A No Bull Meditation Primer
Warning- Adult Subject Matter Ahead!
I took the Bodhisattva Vow (bodhi means awakening, sattva means being) a couple weeks after my friend committed suicide. I had been reading “Awakening The Buddha Within” by Lama Surya Das over the course of many years, and it had been my comfort in the days after my friend left me. I was also visiting the Zen Center in Minneapolis and meditating.
Buddhism, at that time, was the only comfort I could find for my ragged soul. I decided I needed to commit myself to the path and I took the Bodhisatva Vow:
Sentient beings are numberless: I vow to liberate them.
Delusions are inexhaustible: I vow to transcend them.
Dharma teachings are boundless: I vow to master them.
The Buddha’s enlightened way is unsurpassable: I vow to embody it.
This is one way to achieve Zen.
I want to strip meditation down to it’s bare essentials for us dudes who don’t like all that froufrou shit because I think it may be one of the most important things that dudes are not doing.
Can you imagine a world where dudes would be meditating instead of kicking each other’s asses over stupid shit?
Meditation is a bland word for such an incredibly dynamic and intense activity — and so I prefer the Japanese word “Zen” which comes from the Chinese word “Chan” which traces it’s origins to the Indian word “Dhyana”, the yogic term for meditation. “Zazen” is generally what Soto Zen practitioners call sitting meditation (Za means “seat” in Japanese).
Meditation or Zen or Zazen is your basic self-hack, your primary N=1 activity, and your free ticket to health and wellness.
We all know this to some degree, and yet we think we definitely don’t have the leisure time in our busy lives to just sit around for 5 to 20 minutes every day. This is ironic, as we spend an hour or much more on our phones every day, dinking around., scrolling down, “liking” pictures.
We prioritize our favorite things to do, like working out, reading, or any other activity that gives us pleasure in some way, even if it comes with a big dose of pain. As long as the end result is enjoyment, we’re in.
If you google meditation, you are going to get a bunch of hyped-up bullshit language from New-Age gurus and the like talking about energy flows and so-on. This is unfortunate because at it’s core meditation is THE most hardcore activity that you can do and nobody gets to claim ownership over it or mastery of it.
You can be sure that those who claim to be masters are definitely not.
In Zen you have to dive into the moshpit of your own goddamned mind and deal with what you find there.
In the following article I’m not going to dink around with woowoo language or any spiritual stuff, I’m just going to tell it like it is.
First of all, you don’t need anything at all to meditate. It’s free. It’s totally democratic. It’s our birthright as a human. We can do it anywhere, any time. Doesn’t matter if you are surrounded by chaos, meditation is your personal mind workout that you can always fall back on if needed.
You don’t need a mantra, you don’t need a certain hand position, you don’t need prayer beads. You just need yourself and a place to sit.
You certainly don’t need to buy anything, such as a Zabuton and Zafu, those special mats and pillows used in Zen Centers. Nope. I actually use a Spongebob Squarepants pillow that was hanging around my writing room nowadays. It simply doesn’t matter what you use, but it matters that you put in the effort daily.
Why is it that the concept of Zen is always illustrated with pictures of austere studios or tranquil nature settings?
Think of it this way: Just like practicing in a gym or any other exercise, you want to take your time to work up to the big weights. That is why all Zen students generally start in a quiet calm place, like a dojo or yoga studio.
Even though it sounds really overblown, there really is no limit to what Zen can do for you — you are limited by your own self. The same basic concept applies to any health regimen or creative activity or business endeavor. We set limits inside ourselves that we don’t even know about. That is why we sit.
When you start out meditating it is as uncomfortable as fuck, but soon, perhaps within weeks or months, it becomes your comfortable place — a ritual that consistently clears out all the mental cobwebs and relaxes your body.
There are numerous scientifically documented benefits that come from regular and consistent meditation, and they fall into two basic categories.
- Reduces blood pressure
- Improves cardiovascular risk factors
- Reduces risk of diabetes and heart disease
- Is now used as a therapy for cancer and heart disease
2. Improves sleep quality and thus:
- Improves overall mortality
- Helps regulate our hormones (healthy sex drive, healthy weight)
- With proper hormonal balance, we eat better and stay fit
- Decreases our risk of heart attack
- Decreases our risk of accidents
- Increases our cognitive ability and problem solving creativity (the more REM sleep the better)
- Boosts our immune system
- It reduces mental stress
- It can cultivate a sense of compassion in us and our connections to our surroundings
- It reduces the monkey-mind chatter and thus helps us tackle problems we tend to put to the side to deal with “later”
- It helps us clear the messy slate of our minds so that we can tackle the day
- It helps us work through our own shit
- Last but not lease, it helps us stay mindful and in the moment, and thus improves our relationships
There are two basic types of meditation, FA (Focused Attention) and OM (Open Monitoring). .
Focused Attention (FA) Meditation is generally considered to an easier type of meditation then Open Monitoring (OM) Meditation. You can liken the two types to the Rods and Cones we use in our eyes to see — Rods see the big picture, like OM, and Cones focus in on a subject, like FA.
In FA Meditation we simply focus our attention on some object, idea, or stimulus. Many people start their meditation practice by focusing on their own breath, and that is where we will start. There are endless ways to meditate and an infinite plethora of things in the universe to meditate upon, and I will discuss some of those in the third part of this series.
One thing that I have noticed about writing about meditation is that it can be extremely dry and boring, which is ironic because the actual experience is fascinating and endlessly informative. So even though the next few paragraphs may sound wildly dull, just imagine meditation as arriving on a new planet, where there are tons of new life forms and landscapes to explore. You will have adventures, even if you think that this new world appears lifeless from outer space.
3 Basic FA Meditations
- The One Breath A Day Meditation — Surely you have time to do this one! The inspiration for this meditation came from Chade Meng Tan, Google Pioneer and author. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, just stop for a second. Stop for a moment in your work or play and clear your mind. For just one moment be conscious of breathing in and breathing out. Take your time. Let it linger. There — you have done your daily meditation exercise! But why is this worthwhile? Because everything in a way starts with one breath, one step, one movement. Even the conscious intention to practice one thing a day is in itself a type of meditation.
- The 5 Minute Compassion Meditation — Sometimes we get really caught up in our own heads to the point where we can get incredibly anxious and stressed out. I know I do and I’m sure you do. When it just becomes a little too much pressure to bear, it is better just to stop and take 5 instead of persevering. It is good to forget about ourselves for five minutes, or even a minute if you are really time-crunched. As in the above practice, began by breathing in, and breathing out very slowly and consciously. Conjure up in your mind 2 or 3 people that you know that care about and wish for them to become happy. For 1 to 5 minutes, think about your friend or family or even your dog! I don’t care, just wish them the best of all happiness while you breathe in and breathe out. And when you are done, go onto to your next task with a new sense of compassion.
- The 10 Minute Breath Awareness Meditation — Take a moment to get comfortable, on a cushion in quiet place without any distractions. For this meditation, you will want to set a timer so that you know when you are done. I use a simple timer app on my phone, and set it on the floor in front of me before the meditation. I take a few stretches to loosen up my limbs and then I start the timer. For the remainder of the meditation session, I close my eyes and count my breath. Breathe in for 4 counts and out for 6 counts, or find a breath count that works for you. I breathe in, and I breathe out. I do not visualize anything at all, I simply count my breath and feel it leaving me, and feeling it coming into me. Thoughts will pop into my head BOOM! And I will acknowledge them. There they are. They are not me, I am not them. They are my thoughts, and after I acknowledge them I let them drift away and refocus on counting my breath. My breath is all important for 10 minutes. When the timer goes off, I turn off the alarm and take a few more conscious breaths before getting up and going on with my day.
Basic OM Meditation
In the Soto sect of Zen, OM Zen is also called “Shikantaza”, basically meaning “Just sitting”. There is a corollary in the Dzogchen,(a Tibetan Buddhist Tradition) meditative practices oriented toward discovering Rigpa, which is “ like a mirror which reflects with complete openness, but is not affected by the reflections; or like a crystal ball that takes on the colour of the material on which it is placed without itself being changed. The knowledge that ensues from recognizing this mirror-like clarity (which cannot be found by searching nor identified) is called rigpa.”
But overall, instead of focusing in on some thing, we sit and let the mind become open. For some this sounds a bit like going to sleep, but in fact it is quite the opposite.
The 20 Minute OM Meditation
We began by sitting down on a cushion in a non-distracting area and began our timer. Perhaps we settle our hands on our knees in a “mudra” (a special yogic hand position) or simply lay them flat on our knees. Either way, we simply want to settle into our selves for 20 minutes and we need our backs to be fully supportive. After rolling our heads in few circle to loosen up our neck muscles, we stop everything and just sit.
Sitting, we notice things. Our monkey-minds keep chattering away, uninterested in our sincere wish to be calm, relaxed, and stress-free. As we breathe we acknowledge our thoughts as they come into our minds, and watch them drift off. We breathe, but we do not count our breath. We do nothing.
We sit. We are, and we exist, without having to do anything. Our core self is right here. Thoughts come unbidden into our minds and we let them go gently. We don’t judge. We don’t analyze. We don’t do anything.
It’s difficult at first to simply sit, but we persevere. And then our timer goes off. We stretch our limbs and go back to our “normal” day of work.
Over time as we practice OM we become aware of our essential selves, and our relationship to the universe. Boundaries dissolve and we realize that we can no longer differentiate between ourselves and everything else. What is good for others is good for us.
The overarching goal for OM is to discover the reality of non-duality, meaning that we have grasped unto the truth that there is no division between you or I, that object and subject are one.
Essentially, as far as I can tell, Zen and all the other meditative traditions are teaching us to open up our minds and hearts to everything other than our own petty issues.
In the same way that looking at the sky can help us gain perspective about our own lives, so does opening up our hearts to empathize with other sentient beings allows us to realize that we are all the same — we all desire food, comfort, happiness, family, and on and on.
Outside of formal practice, Zen can happen in a plethora of different ways.
The Rinzai sect of Zen uses koans to achieve enlightenment.
Koans are simple stories, usually with a paradoxical or nonsensical riddle at the heart of their being. Like Focused Attention meditation, riddles can spark enlightenment based on realizing non-duality.
Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was still falling.
Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection.
“Come on, girl” said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.
Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. “We monks don’t go near females,” he told Tanzan, “especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?”
“I left the girl there,” said Tanzan. “Are you still carrying her?”
Walking meditation goes hand in hand with all other forms of exercise as meditation.
When we exercise, we tend to use Focused Attention on our activity and lose our sense of self. Pain and aches in our bodies call our attention and we are present in the moment. Focusing on achieving certain goals takes our minds away from the monkey-mind chatter about our petty problems, and we also become stronger and healthier.
I lump all art, craft, and music into one meditative category.
All art and creative expression can allow us do the same things we do when we exercise, namely get better at our task and lose our constricted sense of self. It is one of the most pleasurable things in the world to step outside of our chattering brains to focus in on creating something of beauty, or expressing something that needs to be expressed.
Gardening is one way to realize that we are all interconnected.
Gardening, landscaping, and farming can help provide us with a lens that shows us how interconnected we all are with nature. Not only that, we become more healthy and we provide food for ourselves and other creatures, like butterflies, bees, and birds. There is nothing like digging our hands into a loamy soil and planting a seed that will one day grow up into the air and down into the dirt, feeding our families and expressing the joy of life.
Finally, the path of service is well understood to be a direct line to enlightenment.
When we give our time and effort to others in need, we set aside our daily petty wishes and desires and work for a larger cause then just our selves. This is the essence of the Bodhisattva Vow — we transcend our selves to become Bodhisattvas for the good of all other sentient beings.
In general, there are many ways to the fountain, as they say about Zen or other wisdom traditions, meaning there are endless paths to the same source. In general though they all lead through the abandonment of our limited concept of Self in order to really be present in the moment. This seems almost paradoxical, but it must be experienced to be understood.