Sunday, February 17, 2008

Zen Meditation

Everyone's heard the word "meditation", but if you ask what it stands for, you'll get as many answers as there are people. Here I will try to explain to myself how I understand it from Zen practice.

There are two kinds of Zen meditation. First kind can rougly be compared to peeling an onion, or, better yet, rooting out a stump of a tree. I had to do this couple of weeks ago so I remember the experience.

What we try to uproot is our primordial state of ignorance, our delusions that have very deep roots in the consciousness. When you start doing that, first you make some progress relatively easily. You find some roots that are close to surface, then you pull them out and feel enlightened for a while.

However, the deeper you go, the more work needs to be done - you've already dug a hole around the trunk and removed some of the roots, but the stump is still sitting in the ground as strong as ever. Even worse, the whole site starts looking quite messy and unpleasant, compared to nice clean trees of delusion that grow beautifully in minds of people around you.

But if you've been practicing Zen for a while, the damage has already been done so you can't just call it quits and go back to your regular old life. Unfortunately, at this point many people get stuck as they do what I would call an equivalent to kicking the stump over and over again in hopes that eventually this will do the job. You sit over and over again and "meditate", keep "practicing" (whatever artificial activity your mind means by that) and you think that something is changing and eventually you'll get a breakthrough. But in fact all that happens is you getting dumber and dumber. You keep kicking the trunk with a bare foot but that will not do anything substantial even if you spend all your life doing that.

The more productive approach, just as with a real tree stump, is to get smarter and try attacking it with different tools and from different angles. Dig a little, chop a little, apply some leverage, then have some rest and try from the other side. The most frustrating part is that almost to the last moment the damn stump just sits there like nothing is happening, and the place around gets messier and messier (that's me allright!). And then - bam! - the trunk starts moving and soon the whole thing is out, laying on the ground. What a relief! Some roots remain in the ground, of course, but they'll rot by themselves, sooner or later.

So what are the tools that you have? Asking some basic questions ("Who am I? What is all this?"), but not accepting answers that your mind comes up with (those are like little pieces of dirt and wood chips) is like using a crowbar as a leverage. Watching yourself and noticing how your delusions express themselves through your thoughts and actions is like using an axe to chop off the roots. And just getting still and sensitive in your mind to listen to messages that your intuition sends out of nowhere is like using a shovel to remove dirt that obscures the roots.


The second kind of meditation is simply not doing anything. Now that sounds simple, but in fact it is next to impossible for the intellectual mind to achieve. The thing is that "doing nothing" does not mean literally not doing anything, e.g. suppressing all mind activities. It simply means not using your mind to modify anything that comes up in any way - not fabricating anything. Sometimes that means indeed not doing something, and sometimes it's the opposite - not struggling with something that comes up naturally and spontaneously. If the water is still, don't stir it. But if the water is already moving, as in a stream - don't build a dam to stop it, let it flow!

Of course the thinking active mind rarely knows what is the right thing not to do. Most of the time all it is capable of is doing. It moves when it's time to be still, and it tries to get still and suppress thoughts that spontaneously come out of nowhere. But why it is so hard for mind?

I think the reason is that typically there is so much of habitual "doing" going on in our own mind that it completely overwhelms and drowns the intuitive sense of what "not doing" is at any given moment. It's like we get partially deaf because the noise is so loud, and even as we sit down and try to listen to our sense of non-doing, the signal is too weak - we can't hear it.

This situation is hard to change. Unless you totally uproot the trunk of the tree of delusions that grows in your mind, it will keep whispering with its leaves and obscuring sun's light. But you can still learn what non-doing is - little by little, gradually regain some sensitivity, which will in turn bring the noise of activities of mind down a bit, and you'll be able to hear silence a bit better, and that will tell you how to bring the noise down a little, and so on... And at the end, you'll realize that there never was that tree of delusions at all - it was completely imagined by your own mind!

That's an elegant way of uprooting a tree, isn't it? ;)


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