Tag Archives: Zen

September Writer Response: Amy Rothstein

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As predicted, sticking to the meditation practice was really challenging at first. For the first two weeks, I was grouchy, my body resisted and my mind ran like a noisy wild bronco. I did stick with it, kicking and screaming inside. Around mid-month, my thoughts during meditation started to lose potency. They became quieter; and while they still arose, they were easier to let go of. As a result of the meditation, I’ve become slightly more aware of my thoughts at times when I wouldn’t normally be. Meditating has also made it easier for me to moderate my consumption of (legal) substances and to be slight more disciplined in general. I have still been only meditating for 15 minutes.

I have tried to make a frequent practice of listing persistent, reoccurring thoughts, which tend to be subtle fears. I have found that proactively surfacing these ghosts helps me to prevent them from snowballing and allow them to exist if necessary. I plan to keep doing this.

As far as the one-year, five-year and lifetime-goals go, I created a list like this in January of 2012 and I took this opportunity to revisit it. Beth and I discussed her (and my) resistance to this assignment. While she resists planning; I resist commitment.  We agreed to only list what genuinely comes to mind.

I seem to be striking some sort of balance between being comfortable with where I am and also taking action about the future- perhaps that balance between what ET calls “Life” while working on my life situation. At this point it’s obvious that I tend to ask a lot of questions. Knowing which questions are best left unanswered is a skill I’m also honing these days.

So, where is my sense of humor? Do I take this stuff too seriously? This month hasn’t been any more serious than usual for me but I always do a fair amount of clowning around. Most importantly, having a disciplined routine to help address big questions (with or without answers) has actually made me feel a bit lighter this month.

So far we’ve covered “just being” and “doing” and for the last week I’d like us to cover “feeling”.

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Goals/Creations/Decisions

 Chapter 4; Week 2

There is nothing wrong with striving to improve your life situation. You can improve your life situation, but you cannot improve your life. Life is primary. Life is your deepest inner Being. It is already whole, complete, perfect. Your life situation consists of your circumstances and your experiences. There is nothing wrong with setting goals and striving to achieve things. The mistake lies in using it as a substitute for the feeling of life, for Being. The only point of access for that is the Now. You are then like an architect who pays no attention to the foundation of a building but spends a lot of time working on the superstructure.

– Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now

When I first started meditating in 2007, I was pretty “blissed out” and grounded by the practice and Zen Buddhism in general. With a job I was thoroughly passionate about, it helped me to be intentional, brave, and present at work. It felt great, until I needed to begin crafting the next stage of my life. It was time to make decisions:  Should I leave Mississippi now? Where should I move? Should I go back to school? What kind of work do I want to do? What are my most potent passions? Instead of pausing everything to get back in touch with my desires, I tried to live peacefully and got by making decisions based on a blurry intuition that was once knife sharp. I tried to apply the lessons I learned in Zen philosophy and that stuck feeling… stuck around. I stopped meditating based on a hunch that Buddhism in general and meditation had turned me into a passive person- the idea of which I detested. Five years and two US cities later, I’m just now snapping out of this funk, answering these questions, and trying to understand why an ambitious and goal oriented person like myself was even in this funk for so long.

I don’t blame Buddhism, but I do blame myself for attempting to integrate its teachings into all aspects of my life. By doing so, I believe that I neglected to actively tend to my life situation. While I do believe that everything happened just as it should, I’m still intrigued by the difference between what ET (I like this nickname) calls “our life situation” and “Life”. Existentialism asserts that we must take responsibility for ourselves, continue creating our lives each day –  which suggests that spending time focusing on our life situation is also incredibly important.

Over the next two weeks I invite you to pay attention to the effects of meditation on your life situation while also spending time off the cushion identifying and working on your personal goals and ambitions.

Assignment #1:

  • Continue meditation morning and night (this will continue until the end of the month). I have urged Beth to follow traditional zazen form/instruction at least half of the time she sits so she has the opportunity to inherit the tried and true wisdom alive in that practice. The other half of the time, we agreed that she may do more of a free form meditation that she creates on her own. (Be aware that traditional meditators would tell you that your made up routine is not meditation at all. It’s just your own crunchy, earth mother spirit, dream catcher floor routine.)

Assignment #2:

  • Begin identifying your personal short-term goals (1 year), mid term goals (5 years), and lifetime goals. Consider any/all aspects of life that are most important to you right now: work, relationships, income, place, health, etc. Let yourself think big. A good way to stimulate this thought process is to finish the sentence: “If I were to die in a year, 5 years, 10 years…”
  • If you are unclear what your goals are and you are out of touch with your desires, pay attention to your needs, your slightest preferences in every circumstance- no matter how slight. For example, “You know what, I do have a preference for what we eat for dinner, I’m really not in the mood for sushi…” Begin acting on these slight desires and preferences and slowly you will become more aware of your larger preferences.
  • When you define your goals your fears will surface immediately. Fear is an inevitable during times of change and while trying something new. Try to get comfortable with the fear, make friends with it a bit- sort of like your list of reoccurring issues from last week. Try envisioning yourself not overcoming your fears, but working towards your goal while feeling the fear. Envision what that would look like and feel like.
  • If you are inspired to begin taking steps on a personal goal, take some steps and get started.

9/8/2013

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zentember

Oh how I welcome September’s new challenges. As I transition into the theme of this next chapter, I will try to hold on to the acute mindfulness that I gained in the chapter three but bring it inward. The external environmental questions have naturally led me closer to the examination of internal questions that are laid out before me this month. I also feel that I will pull much from what I learned in chapter one’s Body/Kinesthetic challenge to help me achieve this month’s goals.

Being asked to turn inward for answers, peace and calm comes at a good time as I find myself transitioning again, not only into a new season, but into a new home. I bid goodbye to “Meridan Summer” (the sail boat I was living on) at the end of August and have just moved aboard and welcomed “Morning Star” to begin my existential chapter. I am hoping that this change of shelter will assist me as I try to shift into a new state of mind.

Changing environments can be rejuvenating, but I do still find uprooting myself to be a stressful experience. However, the timing of this move may quite possibly be the perfect time to be entering into a meditation practice. It can’t possibly hurt to bring stillness, focus, and quiet to my life during a time that often brings chaos, disorder and questions.

Unlike Amy, I have not read much on meditation or traditional Buddhist philosophies. I also have very little book knowledge or experience with the act of meditation itself. What I do know I  learned through doing yoga in which I practiced the art of focusing directly on controlling my breath and my physical body through different poses. I learned how controlled breath works to both calm my mind and enliven the muscles in my body. Yoga practice has helped me slow down and become more intentional and aware of both mind and body. When I first came to yoga, I started with the intention of wanting some kind of result from it. I wanted a form of physical exercise that would bring benefits to my body/mind and wanted a structure or practice that could help ground me when feeling particularly overwhelmed or stressed. I did not start yoga with a desire to develop spiritually or philosophically. However in the 9 years of experimenting with different forms of yoga, I have become more and more curious and open to learning about how to expand and grow spiritually.  Body, mind, our actions and the act of being with ourselves and with others? How does this all connect?

I do feel lucky that yoga has given me a bit of experience with the posture and the breathing needed to learn and practice meditation,  but what I really would like to learn more about at this point is “the attitude of mind”. When reading Amy’s suggested guidelines from the “American Zen Association”, this excerpt really resonated with me.

“Mushotoku is the attitude of non-profit, of not wanting to gain anything for yourself. It is essential to true Zen practice. Giving without expecting to receive, abandoning everything without fear of losing, observing oneself.”

“Abandoning everything without fear of losing, observing oneself”  WOW … how freeing would that be if I could truly adopt and practice that. “If you abandon all you will obtain all” hmmmm…. Definitely thoughts to mediate on in the next month.

It’s a long journey to reach these goals I am sure, but as always I need to start somewhere. So here I am. I will start by instituting 30 seconds of stillness breaks throughout each day in September with the goal of stretching these mid day breaks from 30 seconds to 30 minutes of stillness throughout the month. I will also begin a new mediation practice of 20 minutes before bed and 20 minutes after waking of traditional Zen meditation.

Sharing my first attempt at this mediation practice somehow feels even more personal and revealing than sharing my shower habits last month but here goes, we can’t learn anything if we don’t share anything right?  I am open to hearing your experiences, comments and suggestions so please chime in if you have helpful thoughts that may guide me forward.

Below are my steps in my self guided mediation practice: (note these are my personal instructions to myself not suggestions for how others should practice)

1. Deal with all external factors first that may distract me: Sound, temperature, bathroom break, spatial issues etc

2. Sit comfortably in folded leg position with hands palm face up open on knees, holding my posture as straight as I can – sometimes I sit on a few folded towels and let my knees fall forward to the ground.

3. Set my meditation timer and start it.

4. Find a spot in front of me to fix my eyes upon (not looking directly at something but rather resting my eyes lightly on something) I keep my eyes open for my morning mediation and am practicing with my eyes shut for evening mediation.

5. Start breathing in and out through my nose using a 3-part breath filling my belly, my chest and my esophagus and then releasing the breath in the same order. (Its audible and slow, taking maybe 4 full seconds to come in and 4 to fully go out)

6. Focus my breathing and connect it to a visual element. (for example: I imagine white light coming into my body with the inhale and then imagine the light leaving and radiating around the body with the exhale – sometimes I imagine floating on the ocean and the tide coming in with the inhale and the tide going out with the exhale – this one especially works for me when meditating on the boat!)

7. Set an intention. My intention is simply gaining a greater awareness of either my mind, body, or attitude. I will accept what does or does not happen. As I am just starting this practice, I am not really sure what mediation is or should be. I just will accept whatever happens in this 20 minutes of stillness and try to learn from it.

8. When the time is up. I take written notes on the process, how it changes from day-to-day and make lists of what I am calling the “mmm” thoughts (monkey mind moments – re-occurring thoughts that hang around bothering me, jumping from one thing to the next)

My initial assumption of meditation was that it would be a time to simply empty out the thoughts that fill my head on a daily basis – a time of peace and solitude. But in these initial stages, I realize that it’s a place that all thoughts will arise to the surface and live (positive or negative).  And now I feel that its ok to let them. I am grateful that Amy built writing the thoughts down into the week’s challenge. It is helping me to become aware of the issues and things in my life that are causing me anxiety or using my energy. Looking at them on paper has helped me separate myself from them and look at them for what they are. Just thoughts. As I said, I am not sure yet what this practice is or will bring but for now I will fall back on what the American Zen Association says,

“Zen students develop wisdom if they are vigilant in their Zen practice, in their effort to know themselves, to go beyond themselves, to give of themselves without expecting any personal gain. If you abandon all, you will obtain all.”

9/6/13

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time/awareness

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Chapter 4; Week 1

The awareness that time is constantly passing, we are getting older each day, and that we could die at any moment- puts an incredible amount of pressure on us to live fully every day and spend our time on this earth wisely and intentionally. The imminence of death gives significance to living. We can get caught up in the urgency to perfect ourselves, focusing on closing the gap between where we are and where we wish to be, who we are and who we wish we could be.

Perhaps the foremost experts on acceptance and patience, Buddhists have spent centuries using meditation as a tool to experience each moment with greater depth, increased awareness, and of course, to attain enlightenment (let’s just forget about this last one). The act of pausing to meditate is powerful alone and requires a reorientation towards leading a more disciplined life.

Assignment #1:  Beth and I will meditate for 15-20 minutes in the morning and at night for the whole month of September. See if you can start with 15 minutes and by the end of the month, work your way up to 20 minutes.

We will practice meditation in the Japanese Soto Zen tradition. I’ve chosen this tradition because it is incredibly minimal and simple. Beth is welcome to identify and practice another form of meditation if another tradition appeals to her more.

Some simple instruction for Zen meditation (called “zazen”) is available here, courtesy of the American Zen Association. Amy will be on-call to answer questions about meditation basics and to provide peer support as they both try to follow this new rigorous routine. (Amy has practiced zazen before but has not kept with her practice.)

What you will need:

  • A piece of floor space approximately 2.5’ by 2.5’ wide, preferably facing a flat wall or door.
  • A quiet room if possible, but work with what you’ve got!
  • Loose fitting pants/comfortable clothes.
  • A makeshift meditation cushion. For a few years I used folded sheets and towels in a stack about 6 inches tall. Your instructions will help you assemble it to the proper height.
  • A silent timer. The iphone timer function is great. Set the alarm sound to something tranquil so the bejesus is not scared out of you when you are through.

It is incredibly important to be very disciplined with this routine. There will be nights when you are “too tired,” are in a weird location, or have already passed out on a couch and woken up groggy-eyed at 2:00 am thinking, “There’s NO way I’m meditating now before I crawl into bed.”  It’s really important to get over that hump and just do it.

More involved readings for beginners are available. Beth and Amy will discuss a book for her to read throughout the month to help hone her practice. Two suggestions include:

  • Zen Meditation:  Hardcore Zen by Brad Warner
  • Vipassana Meditation:  Mindfulness in Plain English by Ven. Henepola Gunaratana

True Zen consists of sitting quietly in the correct posture. It is not a special state, it is the normal state: silent, peaceful, without agitation. Zen means to put the mind at rest and to concentrate the mind and body. In zazen there is no purpose, no seeking to gain something, no special effort or imagination. It is not knowledge to be grasped by the brain. It is solely a practice, a practice which is the true gate to happiness, peace and freedom.                                                                               –Taisen Deshimaru Roshi.

Recommendation #2:  Simply make a list of the reoccurring issues that are involuntarily occupying your thoughts this week. These could be exciting things, sources of anxiety, work or financial stresses, relationship challenges, etc. You don’t have to share the list with anyone; you don’t have to work on eliminating or resolving these issues- just write them down!

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