My wife Kerry and I recently started a regular practice of Zazen, or sitting meditation. We drive 20 minutes south to an affluent neighborhood where one of the houses has been converted into a Zendo. There is a sun room where we must take off our shoes before entering. As we enter, Jimu is typically already seated and he gives us a subtle nod as a greeting. His real name is Jim, but he converted it to Jimu when he began his monastic path. He is the care taker of the sacred space and he is there every day practicing Zazen. The Zendo has bookshelves, decorative wall hangings, and a kitchen, but in what would be the dining room and living room there are only raised mats with one big cube-shaped cushion at each station. After hanging up our coats and taking a quick bathroom break, we pick a cushion and settle in. When the Roshi arrives he ceremoniously bows to the buddha shrine and rings the gong three times to indicate that the meditation has started. For the next 40 minutes we sit in silence staring at the wall. There is much confusion about what is supposed to happen during meditation, so my intent for this blog is to dispel some of the most common meditation myths.
There is nothing to do while meditating. Many people will tell you that it is all about quieting your mind, but when you try to quiet your mind the thoughts get louder. Don’t try to quiet your mind. Don’t focus on your breathing. These techniques move you away from your direct experience which is very common in our society where we feel that we aren’t yet where we are supposed to be. Simply let thoughts enter your mind without either pushing them away or feeding them more attention. Let your body breathe of itself without focusing on elongated breaths. Jimu suggests that if a thought arises during meditation then one should return to focus on their breath. I disagree. Thoughts enter my mind of their own accord, and if I were to become worried every time I noticed a thought enter I would be a mess. Let thoughts arise, notice them, notice your breathing, exhale. Let Zazen do everything for you. Don’t Do anything, just Be.Another misunderstanding of meditation is the idea of a lasting effect. You can’t get anything out of it. Some people brag about it saying, “I have a daily meditation practice. I have become so calm”. People who practice meditation and believe themselves to be enlightened must enjoy the end of the session more than the sitting. If you think Zazen will move you closer to accomplishing your goals, then you’ve missed the point entirely. The sitting is the destination. When you sit time drifts right by you. The greatest experience in meditation is the break in continuity from your everyday life. Each day we race around trying to further our endeavors while constantly feeling like we aren’t trying hard enough. Zazen provides space for your karma to rest before it goes back into getting mixed up in worldly affairs. Even in sleep our minds create dreams based on the thoughts of our continuous life. Without swetting aside time for meditation, when will our karma get a chance to rest? Not until we’re dead?
As Duncan Trussell put it in his recent Thc interview, “The ego wants meditation like a cat wants a bath”. Our minds don’t think Zazen is worthwhile because the thoughts want to run the whole show. When we obsess over something someone else said, or we intake a non-stop all day long drip feed of entertainment the mind has no objections, but it can’t handle the thought of putting thoughts on hold. For these reasons our own mind is not entirely trustworthy. Meditation is good for our mind in the same way that exercise is good for our muscles. It hurts at first, but this effort also strengthens us. After some practice our bodies become disciplined. Through meditation our body and mind begin to harmonize themselves without effort. By setting aside time for meditation, we experience the weightlessness of letting go of our continuity. Rather than struggling with trying to be somebody, we take refuge in the feeling of being nobody- if only for 40 minutes at a time.