More disciplined people than I can meditate anywhere and everywhere- sitting in their living room, riding a bus, walking down the street. But despite my thesaurus’s insistence that strong-mindedness and self-discipline are synonyms, I seem to be full of one while completely void of the other. Lacking the moral fiber to practice diligently on my own, I join group meditation sessions, hoping to gain spiritual resolve through osmosis. The esoteric doesn’t seem to have a big following where I live, so I try to go to meditation whenever I visit a bigger city, most often in Tokyo at various Buddhist temples.
Buddhist meditation comes in many flavors, but my favorites come from the Zen tradition. Zen is a school of Japanese Buddhism that relies heavily on meditation as a way to Enlightenment. There are actually two types of Zen meditation. In one, practitioners focus on short, non-sensical anecdotes. You’ve probably heard these before. “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” is one example. The point of the non-sense is to force meditators out of their normal pattern of thinking and into Enlightenment. The other meditation technique, the one I most often practice, is called zazen. The goal of zazen is to clear your mind of all thoughts so that you’re experiencing life directly, not through your mind as intermediary. Being awake to existence in this way is itself Enlightenment.
When talking about zazen, we usually say someone “sits” zazen because that’s ideally what zazen is: just sitting. Not sitting and thinking, not sitting and looking around, not sitting and anything. Just sitting. To that end, meditators face the wall during zazen as well as keep their eyes open, because zazen is also not sitting and sleeping. Meditation begins when the priest rings a bell whose slowly ebbing tone symbolizes how the mind becomes silent during zazen. Or at least how it’s supposed to become silent. This is what sitting zazen is normally like for me:
“There’s the bell. My mind is supposed to grow quieter. My mind is growing quieter…my mind is growing quieter… my mind is… I wonder if there are any movies playing in English tonight? This is Tokyo; there’s bound to be something somewhere. When meditation is over, I can check times and… Wait, I’m supposed to be not thinking. How will I know I’m not thinking if I can’t think about it?? Okay, let’s try again. My mind is clear… I’m not thinking… my mind is clear…”
“Oh! I think I just did it for a minute! I wasn’t thinking, was I? Is that what it’s like? Man, I wonder how much longer this will last; my legs are falling asleep. Wait, I need to focus again. My mind is growing quieter…my mind is growing quieter… my nose is growing itchier…”
So… what all of my meditation practice boils down to is that I need more practice. I apparently haven’t reached Enlightenment quite yet.