Archive for February 11th, 2011

Zen is the Japanese word for meditation. So, “Zen meditation” is actually a bit of a redundancy. However it’s one that most of us don’t worry about too much. If you really want to sound all cool and in-the-know, you’ll use the Japanese word zazen to describe “Zen meditation”. See, hipsterism will rear its ugly head anywhere. Whatever you call it, the fact remains that it can be difficult, boring, painful, frustrating, rewarding, fulfilling and energizing. Usually it’s all of this at the same time.

Being just what you are right now is the very definition of success in zazen. 

I don’t know how many times I find myself sitting and wondering what I’m doing and why. Then I’ll have an experience like I did on Wednesday evening and it will change my attitude for a while but nothing is permanent and I soon find myself back in the same position I was before I had a super-special-extra-happy-blissfully-conscious-of-my-oneness-with-the-universe-and-everyone-around-me moment. There’s nothing like sitting in a semi-uncomfortable position trying to keep your mind from wandering back over the events of the day to remind you that zazen isn’t anything special.

Brad Warner writes a lot about this in Sit Down and Shut Up. Earlier today, I came across this passage.

See, if the goal of zazen were to achieve a heightened awareness, states of sacred bliss, or some such thing, then zazen on a bad hair day [a day when things just don’t go well or don’t “click”] might be considered worse than zazen on a good hair day [a day when one feels blissful awareness]. But zazen isn’t like that. Whatever it is is just what it is. If you can stay reasonably still and at least try to keep your mind focused on the task at hand for the time period you’ve allotted yourself, you get a gold star. Whether or not it works out the way you want it to is of no concern. Being just what you are right now is the very definition of success in zazen.

The metaphor of “good hair day/bad hair day” is something that he builds up in the chapter to describe things going well or going poorly. If you want to know more about it, pick up a copy of the book. It’s in chapter 21.  Metaphor aside, there is a lot in that passage. It doesn’t waste time with trying to make meditation something it’s not. It doesn’t promise anything special and it reminds us that sitting can only be done for the sake of sitting.

When I started to think about Buddhism last year I did so because I found in it a viable answer to some very pressing questions that I was trying to deal with. Issues of suffering and pain and loss and depression as well as my obesity were all dragging me down pretty bad. As I began to put Buddhist principles into action, some of these issues began to clarify and I was able to see things more clearly and to start to see improvements in my state of mind and my state of living. This was wonderful but it was also dangerous for my practice. Since I was seeing so much change, it was easy to tie those changes to the practice and to make those changes into a goal of the practice. I was meditating to lose weight. How’s that for ironic? “Learn the secret to weight loss through the power of sitting on your ample ass not doing a thing! Only four easy payments of $19.95!” What happens when results slow down or disappear completely? If you’ve tied your practice to a goal, you have defined “success” and “failure” for your practice. That will only make your practice that much harder when you face—and you will face it—your criteria for “failure”.

So, I have been learning to sit without goals. Sit without attachments to sitting. Sit without expectations of the meditation session. This is so much harder to do than learning how to meditate or trying to change my lifestyle to be one that is conducive to weight loss and health. Part of this is due to human nature, part of this is due to my personality and part of it is due to my attitudes about things as an American. I belong to a culture that bristles at the thought of doing something for no good reason. Americans don’t want to do things the old way. We are, on the whole, an innovative bunch and finding newer, better, faster and more efficient ways of doing things is second nature to us. Zazen will have nothing of it. Zazen demands total commitment to the experience of zazen. Nothing more, nothing less. In the end, zazen promises a way to enlightenment but what will that get you? Honestly, not a whole lot. Even after enlightenment you still need to eat, still need to sleep, still need to go to the bathroom. Enlightenment is, for the most part, nothing special. This is what I’m learning as I sit. This is what I try not to think about before I sit, while I’m sitting and while I’m rubbing my legs trying to get feeling back into them while wishing the tingling would go away after I’m done.

If I keep following this train of thought here, I’m going to quickly find myself rambling among the weeds of “Zen-land” so I think I’ll stop here for the sake of everyone who has actually managed to stick with this post this long. My final thought about meditation is the same as my first. There is no rhyme or reason to why we sit. We sit to sit. No goal, no plan, no success, no failure. Meditate. Just meditate. That’s all we can do and it’s all we should ever expect to get out of the experience. So, get out there and sit. It’ll do wonders for your mind and you’ll find that sitting around in meditation may just produce results that you never saw coming (since you’re not supposed to be looking for results remember?)


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