Archive for the ‘meditation’ Category

Uninvited guests

Thinking about small

“I like my thoughts,” a student once told me. She was not alone. Our passing thoughts can entertain, console, and inspire us. They can be the seeds of future creations. But our thoughts can also burden and oppress us, especially when they become repetitious or obsessive. And all too often our thoughts can deceive us, creating a delusive filter between our minds and things as they are.

Zen teachings address this issue in various ways. The most basic instructions for Zen meditation direct us to sit upright and still and pay attention to our posture and breathing. To assist in doing this, we can employ a variety of methods, such as counting breaths, repeating a mantra, or reciting meditative verses. Such methods foster concentration and stability of mind. They slow our non-stop thinking by creating gaps between successive thoughts. Beyond this basic practice, however, we can also learn to release our thoughts, even as they arise.

If you are interested in exploring this practice, may I suggest you try this three-step exercise:

1. Fill a small cup with a favorite beverage. Sit upright, aware of your breath and posture. Pick up the cup with the fingers of both hands, pressing firmly against its sides. Take a sip of its contents, savoring its taste. Now put the cup down and release the pressure you applied. Feel the sense of release.

2. Place a valued object (real or imagined) in the palm of your hand. Clutch it tightly and extend your hand in front of you, palm downward. Imagine that you are holding your extended arm over a deep, open well. If you open your hand, the object will fall. Experience the impact of that imagined outcome on your body and your state of mind. Now turn your palm upward and slowly open your hand. Feel the sense of release. And note that the object is still fully supported.

3. Summon from your trove of memories a strongly held view. It might be a political opinion, an inherited moral absolute, or a perception of a person you like or dislike. Let the thought and its emotional coloration come clearly into view. Now, with each exhalation, gradually shift your mental orientation from the foreground to the background of your mind: from the contents of your thoughts to the field from which they’ve arisen. Imagine that your mind is an open sky, and your thoughts are clouds. Allow them to stay or drift away.

If you are new to Zen meditation, you may find the first two steps of this exercise relatively unchallenging. By contrast, the third may feel difficult or next to impossible. Should that be the case, two metaphors from twentieth-century Zen teachings might be instructive.

The first comes from the Japanese Zen master Kosho Uchiyama (1912-1998), who admonished his students to “open the hand of thought.” As Uchiyama observed in his eponymous book (Opening the Hand of Thought; Wisdom, 2004), the production of thoughts, one after another, is what the mind naturally does. Thoughts are the mind’s “secretions.” Rather than try to repress them, Uchiyama recommended we train our minds to release them. Opening the cage of our clenched hands, we allow them to fly away.

More playfully but with the same intent, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi advised his Western students, many of whom were heady intellectuals, to think of their thoughts as guests and themselves as hosts. “Leave your front and back doors open,” he urged. “Allow your thoughts to come and go. Just don’t serve them tea.”

Embodied in this saying are two cardinal principles of Zen practice, the first being an attitude of openness to the moment, whatever it might bring. The second principle derives from the Diamond Sutra, a foundational Zen text, where we are enjoined to cultivate a “mind that alights nowhere.” Rather than engage with our thoughts or protract them by dwelling on their implications, we allow our uninvited guests to come in the front door of our minds and leave by the back. And, rather than construct fearful, future-oriented scenarios, we permit the next moment, unhindered by conceptual blockades, to present itself to our awareness.

Eihei Dogen, founder of the Soto Zen tradition, encapsulated this practice in a resonant phrase: “Think non-thinking.” The exact meaning of this phrase has been much debated, perhaps because it is so abstract. In my experience, if we wish to practice “non-thinking” it is helpful to employ one or both of the exercises outlined above, and from there to transfer the physical experience of release into our mental and emotional lives. If we like our thoughts, so much the better. But whether we do or don’t, the practice of releasing them, time and again, can not only relieve our overburdened minds. It can also prepare us for the next moment, whatever pleasures or pains, discoveries or disappointments, that moment might entail.

Image: “Thinking about Small,” by Freddie Alequin (CC)

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Twenty years ago, as an integral part of my Zen training, I attended a sesshin, or five-day meditative retreat, at Dai Bosatsu Zendo, a Rinzai Zen monastery in the Catskills. In keeping with Rinzai custom, we sat in facing rows in the darkened zendo.  Across from me sat a line of longtime practitioners in their black robes, most of them gray-haired men in their fifties and sixties. The head monk struck a gong. And for the next forty minutes, these veteran practitioners sat perfectly still.     

During the long hours of sitting, one forty-minute period following another, I kept my eyes half-open, as Zen teachings prescribe. This way of practicing afforded me ample opportunity to observe the erect figures in my wider field of vision. Over time, these august presences came to resemble a human mountain range, austere and imperturbable. And their utter stillness became more than the absence of movement. It was itself a powerful presence, embodying what the Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck has called the “dignity of stillness.”

That quality of body, heart, and mind is hardly unique to Zen practice. It can be experienced in other settings, such as a Quaker meeting or a public memorial service. But in Zen, the maintaining of absolute stillness, together with absolute silence, is at once a condition and a fruit of long-term practice. For newcomers, sitting still for more than five minutes can pose a daunting challenge. But for those who persist in the practice, this mode of being can come to feel as natural as it is rewarding. And in due time, its true nature can come more clearly into focus.

To begin with, the stillness of the mature Zen practitioner should not be confused with stoicism or emotional repression. Viewed from the outside, the stillness of the realized Zen master might be interpreted as purely an act of will. He or she has learned to hold still. Forming a conscious intention not to move is indeed a part of the practice, at least initially. But as one eventually discovers, the stillness of zazen is achieved not by holding still but by settling into stillness. It represents a release rather than an act of conscious volition. Thich Nhat Hanh once likened settling into stillness to the dropping of a pebble into a river. As the pebble comes to rest on the riverbed, so does the body-mind of the practitioner come to rest on what in Zen is called the “still point”. When that settling occurs, the feeling of repose within currents of activity, of stillness within movement, pervades both the body and the mind.

The stillness of Zen is the natural result of sustained attention. It is the external manifestation of an inner concentration. Yet here again, the concentration of the Zen practitioner is not to be equated with that of a seamstress threading a needle or an artisan carving a scrimshaw medallion. It might more aptly be likened to a red fox sitting on his haunches, ready for whatever might arise. In contrast to the laser-like focus of foveal vision, which concentrates intently on the object at hand, the stillness of Zen reflects a cultivated capacity, common to equestrians, hunters, and Zen practitioners alike, to “spread” one’s vision into the periphery, encompassing both the object of attention and the wider environment. Sometimes called “soft eyes,” this way of seeing is at once invigorating and relaxing.  Shifting our orientation from close inspection to the field of awareness itself, it eases the tension created by one-pointed concentration.

Beyond this enactment of awareness, openness, and easeful circumspection, the stillness of the Zen practitioner also expresses an attitude of respect, both for oneself and whatever persons or inanimate objects may be present at the time. “Being still ourselves,” writes Robert Rosenbaum, a neuropsychologist and longtime Zen practitioner, “allows everything to be itself, still.” To put that assertion in different terms, the stillness cultivated in Zen meditation allows the people and objects in our environs to be exactly what they are, unhindered by any effort to change them or tailor them to our agendas. As I observed more than once at Thich Nhat Hanh’s weeklong retreats, where the gentle but forceful presence of our teacher quietened us all, the dignified stillness of the accomplished Zen practitioner can engender that same quality in others, creating an atmosphere of communal dignity and mutual respect.

 To be sure, the daily cultivation of stillness, as practiced in Zen, is not without its liabilities. We can become addicted to it. As Joko Beck has cautioned, we can focus so intently and so exclusively on stillness as not to notice anything else. But practiced skillfully, the discipline of stillness can be more than a beneficial pursuit. With diligence and commitment, it can transform our once-frenetic moods into tranquil lakes, our anxious minds into oases of stability, and our agitated bodies into human mountains, impervious to our changing inner weather.


Charlotte Joko Beck, Ordinary Wonder (Shambhala, 2021), 119.

Robert Rosenbaum, That is Not Your Mind (Shambhala, 2022), 190.

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Consider, if you will, the peculiar status of the word special. Whether employed as adjective or noun, the word means distinctive, uncommon, out-of-the-ordinary. Yet the word itself could hardly be more common. On what seems like a weekly basis, retailers announce their Special Offers and Special Sales. For breakfast, some of us eat Special K, which presumably is superior to Regular K. When we go out to dinner to celebrate a special occasion, we are likely to hear at length about that evening’s specials. In some contexts, as in “special needs,” “special effects,” and Special Counsel, the word’s function is chiefly descriptive, but more often it serves to praise, sell, or persuade. If someone calls you a “very special person,” you can safely take it as a compliment. With rare exceptions, both the literal meaning and the connotations of special are reliably, if vaguely, laudatory. (more…)

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Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg, 1988

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. So goes the Zen proverb, and for many it may be true. In my case, however, I was neither ready nor expectant. And my first guide on the path of meditation was an unlikely candidate for the position.

Allen Ginsberg visited Alfred University in October 1978.  It was a relatively tranquil time, especially when contrasted with our present era. A few weeks earlier, the Camp David Accords had been signed under the watchful eye of President Jimmy Carter. In Western New York the fall colors were at their peak. (more…)

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Shinge Roshi, Abbot, Dai Bosatsu Zendo and the Zen Center of Syracuse

Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat Roshi, Abbot,
Dai Bosatsu Zendo and the Zen Center of Syracuse

The practice of Zen contemplation, Zen teachings tell us, is the “action of non-action,” grounded in silent awareness. At the same time, the “non-action” of Zen is best described in active verbs. In her essay “What is Zen?” Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat Roshi offers this description:

What is Zen? Stop now. Stop trying to get an intellectual lock on something that is vast and boundless, far more than the rational mind can grasp. Just breathe in with full awareness. Taste the breath. Appreciate it fully. Now breathe out, slowly, with equal appreciation. Give it all away; hold onto nothing. Breathe in with gratitude; breathe out with love. Receiving and offering–this is what we are doing each time we inhale and exhale. To do so with conscious awareness, on a regular basis, is the transformative practice we call Zen.

It would be difficult to find a more lucid or concrete description of Zen practice. Follow Shinge Roshi’s instructions, and you will not go wrong. Yet, for all its clarity, this description is at one point ambiguous. “Hold onto nothing,” Shinge Roshi advises. “Give it all away.” But what is the antecedent, a grammarian might inquire, of the pronoun “it”? What, besides our breath, are we giving away? (more…)

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BACKYARDOne afternoon a few summers ago, I decided to practice the guitar on our backyard deck. It was a sunny day, the temperature in the mid-seventies. At the time, I was revisiting the Prelude from J.S. Bach’s Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro (BWV 998), a piece I had played for years and knew by heart. Normally, I practice indoors, my eyes fixed on the score. If I’ve memorized the piece, I tend to stare at the fingerboard, as classical guitarists are prone to do. That afternoon, however, I looked out at our spacious and secluded backyard, where the natural world was vividly in motion. Blue jays were foraging in the grass. Leaves quivered in a light wind. High in a tall pine, a dark bird flew in, perched for a moment, and flew out. As I played the first few bars of the Prelude–a lyrical but technically challenging piece–my eyes came to rest on our Curly Willow tree in the middle distance. At the same time, I remained keenly aware of all the peripheral movement. And as I proceeded into the Prelude, I gradually realized that my playing had become more fluent and relaxed. To my surprise, it had also become more accurate, expressive, and rhythmically precise.

That experience was new to me, but it was hardly my invention. Without knowledge or systematic training, I had stumbled upon a technique known to equestrians, martial artists, and other highly skilled performers as “soft eyes.” “Do you know what you need at a crime scene?” asks Detective Bunk Moreland in The Wire. “Rubber gloves?” ventures Detective Kima Greggs. “Soft eyes,” Moreland replies. “You got soft eyes, you see the whole thing.” In essence an integration of peripheral and foeval (central, line-of-sight) vision, the technique of soft eyes is used in fields as diverse as tracking, performance driving, interior decorating, teaching, yoga, and Akido. The personal and social benefits of this technique can be significant, if not transformative. It can permit us at any moment to see “the whole thing.” Yet in obvious ways, the practice of soft eyes runs counter to the prevalence of “hard eyes”–the type of vision we habitually employ when chopping a carrot or threading a needle or working at a computer. To learn to look with soft eyes may require conscious effort. (more…)

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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.” (more…)

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Fragrance_Garden_-_Brooklyn_Botanic_Garden_-_Brooklyn,_NY_-_DSC07926In contemporary public discourse, it has become common to speak of “dying with dignity,” especially in discussions of assisted suicide. By contrast, it is rare to find a reference to living with dignity, except when it pertains to the elderly or disabled or infirm. Yet what could be more important to our well-being, one might ask, than living with dignity, whether one is healthy or sick, youthful or advanced in years? (more…)

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Cortical Columns      Greg A. Dunn

Cortical Columns
Greg A. Dunn

It’s no great mystery, my friend used to say. He was a gifted mechanic and a natural handyman. How do you replace and properly gap the spark plugs on a ’63 Ford pickup? It’s no great mystery. Just read the manual. How do you fix a leaking toilet? Rewire an electrical outlet? No problem. And no great mystery either.

In practical terms, my friend may have been right, but in ultimate terms, he was wide of the mark. O Magnum Mysterium (“O Great Mystery”), a responsorial chant in the Roman Catholic Christmas Mass, celebrates the mystery of Jesus’ birth in a lowly manger. In its reverence for the ineffable, as manifest in humble environs, that sacred text shares common ground with Zen teachings, which enjoin us to hearken, in a spirit of “not-knowing,” to the hidden, unknowable, and indescribable dimension of ordinary life. (more…)

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