Blah blah blah. Meditation is good for you. But I’m bad at it. It’s boring. Who has time for it? It’s hard to do. Too spiritual. Not relevant. Some day soon you’re going to have to stop reading about it.
Buddhist scriptures, Buddhist doctrine, and Buddhist philosophy are no more than intellectual formulations of zazen, and zazen itself is their practical demonstration. From this vast field I will abstract what is most essential for your practice.
Buddha devoted himself exclusively to zazen for six years and eventually, on the morning of the eighth of December, at the very instant when he glanced at the planet Venus gleaming in the eastern sky, he attained perfect enlightenment. He spontaneously cried out, “Wonder of wonders! Intrinsically all living beings are Buddhas, endowed with wisdom and virtue, but because men’s minds have become inverted through delusive thinking they fail to perceive this.” The first pronouncement of the Buddha seems to have been one of awe and astonishment.
The first declaration of Buddha is also the ultimate conclusion of Buddhism.
I hope to have succeeded in conveying to you the importance of zazen. Let us now talk about practice.
Select a quiet room in which to sit.
There must be something in the connotation of the word “being” that makes it seem like the opposite of “doing.” I say that because I’m sometimes asked how, as an avowed meditator, I ever get things done. Perhaps they picture me curled up in a corner.
A regular meditation practice is the last thing that prevents me from totally engaging in activity. It helps me do more even as I think about it less. Hidden in the question is how preoccupied we are with to-doing rather than doing. To-doing or should-be-doing takes up quite a bit of time. It could well be the principal occupation of our lives: imagining scenarios, planning strategies, fretting outcomes, second-guessing choices and then sticking the whole rigamarole back into the familiar rut that’s so hard to get out of.
Emptying the mind of that kind of doing opens it up to a spontaneous and creative undoing that is quite marvelous and, I dare say, breathtaking.
To start, let go of the ideas you may have about what meditation is supposed to look like or what it is supposed to feel like. Let the monkey in your mind go to sleep so that you can wake up and reclaim your rightful home.
Unless you have a meditation cushion, or zafu, do not attempt to sit cross-legged on the floor to meditate. Without adequate support to elevate your buttocks and enable you to anchor your knees on the floor, sitting this way quickly becomes painful. The point of meditation is not pain. Your life is painful enough as it is. The point of meditation is to relieve pain.
What follows are instructions for meditating in a chair. Although you are unlikely to have the perfect chair in your home for meditation, any chair is perfectly okay. So do not delay your practice until your trip to the Furniture Mart.
1. Sit on the forward third of a chair so that your feet rest firmly on the ground. To support your back, place a hard cushion between your spine and the chair back. This will prevent slouching and keep you alert.
2. Space your feet widely apart. Your body is now supported at three points: your two feet and your bottom. In seated meditation, three contact points are essential for endurance and comfort. Your body now evokes the strength of a mountain.
3. Place your hands in the middle of your lap as follows: first, your right hand, palm up; then, your left hand, palm up, resting in your right palm. Lightly touch the tips of your thumbs together. Holding your hands in this way calms agitation and restlessness.
4. To check your posture, align your ears with your shoulders. Align your nose with your navel. Tuck your chin in slightly. Hold your head as though it were supporting the sky, and it will neither hang forward nor fall backward.
5. Relax your belly. A stiff, cinched abdomen restricts your breathing. In meditation, you will try to return to the full, rounded breathing of a baby. Watch your baby breathe and see that the belly rises on inhalation, not the chest. This is a good demonstration for you to learn from.
6. Lower your gaze, but do not close your eyes. If you close your eyes, you will be lulled into daydreaming. Meditation is not practice for sleeping; it is practice for waking up. Look at a spot on the floor or on a wall in front of you. Any spot will do, as long as it is not distracting.
7. Close your teeth and your mouth. Take a breath and exhale completely.
8. On your next inhalation, silently count “one.” When you exhale, silently count “two.” Inhale counting “three.” Count each exhalation and inhalation up to “ten” and then start back at “one.” If you lose the count, begin again at “one.” This meditation practice is called counting your breath.
9. When a thought comes up, let it go away by itself, which it will if you do not pursue it.
10. This is the practice of zazen. Do zazen for up to five minutes. Keep a watch or clock nearby to note the time. As you meditate more often, you may be able to do it for longer. Do not be self-critical or impatient with yourself. Do not push yourself. Do not make meditation one more thing you have to do. If you are gentle, encouraging and consistent with yourself, your meditation practice will naturally deepen and lengthen.
Five minutes is not a long time, but it can take a long time to find five minutes to meditate. Usually, the first five minutes or the last five minutes in the day are the easiest to find. You already have them and they are already quiet.
I will be most happy to answer your questions and encourage you to keep going.
“I often see those who are trying to study Buddhism just use their worldly intelligence to sift among the verbal teachings of the buddhas and ancestral teachers, trying to pick out especially wondrous sayings to use as conversation pieces to display their ability and understanding. This is not the correct view of the matter. You must abandon your worldly mentality and sit quietly with mind silent. Forget entangling causes and investigate with your whole being. When you are thoroughly clear then whatever you bring forth from your own inexhaustible treasure of priceless jewels is sure to be genuine and real.”
A practice without a practice is not a practice.
To settle the matter, settle the matter.
1: an act or process of withdrawing especially from what is difficult, dangerous, or disagreeable; the process of receding from a position or state attained
2: a place of privacy or safety: refuge
3: a period of group withdrawal for prayer, meditation, study, or instruction
Someone asked me to write about how to prepare to go on a meditation retreat. This is a good topic, since the matter of preparation is what often keeps us from going on retreat, whether it is for one day or 100 days.
How do you know if you are prepared to handle the silence, the physical rigors, the discipline, and the mental intensity of a prolonged meditation retreat?
Relax. You can’t know. You don’t need to know. There is no way to prepare. The very notion of preparation traps us in false expectation and self-evaluation. It shows us how often we are paralyzed by the feeling of inadequacy in our lives. We are never inadequate but we are immobilized just the same.
Take the forward step now. Register this week and you won’t miss the extraordinary company of 45 ordinary women all taking the backward step into an oasis of deep wisdom and empathy at the one day Mother’s Summer Plunge coming up on June 20.
I just spent three days finding peace and presence. One afternoon while I was gone I called my husband to check in. He and Georgia were leaving Long Beach, where they had spent four hours touring the Aquarium and taken a long harbor cruise, a memorable first for both of them. Here’s Georgia’s on-the-spot report:
She: Mom, guess what?! I just found a dollar bill on the steps in front of me. And then I crossed the street and found a quarter!
Wherever you go, I hope you find $1.25 today, and keep the change. I hope I do too. Because it’s not ever where you’ve been. It’s where you are.
There is a beginning meditation practice – which is profoundly advanced – called “counting the breath.” Once you have positioned yourself to sit on a cushion, a bench or a chair, you settle the mind in the hara, which is the gut, and you start to count your inhalations and your exhalations. The way I do this is to count an inhalation “one” and an exhalation “two” then an inhalation “three” and an exhalation “four.” The instructions are to continue in this way until you reach ten. Sounds clear and simple enough. The truth is that when you try to do it, you find that you can’t get much beyond four or five before the mind darts across a meadow, over a fence, builds up speed and takes off into the beyond. When that happens, you start back at one, and keep going.
So in this beginning meditation, which becomes even more difficult with the frequency of your practice, you spend a considerable amount of time trying to get to ten. Get to ten, come on, you tell yourself, get to ten! Get somewhere, you dolt!
The thing is, should you ever get to ten, the instructions are to start back at one. The ten and the one have no merit or meaning, you see. But try believing that for yourself.
The other day I heard from my sister. She is fortunate enough to live along the beautiful coast near Newport Beach, California. She is doubly fortunate to rent there, because as well-off as she is, she could not afford to buy a home in those environs during the recent run-up in this world’s capital of fantasy-made millionaires.
Two months ago she had to vacate her rented condo when the owners suddenly showed up, out of work and with nowhere else to go but back where they started. She moved just across the road to another complex of lavish new patio homes, and she loves the place she’s leasing from a self-made titan now sleeping on his brother’s couch. Then she noticed that two of the six homes on her cul-de-sac were on the market, and last week another neighbor fled in the cover of night. It is and will yet be more of a ghost town, eerie for its glam appearance as a destination lifestyle with no visible lives. It recalled to me my own shock and shame when my first husband and I naively walked into and then out of a predatory mortgage 25 years ago during one of Houston’s colossal real estate boom-and-bust cycles. In the glow of your self-immolation you see that the castle you’ve built is only made of popsicle sticks.
We were trying to get somewhere. We thought that’s what a go-getting couple was supposed to do. Get somewhere. But the world is always getting back to one.
Then I was in a waiting room and I saw the new issue of People magazine, where someone or the other is always revealing the new version of themselves: made up, made over, reborn, relaunched, remarried, rehabbed, reformed and 50 pounds lighter!
And there was Kathy Ireland revealing the new her, just the latest go-getter to tell you her diet gets and her money gets and her happiness gets and success gets. She says she had grown overwhelmed, overstressed, overweight and over-everything before she found some new secret way to get a better body. But wait! Didn’t she already have a do-over? Wasn’t she the SI swimsuit model who remade herself into a billion-dollar design empress? Didn’t she already have a rebirth and a makeover? Hasn’t she been all the way to ten a time or two? And she’s still spinning on that disastrous wheel? Asking us to buy advice from her? I know where she’s headed; we all know where she’s headed.
Maybe she thinks she’s getting somewhere else this time, but the world is always getting back to one.
When we sit, we always come back to one. And the more we come back to it, the easier it is to see a way beyond it. There is something beyond one, and we call it one.
Some of you are busy thinking about coming to the Mother’s Summer Plunge. I’m busy thinking about it too. I promise that I will soon stop all that needless air traffic. But for today, I’d like you to know that Southwest Airlines really is having a terrific sale on flights in and out of all the airports in Southern California. Click all the way through and see for yourself. Even on Friday flights, ahem.
Pluto has never been closer. Mickey too.
Repeating my call for company at a one-day Beginner’s Meditation Retreat on Sunday, Feb. 15 at the Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles to fill your lonely heart with light. Complete instructions, very short periods of sitting meditation, compassionate talks, a delicious meal, and the basket empties itself.
Open your eyes and see that you are no longer in the dreary landscape you habitually occupy in your head.
This is a head’s up and sincere invitation for you to take part in two eye-0pening events coming round the bend.
The first is a Beginner’s Mind One Day Meditation Retreat I’ll be leading on Sunday, Feb. 15 at Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles. It’s perfect for you, and it’s only $25.
The second is the half-day Palo Alto Mothers Symposium at Stanford University on Saturday, March 7. It won’t be complete without you, and it’s only $20.
Now, before you tell yourself what you always do, “I can’t possibly go,” stop and open your eyes. Read aloud the next words you see here:
Let’s just see how it goes.
Let’s just see how it goes. That’s what Maezumi Roshi always said to me. It’s not just a social courtesy. Not a simplistic cliché. It is a precise instruction on how to live an enlightened life.
Open your eyes.
That brings me around to mentioning something that might seem peculiar about zazen, or Zen meditation. We meditate with our eyes open. Slightly open, but still open. What you probably think of, and maybe even do, is meditate with your eyes closed. But that’s not practicing meditation, or awareness. That’s daydreaming, or sleeping. Daydreaming is nice, but no one needs to practice it. If you want to meditate with your eyes closed, I suggest you just opt for a deep tissue massage and get total body benefit out of it. That’s what I plan to do with the gift certificate I got for Christmas.
Wanna get away?
This time of year, we might find it easy to make long-range plans and commitments to improve our health, break old habits, lose weight, enhance our productivity and save or make more money. But can we commit even a few moments to transforming our lives and everyone in it? Sure we can.
Open your eyes and see.