How to meditate
Imagine you are a regular citizen who suddenly heard about mindfulness and meditation. Your curiosity is picked, and you start looking around. And there is a veritable supermarket of choices how to meditate: thousands of secular and Buddhist groups, hundreds of different techniques – most of them promise a quick success and lasting happiness. In the last decade or so there are also meditation applications with guided meditations so you can do three minutes… five minutes… longer times at any point in the day provided you’re welded to your mobile phone. Well I exaggerate a bit, just to make a point.
How do you choose which one is suitable for you if you did not get discouraged already? There are two questions you need to ask: ‘why’ and ‘how’? Simplifying greatly, relaxation, stress relief and life enhancement are the reasons given in the secular context. But there is also the spiritual side: enlightenment or seeing reality. Let’s turn first to ‘how’.
Compared to other traditions, Zen meditation – or zazen, sitting as we prefer to refer to this activity – Zen is boring. Most of the time. The chances are that you begin from counting breaths: one on inhale, two on exhale, three on inhale… and so forth, up to ten, when you come back to one and start all over again. Once you can hold your attention for a while, you can drop counting on inhale and just count (from one) on exhale. Again, from one to ten, and then back to one. And there are all this thoughts and distractions bothering you but you’re told not to worry about it. Let them come, let them go… always come back to counting, starting from one when you lose count. Eventually you’d be able to hold your attention for longer times, and then you may progress to following breath.
On the other end of meditation techniques spectrum is shikan taza ‘just sitting’, also named fusho (the practice of presence or unborn mind). Often it is compared to being a mirror which reflect everything without judgement but does not hold anything – only reflects. This is possibly the most challenging of all techniques, and is the main one in Soto lineage.
Why so? Let me quote an extract from a paper on “Zen meditation and mindfulness for modern times”, B.J. Gabrys and J.D. Skinner, in Proceedings of the Alternative Natural Philosophy Association (ANPA) 32 (2011), A.D. Ford, Editor, the MPG Books Group (2012): http://www.zenspace.org.uk/health-and-wellbeing/
“We teach four fundamental meditation and mindfulness techniques for health and well-being: bodyscan (a simplification of a traditional Zen practice called nanso no ho or soft ointment meditation), counting breath, following breath and fusho (the practice of presence or unborn mind). They serve as an anchor for attention to which we revert when distracted, and their relation to foundations of mindfulness is summarised below:
- bodyscan – strong physical anchor
- counting breath – abstract and physical anchor
- following breath – physical anchor
- fusho – no anchor “
The secret revealed – it’s all about anchor! Not really but rigorous Zen frowns upon meditation with sound, even New Age type soft music, as distraction. However, it is legitimate to take in sounds of natural world: tap-tapping of rain drops on the roof, sound of wind in trees, splash of ocean waves… We should not forget about chanting sutras (good) or repeating mantras aloud (not done in Zen Rinzai).
At this point I make a distinction between listening to or making music. There is little known tradition in Zen of playing special flute or shakuhachi. This was a meditation practice for mendicant monks from Zen Fuke sect. They were known as komuso (monks of nothingness) and were in existence as a sect from about 1700 till 1872 (http://www.mejiro-japan.com/products/music-shakuhachi-shinobue-nohkan/komuso-items/what-are-komuso).
There are still some individuals who practice this way today, and there are plenty of short videos on YouTube. Somewhat randomly, I’ve picked up this video
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-4DV2wMXxKs as it shows a monk in full attire in an urban setting.
Playing shakuhachi became an art form, and there are several artists worldwide who took it into new zones. Adrian Freedman, a master of shakuhachi, is my favourite (https://www.adrianfreedman.com/). He refers to shakuhachi music as ‘music at the edge of silence’. For me this is silence at the edge of music, too. Especially at live concerts, his music – traditional pieces for shakuhachi as well as his own compositions – is truly transporting. Try it!
So far it was all about ‘how’. Importantly we need to answer ‘why’, too. Part of the answer is already given above: handling stress, good relaxation, sharp focus… But there is a deeper reason, too – to gain an insight into how things really are; a spiritual reason. And this requires a long-term commitment. Accepting that things may get worse before they get better. Accepting this is travel into unknown. Like in old fables, there are scary monsters along the road but also breath-taking vistas. Motivation can wane, tiredness may set in – but if you press ahead, the reward will be there. Not a pot of gold, nothing tangible – simply a new perspective on life and contentment. Enlightenment comes in many forms; it can be a volcanic eruption or simply a gentle flow.
All techniques only tell you about how to sit still, focus, open your mind. Practice makes perfect. Once you’re able to hold attention for a decent time span, there comes a choice, not unlike a fork in a road: one leads to sleep, the other to timeless space. You’d need to drop any technique to enter timeless, space-less universe. And come back again to your daily life, a little wiser, a little happier.