Posts Tagged ‘zen meditation’

I once had a neighbor who rarely stopped complaining, chiefly about his ailments. On one day it was his allergies, on another his asthma. On rare occasions, when his body was being relatively compliant, his monologues might briefly turn to other matters, but sooner rather than later they came back to his maladies. He seemed incapable of changing the subject.

However pronounced, my neighbor’s habit of mind was not all that unusual. The activity of complaining is as embedded in human nature as the verb describing it is in the English language. Complain derives from the Latin plangere, which means “to lament or bewail.” From the same root come plaintive, plangent, and of course complaint.  If you are of a certain age, you may recall that physical afflictions and disorders, which are now euphemistically called “issues,” were once known as complaints. There were back complaints, neck complaints, stomach complaints, and many more. Some were real, others imagined. All caused the sufferer to complain, which is say, lament, often to no avail.

In popular culture, the practice of Zen is sometimes perceived as a remedy for complaints, physical and emotional.  Some years ago, as I was arriving at my chiropractor’s office for my appointment, I ran into a longtime friend, who was just leaving. “What’s a Zen master like you doing in a place like this?” he jokingly asked. Underlying his good-natured question, I suspect, was the notion that meditative practice can magically cure the ills that flesh is heir to—or, failing that, enable the practitioner to rise above pain and suffering. Unfortunately, the converse is more often the case. Zen practice is about awakening to reality, not escaping from it.  By curbing the habit of mental wandering and by fostering the disciplines of “stopping and looking,” Zen practice enhances our awareness of our sensations, pleasant and unpleasant, even as they are arising. That awareness can warn us of serious problems in need of treatment, but in my experience it does little to relieve present pain. If you are looking to Zen for a mental or physical analgesic, you would be well-advised to look elsewhere.

What Zen practice does offer, however, is a way of responding, wisely and compassionately, to whatever pains we may incur. In at least four fundamental ways, the practice can enable us to see our lives more clearly and respond accordingly.

First and most important, even ten minutes of meditation a day can reveal the difference between raw physical pain, which is inevitable, and reactive emotional suffering, which is not.  Pain, whatever its origin, is what happens to us; emotional suffering is what we add to the pain, often as a result of our resistance. By paying close attention to our immediate experience, we can learn to recognize that resistance as separate and distinct. And we can endeavor to let it go.

Second, as we come to know our own minds through daily meditation, we can observe the mind’s unceasing urge to generalize, extrapolate, and speculate: to envision dire outcomes and often to fear the worst. Brought under mindful scrutiny, this catastrophizing tendency loses much of its force and power. It, too, can be noted, duly acknowledged, and allowed to dissipate of its own accord.

Third, Zen meditation heightens our awareness of impermanence, including the impermanence of our everyday discomforts. In Zen teachings this dimension of our experience is known as “emptiness”: all conditioned things, including our aches and pains, are empty of inherent existence. Chronic they may be, but they are also insubstantial. To recognize that fact will not take our pains away, but it can help us to endure them.

And last, the compulsion to complain can be met and counterbalanced by what Zen calls the “practice of gratitude,” which is to say, the active cultivation of that quality in our daily lives. “Grateful for my life, I breathe in. / Grateful for my life, I breathe out.”  Whatever our religious beliefs or absence thereof, stopping at least once during the day to offer gratitude for our lives in general and certain aspects of them in particular can be a powerful, countervailing force against reflexive complaining. Words, it’s true, are only words, but if repeated on a daily basis, words of gratitude can have a profound impact on the ways we think and feel.

That impact can be deepened, I might add, if the words are accompanied by the now-uncommon practice of bowing—even if, in the words of the American poet W.S. Merwin, one is “bowing not knowing to what.” Should you choose to explore this practice, you may find that it is nearly impossible to bow in gratitude and complain of one’s infirmities at the same time. The one action precludes the other. For that reason alone, the practice of gratitude is a potent antidote to the habit of complaint.


Cartoon: Mike Baldwin / Cornered

W. S. Merwin, “For the Anniversary of My Death”





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Comparações_planetárias“Have you been comparing?” ask Rodgers and Hart in their 1932 ballad “You Are Too Beautiful.” I suspect that most of us, if we are being honest and sufficiently self-aware, would have to answer in the affirmative. “Comparison,” observed Mark Twain, whose vein of dark wisdom ran as deep as his humor, “is the death of joy.” Yet on we go, comparing whatever is at hand, be it brands of dental floss or newly listed homes or presidential candidates. A product of our education and social conditioning, the mental habit of comparison is as ingrained as it is necessary for survival. Regrettably, however, if left unexamined that habit can also rob us of happiness and hinder us from appreciating our present lives. (more…)

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800px-Taughannock_Falls_overlook“As everyone knows,” declares Ishmael, the narrator of Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick (1851), “meditation and water are wedded forever.”

Melville’s schoolmaster-turned-sailor makes this remark in the opening pages of Moby-Dick, as he reflects on the lure of water, especially to those of a contemplative disposition, who are naturally drawn to ponds, lakes, rivers, and the sea. Ishmael is not a meditative practitioner in any formal sense, and as Daniel Herman, a Melville scholar and Zen practitioner, notes, “Melville almost certainly never in his life heard the word ‘Zen’.” Yet Ishmael’s remark is relevant to the discipline of Zen meditation, insofar as that remark calls attention to two salient elements of the practice. By its nature, water visibly embodies the quality of impermanence, one of the primary objects of Zen contemplation. At the same time, water also embodies the quality of constancy, which Zen teachings urge us to contemplate. “How can I enter Zen?” a student asked a master. “Can you hear the murmuring of the mountain stream?” the master replied. “Enter there.” (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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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 that 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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