He sits on the edge of my couch, stoic. At rest, yet alert for anything to happen at any moment. Whether that be a mouse running across the room (fat chance here) or me getting up to go into the kitchen. I took this picture just after zazen (meditating) — I struggle and struggle and yet right beside me sits a creature that constantly practices in the highest form (shikantaza, “just sitting”) without even trying. An example for me to follow?
A few months ago, I started blogging a bit about my fledgling Buddhist meditation practice, and then abruptly stopped. I thought I’d write just a few words about why I didn’t continue.
Over time, one of the things that I found most difficult about my practice was keeping it relatively pure. The whole point is to just sit and follow the breath with no extra motivation or hidden agenda. Given that, having it in the back of my mind to later try to explain my practice to a broad audience was at best a distraction. At worst, I worried that it might actually be hindering my progress.
After some thinking about it where my desire to explain this stuff came from, I determined that there was a root desire there to make the world conform to my expectations of what it *should* be. Which, if you stop and think about it, is just another form of greed. We often think of our desires as being about personal gratification (food, sex, cars, whatever) but that’s really too narrow a view — we’re social creatures, and our desires and aversions inevitably extend to the social sphere as well.
I suppose that sounds rather judgemental or moralistic, but it’s really not intended that way. This is just the nature of human experience, and I am certainly not exempt from that. There is probably at least some element of this greed at the root of much of my writing, whether it be discussing my latest computational vision problem at work or how I think coffee should be brewed — but at least in those cases articulating myself doesn’t interfere with the activity itself.
A frequent misunderstanding of the practice of Buddhism is that it’s about eliminating desire. As I understand it, it’s not so much that, as it is about putting desires in proper perspective. To not be ruled by them. If I have a social purpose in the back of my head during the practice, well, that’s going to be a problem. It’ll be constantly in the background, subtly influencing what I process and how I process it (e.g. the thought “how am I going to describe that“). I have enough issues meditating without adding to them.
Moreover, one of the things I’ve realized over the last few months is that the way people process the world around the world is pretty differently. I’m lucky enough to have a mind able to sit still for (average) 20 minutes a day. Not perfectly of course — many times I feel like I’m caught up with a million random thoughts for 90% of a session, but as I understand it that’s just part of the process. At least I can sit still! I’ve since learned that this isn’t easy at all for other people (the urge to get up and do something else is overwhelming) and I really have no insight at present into what would make it easier for them (they had tried most of what I suggested to no avail). So I am a bit concerned that what I have to say would act more as a hindrance to the journey of others rather than a help.
All this is not to say that I’m not happy to discuss my experiences one on one with anyone who’s interested. If you’re curious, by all means feel free to contact me — though I suspect you’d probably do better reaching out to a dedicated teacher who has more experience in these matters than I. If you can’t find one, I would again recommend Mindfulness in Plain English.
Okay, remember last time when I said I was going to continue my “sham of a human existence” and not commit to a Zen practice? Well, I came back to the idea sooner than I thought: the experience was just too compelling for me not to do some further exploration. In some strange coincidence, Hacker News had a great thread on meditation just after I wrote my last blog entry, where a few people recommended a book called Mindfulness in Plain English. I figured doing meditation at home didn’t involve any kind of huge commitment (don’t like it? just stop!), so I decided to order it online and give it a try.
Mindfulness in Plain English is really fascinating stuff. It describes how to do a type of Vipassana (insight) meditation, which is practiced with a great deal of ritual in places like Thailand, India, and Sri Lanka. The book however, strips out most of the ritual and just gives you a set of techniques that is quite accessible for a (presumably) western audience. From what I can gather though, it seems like the goal of Vipassana is quite similar to that of Zen (enlightenment; release from attachment and dualism), though the methods and rituals around it are quite different (e.g. there are no koans). Perhaps it’s akin to the difference between GIMP and Photoshop: as those two programs are both aimed at the manipulation of images, both Vipassana and Zen are aimed at the manipulation of the mind. There are differences in the script of how to do so, but the overarching purpose is the same.
Regardless, the portion of the C method that the book describes is almost exactly that which I tried at the Zen workshop: sit still and pay attention to your breathing. There’s a few minor distinctions in terms of the suggested posture (the book recommends either sitting cross legged or in a lotus position vs. the kneeling posture I learnt at the workshop) and the focal point (Mindfulness recommends the tip of the nostrils). But essentially it’s the same stuff. Focus on the breath — counting it if necessary, rince, repeat.
As I mentioned before, this is actually really hard to do properly for being simple in concept. The mind keeps wandering and wandering on all sorts of tangents: plans, daydreams, even thoughts about the meditation itself. Where I found Mindfulness in Plain English helpful was in the advice it gave for dealing with this “monkey mind” phenomenon. The subject is dealt with throughout the book (with two chapters on it and nothing else), but all the advice boils down to “treat it as part of the meditation”. Don’t try to avoid it, just treat it as something to be aware of in the same way as breathing. Then once you have acknowledged it, move the attention back to the breath.
Mindfulness, as far as I can gather, is simply non-judgemental awareness of what we are doing (and what we are supposed to be doing). Every time a distraction is noticed, felt, and understood, you’ve just experienced some approximation of the end goal of the meditation. Like it is with other things (an exercise regimen, learning to play a musical instrument), every small victory should push you further and the path to where you want to go. With enough practice, it might just become part of your day-to-day experience.
Or so I’m told by the book. Up to now, I haven’t enjoyed any longlasting effects from meditation aside from (possibly?) a bit more mental clarity in my day-to-day tasks. But I’ve found the practice to be extremely interesting both from the point of view of understanding my own thought, as well as being rather relaxing in and of itself. So while I’m curious as to what comes next, I am happy enough with things as they are in the present. I’m planning to continue to meditate (20-30 minutes a day, 6 days a week), but also delve a bit deeper into the details and history of Zen and Vipasanna. More updates as appropriate.