My meditation Doesn't Seem to Be working

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By Joseph Hall

When three people ask the same question in a week, it’s easy to come up with a topic for your blog.

All three were sincere about their practice and they were regular in their sitting, however in the midst of their deepened awareness each noticed that a deep intuition seemed to be arising, 
    
    “…my mediation doesn’t seem to be working.  Should I be doing something else?”  

If we look deeper into this valuable intuition that our zazen isn’t working, we find that our perception of failure is not actually arising from the meditation we are doing, but from the comparison of our experience to an idea of what it should be.  This idea of the meditation we could be having is usually much more alluring than the meditation we are doing on the mat.  While we try to be realistic about the myths of sitting in a transformational golden glow, most of us show up at the zendo with a vague idea that we are at least about to learn some way to achieve a state of relaxation, detach from our stress, and all of our ideas tend to add up to to something special.  If we have seen any of the many meditation studies, the science is pretty clear that the kind of Open Awareness Meditation that we do in zazen can lower our blood pressure, rewire our neural connections, shrink the amygdala, and generally reduce our stress. That sounds pretty good.  We now know that meditation changes the mind and body in much the same way that exercise does. So shouldn’t our sitting be restorative?  Sometimes it is.  And then there are the whole lot of times when we are just trying to hold it together.

Should I be doing something else?  Running is another form of exercise and it is true that running can also be life changing.  Running lowers the blood pressure, strengthens the lungs, and legs, increases joint strength and stability, improves our overall mental health, and relieves our stress.  But then we forget that the benefits of running are not actually present while we’re running.  Exercise works because we push the body past the range of what’s comfortable and the experience of running is marked more by elevated heart-rate, shortness of breath, varying degrees of disorientation, occasional injury and is performed in the overall condition of the mind and body that health scientists call stress.  In fact, the person who popularized the sport of running, Jim Fix, died of a heart attack at 52 - while running.  Perhaps our mediation is working after all.

So let’s come back to the cushion.  In zazen, while we are training the mind to do what is natural, we notice that it seems to be in the habit of doing something else entirely most of the time.   This noticing is exactly what we came here to do and is itself perfect meditation.  If we pay attention, we notice that the mind makes thoughts and there is something that is observing this constant narration with a vague sense that the story-telling channel seems to be distracting us from most of what is happening in this moment.   This awareness is what we came to practice - not eliminating the thoughts, feelings and sensations that we are having.  If you’re on this cushion it’s probably safe to assume you’ve already tried repression and discovered that it usually makes the world of self stronger.  

This awareness is where we sit in zazen.  As the world of self reveals itself to us, mostly we just observe.  We notice that we have a heart that is beating blood, a stomach that digests food, and a part of the brain that tries to narrate everything it sees.  Not one of these parts of ourselves is who we are but each is necessary to our survival and we don’t have direct control of any of it.  We can, however, turn this awareness towards the thoughts and just watch them, noticing that they are merely one expression of the body mind.

Here, we begin to discover what the zen masters of old were talking about when then they compared thoughts to clouds in a clear blue sky.  If we just watch our thoughts, they seem to arise from nowhere, change shape, and dissipate all on their own.  Even in the midst of a busy mind, there are always gaps and if we turn our attention toward those gaps, the silence grows wider. Then we might notice that we were so distracted by the clouds that we have forgotten about the sky.  Realizing we are much larger than these transient clouds, we can step back into the the clear blue sky, our open awareness.  It gets quieter now.

The thoughts will return and, sitting in open awareness, they are not a problem - just the weather in heads.  We don’t try to change them but we try not to invite them in for tea.  From time to time, though, we will discover that we have been dragged off the mat into a story unfolding somewhere else entirely.  Finding ourselves in another city, there is no need for judgement,  We simply drag ourselves back to the mat and return to this moment.  Some days, zazen seems more like a tug of war than abiding in any harmonious moment and it can feel like this must be in some way failure.   But this is where you are doing your best work.  Each time you find yourself captured by a story and rescue yourself back to the mat, you are are building the habits and skills it takes to be here now.  On the days when it seems like you are sitting in a cacophony, take a moment to notice that when the bell rings, the world turns out to be quieter than when you sat down.  Meditation works like exercise and the challenging sits are when we grow the most.  Your worst zazen is actually your best zazen.  Later, when it gets easier to drop in, we kind of miss the challenges.

I also helps to keep a few things in the background of our awareness.

Simply out, we are here to just sit and observe the activity of the mind.  As you settle into the quiet of open awareness, that awareness becomes more acute so it might get loud.  The thoughts in our head that seem attenuated when we are rushing about can seem more like a three ring circus when we sit down to take it all in.

Our way of zazen is a way of seeing things as it is and allow what is extra to drop away. Wherever we have noble intention, we will find that things are worse then we thought.  Take heart in knowing that even Pema Chodron talks about her practice of generosity beginning with the disheartening discovery that she was far more self centered than she had imagined.  It will serve you well to consider your bravery in shining a light into the shadows of yourself and that many of the things you see will naturally fall away within the light of awareness.  

Zen is the study of karma - or cause and effect.  We are not trying to fix anything.  Instead we become more and more aware of the natural flow of things.  We notice that our resentment leads to contraction, which can sometimes lead to sore knees and our attraction to resentment fades naturally.   Frustration arises and eventually turns to boredom.  If you have spent a long time thinking yourself into a problem, it may just be a long time coming out of it.  Boredom with your thoughts can work in your favor, as it can truly grind a story down to nothing.  Boredom with your sitting is the sign of a mind turning away from the present moment and going looking for trouble.

Human beings are amazingly adaptable creatures and it is the mark of self to believe that it has always been here every time that it arises.  Change becomes normal almost as fast as it occurs.  It will help to take note of how things are from time to time as you travel along this path.  Later, if you are working with anger, you still may feel like you have a lot of work to do, but you are likely to notice that there are some things that you have not said out loud in a very long time. As things fall away, the load gets lighter, but it is easy not to notice that our steps on the path have become lighter too.

Thus, when we start thinking that our meditation isn’t working, it’s usually a sign that we are following the way.  

Zen Driving

Zen Driving

On this side of the monastery walls,  it seems like people are always trying to find time and space to practice.  Between our work, family, meals and a full array of errands, we might feel fortunate to fit a morning sit in before we head out into the world in a rush.  In this moment that arises as the door closes, we might discover the greatest and most overlooked opportunity for Zen practice in our lives - the commute. 

Following the breath

Following the breath

I learned breathing from butterflies. One day I was sitting at Tassajara, and I felt in tune with the breath of everything. The trees were breathing. About twenty butterflies were sitting on hot rocks, very white hot rocks, with clean water cascading between them. The butterflies were all breathing at once, opening their wings, and I tuned them in. It was very fantastic to feel that.       
Kobun Chino Otogawa  

Building Your Home Temple

Building Your Home Temple

If you live in a home, the path to your cushion goes right through the world of myriad things.  There are notifications on our devices, children wanting to eat, every distraction does the dance of importance, and even when we do make it to the zafu, sometimes a face-licking dog seems to be siding with Mara - an ancient deity who incessantly pestered the Buddha and who’s primary motivation seems to be to keep us from meditating.  It’s at least good to know that it’s not just us.  Apparently, if there’s a deity involved in what we are going though, people have been trying to fit practice into a hectic life for a very long time…

A Mission

A Mission

Kobun Chino Otogawa came to America with a vision which he never fully articulated with words.  While Suzuki, who brought him to this country to help establish the first Zen monastery at Tassajara, had a delightful gift for translating zen into quotable English phrases, Kobun is most often described in terms of movement, grace and a sense of presence.  Zen is an embodied practice and in Japan very little of it is ever explained.  Having taught the forms of Zen at Eijeiji, and being a skilled calligrapher and kudo archer, Kobun was classically trained and adept in forms, and yet he appeared to be reluctant to perform and teach them - conscious of the fact that his way might get in the way of your way.  Instead he seemed enamored of the vision of what could arise if the seeds of Zen were to take root in new ground.  

Geography

Geography

The purpose of a fishtrap is to catch fish, and when the fish are caught, the trap is forgotten. The purpose of a rabbit snare is to catch rabbits. When the rabbits are caught, the snare is forgotten. The purpose of words is to convey ideas. When the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words? He is the one I would like to talk to. 

Zhuangzi

 

 

The Transcendental Nature of Shoes

The Transcendental Nature of Shoes

Instead of looking inside the words in our head for meaning and chasing our emotions into an imaginary past, we can realize that our mind is actually the buildings and trees around us and hidden in them is everything we are looking for. The mind not only invents the questions, but also the answers. We live in a maze of our own making. The solution to it is nothing more than walking through a world of wonder.

Building a Structural Framework for the Breath

Building a Structural Framework for the Breath

The thing your average buddhist spends the most time on is watching the breath.  Dauntingly, this simple practice immediately becomes frustrating as the ever helpful ego steps in and tries to run the show.  The next thing you know, you are sitting there with a growing feeling of awkwardness which occasionally transforms into another feeling...growing suffocation.  From there, myriad forms of hilarity can ensue.  The ego, it turns out, is really not good at respiration.  Thus, we practice with the breath for exactly that reason.

Awareness Practice

Awareness Practice

In zazen, we seek to become develop our sense of awareness of the world around us, to open our senses to every detail, and to discover the hidden impact of our slightest actions. We do this by sitting in front of a wall and staring at it. Sometimes this works, of course, and the boundaries between ourselves and the room seem not so hard anymore. Sounds drift in from outside, and we allow them to intermingle and intertwine with our mind as they pass. As the practice period continues, this deepening awareness allows us to see, on the large scale, our connection to the earth and our role in global warming. On a smaller scale, as attendance has grown over the last several months, our practice has also deepened our ability to hear every #*%& sound in the zendo.

The American Practice Period

The American Practice Period

Long, long ago, deep within the Indian subcontinent, Siddhartha Gautama sat beneath a Bodhi tree and found something that the people who met him afterward called enlightenment.  In time, he found himself living in a place called Deer Park, surrounded by people who were calling him Buddha now, and they had come to hear him teach the things that he had learned which had brought him first to the Bodhi tree and then to Deer Park.  Before long, there were more monks than the local community could support and this fact illuminated another truth, that the time had come to send the monks out into the world.   The work of a Buddha is always larger than the place where he sits.  So, calling them together, he sent his senior monks outwards, to begin to radiate the teachings into the surrounding forests, fields, villages and towns.  Each of them had different abilities and travelled to different places and purposes, but all of them carried two instructions,  First, when the moon was full, they were to gather in groups and renew the vows that guided them along the path.  Second, when the rains came, they were to return toDeer Parkfor the duration of the monsoon season to practice together.

Wax On – Wax Off

Wax On – Wax Off

One of the disappointing things about Zen is that I always thought there was going to be more wax on – wax off.  Like most people, my idea of Zen was formed at the movies and in dormitory conversations and in the occasional buzzed hot tub speculations.  The twin pillars of  eastern philosophy were Shogun and the Karate Kid, where Arnold from Happy Days turns out to be a totally cool old Samurai dude living in LA who teaches young Daniel-san karate by making him wax his car over and over again.  Just when Daniel-san is about to quit, Mr Miyagi gives him is first karate lesson and Daniel-San discovers that he already knows how to block the attacks - it’s the same motion as putting the wax on and wiping it off.

A Pocket Buddha

A Pocket Buddha

2500 years of fascination with a single individual have cultivated fields and fields of prose and poetry, with each age and each sect adding more and more words to a body of writing larger than any library.  As Buddhism has deepened over the centuries, the number of perspectives has grown exponentially and any statement of “fact” about the Buddha can be challenged from all sides as soon as it arises.  Even if a lifetime of scholarship were endeavored to the cause, one would be hard pressed to gain a complete understanding of the facets of Buddhism in a single incarnation. Each of us, then, is left to fashion our own construction of the Buddha.  Dauntingly, this is like trying to remake a crystal vase from the shards of glass found in a dustpan.

Hardwiring the Brain: The new science of sculpting the mind.

Hardwiring the Brain: The new science of sculpting the mind.

Within the last generation, what we thought we knew about the brain has completely overturned, as new testing devices and methods have been created to begin the process of accurately measuring and mapping the mind.  These discoveries have been nothing short of revolutionary.  While the brain is not the mind, it is the physical basis of the mind and understanding the machinery behind the curtain renders the mind trainable, not just in concept but as a physical reality.  Twenty years ago it seemed to be a scientific fact that the brain was static and the focus for brain health was on the conservation of a finite number of brain cells.  Then, just as Steve Jobs was being “permanently” removed from Apple in disgrace, nueroanatomists were beginning to direct incredibly sensitive scanners inside the cranium.  It was discovered that inside the brain, just like in the world of Apple, real genius, even what the organism is and does, is not nearly as fixed as the experts thought. What has emerged since then has been the unveiling of a brain that is regenerative, reconfigurable, and trainable.

Jedi Mind Training 101

Jedi Mind Training 101

So you’ve slogged through a little bit of practical neuroscience and you’re beginning to notice that everyone is talking about rewiring the brain which is fascinating but you’re the kind of person that would rather just get in there and do it.   This of course has always been the hallmark of a young Jedi. George Lucas didn’t just sit at his desk and make Star Wars up.   Lucas was driven to create a story that would describe the path of personal transformation, the way in which we become who we are, and how we might even transcend ourselves.  The creation of this story involved a spiritual journey of its own, and Lucas’ guide was Joseph Campbell, a comparative mythologist who studied the myths and religions of all times in search of their commonalities.  Campbell’s belief was that truth could be found behind the group of  metaphors which held constant across cultures.  For the film he was conceiving, Lucas chose the Japanese Samurai as his archetype.  The weapon would be the sword in the form of a light saber, the religion, Zen in form of something we would all come to recognize as The Force.

Metta Sutta

Metta Sutta

Thus the Buddhadidn’t trouble the monks with the technical details of the existence of tree spirits.Instead he went directly to the root of the problem.When we do harm to others, we become attached to consequences of our action.When we rationally determine that we have escaped the consequences, our deeper minds, often correctly, come to believe that justice, lies hidden somewhere in the world around us.Since the internal monologue has dismissed our cautions and proceeds headlong into self centered action, the mind simply communicates beyond words and as artists have done to avoid despotic censorship since the beginning of time, simply weaves the truth into the fabric of an acceptable story. If our actions are harmful, a feeling of nemesis begins to take form.