46 - Dogen’s Genjokoan Part 5: Birds Fly, Fish Swim, a Zen Master Waves a Fan
48 - How to Guide Your Own Meditation Part 2: First-Person Stories

We sometimes get stuck in simplistic instructions about how to meditate and therefore sell our meditation short. It’s valuable to learn how to guide your own meditation – being mindful of your experience, arousing determination to do your best, and then being creative and diligent in finding ways to stay alert and focused. In this episode I explain this approach to meditation, and in the next episode I’ll offer first-person stories about meditative experiences to illustrate the process.

 

 

Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
Two Caveats Up Front
Stuck in a Meditation Rut
What Are We Aiming For, Anyway?
Mindfulness of Our Meditative Experience Itself
How to Respond When Our Meditation Feels… Off
To Struggle or Not to Struggle, That Is the Question
How We Sit Zazen Is How We Do Everything
Guiding Our Own Meditation: Whatever Works!
Sources

 

This is the first episode of two on “How to Guide Your Own Meditation.” I’m going to be talking about how mindfulness of the nature of your meditative experience – your physical and mental states, energy levels, thought patterns, etc. – is an integral part of Buddhist meditation. And how, once you’re paying attention to the kind of experience you’re having, it’s important to learn how to adjust your effort in order to deepen your meditation. It’s like your body-mind is a powerful, sensitive vehicle you’re learning how to operate. When your meditation is too slack, unfocused, boring, or full of song lyrics, what can you do to guide your own meditation in order to make it more… well, however it’s supposed to be?

In this first episode, I’ll discuss how we sometimes get stuck in simplistic meditation instructions and therefore sell our meditation short. Then I’ll spend some time on what it is we’re aiming for meditation, so we have a sense of what we’d even be guiding our meditation towards. Finally, I’ll talk about the actual process of recognizing obstacles in meditation and finding ways to deal with them. Note: this will not be an exhaustive list of ways to troubleshoot the many issues that can arise in meditation. Instead, I’ll focus on the principle of consciously guiding your own meditation, emphasizing a process of inner exploration, creativity, and experimentation.

In next week’s episode, I’ll illustrate further what this process is like by telling first-person narratives about meditative experiences, including descriptions of how someone’s meditation just didn’t quite feel right, and how they adjusted their body-mind in order to get more “on track.”

Two Caveats Up Front

Two caveats before I begin: First, I named this episode “how to guide your meditation” because I think much of what I talk about here will be relevant no matter what kind of Buddhist meditation you do. However, I will be speaking from my own experience, which is with the Soto Zen style of meditation called shikantaza, also known as themeless meditation or “just sitting.” I’ll use the terms “zazen” (which is seated Zen meditation) and “meditation” interchangeably.

Actually, instructions in other Buddhist meditation traditions are much more likely to include directions for how to monitor and correct the course of your meditation; it’s particularly in Soto Zen, given our “just sitting” practice, that people tend to assume you’re not supposed to guide your own meditation! So maybe in other traditions this discussion wouldn’t be any big deal. Still, regardless of what kind of practice you do, you might find it helpful to hear about the kinds of challenges you might face in meditation, and how you might respond to them.

Second caveat: It has always seemed to me that many – if not most! – of the benefits of meditation manifest physically and unconsciously. When I give meditation instructions to beginners, I encourage them to just keep sitting, even if they don’t think they’re very good at it, or don’t understand what they’re supposed be doing, or don’t find the actual experience enjoyable. “Just watch and see what changes it makes in your life,” I tell them. For example, I fell asleep almost every time I sat for the first several years I meditated, but it still helped me transform my life. Go figure. So, I don’t mean to imply by this episode that your meditation is a waste of time unless you consciously work on it! Part of learning to guide your own meditation is knowing when to relax and stop messing with it – so if you don’t find today’s teaching helpful, just ignore it.

Stuck in a Meditation Rut

Most of us have gotten some kind of basic meditation instruction, and then we sit and try to follow it. Instructions for zazen, seated Zen meditation, typically start with how to sit physically, and then you’re told to allow thoughts to just come and go – but to be aware of the coming and going. Because this instruction can feel frustratingly vague, sometimes you’re also told to rest your mind on some simple thing like your breathing, or the sounds in your environment.

Generally speaking, people tend to fixate on a particular set of meditation instructions, and when their meditation doesn’t feel very satisfactory, they blame themselves. They figure they just aren’t dedicated enough, or don’t have the aptitude for meditation, or they’re lives are too busy for it. Some folks give up and stop meditating, others grudgingly do it but don’t much enjoy it, and still others work diligently at it – but stick with the same approach year after year with somewhat lackluster results.

I think it’s unfortunate when people give up on their meditation – either entirely, or by giving up on deepening it. Apart from the fact that meditation can be, at least at times, a wonderful experience in and of itself, deeper meditation also leads to insights that strengthen your Buddhist practice as a whole.

What Are We Aiming For, Anyway?

Before I get to a discussion of how to guide your zazen, though, I need to answer the question, “Guide it toward what?” As I mentioned earlier, in my tradition of Soto Zen, our form of meditation is called shikantaza, or “just sitting.” Classically, shikantaza doesn’t involve an object of concentration the way most types of meditation do. Instead, we “concentrate,” if you will, on the whole body-mind activity of just sitting there. This leads some people to believe shikantaza is passive – that you don’t try to do anything all, but just sit on your cushion (or bench or chair), and let time pass. Whatever happens is zazen.

Ironically, at a certain level that is what you’re trying to do in zazen, but this statement can be misleading. If we weren’t aiming for something other than our ordinary, distracted state of mind, we wouldn’t bother to meditate! So, what are we trying to do in zazen, anyway? What should it feel like?

This is a tough question to answer because perfect zazen can manifest in so many different ways. Perfect zazen might be energetic, low-energy, transcendent, painful, boring, utterly free of thought, or full of thoughts. How can this be? Because the perfection of zazen is subtle. It’s about our orientation toward everything, including our experience. No matter what’s going on, we’re right there with it, without trying to change it or figure it out. We are showing up without reservation, wide awake to our life even in the midst of challenges like sleepiness or distraction. When we do this, as long as we don’t have any agenda to obliterate whatever we perceive as an obstruction in our meditation, the obstructions usually decrease or even disappear.

Another way to describe good zazen is that we’re collected or focused, instead of being scattered. Usually, it feels like we’re composed of many parts – body, mind, will, heart, etc. – and these parts often seem to be pulling us in different directions based on competing agendas. For example, our body may be sitting in meditation while our mind is planning our grocery list, our will seems more concerned with getting this over with so we can get stuff done, and our heart feels sadness because we really want to wake up for our life but it’s so hard. In good zazen, all of our parts participate. Or, to more accurate, we realize it’s just an illusion that we’re composed of parts anyway. It’s just us, experiencing an ever-changing cascade of various ideas and desires.

Satisfying zazen feels strangely restful and relieving, even when our circumstances remain challenging. We feel clear, at least for some moments at a time. Things come into proper alignment somehow, and make more sense. It’s like we wake up from a dream, and suddenly take stock of our life just as it is, “Ah, here I am!” In my daily zazen, if I experience this kind of satisfying zazen for even a few moments, I feel like I’ve gotten reoriented. I remember which way is up, and feel much better able to go on with life without losing my way.

These descriptions of “good” zazen are only a few ways to express the experience. There are many, many others. Zen master Keizan says zazen is “returning home and sitting in peace.” Zazen can also get much deeper than it usually does in the course of our daily practice; if we sit a lot or participate in a meditation retreat (or sesshin) – it becomes more possible to concentrate. Our mind naturally becomes more still. Instead of spending all of our energy just trying to be present instead of thinking about stuff, we can gather, focus, and direct our energy in a particular direction – a particular practice, question, or exploration of our experience. So, I don’t mean this to be an exhaustive presentation of what good zazen is like – I just wanted to give you a sense of what it is we’re going for when we’re “guiding” our meditation.

Mindfulness of Our Meditative Experience Itself

The first step in guiding your meditation is cultivating mindfulness of what’s going on. Are you sleepy, alert, eager, resistant, agitated, calm, excited, or low-energy? Do you have a sense of determination or agenda about your meditation, or you just going through the motions? At this point, don’t judge yourself or try to change anything, just notice. Are you feeling grief, anxiety, or depression? Are you preoccupied with recent events in your life, or filled with anticipation for future ones (and that can be excitement, nervousness, or dread)? Are you stressed? Energetically, are you all revved up – as if you just got off a race track – or was it difficult just to get yourself to the meditation seat?

As you turn your awareness toward the state of your body-mind, this doesn’t have to be an analytical or even methodical process. (Although if that helps you, go ahead.) It’s not necessary to even put words to your experience. Just connect with a “felt sense” of what’s going on – a kind of sum total of your mental, emotional, and physical sensations and perceptions. Essentially, you’re becoming aware of where you’re starting from in your meditation.

Then go ahead and employ your favorite approach to meditation. For most of us, even when we’re practice a themeless meditation like shikantaza, we need some kind of gateway into the process. It can be following the breath, or becoming aware of sound, or practicing body awareness. Then we settle in for the ride.

For most of us, every meditation session tends to be a unique experience. Even two back-to-back periods of meditation (separated by walking meditation) may seem drastically different! Sometimes we set out with an intention and then essentially zone out until the meditation period ends – and we wonder what the heck happened. Sometimes we’re right on the mark for a while, and we think, “Yeah, this is it!” But then we get lost in thoughts about the plot of a TV show we recently saw. Sometimes it feels like our mind is an incredibly unruly beast who wants to do anything except meditate. Other times, some drama in our life or dysfunctional train of thought keeps sucking us in. Then the next meditation may be incredibly calm and peaceful – as if we can rise above it all even if thoughts and feelings keep passing through.

The important thing is to be mindful of your meditative experience – to include it in your field of awareness. You don’t need to obsess about it or even concentrate on it, but it definitely helps to notice what’s going on with your body-mind. When we’re not mindful of our meditative experience itself, we’re actually caught in dualistic thinking that separates our internal from our external experience. In the back of our minds we’re assuming there’s an “I” who’s meditating, versus what you’re meditating on or being mindful of. If we exclude our internal, meditative experience from our awareness in this subtle way, we won’t be able to learn from it or respond to it. Instead, we’ll just be identified with our meditative failure or success and either be proud or discouraged. Alternatively, when we’re mindful of our meditative experience, whatever arises feels more impersonal, and we can be wiser and more objective in our response without adding judgement.

How to Respond When Our Meditation Feels… Off

When our zazen feels dull or scattered or otherwise off-track, what do we do? The answer is pretty simple, actually: Do something – don’t just fall asleep, or let your mind wander! In this answer I’m guided by Zen master Keizan’s instructions for zazen. Keizan was a Japanese monk who lived 1268–1325, and in Zazen Yojinki, he writes (and this translation is by Yasuda Joshu and Anzan Hoshin):[i]

“If dullness or sleepiness overcome your sitting, move the body and open the eyes wider, or place attention above the hairline or between your eyebrows. If you are still not fresh, rub the eyes or the body. If that still doesn’t wake you, stand up and walk, always clockwise. Once you’ve gone about a hundred steps you probably won’t be sleepy any longer…

“If you still don’t feel fresh after doing kinhin [walking meditation], wash your eyes and forehead with cold water. Or chant the Three Pure Precepts of the Bodhisattvas. Do something; don’t just fall asleep. You should be aware of the Great Matter of birth and death and the swiftness of impermanence. What are you doing sleeping when your eye of the Way is still clouded? If dullness and sinking arise repeatedly you should chant, ‘Habituality is deeply rooted and so I am wrapped in dullness. When will dullness disperse? May the compassion of the Buddhas and Ancestors lift this darkness and misery.’”[ii]

So, those are Keizan’s instructions for what to do if your sitting is sleepy or dull. He also gives advice for when your mind is wandering. He goes on, saying:

“If the mind wanders, place attention at the tip of the nose and tanden [lower abdomen] and count the inhalations and exhalations. If that doesn’t stop the scattering, bring up a phrase and keep it in awareness – for example: ‘What is it that comes thus?’ or ‘When no thought arises, where is affliction? – Mount Meru!’ or ‘What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West? – The cypress in the garden.’ Sayings like this that you can’t draw any flavour out of are suitable.

“If scattering continues, sit and look to that point where the breath ends and the eyes close forever and where the child is not yet conceived, where not a single concept can be produced. When a sense of the two-fold emptiness of self and things appears, scattering will surely rest.”

I love these passages by Keizan because they so explicitly address our common experience of meditation – how it can be a struggle! It’s encouraging to know even monks of old found meditation challenging at times. I also appreciate how Keizan encourages us to keep trying, and to try different things. Remind yourself your life is short in order to strengthen your determination. Do walking meditation. Pray. Concentrate on the breath. Hold phrases in your awareness. Contemplate obscure Zen koans. Whatever works!

To Struggle or Not to Struggle, That Is the Question

Elsewhere in Zazen Yojinki, Keizan says the kinds of things that tend to make Zen students just accept their zazen without putting forth the kind of effort we just talked about. Keizan says, “Sit for a long time and do not struggle to calm the mind and it will naturally be free of distraction.” He admits “we speak of ‘practice,’ [but] it is not a practice that you can do,” (emphasis mine) and says, “It is without struggle at all so is called Awakening or enlightenment.”[iii]

If zazen practice is without struggle at all, and we’re not even supposed to try to calm the mind, then what’s all the effort about? Why would Keizan tell us to try all kinds of things to free us from dullness or mind-wandering during zazen?

Once again, we’ve come upon a question it’s not easy to answer. I like to think of this as the koan of effort vs. non-effort – in the sense that a koan is a point of apparent conflict, tension, or confusion with no easy resolution. Do we try hard or not? Ha ha – the Zen response, of course, is “both and neither.” In Zen, we recognize koans can be resolved, and we learn an incredible amount by working on them – but they can only be understood through our own, direct inquiry and experience, and the resolution is lived rather than explained.

Shunryu Suzuki roshi sums up the koan of effort-versus-non-effort beautifully in the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, where he says:

“Strictly speaking, any effort we make is not good for our practice because it creates waves in our mind. It is impossible, however, to attain absolute calmness of our mind without any effort. We must make some effort, but we must forget ourselves in the effort we make… it is necessary for us to encourage ourselves and to make an effort up to the last moment, when all effort disappears.”[iv]

In other words, effort is a tricky thing. It’s definitely possible to get all wrapped up in a struggle to make our meditation a certain way. Occasionally that bears some fruit, but for the most part a full-frontal assault on our flawed meditation experience fails. And yet, we can’t just sit around making no effort at all. Well, we can, but is that what we really want to do? Ultimately, in the space of perfect zazen, we’re in harmony with the fact there is no struggle at all, nothing to attain, and no one to attain it – but it’s takes effort to get there.

How We Sit Zazen Is How We Do Everything

The take-home message I get from Keizan’s exhortations to fight off dullness or scattering in meditation is that zazen matters. A lot. Even though shikantaza is just sitting there, and we’re not supposed to be trying to make anything special happen!

The important thing is not so much what our meditative experience ends up being like, but whether we’re doing our utmost to connect with our deepest aspiration as we sit there. Ultimately, zazen is just being alive in the purest sense. How do you want to be alive? Or do you want to run song lyrics through your mind, or revisit past injuries over and over? Do you want to live as if in a dream, or wake up to the reality of your brief, miraculous life? Our determination to make the most of this opportunity is why we would fight drowsiness by doing walking meditation and splashing our face with cold water, or why we would concentrate hard on the breath in order to keep our mind from wandering.

We don’t make this kind of effort because someone told us to, or because we’re trying to improve our meditation in the same way we’d practice to improve a skill. Zazen is about our fundamental orientation toward life, so how we sit zazen is how we do everything. Therefore, even though meditation can be excruciatingly challenging at times, we aspire to keep trying to do our very best at it.

Guiding Our Own Meditation: Whatever Works!

Now, because effort is such a tricky thing, guiding our meditation is rarely a straightforward affair. In fact, it’s a life-long process learning to grasp the will, connect with your deepest aspirations, and maneuver your body-mind in skillful, fruitful ways. As I described in Episode 45 on Buddhist prayer, both modern science and Buddhism question the effectiveness of the “Executive I” approach to change, where “I” decide what should happen and then direct my body and mind accordingly. Sometimes it’s necessary to take a “back door” kind of approach when we want to change our own behavior or experience.

Next week I’ll tell a bunch of first-person stories about meditative experiences in order to illustrate the process of noticing when your meditation isn’t what it could be, and then exploring and experimenting until you find something that improves your situation. The stories will be fictional in the sense that they’re composites of many different people’s experiences, including my own, but they should help give you a sense of what it actually feels like to guide your own meditation. The stories will include creative and intimate responses to mind-wandering, boredom, attachment to thinking, sleepiness, getting stuck in expectations, and trying too hard. Again, I’ll present these stories as examples of the process of responding to and guiding your own meditation, as opposed to trying to cover all challenges that might arise in meditation.

Read/listen to How to Guide Your Own Meditation Part 2

 


Sources

Loori, John Daido (ed). The Art of Just Sitting: Essential Writings on the Zen Practice of Shikantaza. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2004.
Suzuki, Shunryu. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. New York, NY: Weatherhill 1970.

Photo Credit

Members of Kanzeon Zen Center during kinhin (walking meditation): This image was originally posted to Flickr by Kanzeon Zen Center at https://www.flickr.com/photos/98942680@N00/499370357. It was reviewed on 21 February 2008 by FlickreviewR and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0. Obtained from Wikimedia Commons:  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AKinhin.jpg

Endnotes

[i] Loori pg. 49
[ii] Ibid
[iii] Loori pg. 46
[iv] Suzuki pg. 37 (“Mind Weeds”)

 

46 - Dogen’s Genjokoan Part 5: Birds Fly, Fish Swim, a Zen Master Waves a Fan
48 - How to Guide Your Own Meditation Part 2: First-Person Stories
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