Posts Tagged ‘Zen’

A Good Answer

Cover of "Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: T...

Cover via Amazon

One of the four books I’m reading right now is Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: the teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn. It is a great book full of different records of Seung Sahn’s interactions with his students. The title of the book is taken from one of the stories that Zen Master Seung Sahn would tell: one day a big man comes into the Zen Center smoking a cigarette. He blows smoke in the Buddha’s face and drops the ashes in its lap. If you try and stop him from doing this he will hit you. What do you do?

This type of story is called a koan (kong-an in the Korean tradition). Personally, I don’t know what the right answer is but my son seems to have come up with a good one. He saw me reading the book the other day as I was enjoying the cool evening air out on the porch. He asked me what the title meant so I told him the story. When I got to the end and asked him what he would do he looked at me as if it were as obvious as the fact that the book was printed on paper. His answer is one that I think any Zen Master would approve. It was short, direct, concise and absolutely right. It was one simple word: “dodge”.

Now there’s a clear mind at work!

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As I said in my last post, my weekend was spent at the Providence Zen Center where I took my five precepts and formally became a member of the school. The Zen Center is a beautiful place and spending time there was a great experience. Sure, I’m sore from all the bowing and odd movements that my poor, still overweight, body isn’t use to but I can’t complain too much about that. I’ve got a lot to write about this entire experience but I’m still processing a lot of it and I’m sure it will come out over the next few weeks as I continue to write.

One of the more interesting events from this past weekend was an inka ceremony. Basically, this is the way that the Kwan Um School of Zen bestows the title of Zen Master on someone. This is a process that takes years to complete and is compared to earning a PhD. After seeing the ceremony firsthand, I can see why. For 30 minutes, the candidate for JDPSN (Zen Master) status had to sit while one person after another came up to her and asked questions meant to trip her up or confuse her. In Zen studies, these questions are called koans. Watching someone answer koans for 30 straight minutes and hit each one out of the park was nothing short of awesome. After seeing this, I have a much better understanding of why they call this part of the ceremony dharma combat.

After the ceremony everyone filtered out of the dharma hall and down the stairs to the dining room for an amazing vegetarian dinner of sweet potato enchiladas. I found an open seat at a table right next to a sign reading that the tables were reserved for those who could not sit on the floor. I figured I met that criteria as I was already so sore that I was having trouble getting my legs to cooperate with me when I wanted to do things like walk or stand or move them around.

While I was sitting there trying to taste each of the ingredients in the enchiladas so that I can reverse engineer the recipe, the newest Zen Master in the Kwan Um school sat down right across from me at the table. She thanked someone sitting a few chairs down from me for their kind words at her ceremony and started to eat her dinner. A few more people sat down at the chairs around us and, before I knew it and without planning on my part, I found myself caught up in the discussion that popped up at the table. Anne, the new Zen Master, lectures on science and environmental issues among other things. As we sat at the table eating dinner we discussed environmental science, the changing ecosystem in Florida where she lives, alligators and just how cool they really are, and the importance of actions to do whatever possible to make positive impacts on the environment. She had an amazing depth of knowledge about this subject and her compassion for all living things was palpable as she talked about her experiences working with various groups and research teams.

A few other people came to the table and they were not as inclined to discuss science and environmental issues so the conversation drifted to other topics. These topics were much more along the lines of generalized discussion that happens among people at a large group: things like travel plans, how long different people had been at the Zen Center already, the quality of the food, the experiences one had in the various ceremonies going on that weekend, etc. This was where I got to see just how down to earth a Zen Master could be. The fact that she had just been through an incredible ordeal and passed with flying colors never came up in any of the conversations. It was like it never happened. Sure, she was a Zen Master, big deal, there was an upcoming train trip back to Virginia to discuss since driving in the northeast corridor is such pain to do. It was almost an inconvenience when the time came for her to get up from the table to take part in a cake cutting to celebrate her accomplishment.

After we had all gotten our cake (and it was a delicious cake) we were back at our seats and a new person joined us. This was a person with a question about something someone said in the ceremony. It was a line that had not even really made an impact on my mind at the time but the short version of the story was that the conversation eventually led to the realization that Anne has stage 4 colon cancer and she stares death in the face on a daily basis. The ease with which she tossed out the phrase “it’ll get me some day” still leaves me in awe. She deals with the immediacy of her mortality on a moment by moment basis and has learned from it and become stronger because of it. It was at this point I realized just how amazed I was at this person sitting across the table from me. Her attitude and her humility and her courage were unlike almost anyone else I have ever met. Usually, you only hear stories about people like this. This time, I was experiencing it first hand. I was almost consumed with admiration for the person sitting in front of me talking about how she had tried macrobiotics for a while to combat the cancer but didn’t want to spend all of the life she had left in the kitchen cooking foods that meet the very high bar set by macrobiotics.

She was called away shortly after that by a group of people who hadn’t seen her in a while and she went to speak to them. I continued to have some conversations with those around me but I was still stuck mentally in the previous conversation. I had never seen that kind of clarity, compassion, courage and intellect combined in one person so well. I could not help but feel angry with the knowledge that she would not be a teacher and master in our school for as long as she should be because of the cancer. Then, because this was a Zen retreat, I was left with my own thoughts about why I was feeling this way and why I was thinking this way. I did my best to learn from the example she had just set and accept the reality of the situation for what it is and to be present in this moment because it is all we have. Sure, in some future moment she will no longer be a part of our school but that’s the business of that moment. For now, there were plates to be picked up and trash to be thrown away.

A few minutes later as I was cleaning up my dishes at the sink, one of the other people I met this weekend asked me if I enjoyed having dinner with three Zen Masters. At first I thought he was trying to trip me up with some sort of “gotcha” koan. Then he pointed out to me that the other people that I had been sitting with and talking with were also the same people who usually sit up at the front of the room during the ceremonies and that the reason they did that was because they were Zen Masters. Since things were all so new to me and I wasn’t used to seeing these people outside of the ceremonies yet (I had only been there for 24 hours at that point), I didn’t even realize who some of the other people I was eating with and talking with were. How’s that for down to earth and low key? There was nothing to differentiate these Zen Masters from me, a guy who was there to take step 1: the five precepts. As my new friend laughed at me, I let the lesson sink in. I’m still trying to learn from that moment. I have a feeling I’ll be learning from that moment for a long time to come.

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Where I’m At

Despite appearances, I’ve not actually been at my computer this weekend. Last week I thought it would be a great idea if I set up my blog with a little April Fool’s joke. I wrote a post about getting “back to my roots” and found some videos on Youtube that were as non-vegetarian as possible. The one with the steak tartare was particularly amusing to me. I found a bunch of links and other items and scheduled them all to show up on April 1st. With the exception of having everything post in the P.M. instead of the A.M. everything went as planned. Oops, I guess I need to learn how to make sure I’m telling my computer what side of noon I want it to do something.

In reality, I am at the Providence Zen Center getting ready to take the five precepts. This is a fairly standard practice in Buddhism where you promise not to kill, not to steal, not to lie, not to get drunk and not to act out of lust. Basically all the stuff I’m already doing so this just makes it a formality. The Providence Zen Center is beautiful and I’ll post some pictures once I get them off of the camera.

There’s nothing like a Zen retreat to remind you of just how out of shape your body is. I’m so sore right now from the different motions that one puts the body through that I’m having a hard time being comfortable sitting, standing, laying down, moving or just about anything. Though it may be sleeping on a small futon on an otherwise bare floor that’s doing it too.

In addition to the great Buddhist practice, I’ve gotten to eat a lot of really great vegetarian food. Tonight we had enchiladas with tofu and sweet potatoes. It was amazing. The other great treat was a vegetarian lasagna that didn’t include eggplant. While I have learned to eat eggplant this past year it’s not one of the foods that I have a strong affinity for. I feel quite energized by all this great food and have some wonderful ideas about what to make once I’m home.

I have a lot more to say about what I’ve experienced this weekend but they’ll wake us up at 4:45 so I need to get some sleep.

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A couple of weeks ago, someone rear ended my car. This is a common occurance in a place where the roads are covered in ice for months at a time. It sucks, but it’s the risk we take getting on the road in December, January, Febraray and March. Fortunately, it happened at slow speed and the only damage was to my liscence plate and I was able to flatten that back out. The other driver wasn’t hurt and didn’t even get a dented plate.

Shortly after that, I was run off the road by a semi while driving on the highway. Snow was also a factor in that and I ended up paying my insurance deductible to have the front bumper replaced. This accident was one of the scariest experiences of my life as I did a 360 on the highway and almost got hit by another semi. If I would have been speeding, I would probably have been killed because of the extra momentum the speed would have given me. Fortunately, I narrowly missed ending up under the wheels of a massive truck.

My family has also been dealing with some new information about a medical condition that someone in the family has. This has caused us to have to adapt some behaviors and it’s been stressful to deal with.

You’d think with all of that stuff going on I’d be a mess but I’m doing pretty well. There was one night where I found myself sitting in front of a bowl of ice cream covered in toppings and whipped cream but it was only once instead of again and again. My Zen practice has enabled me to be able to take these things in stride and to cope with them in a way that is healthier and, for the most part, better than I would have done before I began practicing.

Sitting in meditation really does make you aware of the working of your mind. Since I have become more aware of the workings of my mind, I am able to work with my brain to process these things and not get caught up in the worry about the future or replaying the events in my mind with different, usually horrible, alternate endings. Zen has helped me to keep my perspective focused on the now, the here, and keeping my mind from wandering as much as it would have once upon a time.

The big things are what they are and it’s been interesting to compare how I react now to the way that I would have a year ago. What gets me, more often than not, are the little things. When I have to deal with a frustrating but short lived event I am more likely to be caught off guard. If I have to deal with a person who is being completely unreasonable or if there is something that interrupts my routine or if I want to be doing something and every time I begin I get sidetracked by other events is when I find myself wanting to run to the nearest snack machine, feed it a hand full of dollars and stuff my face full of candy and Twinkies. I guess I’m still waiting for the Zen to make its way into the day-to-day routines that make up so much of our lives: that’s the focus of practice after all.

There have been a number of times over the past few weeks where I have mad a dash for the break room at work or where I’ve given in to impulse while at the gas station or supermarket and I’ve grabbed a bag of Reese’s Pieces or a box of Little Debbies. Every time, it’s been in response to something that has happened to upset or frustrate me. Later, when I’m sitting in meditation, my mind wanders back to the moment of consumption and I have to fight the urge to dwell on it and mentally beat myself up over it. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail. When I do succeed, the Zen practice breaks me out of the cycle that would cause me to eat in response to the self-imposed stress only to cause more stress about eating in response to stress (aint addiction grand?). When I don’t succeed, the Zen practice usually helps me to break the cycle after only one or two repetitions. Regardless of when/how/why I eat, at least my Zen practice is, sooner or later, helping me keep things focused on the here and now.

I think the reason the little things are more apt to throw me off is because when I encounter them, they are my “here and now” and, truth be told, I don’t want to be in that “here and now”.  Zen practice would force me to remain in that moment and it’s understandable why I have a hard time doing that. After all, what person in their right mind would want to remain in an unpleasant “here and now” if escape from it is easy and quick?  However, Zen isn’t about “right mind”: it’s about clear mind—the mind before the moment of thinking. That’s why I need to keep practicing every day. With continual practice it should, in theory, be easier to find that clear mind even in moments that are unpleasant and escape through the vending machine is only 4 quarters away.

Our lives are made up of little things: short events that, one added to another, make up a life. Very few of those events are big, important, world-shaking moments. That’s why it’s easier to deal with them and process them–they won’t come around again for a long time. It’s what you do with all the rest of the moments, the boring, plain, silly, “normal” things that really make an impact on your life. I guess that means it’s time to practice, practice, practice. Zen before getting out of bed, Zen throughout the day, Zen before sleep: that’s the only way to make each of those moments count. Until then, the little things will keep throwing me and I’ll keep dealing with it. After all, that’s what Zen is all about.

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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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It seems like as soon as my leg healed,  I injured myself again. This time it’s my foot. I was running around with my son and his best friend and managed to hurt the bottom of my left foot. Once again, I can’t go to the gym because I can hardly walk without limping. There’s no way I can exercise with it feeling this way.

At least with a foot injury I can still meditate. Unfortunately, I’m finding it hard to sit for long periods of time. The other morning I went to sit for 20-30 minutes but couldn’t get past the 15 minute mark because of the pain.

Even though I was hurting, I had committed to going to the Zen Center on Wednesday evening. I planned on sitting any way I had to in order to get through the night. As we began sitting, I felt my body begin to relax into the calm concentration of zazen and I began to focus my mind on the present moment and dismiss thoughts that arose. It didn’t take long before the pain popped up along with thoughts about it. This can be quite distracting when you are trying to meditate. Usually, pain is caused by sitting with your legs or back or feet being held in one position for too long. That’s pretty easy to address by gently moving whatever needs to be moved. This pain wasn’t going away that easily.

We were only 10 minutes into the first 25 minute sitting and I was having a harder time than I thought I would. I wasn’t sure what to do about the pain so I focused on sitting and keeping a clear mind. The beauty of keeping a clear mind is that when you are meditating in a group with others, you are all of the same (clear) mind. It’s one of the few times when one has a shared experience of that intensity. As someone who used to play music and as Brad Warner says in his book Sit Down and Shut Up, it is similar to the experience of playing music in a band when everything is going right. It’s a great feeling to be that connected to others and this happened to me last night.

This is not something that happens to me every time I go to the Zen center. It’s not something I try to force because that would defeat the purpose of sitting. When it happens, it happens and it’s nice when it does.

As I sat there in meditation, I felt a connection with the others in the room and a strange thing began to happen: I felt myself gaining strength from my connection with them. As I felt more “oneness” with those in the room, the pain in my foot subsided. I began to, literally, transcend the pain I was feeling. It was no longer an issue for me because the pain in that foot was just pain in one of my feet and, at that point in time, I felt like I had 16 feet. Before I knew it, the first sitting was over and it was time for walking meditation.

This was really a concern for me going into the evening since walking was harder for me than sitting. I’m limping pretty bad because I can’t put much weight on my left foot. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to spend 10 minutes walking or if I’d have to stand aside while others walked.

My concerns and worries were unnecessary. The diminished pain in my foot continued through the walking meditation and into the next session of sitting. It was an amazing experience for me to be that connected to others around me in practice. I have read about it and have heard about it but I hadn’t experienced it to that extent before. I had felt this kind of connection in small doses in the past but this was the first time that I had felt that connection for an extended practice period. Even after we were done, I continued to feel a connection to everyone and everything around me in a way that I don’t normally feel. It didn’t last forever but it was nice while it did.

Tonight, my foot still hurts. I really want to get back into the gym and I hope to do that starting on Monday morning. The pain is slowly going away and I am moving faster and without as much of a limp this evening. I just wish that the relief I felt last night would have stuck around longer! But, one cannot force something like that.

I think that this experience has really helped me to see how important it can be to practice with others. Practicing alone or sitting by oneself is important as a daily routine is helpful. However, last night reminded me that to be a part of a community, a Sangha, is even more important and can be even more helpful. If you are practicing and not currently a part of a Sangha, I can’t encourage you enough to find one to be a part of. It will challenge you and encourage you and help you to grow in ways that you can’t on your own.

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As I said in part 1 of this exploration of why I meditate, there are a lot of different reasons I sit in meditation. The first reason I meditate is because I want to rewire, or hack, my brain in order to produce some real and valuable changes. Secondly, I meditate because I gain mental clarity and peace from it (most of the time, but I think that will be saved for part 3 of this series). And now, I’m going to explore another reason why I meditate. This will borrow from a few different sources that I have been reading lately. Primarily, Sit Down and Shut Up by Brad Warner and Buddhism Plain and Simple by Steve Hagan. Both of these books are great to read and will go much more in depth into some of the things I’ve been writing about.

As I said in the first part of this series, I do not believe that the mind and the brain are one and the same things. This is a perspective that scientific findings and my own experiences have reinforced. If the idea that the mind and the brain are different things is difficult for you to accept or understand, the next thing that I’m about to talk about will really mess with your head.

Think about your mind for a few moments. What does it sound like? How does it operate? Does it have a common theme that it likes to keep bringing up day in and day out? How do you feel about your mind?

I try to write a lot here about how I feel about my mind and the common themes that I struggle with on a daily basis. There are a lot of posts here that show this is a topic I spend a lot of time thinking about. Now, for one more question. Are you your mind? To phrase it differently, is your mind your self?

One of the reasons I meditate is that it helps me to remember that the mind is in fact not the self. We spend so much time with our mind that we can’t help but think that it is our true self. Our mind constantly tells us this too. Since our mind is our closest confidant and we are aware of it when we are awake or asleep it’s easy to see why we can think that we are our mind. When we hear our mind speak to us, we think “I am speaking to myself”. Buddhism tells us that this is in fact a misconception and that our true self and our mind are in fact separate.

I think that this notion was one of the hardest things for me to understand when I first encountered it. Seriously, when you are someone like myself who spends vast amounts of time wrapped up in thought and who derives a living from their ability to think deeply in unique and novel ways, it is quite a shock to the system to think that your mind isn’t you. But it is true. I am not my mind. You are not your mind. We are so attached to our minds that we think we are our minds but that is just one of the many delusions that we live with every day.

This brings me back to the meditation cushion. Why do I meditate? Meditation helps me to quiet my mind and to experience my true self in a way that no other activity can. The fact is that in meditation, I am able to quiet my mind and, on rare occasions, get it to shut up completely. However, I’m still there. I’m still me. If my mind really is quiet and still, if I were my mind, wouldn’t I too be quiet and still? So, as I sit in meditation, I get a firsthand experience of just how different I really am from my mind. A Buddhist phrase for this is “cutting through delusions”. When you first experience this separation of self from mind it really can feel like you are being cut apart from something. It is a profound realization to have. When I get up from the cushion after having had this realization (and it is definitely something that I don’t have every time I meditate), I see the world a bit differently. My understanding of how I relate to my self, my family, my friends and the world around me is a bit different for a while. It’s a more grounded understanding of reality and seeing things the way that they really are. This is why I meditate.

Please remember that I do not sit down in meditation with a goal of having this realization or experience or whatever you want to call it. If I approach meditation with a goal in mind, I will most likely not have a positive experience for the time that I’m sitting. The goal of meditation is to just sit. If I gain mental clarity, if I somehow change my brain for the better, if I see how my mind and my self are not the same, those are just extraneous benefits from the meditation session. Zen meditation, if done correctly, can be some of the most boring stuff you will ever do in your life.

That brings me to the fourth reason that I meditate. I sit because that’s what I do. I’m trying not to sound all super-spiritual or ethereal or whatever when I say that and I hope that I have succeeded. When it is time for me to sit my not-quite-as-big-as-it-used-to-be butt on a cushion, I try to approach it with a clear mind free of expectations. My goal is to sit and to calm my mind and to be present in each moment as it happens. Without anything to keep your attention or to focus on or guide you through the session, you can be bored out of your mind (no pun intended—OK, maybe it was intended). That’s the reality of meditation. You sit and you do nothing and you try to think nothing and maybe you’ll get something out of it, but if you don’t there’s no need to be upset or to consider the session “bad” or “wasted” since you go into it with no expectation to begin with.

Brad Warner has a great section in Sit Down and Shut Up where he talks about Zen meditation as stress relief and he makes a very good point. In the short term, Zen meditation is horrible for stress management. It won’t help a thing in the moment of stress. However, in the long term, it will be one of the most beneficial things you can ever hope to do in regard to handling stress. This is because as you sit in meditation with no expectation other than maybe boredom for a long enough time, you gain insights into your self that help you realize that the stress is a part of your mind and that it your mind that is stressed, not you. It helps greatly (so he says) to have this kind of perspective. I don’t know if it’s true or not since I’m definitely not there by any means but maybe I’ll get to that place one day.

Once again, I’ve gone on for too long so I think that I will have to have a part three to this post. Please let me know your thoughts about this in the comments section. I’d love to hear from others how they experience their mind and what they think about it. How does the statement that your mind is not your self strike you?

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I’ve been asked by a number of different people why I meditate. When someone asks a question like that, it’s usually backed up by a lot of their perceptions or beliefs about what meditation is. Most people don’t have a lot of exposure to meditation outside of movies or TV shows or spiritual superstars or charlatans. That kind of exposure will obviously color your attitude toward something.

The thing is, I’m never quite sure how to answer that question. I think it’s because I don’t know what kind of answer the person is looking for. Are they expecting me to answer like I’m Yoda or an ancient master from some kung fu movie? Are they asking because they want to know my personal reasons for choosing to spend an hour a day literally doing nothing? Are they considering meditating and looking for information from practitioners? Are they just trying to make conversation? Isn’t it amazing how one simple question can have so much attached to it? Especially if you’re someone like me who has to analyze everything (EVERYTHING) before answering?

  • “Not one good answer, could I give, but many to this question yes?”  — OK, the Yoda approach doesn’t work.
  • “I meditate in order to be reminded of my interconnectedness to the universe.” — The happy sappy spiritualist answer doesn’t work either
  • “I sit to be like the still water” — I’m never going to be a kung fu master
  • “The clouds drift by the mountain but the mountain sits — observing all, grasping at nothing.” — That sounds cool but I could never pull that off
  • “I sit because I sit” — Does that answer even make any sense?
  • “Meditation is a path to enlightenment” — That just leads to more questions I’m not prepared to get into
  • “I don’t know.” — I could pull that one off easily enough but it would be lying and not a good answer.

So, why do I meditate? I meditate for a few different reasons. I’m going to try not to geek out too much here but I make no guarantees. You have been warned. Let’s try to unpack some of those reasons. Ready…and go!

First, I meditate because it is a medical and scientific fact that it’s good for you. Meditation can be useful to alleviate pain and depression and stress and resetting your brain’s activity patterns to a healthy level. Through the act of meditation, I am essentially hacking my brain. Yes, I said hacking my brain. In order to understand where I’m going with this, you need to answer the following question: Are the brain and the mind separate or the same? The way you answer that will determine how easy it is for you to understand the rest of this post.

Is this your mind?

If you say they are the same, you’re going to have some trouble following me here. I used  to think that they were the same but over the past few years, I have begun to realize they aren’t. Scientific research has also begun to validate this view that they are not one and the same. The brain is an organ, albeit a very complex and amazing organ. The mind is not an organ: it is a sense—much like sight, sound, taste, touch, smell. The brain is a sensory organ for the mind and they do influence one another but they are not the same thing. When you exercise your mind, you actually cause physical changes in the brain. In this way, by practicing meditation, any number of things can be done to the brain to change it one way or another.

As we calm the mind in meditation, we cause a vast neural network to fire off in ways it doesn’t normally do. As we continue to do this with regularity, it becomes easier for the brain to operate in this fashion. We start to reprogram the way the brain works by having our mind change its focus. As we learn to do this, it becomes easier and easier to do. This way, when we want to start changing ourselves, the meditation cushion becomes the first place we go.

I don’t know about you, but the thought of rewiring my own brain to change the way it operates is exciting. This may be because my brain has some great things going for it that I’d love to improve and its got some patterns that really aren’t healthy and need to be changed for the better. Either way, those are some pretty good motivators to want to rewire myself.

That would be my first answer. I meditate because I want to hack my brain. Now that I see that in print, I’m thinking maybe some of those other answers weren’t all that bad. Maybe I should rethink that list.

Additionally, I meditate because it is good for my mental clarity and peace of mind. Through meditation, especially Zen meditation, you are forced to come to grips with your mind in a way that demands careful and thorough understanding of how it works. When you sit on a cushion and you aren’t reciting a mantra, hoping for the well being of all living things, focusing on an image or something in the room or going through a mental set of exercises you have nothing to keep you company but your mind. If you haven’t tried this before, be warned that your mind hates this. One of the functions of the mind is to run on endlessly throwing up thoughts and feelings and reminders and regrets with the same regularity that your lungs move air in and out. Sitting in Zen meditation is to your mind what holding your breath is to your lungs: after about 30 seconds, it gets a little uncomfortable. As your mind reveals itself, you also begin to notice things about it. You see the common themes and patterns that it runs over and over like a hamster in a wheel. With this understanding you begin to gain the ability to ignore it. This is a great way to do things like overcome anxiety, depression, fear, cravings or whatever else your mind may throw at you that is best ignored. The mental clarity I get while on (and off) the cushion is itself enough of a good reason to meditate.

There’s my second answer. I meditate because it allows me to gain mental clarity and peace.

The third reason I meditate will have to wait for part 2 of this post. I’ve already broken the 1,000 word count and I’m not done yet. It’s taken me days to get this far and the need to post something is beginning to outweigh my desire to complete this post. For now, if you meditate, why do you do it? Answer below in the comments. And try to keep the Yoda-speak to a minimum OK?

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OK. I’m a geek. We all know that. Confession time over and we’re all happy. Let’s breathe out for a moment and let that shocking piece of new sink in. Ready? Good. Now, hold on to your seat and prepare yourself. This may get a little bumpy.

On Friday night, I made a long drive. It was more of a pilgrimage really, to the only true Imax screen in southern Maine in order to see Tron Legacy. This is a movie that I had been waiting to see for quite a while. I didn’t go in with high hopes for an engaging and eternal classic that will capture hearts and minds for generations. Let’s keep this real people, it’s a movie about getting sucked into a digital world where computer programs are people; there’s just not much you can do with that beyond what the original movie did decades ago. Instead, I went in expecting an effects heavy quasi-action movie with enough CGI whiz-bangery to make it worth spending the money I did to see and hear the movie on the best screen in the state.

I wasn’t let down. In fact, to say that the movie exceeded my expectations would be an understatement. I thoroughly loved this movie. It took me back to my youth and it was a really well done sequel. Especially considering that the original source material was from the early 80’s. There is a lot of father/son dynamic between Kevin Flynn and Sam Flynn as they try to come to terms with one another after having been apart for such a long time and there is a great theme on the dangers and disappointments of pursuing perfection. Then, there’s Jeff Bridges. I’ve never been able to see him in the same light ever since he became The Dude in 1998. I can’t help it because the role of Lebowski was unforgettable. As much as I tried to keep The Dude in his proper cinematic confines, I found him once again in The Grid that makes up the amazing world of Tron.

Why did I keep seeing The Dude? One thing they didn’t tell you in the previews and I didn’t know because I try to avoid a lot of hype concerning movies I’m really excited about is that Flynn has been trapped in the Grid for 20 years and has become a Buddhist while there. In fact, he’s become a Zen Buddhist. When I first saw him sitting in meditation with his back to the camera on a zafu and zabuton I knew this wasn’t going to be like anything I expected. Sure enough, I found myself in a completely sold out room full of people laughing in places where no one else was getting the jokes (yeah, it happened to me too Geo). There were a couple of times that I just sat back in amazement as Zen was presented in such a clear and vibrant way through this movie. Apparently, Jeff Bridges spent a lot of time learning about Zen and studying in order to portray a Flynn as accurately as possible. To see him wearing a mala on his wrist and looking every bit the wizened old Zen master was just icing on the digital cake (incidentally, I just realized you can’t have “wizened” without “zen” coincidence?).

I found myself laughing in recognition at the point when Sam challenges his father for just sitting by as CLU rampages and Flynn responds by saying “you have no idea how productive doing nothing can be.” Finally, after being forced to take part in the action, Flynn even chastises his son telling him “you’re totally ruining my Zen thing here” and once again, I find myself laughing out loud all by myself in a room full of people.

As I drove home on Friday night, I was giddy. Giddy with excitement from having seen a visually captivating film. Giddy from having seen a story that really did a lot more than I expected it to. Giddy from having seen such a wonderful presentation of a Buddhist perspective in a mainstream movie that wasn’t all wishy-washy and pseudo-spiritual. If you haven’t seen Tron yet, do yourself a favor and check it out. It’s worth the price of admission and you’ll have a great time watching the film. You may even learn something about Buddhism without meaning to.

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You know those dreams where you’re trying to design an algorithm to solve a difficult problem but someone keeps changing the meaning and nature of the variables halfway through? No? Me neither but if I ever had a dream like that I’m sure I’d hate it.

OK, maybe I did have a dream like that. So what? Is it a big deal to be so frustrated with the changing nature of the dream’s reality that you wake up at 5 A.M. fully aware of the dream and what it might mean? No, I didn’t think so either.

To borrow a question from the Internet’s favorite double rainbow guy, “what does it mean!?” Unlike double rainbow guy, there isn’t an easy answer to this question when it comes to dreams like the one I woke up from about 90 minutes ago.

The first (and most obvious) answer is that it’s my subconscious mind dealing with stress. I’m sure there’s a component of this in my experience but it is definitely not the entire answer.

In my dream, I was trying to design an algorithm that would look at a picture of a building and return the optimal number of windows to put on the front of it to be aesthetically pleasing and energy efficient as well as provide a functional component from inside the building to ensure that the view when looking through a window would be unique and significantly different from all the other windows. Since most of these variables are subjective, I was having a hard time solving the problem because the interpretation of aesthetics and uniqueness of perspective kept changing. Yeah, not only do I speak nerd, I dream in it. Wanna make something of it?

With that background about the dream does its meaning become any clearer to you? No? Ok, how about this?

A second way of looking at the dream has to do with how I feel about perceptions and interpreting them. This is something I have to do every day. In my line of work, I don’t have the blessing of working with hard, concrete materials that can be transformed in to something. I get concepts, ideas and suggestions and opinions and have to make something out of them. Needless to say, this can often be a frustrating experience.

This is getting a little closer to the meaning behind my dream but I don’t think it’s the entire explanation of it.

When I woke up at 5 O’something this morning I knew exactly what I was dreaming about and why. This dream really had to do with my own ideas and perceptions rather than other’s views. In the dream, I was trying to design the algorithm but I was also the person looking out the window wanting a unique perspective. I was the committee responsible for guiding the project by defining the terms of success and deciding what things mean. I was dreaming about my own interpretations and perceptions of reality.

I could add a lot more to this but instead of trying to explain more of my subconscious mind’s workings, I’ll leave you with a bit of a Christmas koan: when you’re on a fast moving train, how do you experience stillness?

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