Saturday, July 08, 2006

Variations on the Beginning Zen Exercise

After you have practiced the Beginning Exercise and can successfully achieve Step 5 you can then start to modify the technique slightly to achieve various goals. These initial variations are pretty simple and though I’m writing about them all together here they can be taken as three separate meditative skills to practice. The applications I will cover are mind training, metacognition, and centering or re-centering.

Mind Training

This is the meditative skill of practicing in your mind something you want to be able to do in real life. This is the main type of meditation practiced by martial artists. The idea is that once you’ve gotten to Step 5 in the exercise you’ve attained a degree of clarity of mind that will allow you to focus your mental energy on training yourself to act. In the void you create a mental picture of yourself doing the thing you want to do. In the case of martial artists they imagine themselves doing forms. I heard some years ago of an experiment where three groups of people made basketball free throws and the researchers counted the number of baskets everyone made. They then had one group practice making foul shots for a certain number of weeks. They had another group imagine shooting baskets in their minds. The third group did not practice at all. Upon having all of them return and make their shots the group that physically practiced made the greatest improvement. However, the group that practiced only in their minds made more progress than those who did not practice at all. This meditation is a similar idea. You can practice anything you like in this meditative state, it could be any sport, musical instrument, or even something like talking to another person in a positive way. I will start the steps for this exercise as if you followed the Beginning Exercise through Step 5.

6. If you want you can close your eyes at this point. It might be interesting to try this sometimes with your eyes open and sometimes with them closed. Choose the activity you want to practice and begin imagining yourself doing it in the emptiness you’ve created in your mind.

7. Many things will distract you from this concentration. If random thoughts or other distractions come to you treat them like you did in Step 4 by acknowledging their existence and returning to concentrating on the thing you are trying to practice. Just let it happen and don’t be too judgmental of letting yourself get distracted because then this will become another distraction.

8. As you practice don’t do it idly. Take the opportunity you have given yourself to sit and focus on perfecting your technique. If you were practicing karate in your head you might concentrate on imagining yourself not only kicking but pulling your knee up properly to snap the kick forward to hit a precise target at a specific height. If you were practicing a wind instrument you would not only pay attention to getting the right fingering but keeping a precise timing and having the correct embouchure.

9. There is no specific time when you should end this meditation. I suggest possibly setting yourself an amount of time you desire to give yourself before starting at step 1 and then working yourself to meet your own time goals. One option you have is to try and teach yourself to be able to meditate in mind training for longer and longer amounts of time by increasing how long you sit for a little every so often.


This is a use for meditation that goes well beyond the meditation itself. To give it a simple definition “metacognition” means thinking about thinking. It is a meditation where you can observe your own mind and learn something about where your unconscious decision making processes come from. This is something that can be critically important if you feel that you are prone to making decisions that have consequences you would prefer to avoid. In order to do this meditation, use the Beginning Exercise and after you get to Step 5 continue here.

6. You may at this point decide to close your eyes or you may try to continue open eyed. Random thoughts will still come to your mind as they did in Step 4. However now, instead of merely acknowledging them and returning to your concentration to your focus make note of what the thought is first. If you want you may even write the thought down so you can remember it to analyze it later.

7. Again don’t spend too much time thinking about it. Merely identify what the thought was then return your concentration to your focus.

8. After you have engaged in this meditation for some time you may then reflect on what kinds of things your mind wanted to do while you were meditating. This may involve reading through a list of thoughts you made while meditating.

This metacognitive meditation is the springboard for other meditative techniques that will actually help you to change your behaviors and actions by changing your thoughts. This is in part because it would be difficult to change your thoughts without first being aware of what your thoughts are.

Centering (Re-centering)

This meditative technique can be helpful to you as you go about your day at work or in school or wherever you happen to be. It is not infrequent that we find ourselves in situations where there is a lot to do, a lot of information to absorb, or just a lot going on. This technique is useful for helping us to avoid feeling overwhelmed and focus on the task we are trying to accomplish. When you are starting to feel like too much is happening and you’re feeling distracted or stressed you can start the Beginning Exercise. If you are well practiced the gray vision of Step 5 may come quickly. Even if it doesn’t come quickly, trying Steps 1 through 4 for just a few seconds (maybe even 1 or 2 seconds!) can help you sort of disengage from the source of stress. This can help you do what you need to do now. Your detachment will give you the space and time you might need to sort through all the “stuff” that is going on. It can give your brain a chance to evaluate all the stimuli for relevance and give you a chance to make "space" in your mind for the objective of the moment. This is a principle many Buddhist teachers refer to as "living moment by moment."