It can be helpful to think of meditation as renewal time for our body-minds. The space of meditation, at least Zen meditation, involves a realignment of the self with the universe.
Getting caught up in activity can invite us to assert the self against the world, especially when we care deeply about what we’re doing. We get busy trying to understand, maneuver, express, create, change, hurry, finish, resist, and come up with an effective plan. Our actions may even be fruitful, but operating like this takes its toll. Our perspective shrinks. Our sense of ease and joy become contingent on the outcomes of our activities. A subtle but pervasive sense of imperative starts making everything more stressful.
When we sit in meditation we allow ourselves to just be. We try to be completely silent and still internally as well as externally. We try to refrain from commenting on anything – not judging anything good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, righteous or terrible. This silence is not about refraining from judgment because judgment is bad, agitating, or will interfere with our pleasant meditation. It’s not about pushing our legitimate concerns out of our mind so we can feel happy and calm. This meditative silence is about connecting with our living body-mind, a seat of awareness that doesn’t want to be constantly commenting, evaluating, and deciding. Our living self finds this moment inherently worth it, even with all of the suffering happening in the world. Not despite all the suffering, as if we were deciding, on the balance, that life has more good in it than bad. No – in that silent aliveness there is a vibrancy and willingness independent of conditions.
Not all moments of meditation are perfectly like this, of course, but being able to settle into this silence for even a little while is immensely beneficial. Having meditated, we can go about all of our activities with increased gratitude for the simple fact that we’re alive to do them.
When we pay attention to what’s happening in the world, we need to sit more often. We expose ourselves to the suffering and need in the world, and it arouses our compassion and concern. We allow our imagination free reign to come up with ways to help, arousing our excitement and ambition. It’s pretty easy to start asserting the self against the world again. Before we know it, this “little self” is stressed… and frankly, less effective. So then we renew ourselves in silence and stillness and reconnect with the aliveness that is always there under all the activity.
How do you make space for silence in your life?
Meditation by Sebastien Wiertz via Flickr – Creative Commons License BY 2.0
Excerpted with permission from Idiot’s Guides: Zen Living by Domyo Burk
As I mentioned earlier, you can’t recognize when you are living without the filter of your self-concept. The moment you think, “Ah, here I am, experiencing no-self,” the self-concept is obviously back. Still, you can learn to live with less-self, and this is definitely something you can appreciate and work on.
Ironically, Zen practice can make experiencing less-self more difficult, at first. All of the Zen tools, including zazen, mindfulness, and the precepts, involve you looking more carefully at your life and sense of self. Rather than feeling like you have less-self, you end up feeling like self is front and center all the time!
I remember taking walks as I was learning how to be mindful. I paid attention to my physical movements and sensations, and tried to let go of extra thinking. Naturally, I evaluated the success of my effort, and I noticed how unruly my mind was and how rarely I was fully mindful. Instead of walking with less-self, it seemed like I was walking with a big extra dose of self-consciousness. Unfortunately, there’s no way around this phase of the practice. As the Dogen quote at the beginning of this chapter suggests, you have to study the self in order to forget the self.
Once you can manage to go about your life with less-self, this annoying self-consciousness is replaced by a more direct awareness of life. Your self-concept is entirely unnecessary to your full and effective functioning at this moment, so you learn to do without it. You are just washing the dishes, just eating, just walking. It’s a little like the way you used to do things, except for the absence of something. That something is your self-concern, which used to manifest in the background of your experience as low-level anxiety, vague dissatisfaction, anticipation, or regret, or as more intense things like anguish or a sense of meaninglessness.
The signs of self delusion—a sense of imperative, anger, resistance, greed, stinginess, physical tension—decrease as you live with less and less of a sense of self-essence. They still arise, but you can let go of them much more easily. You know all of these phenomena depend on your self-concept, which is a creation of your mind. You know how to return to life as it is, just breathing into the next moment, and things like anger or greed start to dissipate. Even if they don’t disappear completely, as their form begins to shift and break up like a cloud in the sky, you can’t regard them as entirely real.
Encountering people and things with less-self is especially rewarding, because you can appreciate and see them for what they are. You don’t assess how they fit into your agenda, and subsequently either manipulate them to serve your interests or dismiss them as irrelevant. In fact, you stop dismissing anything. There still may be many things you end up not noticing, because less-self doesn’t necessarily give you unusual powers of attention, but you don’t look elsewhere out of boredom because the thing in front of you is just another grocery line, just another customer, or just another evening at home with your partner. Dismissing something as being unworthy of your care, attention, and appreciation involves looking at it in terms of your small self’s agenda.
Living without an agenda means everything is fascinating. Even the annoying and painful stuff. It’s all part of the unfolding drama of your particular human life, which is, as far as you can know, your one and only human life. Awareness of this results in a curiosity that sustains you throughout all of the work you have to do to live.
Photo by True New Zealand Adventures
Every time we sit down in meditation we are challenged to face our shit. What is really going on in our body-mind? What ideas are we stubbornly holding onto? What are we afraid of? What would we rather not deal with – anger, resentment, longing, dissatisfaction, numbness? What, or who, are we rejecting? What aspect of our lives makes us want to act selfishly or childishly – by throwing a tantrum, blaming others, or refusing to participate?
We don’t have go seeking for our shit when we meditate. Zazen, seated meditation, doesn’t have to become a grim session of taking account of how crappy our life is or how flawed we are. We also need to be open to awareness of the joy and positivity in our life; we have to be completely open to awareness of everything as it is. However, we are much more likely to be open to the positive stuff than we are to the negative stuff, so facing the shit takes some intention and courage.
I like to think of “opening the doors of my mind” during zazen to whatever might wander in. The Zen ceremony of Segaki ritually enacts this process when the doors of the temple are opened wide and the hungry ghosts – or manifestations of unresolved stuff – are invited to enter. It is surprising how effective this ceremony is. Many people report unresolved stuff coming up for them as they sit zazen in the day-long retreat that follows the ceremony in my tradition. In the evening there is a ceremony to send the “ghosts” on their way, but it often takes much longer to become familiar with a new ghost, learn what it has to teach, and then take the actions necessary to truly send it away.
When I open the doors of my mind as I settle on the meditation cushion, I always feel some trepidation. What am I going to discover? What am I going to have to deal with? Am I going to have to change?
When I finally summon the courage to face my shit I am always surprised to find that – no matter how bad it is – it is less anxiety-provoking to face it than it is to avoid it. Finding something behind the door can be scary and might require serious action, but in the long run it’s better than sensing there’s something behind the door but just wondering how terrifying it might be. When we really face our shit there is often some sense of relief. In addition, avoiding or denying parts of our reality increases our sense of separation or isolation from our whole life and from the people and situations we encounter. When we are one with our shit we are more fully present with everything.
When trying to summon the courage to face our shit during meditation (or anytime) it can be helpful to recall the sense of relief or presence that can be achieved by doing so. Sometimes it also helps to imagine the worst that is likely to come through the doors of our mind and ask ourselves if it would be the end of the world (it rarely would be). Alternatively we might talk ourselves into facing our shit by noticing how tired we are of running away from it.
Once we are determined to be still no matter what comes at us, we expand our awareness by letting go of any idea about our life, our body-mind, or what we should or should not be experiencing at this moment. Then our shit can arise and find itself recognized and embraced – because, after all, it’s not coming at us from outside, it was already here.
When the ability to be fully present in our life eludes us, it is usually because we cannot possibly believe the mundane or frustrating experience in front of us merits our attention. This bowl of cereal? This tax form? This stop-and-go traffic? This irritating co-worker? Surely these are just experiences we have to pass through on the way to what really matters.
This approach to life ends up feeling profoundly dissatisfying when a) we realize we are “just passing through” a majority of our experiences, and b) when it begins to seem like “what really matters” is beyond our grasp, impermanent, or not quite what it was cracked up to be.
Zen recommends that we remedy this situation by turning our attention toward every moment of our life, without discriminating about which moments are mundane or frustrating, and which ones really matter. Zen suggests they all matter. But what does this mean?
In Zen mindfulness practice we turn our attention toward our lives, trying to notice the sensations in our hands as we wash the dishes, the feeling of our breath as we wait in traffic, or the parade of emotions that goes through our minds as we have a difficult encounter with someone. At times it feels like we have been “given back” moments of our life that would otherwise have slipped away unappreciated. At other times we encounter resistance from our own mind as it relentlessly jumps away from our present experience to something that seems more exciting, rewarding or significant.
After all, what is the point of paying attention to this present moment, no matter what is going on? That’s fine with we’re gazing at a beautiful sunset, but when we’re waiting in line at the grocery store?
The point of paying attention to this present moment, no matter what is going on, is a radical reorientation of our entire way of being. When we are fully present in our life, we stop interpreting the present moment in terms of its utility in bringing us closer to our desires. Our dreams, goals, hopes and ambitions still exist, but for a moment they are not our frame of reference. We are not gazing past our present experience in anticipation of future pleasure or pain. In this sense mindfulness is not a skill we cultivate with our brains; rather, it is a surrender we make with our whole being.
And when we are able to be fully present for a few moments? What’s good about it?
Amazingly, life experienced without interpretation in terms of our desires is… precious beyond description. Sages have used all kinds of words to describe it: perfect, luminous, complete. But in most of our daily experience this preciousness is experienced as simultaneous with mundane or even frustrating or painful. Full presence doesn’t transform our experience into something “special” – as in different from the usual. It allows us to perceive the sacred in the mundane that is always there.
The ability to be fully present in our life is as much about what we don’t do as it is about what we do. As Zen Master Dogen says in Fukanzazengi, “Why leave behind the seat in your own home to wander in vain through the dusty realms of other lands? If you make one misstep you stumble past what is directly in front of you.”
Image courtesy of rakratchada torsap / FreeDigitalPhotos.net