It’s a Saturday morning, and Jack and Ian are playing catch in their backyard. Jack is twelve, his brother ten. After they have tossed a softball back and forth for a while, Jack announces that he’s going for a ride on his bike. Without waiting for a response, Jack mounts his bike and pedals off. “Wait up!” cries Ian, his older brother already far ahead.
Although Ian is probably unaware of it, he has just used a phrasal verb. In contrast to simple verbs, phrasal verbs contain two or more words, which function as a single semantic unit. “Wait up” differs in tone and meaning from “wait,” and it also differs from “wait around” or “wait out.” Phrasal verbs are a challenge for non-English speakers, who sometimes leave out the “particle”—the second word—or get it wrong. “I take my hat to you,” a Japanese acquaintance once wrote to me, intending to offer a compliment but instead evoking an image of a vigorous assault.
In modern informal usage, wait up means “to stop or pause so that another can catch up” (American Heritage Dictionary). Employed as an imperative, the phrase bears a distinctive tone, which can range from pleading to judgmental to mildly censorious. It implores the one who has forged ahead to slow down, pause, or stop. And it implies that the one who has gone ahead has been less than considerate of the one left behind.
Wait up might be a motto for the conduct of contemporary life. And it might also be a motto for Buddhist meditation, of which Zen is one variety. Buddhist meditation consists of two general processes, known respectively as samatha and vipassana. Usually translated as “stopping,” samatha refers to concentrative meditation, which trains us to stop and pay attention to an object in the present, be it breathing or posture, a koan or a mantra. Vipassana is translated as “looking,” or “looking with insight,” and it employs the stability of mind generated by samatha to explore the nature of reality. In classical meditative training, “stopping” precedes “looking,” the latter being sometimes described as the “harvest” of the former. But these two processes, however discrete, are understood to be aspects of a single practice.
“We have to learn the art of stopping,” writes Thich Nhat Hanh, “stopping our thinking, our habit energies, our forgetfulness, the strong emotions that rule us. When an emotion rushes through us like a storm, we have no peace. We turn on the TV and then we turn it off. We pick up a book and then we put it down. How can we stop this state of agitation?”*
One reliable way is to sit still and bring attention first to our breathing and then to parts of our bodies, silently reciting the verses, “Breathing in, I know I am breathing in / Breathing out, I know I am breathing out. // Aware of my eyes, I breathe in / Aware of my eyes, I breathe out.” By employing this method and others like it, samatha practice calms our bodies, concentrates our minds, and heightens our awareness of our “habit energies,” or patterns of habitual behavior. “All our life,” wrote William James, “is but a mass of habits.” Together those habits propel us into the future, often without our knowing it. Samatha puts the brakes on that powerful forward drive.
Yet for all its benefits samatha is also a limited practice, insofar as it focuses narrowly on the stability of the self. That is why samatha needs its complement vipassana, which trains the pacified mind to look into itself and examine the causes and conditions that have created its present state. If we are feeling angry, for example, we might discover that our anger stems from a friend’s unkind remark. But if we look more deeply, we may recall that our friend’s mother has recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. We might also find that both our propensity toward anger and our ways of managing it have roots in our family, our ancestry, and our culture.
In other words, by stopping and looking, we can become aware of our relationships, which in our rush to get ahead we may be leaving far behind. Many things can occasion that awareness, but the imperative “Wait up,” posted above our desks or in some other conspicuous place, can be an especially potent reminder. It can halt our forward momentum and return us to the present moment. No less important, it can prompt us to examine those relationships that we may be neglecting, despite their importance in our lives.
Such was the case with an Honors student whom I will call Jessica, who took my college course in meditation some years ago. An anxious young woman, who was enrolled in twenty hours of courses while holding down two part-time jobs, Jessica discovered through the practice of meditation that she was living with a deep sense of loss and a habitual resentment toward her father. Toward the end of the semester, Jessica got in touch with her father, and over the next few weeks, they resolved much of their conflict. As Jessica’s teacher, I found it instructive and heartening to observe how the simple practice of “stopping and looking”—or, if you like, of “waiting up”—could help to alleviate suffering and reconcile a daughter to her father.
* Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (Parallax, 1998), 23 .
Photo “Child on a bicycle” by Werner100359.