Thursday, June 29, 2006

Zen (Meditation) Introduction

“Zen” is a Japanese word, which simply means meditation. However, it is usually used in reference to a technique, style, or intent of meditation derived from Buddhist religious thinking. The idea is that a person achieves enlightenment by meditating until the mind has achieved a certain quality of emptiness. A story as I was originally taught it by my martial arts teacher, Shelby Hooper, years ago tells of Buddha attaining enlightenment when he sat in meditation for an extended period of time leaning against a tree. As his meditation progressed and he put more and more of his thinking aside to attain total emptiness, his awareness of the minutia around him increased until it was said he could “hear the ants on the tree scream.”

The purpose of this project is not to teach you about Buddhist religion nor is it calculated to help you achieve the sort of enlightenment possessed by the Buddha. However, by applying Zen teachings it is hoped that you will be enlightened about the workings of your mind. The ultimate goal is that you will develop cognitive skills that will empower you to overcome your habits, make beneficial decisions in spite of unconscious desires, cope with stress and the problems of life, and in the end take more control of your life by getting more control over your own mind. Whether or not you realize it, much of what you experience is a product of your own mind. Although you will not always be able to control everything in the world around you, it is usually possible to control the way that you deal with it.

From certain spiritual traditions and what I call “pop Zen” it is possible to read a lot of different ideas about what it means to “be Zen.” I tend to either ignore or disagree with most of these and so if you have some previous education in Buddhism or meditation you may find that my definition of Zen contradicts what you’ve already learned. If you dislike or disagree with my definition in a sort of universal way, that’s fine because it doesn’t really matter. My definition is simply for the sake of this program and doesn’t really need to be applied to the meaning of Zen in any other context.

Frequently people refer to “Zen meditation.” Even though I’ve referred to it that way myself it is kind of redundant because Zen just means meditation. So what we need to explore is what meditation is. Meditation is the exercise of clearing your mind of all thinking to focus on just one thing. Or more accurately it is the exercise of focusing on just one thing in order to clear your mind of all thinking. A lot of people make a big deal of meditative sitting postures, objects of focus, breathing techniques, etc. The bottom line is that none of it matters. The only thing that matters is what you do with your mind. Whatever foci, postures, or other practices you come up with, they should help you attain a meditative state. Whatever you do it should facilitate clearing your mind of all thinking. There are many schools of meditation outside of Buddhism and I think this principle applies equally well to all of them. For example, in his “Exercises” St. Ignatius of Loyola recommends that the meditator choose a kneeling, sitting, or prostrate position for prayer, whichever helps the individual to attain a state of forsaking every thought in favor of obtaining God’s will.

Sometimes this potential for freedom of meditative practice can make choosing a place to start somewhat overwhelming. You might also notice that the variability of practice means that some types of meditation might work better in some contexts than others. It is with the intent of exploring the applications that would be practical for you as an individual that this program is being made.

A Beginning Zen Exercise

The purpose of this beginning exercise is to give people who are new to meditation an opportunity to try out a very basic form, one that will provide a foundation from which all other meditations can be attempted. It is my opinion that this technique is especially appropriate for beginning meditators because it tends to minimize environmental factors that can be distracting as well as supply a coherent focus for meditation.

1. Find a comfortable place to be, probably sitting or lying down. The environment should be pretty comfortable too in terms of temperature, sounds, and any other kind of sensory experience.
2. With your head and neck in a comfortable position (if you are sitting this might mean looking slightly down) pick a spot on a surface directly, or as close to directly in the path of your vision as you can manage. The point should be something distinct that you won’t confuse it with anything else you are looking at. I’ve used the grounding prong in power outlets for this, bumps in texture spackling, pin holes, nails, knots in wood paneling, etc, etc, etc.
3. Look at the spot and focus all of your attention on it. Try to make it a part of yourself in your mind and yourself a part of the spot.
4. Many things will distract you from this concentration. You will need to blink. Try not to, but if the urge comes let yourself blink and try to resume your staring as seamlessly as possible. If random thoughts or other distractions come to you, treat them like blinks by acknowledging their existence and returning to concentrating on your dot. It has been observed that sometimes people can become very judgmental of themselves because of the many distracting thoughts they have. Realize that such thoughts are perfectly normal and that you are going to have a lot of them especially if you are new at this.
5. Continue staring at the dot until your vision starts to turn gray. To describe what this stage is like: as long as you don’t start scanning around or moving your head everything in your field of vision will turn gray except for the dot you’ve been staring at. Once you have reached this state you have attained a sort of meditative trance where you are now able to begin applied meditations.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Update on My Monasticism

It has been a while since I’ve posted. Somehow, it seems these days I always have more to do on my weeks off and the various bits of business are crowding out my opportunities to write. This is especially true whenever I’ve left home on vacation. When I go away, or pick up an extra shift, or have a conference or something there’s always a much longer period of time when I’m trying to pick up getting my grades written, my room cleaned, my lessons planned, etc, etc.

Early in May I made a trip back to Utah that was enjoyable enough. I got to see a lot of folk and bake a lot of bread. But I’ve been back for a while and quite few things have been going on since.

Almost the first thing I did upon returning was have a sword test whereat I received my brown belt. Huzzah. If all goes ideally I will test for my black belt this September. I’ve learned a new form that is kind of exciting because it involves doing a kind of dive-roll sword in hand.

Things on the island have been kind of crazy. It has been unusually emotionally exhausting. We have had a couple students with problems severe enough that for whatever reason they have had really no motivation to earn a weekend home. The opportunity to leave the island is strangely one of the biggest carrots we have to offer. So when a student doesn’t want it we have virtually no capital to get any cooperation out of him.

A few months back my Zen master complimented me as being a person with a lot of compassion. And though I try to so be, the last couple of weeks out working with one particular student seemed to be sapping all the compassion I had. It is rare that I think violent thoughts towards people, especially my students. However, I remember one particular night I had this feeling of wanting to just punch him in the face and the thought that maybe if I did he’d finally get the message.

After my last shift I went to a conference on using meditation in psychotherapy. Some presentations really annoyed me because I had the unfortunate expectation that because this was put on by Harvard Medical School that it was going to emphasize empirical research on the cognitive and neurophysiological effects of meditation and recommend ways of prescribing it for treatments of specific disorders. Many of the lectures were to this effect however, too many were the folks my buddy Jed would describe as those who say, “I’m really more spiritual than religious.” They would turn on their cheesy, new-age, “oooh I’m so deep and mystical”, Professor Trelawny, stupid voices. And then they would over-spiritualize everything. They seemed to have this assumption that everyone in the room shared their values and beliefs regarding the metaphysical. In other words, they were more likely to be fans of the movie “What the Bleep Do We Know” than psychiatric researchers.

I think I may have overstated the bad side of the conference here. For the most part I enjoyed it and even the bad annoying people were illuminating from the right perspective (i.e. how not to teach meditation to my students). Curiously enough one of the best talks was given by a guy who described himself as the “token card-carrying” Buddhist in that he was a scholar of Buddhism specifically and not psychiatry or psychology. Though his presentation was blatantly about Buddhist religion it was frequently more relevant to the issue of how to help people rewire their brains than many of the others.

The main fruit of the conference for me was that I found through many of the examples given for the utilization of meditation in treatment, a new motivation and inspiration for teaching it to my boys. I can see the need most especially with those whose brains have been so mangled that their behavior is driving me to the edge.

This last week I went to a couple of graduations, one on the island and one with a kid who lives here in the temple. I’m not going to go into too much detail but it reminded me quite pristinely how important family is to the development of not only young children but also adolescents. One of the students had a lot of family involved and the other had almost none. It was interesting to see how important and valuable it was for both of them to have friends and mentors willing to take up slack and fill in gaps.