Thursday, 14 November 2013

How to Meditate

(More experienced sitters may also find Meditation Tips useful.)

Meditation is easy to do but challenging to learn, mostly because it is so easy; practitioners either don't talk about technique at all, or tart it up with so much precious tripe it's hard to discern the fundamentals. When I became a hermit monk, with the Internet and common sense my only master, I had some difficulty getting the hang of this sitting thing. After a few weeks, with mixed results and the general feeling I must be "doing it wrong", I finally Googled my way to Zen Mountain Monastery's concise, complete, flake-free instructions. Without further koo-koo-ka-choo, here they are:

ZEN MOUNTAIN MONASTERY ZAZEN INSTRUCTIONS, aka Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Zen Meditation But Nobody Would Answer Your Goddam Questions. (If this link goes nowhere, you'll find a pdf file here.)

In respect and support of all enlightenment practices, I would also like to share some lessons learned during that founding period, to help others avoid common cul-de-sacs.

o When the Buddha said "sit", he meant "sit". The most important thing in your meditation practice is meditation. It's more important than equipment, posture, teachings, sutras, doctrine, or literally anything else. Just getting yourself to sit down and stay down is both the point and the hardest part of this practice.

o We don't meditate to accomplish things. We don't do it to become calmer, kinder people. We don't do it to sharpen our attention, or gain insight into our lives or the human condition. We sure as hell don't do it to have "visions" or become Awesome Zen Masters. Some sits are "good", full of wisdom, acceptance, and clarity. Others are "bad", full of rage and grief and unrest. But whatever happens is what's supposed to happen.

o Benefits are often realised only after you stop. Sometimes I sit for an hour without a second of peace. My mind snarls and chews, my body creaks and whines; nothing's good. But when I finally get up, a sort of quiet contentment washes over me. If I hadn't kept sitting, I wouldn't have received that compensation.

o Sometimes – particularly in the beginning – you may in fact have visions, or openings, or other types of mental recoil. Greet these like you greet everything that happens on the cushion: with a firm "Hmmmm." An experience may have meaning to you, but don't become attached to it – i.e., consider it a "revelation", or any other twee bunkum. These insights come from inside of you, from your own mind. Take delivery, and pass on to the next breath.

o When I first started, I read a lot of Zen teachings about being unmovable and disciplined and determined. As I was (and am) hard-core in my pursuit of enlightenment, if I dozed off on the cushion, I would slap myself, hard, to stay awake. One day I gave myself a bloody nose. "This can't be what the Buddha had in mind," I thought. I was right. Zen comes from Asia, where it's cool to inflict suffering on yourself. Monks there are beaten, made to sit in uncomfortable conditions or for tortuously long periods, denied sleep, food, leisure, and hygiene. (See Eat Sleep Sit: My Year at Japan's Most Rigorous Zen Temple, by Nonomura Kaoru.) The Buddha flat-out ordered us not to do this. Machismo is one of the stickiest attachments, right up there with greed, approval, and Facebook. You get zero credit for "powering through" avoidable suffering; in fact, it sets you back. If physical misery rises to the point you can no longer focus, modify your technique, or terminate the session.

o Beware the stories of others (including mine). Listening to other meditators' experiences is a sure path to discontent. "Everybody else talks about transcending/kensho/insight/oneness/visions/out-of-body experiences/indifference to pain/recovering lost memories/curing warts; something must be wrong with me." Your meditation practice is tailored to you. No-one else can command it, forbid it, certify it, or control it. You have one task: to sit. Are you doing it? Goooood.

o Finally, the effects of meditation are cumulative. You will feel much greater "effect" (for want of a better word) if you meditate twice a day, every day, than if you sit only once, or erratically. Life conspires to break up practice; sometimes you can't sit as well, or as often, as you'd like. Overcoming such obstacles (including the most debilitating: your internal excuse factory), and accepting them when they can't be overcome, is the nature of practice.

Somebody smart once said, "Each time you sit is the first time." This isn't poetry; no matter what's happened before, or what you've come to expect, every sit is its own event, ungovernable and unpredictable. And despite what some would have you believe, there are no meditation masters, any more than there are sleeping masters, dreaming masters, or boredom masters. Meditation is a natural state, arising when conditions are such. Following the Zen Mountain instructions (or pdf) establishes those conditions; whatever happens next is zazen.

Are you doing it? Goooood.