Posts Tagged ‘zen meditation’

800px-Blue_Cliff_Monastery_-_3In its most common usage, the word intimacy hardly suggests a spiritual context. Enter the word in your browser, and you are likely to turn up references to the bedroom, the boudoir, and Britney Spears’ line of designer lingerie. Yet the root of intimate, from which intimacy derives, is the Latin intimus, which means “inmost.” And a desire for true intimacy–for connection with one’s inmost nature–is fundamental to many spiritual traditions, Zen Buddhism included. “Intimacy,” writes the Zen teacher Jakusho Kwong, “is at the heart of all of Zen.”

In formal Zen practice, the cultivation of intimacy begins with mindfulness of breathing. Toward that end, basic instructions for Zen meditation direct the practitioner to count breaths, “follow the breath,” or employ meditative verses in conjunction with the respiratory cycle. “Breathing in, I know I am breathing in,” reads one such verse, “Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.” These methods are useful, especially for beginners. They focus attention and calm the body-mind.

Whether they foster intimacy is another matter. To begin with, “the breath” is an abstract concept, and like other abstract concepts, it promotes the illusory notion that what it signifies is a solid thing–or, more exactly, a string of solid things: a series of discrete, countable breaths, rather than the continuous, fluctuating process it actually is. No less important, formulations for observing the breath can easily become the primary focus of concentration. Preoccupied with numbers or words, we may find ourselves intently counting those numbers or listening to the words, as if they and not our breathing were the objects of attention. Hard at work, we may inadvertently distance ourselves from our immediate experience.

Should that occur, the practitioner has other options. In my own practice I have found it helpful to concentrate on the sensations of breathing, wherever they might be felt. Breathing is an autonomic, complex, and mysterious activity. By adopting an attitude of humility, and by resolving merely to feel our breathing rather than measure or label it, we can allow the process to continue just as it is. By relinquishing any effort to lengthen or otherwise manipulate our respiration, we permit ourselves to enter its mystery, as intimately as possible.

And as with breathing, so with the body. Teachers of meditation sometimes advise their students to do a “body scan” before settling into a period of sitting. Beginning with the lower body and proceeding upward, or, conversely, scanning from the top down, the practitioner directs awareness to general regions or specific parts of the body: “Aware of my shoulders, I breathe in. / Bringing kind attention to my shoulders, I breathe out.” The effect is to relax tense muscles, quiet the nerves, and ease the body as a whole.

Body scans can reveal hidden tensions and imbalances. They can prepare us for extended sittings. But like conscious breathing, systematic scans can sometimes interfere with our direct experience. At a retreat some twenty years ago, Thich Nhat Hanh urged us to listen to our bodies and recognize whatever might be “calling” us, bringing mindfulness to that place. Over the years, I have found that simple stratagem effective. More intuitive than methodical, it promotes a closeness with one’s physical being. By listening receptively rather than asserting control, we permit reclusive knots to disclose and release themselves. And we also become aware, in real time, of the moment-by-moment changes occurring within us.

Those changes are mental and emotional as well as physical. And, just as we can become intimate with our physical being, we can also become intimate with the flux of our thoughts, feelings, and states of mind, even as they are occurring. Pausing periodically throughout the day to monitor that flux, we can readily perceive the changeability of our mental states. We may notice that we are feeling anxious and angry in the early morning–and equable an hour later. Through the disciplined practices of sitting and walking meditation, we heighten and refine that broad recognition, becoming ever more aware of the subtlest tonal changes.

In so doing, we may also become aware of the energy behind those changes: what the Zen teacher Shohaku Okumura has called “the universal life force.” When we open our awareness to the impermanence of all conditioned things, as manifest in our breathing, our bodies, and our inner lives, we open ourselves to that “universal life force,” allowing it, in Okumura’s phrase, “to practice through us for the benefit of all beings.” Although it defies description, that force can be felt in the wind and sun and rain as well as in ourselves. It can heard in the din of traffic. Opening ourselves to its presence, we cultivate intimacy with life itself.

Jakusho Kwong, No Beginning, No End: The Intimate Heart of Zen (Shambhala, 2003), 111.

Shohaku Okumura, Living by Vow (Shambhala, 2010), 70.

Photo: “The Pond, Blue Cliff Monastery,”by Joaquin Carral.

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Chevy interior cropped“Put it in neutral, Bud,” my father said, quietly but firmly. It was the summer of 1958, and I was learning to drive. The car was a 1950 Chevrolet sedan with a three-speed transmission and the gearshift lever on the steering column. “Three on the Tree,” it was called. Learning to put the lever and the Chevy itself into neutral was my first lesson.

It might also be the first lesson for the Zen practitioner. Wherever else it might lead, the practice of Zen meditation begins with finding, establishing, and maintaining a neutral center, both for the body and the mind. Neutrality may well be the body-mind’s most natural condition, but for many people it is far from habitual. In a culture as competitive as ours, neutrality is often not an option, much less a state to be cultivated and explored. To do so requires training and sustained attention (more…)

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Amish_-_On_the_way_to_school_by_Gadjoboy-cropIn his poignant essay “The Old Order,” the Irish-American writer James Silas Rogers recalls his conversation on an Amtrak train with a young Amish man named Johann, who was crossing Wisconsin with his extended family. Curious about Amish faith and belief, Rogers inquired as to the significance of Johann’s distinctive attire: his plain shirt, suspenders, and broadfall trousers. “People ask us,” Johann replied, “if we think wearing these clothes will get us into heaven. We absolutely do not. . . . But I do know that if I wear these clothes, it will keep me out of places where I should not go.”*

Reading Johann’s explanation, I was reminded of formal Zen practice, which also employs special clothes to remind practitioners of their moral commitments. In Japanese Zen, one of the most conspicuous of those clothes is the rakusu, a bib-like garment worn (and often hand-sewn) by those who have “taken the precepts,” which is to say, have publicly affirmed a set of ethical guidelines. Known as the “jukai precepts,” those guidelines differ from sect to sect, but in essence they enjoin the Zen disciple to refrain from harmful behaviors, particularly killing, stealing, engaging in false or injurious speech, using sexuality in hurtful ways, and abusing intoxicants. The unadorned rakusu, viewed as a miniature monastic robe and inscribed on the back with its wearer’s “dharma name,” signifies a commitment to that fundamental code of conduct. (more…)

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             Hotei    Kano Takanobu, 1616

Kano Takanobu, 1616

Last month my infant granddaughter Allegra uttered her first belly laugh. At the time she was sitting upright in her father’s lap, firmly supported by his two strong hands. Meanwhile my wife, Robin, was exuberantly entertaining Allegra, smiling broadly, blowing raspberries on her belly, and singing “I’m going to get you” as she tickled her toes. Without warning, up when Allegra’s arms, as though she were conducting an orchestra, and from her whole little being came gleeful, protracted laughter.

Luckily I had my camera handy, and I was able to capture the moment. When I later sent the photo to a few friends, one described Allegra as a laughing Buddha. Another expressed the wish that Allegra might keep laughing all her life. (more…)

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Thomas Brackett Reed       January 2, 1894

Thomas Brackett Reed
January 2, 1894

“I would rather be right than president,” declared William McKendree Springer, Democrat from Illinois, on the floor of the House.

“The gentleman needn’t worry,” replied Thomas Brackett Reed (1839-1902), Republican from Maine and Speaker of the House. “He will never be either.”

That famous exchange took place in the late nineteenth century, but the sentiment expressed by Congressman Springer may well be timeless in human affairs. Whether the venue be public or domestic, the context political or personal, many of us attach inordinate value to being right. We would rather be right than president–or fair, or peaceful, or humane. (more…)

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Toward the end of the February 22 Republican primary debate, John King asked the candidates to define themselves in a single word. “Consistent,” replied Representative Ron Paul. In the ensuing commentaries, Dr. Paul’s response met with wide approval, even by those not partial to his views. “I’ll give him that,” Jon Stewart wryly remarked.

Ron Paul’s response stood out from the others, not only because it came across as honest and accurate but also because it pointed toward his history rather than his temperament. Where the others laid claim to laudable traits of character—courage, resolution, cheerfulness—Ron Paul alluded to his public record. By so doing, he appealed to conventional wisdom, which holds that a candidate may best be judged by what he or she has said and done. “Ask me,” wrote the American poet William Stafford, “if what I have done is my life.” Under most circumstances, the answer would probably be yes. And should the next question be, “Who am I?” the standard of judgment might well be the same. The self exists in time, and a person may best be judged by examining his or her background, actions, and abiding traits of character. By such means we hire an employee or choose a doctor or pick a president. (more…)

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In his memoir “Something to Write Home About” the poet Seamus Heaney recalls an experience from his rural childhood in Northern Ireland. Near his parents’ farm in Co. Derry, there was a ford in the River Moyola. A trail of stepping stones led from one bank to the other. Venturing into the river, “from one stepping stone to the next,” he felt a sense of security, mixed with a sense of daring:

Suddenly you were on your own. You were giddy and rooted to the spot at one and the same time. Your body stood stock still, like a milestone or a boundary mark, but your head would be light and swimming from the rush of the river at your feet and the big stately movement of the clouds in the sky above your head.*

Looking back at this experience, Heaney sees it as a metaphor for the capacity of human beings “to be attracted at one and the same time to the security of what is intimately known and the challenges and entrancements of what is beyond us”. For the poet Heaney, the experience is also a metaphor for a good poem, which “allows you to have your feet on the ground and your head in the air simultaneously.”

Seamus Heaney is not a Zen practitioner, though his poems often have a contemplative character. But his experience of standing “stock still” in the middle of a river, with the current flowing past him and the clouds moving above his head, has something in common with the practice of Zen meditation.

In practicing zazen, or seated meditation, we assume a posture that resembles a pyramid. Using the meditation cushion as a wedge, we keep our knees on the mat below, forming a triangle with our sitting bones. Leaning forward, then straightening up, we allow the spine to assume its natural curvature, erect but resilient. Exhaling fully in this position, we let our weight and our awareness drop into the lower abdomen. As we settle into stillness, we feel aligned and firmly grounded. To heighten our awareness of our stable posture, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests we silently recite the verses, “Breathing in, I see myself as a mountain. / Breathing out, I feel solid”.

Yet if the posture of meditation engenders feelings of solidity, it also fosters openness to experience. Because we are sitting still, we become more sensitive to movement within and around us, be it the flow of breath or the buzz of a fly at the window. Because our posture promotes relaxed alertness, we can observe the thoughts that cross our minds, as though they were clouds in the sky. And because we are resting in awareness, we can recognize those mental habits—those recurrent memories, fantasies, and expectations—that leave little room for anything more productive. Merely by bringing awareness to that mental traffic, we may cause it to diminish, clearing a space for creative thought.

In December, 1995, Seamus Heaney traveled to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. In “Crediting Poetry,” his Nobel Lecture, he reflected on his “journey into the wideness of language, a journey where each point of arrival—whether in one’s poetry or one’s life—turned out to be a stepping stone rather than a destination”. For the meditative practitioner, whose aim is the deepening of awareness, wisdom, and compassion, the journey may be very different, but the underlying pattern is much the same. Successive acts of attention, made possible by the practitioner’s stable base, open the ego-centered self to a more expansive reality, be it the wideness of language or the ocean of human suffering. On the long path toward compassionate understanding, each moment fully realized becomes a stepping stone, each step a fresh arrival.


*Seamus Heaney, Finders Keepers (Faber, 2002), 48. For the full text of “Crediting Poetry” see http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1995/heaney-lecture.html

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