Monday, July 26, 2010

What Zen Meditation is Not

Just as yoga (yoking with the divine) is not Stretch-'n-Bend, meditation is not a stress relief technique.  What's wrong with that?  And hasn't Jon Kabat-Zinn brought meditation to the masses?  Let me start with the second question.  My answer is, I just don't know.  Lots of people have read his books and taken classes.  Years ago Tom and I took a class in healthy eating that incorporated teaching an 18-minute meditation carefully styled to have nothing to do with spirit, ethics, growth or self-knowledge.  It claimed benefits proven by science, and used a body scan picked up perhaps from the vipassana tradition.  We already had a practice.  Otherwise, I'd be surprised if anyone there began and stayed with a daily practice.  Because meditation as stress relief just doesn't work.  (And, as Seung Sahn said, "Meditation is boring.")

That takes me to my first question, What's wrong with teaching it that way? (and isn't it better than no meditation at all?)  Well, take stress.  It is in fact not imposed on us from without, but imposed from within by our reactivity to external events, and by our lifestyle choices and bad habits.  (If you want to think about the stress caused by a bad habit, look up the effect of a cigarette on your body.)  If you choose to live hectic 16-hour days, frequent long evenings drinking with friends, competitive work full of striving and resentment, eating on the run, all that, yes, 18 minutes of meditation, actually sitting still may keep you from having a myocardial infarction at 36.  The sense of being relieved of stress for a few moments is pleasurable.  That's why a great many people, like me, first take up yoga:  one day a week, an hour of peace and quiet, full relaxation, maybe to be followed by a good night's sleep.

I loved that first yoga class, so many years ago, but it didn't save me from the awfully overstressed life I found myself in (to speak of karma).  My teacher had a deep practice, and imparted as much to us of the purpose and meaning of yoga as he could.  I tried to take up the visualization he taught for us, and the guru devotion, but . . . what? I didn't enjoy it - it seemed to get me down.  I had no one to help me see that being forced up against my problems could be a positive thing.

That, you could say, is the purpose of Zen, to make us aware of what we are doing and how it affects us and the world.  To bring us up against reality. That includes the reality that a sssself-centered life, in search of external solutions like pleasure and distraction and romantic love and fame and money and even stress relief - that life does not bring happiness. 

The practice of Zen, sitting still watching your breath, watching what comes into your mind and letting it go, refusing to move even to scratch your head - it has its blissful moments.  I have heard Pema Chodron say that meditation begins in bliss and ends in bliss, but first you have to go through hell.  Doing it with the purpose of being with yourself is, I have found, ultimately relaxing.  The quieter mental state leads me to make the small decisions that ease my life.  Right now, that is that it's time to get ready for bed.  So, goodnight.
[image:  the "nodding onion" we planted this year, growing gracefully in the hottest, dryest spot.]

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