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Wednesday, September 2, 2020

the work of zen meditation

Done properly, zen meditation is neither staring into empty space, nor fantasizing about whatever you want. It is a particular kind of effort -- focusing on your breath and your heartbeat, and endlessly dragging yourself back to that focus on your breath and your heartbeat.

This requires effort! because what I call the "frog brain" doesn't want to simply focus on your breath and your heartbeat. Your frog brain wants to keep hopping away to something more interesting, more pressing, more ... something, something more, something else.

In practice, zen meditation is a process of observing how your brain doesn't really want to sit still, so you have to keep dragging it back to your body. This ... is all it is. It's not the same as forcing your brain to sit still, because it won't do that. You have to keep dragging your brain back to your body. "Sit down and shut up, brain!" "No, I want to think about something else!"

There's nothing exciting about this process, nothing special about it. If you start thinking, "Hey, this meditation is really cool," then you have to drag your brain back to your breath and heartbeat, because meditation isn't "cool", it's focusing on your breath and heartbeat. If you start thinking, "Wow, I'm having all these insights about the universe," then you have to drag your brain back to your breath and heartbeat.

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There are other kinds of activities that people call meditation, but they aren't zen meditation. There are all kinds of "guided" meditations, there are chanting meditations, walking meditations, chanting while walking meditations, probably other kinds of meditations I haven't heard of. And there's nothing wrong with any of these activities, they just aren't zen meditation. Zen meditation is also called "zazen". It is also called, informally, "sitting".

Zen meditation is compatible with any lifestyle, religion, politics, ideology, philosophy, etc. All you're doing is setting aside a bit of time each day to focus on your breath and heartbeat. That's literally all it is! No big deal. Nothing special.

People write books about zen, oh so many books. Reading books about zen is not zen meditation. People form organizations so they can perform zen meditation together, at the same time and place each week. There's nothing wrong with that, but that's all it is. Such organizations may require paying rent, accepting donations, having a bank account, having somebody to keep the schedule, unlock the door, greet newcomers, start the session, time the session, end the session, clean up the bathroom after people leave, take out the trash, turn out the lights. Traditionally, the folks organizing the session will give a "dharma talk" as part of the ritual, but this isn't necessary. Other times, the organizers will grant short private interviews to those who show up, but this isn't necessary. There may be other parts to the ritual, depending on who's in charge.

If you want, you can do zazen for several hours a day, for several days in a row. Organizers offer weekend or week-long zen "retreats" for this purpose. These require overnight stays, so there are dorms and kitchens, meals and laundry. Focusing on your breath and heartbeat this much is unusual for humans, and can be either exhausting or illuminating. I haven't tried it myself. I have enough trouble meditating for a fraction of an hour once per day.

Some of these meditation groups organize themselves into rather complicated Zen Centers with people who wear robes and take on titles, and then ... all the problems of human organizations pop up. People competing for leadership roles. People wanting to have sexual intercourse. People wanting salaries, or higher salaries. People wanting a nicer building for their Zen Center. People arguing over who to hire to design or build their nicer building. People wanting to discuss social issues, people wanting to organize for a better world, people disputing whether or how to do these things, etc.

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Zazen is focusing on the breath and heartbeat. That's all.

It reminds me of one of my favorite passages in the New Testament, which is from one of my favorite chapters (#6) in my favorite Gospel (Matthew) -- all this coming from an atheist, heh,

When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them ... But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Deity in secret.

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So why meditate?

Some of the people who wear robes and write books will tell you that fantastic things happen when you meditate.  But they've got careers or lifestyles that depend on people giving them money in exchange for fantastic promises about what will happen when you meditate.

The benefit of practicing meditation is that you get better at meditation -- you get better at dragging your brain back to your body.  That's all.  That's the benefit.  If I say anything more about it, then I'm letting my frog brain jump away to something else.

The benefit of practicing meditation is that you get better at meditation -- you get better at dragging your frog brain back to your body.  That's all.

That's why I meditate.  But then after a while my frog brain escapes, and it hops far far away from my body, for weeks or months or years at a time.  Until I catch it again and make it sit for a while each day.

Over and over and over.  How long will this run last?  So far it has lasted four days.  The previous run lasted about two weeks.  I'm trying to get this pesky frog brain to stay put every day.  Every fucking day.  We'll see.

Written by Matthew Dominic Hunter @ 03:36 AM

 

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