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 meditation 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 meditation 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 where 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 put, 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 allowing 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 that 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 itself 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.