Before becoming aware of the path, meditation was something I never thought I would get myself into. It seemed so foreign to me in both its appearance and application that the thought of engaging it quite literally never crossed my mind. Apart from it seeming obviously boring to me, it also seemed so uncomfortably pointless. That was until I became aware of just how much suffering I was experiencing, and my introduction to the path (my use of the phrase the path here refers to any spiritual and self-development practice I engaged in – ranging from the reading of literature to the practice of certain disciplines).
Once introduced to the path, I quickly noticed just how many different schools of spirituality/philosophy/religion all espoused meditation in one form or another. My personal introduction came from a strain of non-sectarian New Age thought that was devoid of all religious connotations, although it was wrought with its own views and goals of what the practice should be. Whilst versing myself in it’s particular set of instructions, I did not notice how I was subconsciously forming solid presumptions of meditation: how it was suppose to look, what I was supposed to feel, and what phenomena I was supposed to experience.
In fact, in both the above examples – I had strong pre-conceived ideas of exactly what meditation was and how it was to feel; though these ideas differed greatly. On one hand, it was a pointless exercise used by hippie-like folk to achieve some nonsense state of mind; and on the other hand, it was a practice where one adopts a very ‘spiritual’ posture and creates a silent mind with every sit.
Herein lies the beauty of the practice. When meditation (particularly Zazen) is continually practiced, it reveals to us our preconceived ideas of how we believe everything to be – not just meditation itself. Or, to put it another way, as one Zazen master describes it:
“You come in contact with reality as it is”
Meditation is a great means to a phenomenon described in Buddhism as Right View.
Goals & Resistance
There is no one goal in Zazen, and things definitely shouldn’t be any other way than as they are. Knowing this didn’t stop relentless forms of resistance appearing and keeping me from my practice. On top of this, I always had a reason why I was continually failing miserably. This doubt and assumption, in my experience, is what keeps many people from not only continually practicing meditation, but prevents them even from beginning in the first place. Perhaps the most common barrier standing in the way of those I have come in contact with and the beginning of a meditation practice is the assertion that: “My mind is far too busy”. So, let us explore this notion and how the practice of zazen meets it. If I were to guess, I would suggest that a significant number of folks that have little to no introduction to meditation see it solely as a means to quiet the mind. The assumption that quietening the mind is the solemn goal of meditation is erroneous and dissuades many from its practice. My mind can be terribly busy even during sits now – years after starting meditation. The point being missed here is that although a quiet mind may be a by-product of meditation, it is not a goal. In fact, as mentioned, Zazen really has no goal other than “just sitting”. Meditation shows us that the presence or absence of thoughts is irrelevant; it is our relationship with thought that is important. I could have an extremely busy mind filled with rather unpleasant thoughts and still have a sense of stillness and peace if I were to remain grounded and my attention/awareness was removed from the internal mental torrent. It is as if I were in a busy city, and looking to head to my favourite café a short distance from where I am. The task would become a nightmare if I were to stop and engage with every person and sound I saw and heard along the way. And so it is with thoughts in the practice of meditation. I need not engage with every thought and emotion that appears in my experience, I may just sit, remain grounded and come back to the body and breath. Although I am aware of (and have engaged in) many different forms of meditation, ranging from Yoga Nidra and Transcendental in the East to Centering Prayer and Hesychasm in the West – it is the Zazen form that I have found to be the most beneficial, and stripped back from all superfluous bells and whistles. By this I mean that I find the Zazen practice to easily translate to the real world and off of the cushion. I may induce a meditative state wherever I may find myself, bereft of any need to focus on a repetitive mantra or invoke a particular posture.
So what is the basic Zazen meditation practice? I will explain the practice as simply as possible: In a seated position with a straight (though not rigid) spine, remain still and draw your attention to the breath. Should your mind wander, or you find your focus drift off with thoughts and emotions, come back to the body and the breath. That is it. Sounds simple, and it is – but simple is not easy, especially when one begins to encounter the resistance of the mind. As briefly mentioned earlier – your mind will throw at you every reason why you cannot and should not practice – even whilst meditating, but with tenacity and persistence, bring yourself back to the body and breath. It is utterly astonishing the level of insights, wisdom and self-discovery one may encounter during such a simple practice, and the beneficial by-products of meditation are astounding. Perhaps the most discernible and significant benefit in my life has been the ability to move in a conscious way oriented towards my values amidst incredibly strong thoughts and emotions. There are certainly a huge number of other ways in which my life has grown richer from meditating, which are too plentiful to number and mention here.
Silence of the mind is a by-product of meditation - not the goal.
I will leave this post with quotes on meditation that I hope will ignite a small fire in you that may spur you to further your journey in self-development.
“When you practise right meditation, you 'cease from practice based on intellectual understanding, pursuing words and following speech, and learn the backward step that turns your light inwardly to illuminate your self.” – Steve Hagen
“Of course, it’s much harder to stay mindful when it matters most, in difficult situations. That’s why we need to intentionally practice mindfulness in everyday life, especially when it’s easy, like when you’re driving a car or eating a meal. Then, you’ll build up the skill and the “mental muscle” to stay mindful in the face of greater challenges.” – Culadasa
The above quote is from an excellent book The Mind Illuminated by Culadasa. I strongly recommend this book to anyone looking to get into meditation.