblains and hypothermia but just a few minutes reassures you that you’re pretty dry and it’s not that cold and you’re only in the garden! And once that train of thought has run its course, you’re back to the mind.
Being in a body, outside, in the fresh air, for 180 unbroken minutes
And if a lot happens in one hour, even more happens in three.
There is something about LONG stretches of time which upsets the normal way of perceiving the world. These days we never look at something longer than 10 seconds at a time -(that's why smartphones are so absolutely banned!) - which means being in a body, outside, in the fresh air, for 180 unbroken minutes allows for all sorts of weird stuff to happen to your body-mind.
THE FOUR RADICAL FACTORS OF SITTING OUT
Naturally,there is a whole school of Buddhist philosophy which explores the nature of the mind. Just as there are entire academic establishments exploring the nature of consciousness. But for no money and no training you can sit outside and experience your consciousness directly and see your mind without any filters.
I have spent much of my life thinking about the mind and consciousness and neuroscience and meditation - so why did this feel so radical? So unusual and fresh?
I think four things make it different and radical:
2. long stretches of time
3. no structure.
4. no smartphones
The only bit of structure is the bell that tells you that three hours have passed.
I have meditated in shrine rooms and monasteries and hotels and bedrooms for probably thousands of hours by now. But nothing is quite as vivid to the human mind as being under an open sky. Somehow the nervous system and the ancient realities of being human get revved up by being outside.
And the long stretches of time allow our compulsively flitting minds to burn through their flittery energy and come to land on the oceans of consciousness just bobbing around.
And that third element, no structure, is the joker in the deck. Not having anything to cling to, Anything you SHOULD be doing. The only bit of structure is the bell that tells you that three hours have passed. Otherwise, you are just moving around in the mind and pondering the mind itself and being bemused and irritated and baffled by the whole thing.
The last one, the prohibition on smartphones, goes without saying. But it’s an absolute must. Even having one in the pocket is a source of endless distraction and the power of those shiny objects is incredibly strong They have to stay indoors.
SITTING OUT AS AN EVOLVING THING
Since those initial forrays, I have done several longer retreats outside. Sometimes sitting out for a couple of three hours sessions. Sometimes for longer, five-hour ones. Sometimes a couple a day.
I haven’t done the 24 hours yet - but am fired up by the thought of it.
Sometimes, when those sessions finish, the illumination of the mind is so intense that I feel like I’m on the best psychedelics known to man. I feel connected to the universe in a completely free and flexible way. No longer wrapped up in thoughts but more connected to everything. Just from sitting outside for a long while!
Why so potent?
It seems the unassuming fire of sitting out practice burns out the motor of self-spinning thoughts. Those endlessly thickening mats of self-preoccupation which close the mind in on itself. For three or four hours, the mind is simply given space and this self-clotting quality arises and passes. You are left with the ‘root’ of the mind - quite clear and naked.
I don’t claim to be a master in it- there is nothing really to master
This practice has dropped into my life quite suddenly and I feel very inspired to explore it more deeply. With other friends and meditators. I’m running a couple of retreats in beautiful parts of the country where the practice is front and central - one in the South Downs, near the chalky cliffs of Sussex and another up in the beautiful Holy Island in the West of Scotland.
Sitting Out is a great leveller. Apart from the four parameters - outdoors, long stretches, no structure, no phones - it doesn’t have a lot of baggage or hierarchical nonsense. I don’t claim to be a master in it- there is nothing really to master - and I'm certain bringing people together to explore it will be exponentially interesting. I look forward to doing it with some experienced practitioners and comparing notes. It is an evolving thing and a real gift for Mindsprings to explore.
But you don’t have to wait for a retreat - you can just go outside right now and try it. Take a cushion and a raincoat. A timepiece (not a phone) and give yourself an hour. It might be the most exciting thing you’ve done in a while. Go on, do it!