In Zen, meditation is about sitting, standing, or walking in total awareness. Roshi Steve Hagen, Lead teacher at the Dharma Field Zen Center in Minneapolis, MN, and author of the best book on meditation I’ve ever read, Meditation Now or Never, puts it this way:
“Meditation, and it’s Japanese translation ‘Zen,’ is the practice of awareness, openness, and direct experience of here and now.
That’s what we need to know about meditation. It’s not about becoming more relaxed, healthy or even enlightened. In fact, the moment we think we’re going to get something out of meditation, we take ourselves out of the meditation mindset.
How Not to Think About Meditation
1. Meditation isn’t about relaxation
It’s easy to see how this is a common misconception. When we sit calmly and observe our breath, it’s almost a given that we will encounter a more relaxed state of mind and body. But that isn’t meditation.
Meditation is simply the observation of what’s going on around us while we sit and observe in total awareness. It’s not about being zoned out or emptying our mind; if anything, meditation is the exact opposite.
We allow observable phenomena such as sound, sensation, points of pressure, pain, etc., to be observed when they arise, but we also allow them to pass as we refocus attention on the breath.
While we may feel more relaxed after a meditation session, it isn’t the goal and, I can tell you from personal experience, there are times when meditation doesn’t induce relaxation. Most of the time meditation perpetuates the mood and mindset that we bring into the session.
If I’m feeling frustrated before meditation, I’ll feel frustrated during and after.
2. Meditation isn’t about lowering your blood pressure
Most of the peaceful photos and memes we commonly see that depict meditation include some sort of serene, natural environment; we imagine calm pools of water and a cooling breeze gently blowing.
I’ve never experienced a meditation session in such an environment. I’ve meditated outside before but the calm serenity of such a scene is only half of the picture. There are also traffic noises, birds singing, dogs barking, the noise of busy traffic, loud trucks, and honking horns vying for my attention. As one who has a diagnosis of essential hypertension, I can tell you that none of these factors lower my blood pressure. I rely on medication and exercise for that.
Conversely, meditation is when we passively observe the frenetic manner in which our minds work. At times, it can be anything but calming and serene. Although the medical and psychological benefits of a regular meditation practice are well documented, it isn’t a substitute for the treatment of hypertension nor should any benefit in that area be expected.
3. Meditation isn’t an anger management tool
When was the last time you saw an angry Buddhist monk? Probably never, right? That’s most likely because they’ve spent years deep in disciplined spiritual practice and they know that anger is a momentary choice to act on base desires. This isn’t to say that monks don’t experience anger; They’re just as human and you and I. The difference is they’ve learned how to better manage their anger. But this is not meditation.
Meditation isn’t an anger management tool, although it can, over time, decrease our reactive nature to the hot buttons we all possess. I have an anger button that can become pushed by insensitive people on occasion, but it no longer gets the best of me. I’ve learned over many years to interpret the offending situation, remark, or action of another before choosing my reaction. My meditation practice doesn’t prevent me from becoming angry.
I’ve learned to adopt the monk’s habit of interpreting the situation before reacting in anger. This is not unlike the meditation instruction in jails and prisons. The message is clear: anger is a reactive choice and it’s resulting actions aren’t prevented by meditation. The inmates who engage in meditation classes are, like me, learning how to delay their reaction to intense situations and choosing action with a clearer mindset.
4. Meditation isn’t a visualization experience
When you sit zazen, Japanese for sitting meditation, practice is a recurrent cycle of observing the mind, returning it to the here and now when it invariably wanders off in daydreams and thoughts tributaries that lead us away from the present.
Any visualization of nirvana, blissful states, or deep philosophical realizations is simply created by a distracted mind. They are momentary experiences that lead to a more permanent state with regular practice.
5. Meditation isn’t about inducing trance states
While there are types of meditation practices that are devoted to inducing a trans-like state, they are not zen meditation. On the Transcendental Meditation website, it is stated:
“Unlike other forms of meditation, TM practice involves no concentration, no control of the mind, no contemplation, no monitoring of thoughts.
The TM technique allows your mind to easily settle inward, through quieter levels of thought, until you experience the most silent and peaceful level of your own awareness — pure consciousness.”
My goal here is not to discredit TM. On the contrary, I learned TM while I was a Kriya Yoga initiate many years ago. But, it isn’t Buddhist meditation.
TM and other forms of trance-inducing meditation take us away from the here and now and offers a temporary escape from whatever is bothering us. But when the trance is over our problems, like patient old friends, are still waiting for us in the here and now.
Zen meditation confronts our problems head on in the present. In zen, we don’t seek to escape the present, but engage it directly.
6. Meditation doesn’t provide a gateway to supernatural powers
I used to attend a meditation group on Thursday with the San Jose Dharma Punx. Stephanie, the guest teacher often spoke of imagining ourselves as a Dharma Superhero. ‘Compassion Supergirl’ was her own ideal superhero superpowers of ultimate compassion. 😎
That’s a neat idea to think about, but it’s more application of dharma to our lives. In meditation we don’t seek the revelation of superpowers from some ultimate Source; if anything, we might uncover our own Buddha nature on occasion and act on it throughout our lives.
The simplicity and beauty of meditation are that we are fully aware, in the present moment just as we are – problems and all. Anything less would feel pretentious.
7. Meditation doesn’t provide for instant insight into your problems
Meditation is mind training, pure and simple. It’s observing the mind, bringing it back to the present moment each time it wanders. This aspect of meditation never changes. That can either be comforting or disappointing depending on your level of attachment to a preconceived outcome.
I use to have a friend that insisted she could arrive at answers to complex relationship problems in her life by sitting meditation. But if meditation exists as Zen masters have taught it throughout the centuries, I doubt that what my friend was experiencing was meditation; More likely she was engaged in focused concentration or problem-solving.
In focused problem solving, we lose our place in the here and now and employ visualization to investigate potential outcomes. That isn’t Zen, it’s problem-solving. There is nothing wrong with problem-solving as a practice, but it shouldn’t be confused with meditation.
8. Meditation isn’t the path to enlightenment
“OK, Baz….are you serious? How else am I supposed to become a Badass Buddha? If not on the cushion, how exactly does one become enlightened?”
Enlightenment is a myth. Ok, not really (just seeing if you’re still paying attention), but here in the West, it’s taken on mythic proportions. There is a growing population of practitioners who think that publicly proclaiming one’s enlightenment is a good thing. They are interested in topics such as:
~ How advanced is your meditation practice?
~ How many times have you experienced satori?
~ What color is your robe?
Really? It’s not like there is a report card for how Zen you are. How does one even measure such a concept?
Brad Warner’s post on Hardcore Zen is a good one in this regard. At the end of the post he writes:
“Claiming to have attained enlightenment or some special meditational level is an entirely useless claim to make. It means less than nothing. It tells me only that the person making the claim thinks very highly of himself. Big deal.”
Seeking enlightenment isn’t the goal of meditation. In fact, seeking it at all is silly. It’s not part of our meditation practice on a day-to-day basis. Satori, the Japanese word for enlightenment, is often used to describe a rapid realization and understanding of reality. It’s momentary and often arrives without warning; it is fleeting and impermanent.
Warner makes a good case for this by quoting the Heart Sutra, saying that there is nothing to attain. Attainment of anything is transient.
I once had a colleague who I often jogged with and she liked saying that was no reservoir for fitness. That’s true, there isn’t. Likewise, when you attain a 7th degree Black Belt in Karate unless you use it often, what does that level really mean anymore?
Experiencing enlightenment doesn’t mean you will be forever changed and live on a plane of existence above others for the rest of your life.
Enlightenment may be as fleeting as the sunset, but the meditation cushion is our constant refuge; a place where the world meets the mind and our training are continued day by day.