This post is part of the Fragments of Wisdom series: a collection of thoughts and stories on life worth contemplating.
Zen often de-emphasizes an intellectual understanding of the meditation process which can lead students to become confused or lost. This of course, is an intentional part of the Zen path—an intellectual understanding of the process, without the direct experience that comes from doing the work for oneself, won’t help you. However doing the work without understanding why makes the work that much harder, says Ezra Bayda, a teacher associated with the Ordinary Mind Zen School who teaches at the San Diego Zen Center: “for the mind that prefers to operate on more than faith alone, having this knowledge of meditation as a transformative process is not only useful, it’s essential.”
In his book At Home in the Muddy Water: A Guide to Finding Peace within Everyday Chaos, Ezra Bayda (a former zen teacher of mine) demystifies the meditation process by mapping out the five transformational elements of Zen sitting practice:
There are several interconnected components that make up the process of sitting. All of these components are essential aspects of meditation as a transformative process. Seeing the process clearly may help us to weather the inevitable low spots and dry spells. It will also help us redirect our practice when it begins to go off course. These components are neither sequential nor formulaic. At a given time, one of them may be more pertinent to your particular situation than the others.
Perseverance makes it possible to sit through discomfort, to sit when we don’t feel like it, to sit when we’re bored or tired. It makes it possible to stay with practice through all of the valleys, the low spots, the difficulties. Perseverance is no small thing, because at times our resistance can be very strong. Isn’t it a fact that we often don’t want to stay with the experience of the present moment for more than a few seconds? So cultivating perseverance over the years is like building a muscle; we develop the strength and capacity without which practice could never really develop. Basically, we learn that practice doesn’t have to please us in the ordinary sense for us to continue to practice.
Picture a clear glass of water with a layer of mud at the bottom. Imagine stirring up the water so that it becomes muddy. This muddy water is our substitute life—swirling with anxiety and confusion. We race around trying to keep up, but with little clarity about what we’re doing. Taking this glass and setting it down is like setting ourselves down to sit. What happens? In the glass, the mud gradually settles to the bottom, and the water becomes clear and still. In sitting, we learn what it feels like to settle down. This settling happens over the years on both a psychological and a physical level. There is something strengthening about not moving when the impulse to move arises in us. Instead, we just stay still, not feeding the agitation, not stirring up the water anymore. It is here that we might use a concentration technique, such as focusing on the breath, to help us settle. Granted, this settling and clarity do not always happen; sometimes we sit even more mud—from our subterranean internal world—comes rising to the surface. Yet, over time, sitting fosters a settled quality, an equanimity, in the midst of the muddy turmoil of our lives.
This is the process of observing everything we do—how we think, what we think, how we react, what our strategies are, how they emerge from our core beliefs—and how they all tie together into a defensive, apparently solid “substitute life.”
Clear seeing is not the same as psychoanalyzing; we’re not focusing on the past or trying to figure out why we think or behave as we do. This is an important point. We’re simply attempting to observe ourselves as we are. As we begin seeing through our beliefs and strategies, we inevitably judge and find fault with ourselves. But part of the practice of clear seeing is to observe our mind’s tendency to judge and to notice how often we’re not even aware of accepting our judgements as truth.
Clear seeing of our basic belief systems begins to undermine our deep-seated conditioning. Our conditioning doesn’t disappear, but it no longer runs our life. Clear seeing is like taking off filtered glasses; reality becomes sharper, more distinct. We don’t need to struggle to change our behavior; clear seeing broadens our perspective to embrace new possibilities of behavior. Change comes as a natural consequence of this.
Experiencing Our Emotional Distress
Although this is one of the most difficult aspects of practice, it is also the path of accelerated transformation—where the energy of our emotions is transformed through the process of experiencing them. For example, when I felt anxiety about teaching my first students and saw my conditioned beliefs clearly, all I had to do was open to the anxiety, to reside in it, to rest in it. It wasn’t necessary to judge the distress or push it away, but just to experience what it is. We rarely allow ourselves to do this. Mostly we fuel emotional distress by believing our thoughts and stringing them together into a story line, which we then rehash. Once we’ve learned to label thoughts and clarify the mental process, we can focus instead on the physical texture of our experience.
When we really experience in this way, it’s like taking off a pair of tight shoes. The sense of restriction and limitation dissolves. This is how the practice of experiencing emotional distress transforms us.”
Bringing Our Attention to Just This Moment
We always have the choice either to spin off into thinking or to just be her, with whatever the moment brings. This choice point is the basis of our sitting practice , in which we notice our particular patterns of inattention to the present moment. Do we habitually spin off in into planning, fantasizing, self-judging? Do we tend to dwell in reliving the past or imagining the future? In noticing our patterns and returning to the present, we make the choice moment after moment to just be here. Doing this, we develop the awareness that allows thoughts and emotions to pass through us without our getting “hooked.”
Ezra recommends the practice of Dual Awareness (outlined in detail here) as one way to practice being in the moment.
Knowing that at anytime there are five things we can do helps us see what is needed in each moment. Ezra reminds us that this is not a sequential formula, but they are the essential elements in the transformative process of being with life as it is. “This,” says Ezra, “is why we practice—to come to know truth of who we really are.”