How to Meditate, Interview – April 16, 2010
HTM: What first attracted you personally to meditation practice?
Genko: I had been interested in Buddhism for a long time, but basically got into it because my partner (who had been diagnosed with a terminal illness) got involved, wanting to know more about death and dying. Zen is all about meditation, and so that's what the first workshop was about. The question was asked at that first workshop, so are there books we should read about this?
The workshop leader said there are lots of books, but the most important thing is to practice. Sit every day for a month and then talk to a teacher. I was impressed by that answer, and in fact did just that. Sat every morning for 10 minutes, whether I felt like it or not. After a month I could tell that something was different. Didn't know what it was, but it felt like something I needed.
HTM: How long ago did you start with that month of ten minute meditations? Also, do you now know what was going on that made a difference?
Genko: This would have been a little more than 10 years ago. I'm still not sure how to explain it. The way I describe it now is that my mind settles down somehow. I begin to be aware of how jangly I am, how much my mind is jumping around. Sitting still allows the mind to begin to settle.
HTM: What type of meditation do you practice currently, and is it for longer than ten minutes?
Genko: Oh, yes. In Zen we practice what we call Shikantaza, which means just sitting. We can use various techniques like breath meditation (breath counting), mantras, etc., but basically we simply sit still. These days I sit for 1-2 hours each day. During retreats a few times a year that goes up to 8 hours each day.
HTM: How long have you been practicing this way, and does Shikantaza involve non-doing—simply sitting with no technique?
Genko: I've been practicing for going on eleven years. For many of those years my sitting was more like a half-hour most days, with some days more. For the last 4-1/2 years I've been in residence at the Dharma Rain Zen Center the 1-2 hours a day is what I've been doing. Shikantaza does involve non-doing, and sitting with no particular technique other than staying focused and awake. Watching things rise and fall, whether that be thoughts, feelings, or sensations. It is theme-less, in that there is no particular visualization or thought.
HTM: I understand. You mentioned the benefits from your initial stint in meditation. I wonder if you could describe your experience now as you meditate. I am eager to get a sense of what the state is like for you. Also, do you prefer theme-less over theme?
Genko: The state now varies considerably. There are still times when I'm sleepy, chatty, agitated, etc., but there are also times when things are just peaceful— when I just feel a lot of gratitude— when I feel part of everything around me in a luminous way. My ability to deal with the sleepy, agitated, anxious, etc., states is considerably greater, i.e., I can simply notice what's happening and sit still with it, seeing if it has something to teach me, knowing that it will eventually pass.
The advantage of a theme-less type of meditation is that the subject of meditation is my own mind, and I'm free to pay attention to that. I know that other forms of meditation get one to the same place, and sometimes this is more difficult for people— especially at first. We do seem to have to go through some years of wondering whether this is all worth it, and what is the point of meditation.
I'm not sure I totally get it, and I still have days when I feel like I'm really not very good at this meditation stuff. But when I look back at 3 years ago, 5 years ago, 7 years ago, 10 years ago, I realize there have been some important shifts in my abilities here. I worry much less about what mind state I'm in at any given moment. I find it's easier to approach it with curiosity and acceptance.
HTM: It is good to hear about those times of agitation in addition to those more frequent peaceful experiences. I am assuming the peaceful is more the rule than the exception. With this in mind, and the fact that you are not sure you "totally get it"— what is it that keeps you at it? You spoke of the advantages of the theme-less approach, and I was not clear from your response as to whether it is your preferred form. I am still curious if this is the case. Also, I wonder if you could tell me a little bit more about the alternatives of breath counting and mantras.
Genko: The best answer I ever heard to the question of why do I do this was given by a teacher, who said something like "I like myself better later in the day when I get up early to meditate than when I don't." I can tell that things are better in my life when I meditate regularly than when I skip even one day. And even when it is a struggle, I can feel the difference later that I persevered. I don't know that I would say peaceful is more frequent. But it somehow doesn't come down to quantity.
There is a quality that abides underneath everything else at some point, and gradually I am coming to recognize and rely on that. Maybe it's an awareness of that quality that I am seeing that allows me to feel better about myself, to like myself better. I suppose I could say I "prefer" theme-less, because it is what I have trained with. However, preference is one of those things I watch for, acknowledging that sometimes I don't get what I prefer, and that can be quite all right, and sometimes even better.
Other practices, like breathing meditation (breath counting) mantras, body-scan, etc., are sometimes useful. My experience with them has been that they can provide a useful adjunct to my usual meditation practice, especially when I'm feeling stuck or lost. Sometimes it's good for a jumpstart when I first sit down. It can give my mind something to do, and sometimes that's useful. But what I also find is that before all-that long, the mind figures out ways around any practice and goes on its merry way doing whatever it wants to do regardless. And so I abandon it or go on to something else.
Our practice, such as it is, with mantras is that our meditation teachers encourage us to make up our own, something meaningful to us. I've found that what works best for me is very short and simple, to keep the mind from going all gaga. "Here. Now. " (each on exhalations, alternating, repeated) is one of my favorites. Another, similar, is "Sit Still. Do Nothing." People sometimes use a line from the liturgy that speaks to them.
Another practice is with sound— paying attention simply to the sensation, noticing when we go to labeling and then on from that to story-telling. Classic example is “barking dog”—first the sound, simple sensation—second, labeling it as a dog barking—third, all the stories about it— how irritating that is, what's the matter with the dog, what's the matter with the owners, wish it would stop, I remember a dog once when I was young ... etc.
The more we can stay with the simple sensation, or at least get to labeling and then let it go, the closer we are to the true mind of meditation. One other thing that has been helpful is my teacher's pointing out that when we become aware that our minds are wandering or agitated or sleepy, or whatever, that's perfect meditation in itself—notice that moment of awareness and rest there. I'm gradually getting to where I can do that.
HTM: I feel that I am getting a stronger sense of your meditation practice here, and am enjoying the details. Thank you for sharing all of this. I particularly enjoyed you drawing attention to that "quality that abides underneath everything else" as a testament to your perseverance. Your response has brought up many questions, which is exciting. I want to hear about "body-scan" and "breath-counting" but would like to ask these questions first.
You mentioned moving towards an alternative to just sitting when you feel "stuck or lost"— so I wonder how you are able to tell when you are stuck or lost. In addition, you go on to speak about the mind doing its thing. I am curious as to whether you have suceeded in stilling the mind (slowing the parade of thoughts) in your practice over these years. And in reference to your barking dog example— I feel that I understand this approach of progressively letting go of story, name, etc. What is fascinating to me is that paradoxically mindfulness practice implies being very appreciative and embracing of these same details. Can you share your take on this?
Genko: Body-scan is, as I understand it, a Vipassana technique, where you basically start from the crown of the head (or alternatively from the toes) and simply scan the body. You can look for places of tension, check posture, thank the various parts of the body for their service to you, etc. (various practices associated with it)— a variety of approaches. Helps to ground one in the body— helps with mindfulness of the body.
At its best, following the breath does the same thing. Another technique is labeling— just stopping and saying "thinking" when you notice the mind doing that. I sometimes use words like "opinion," "preference," or "judgment" as ways of refining the technique, especially when I'm working on acceptance, for example. What's helpful for me, again, is to use only one word, not getting into a whole commentary about what's going on in the mind.
Following the breath while counting (breath-counting) is simply counting 1 to 10, which can be exhalations (most typically), inhalations, or even both (1 on inhalation, 2 on exhalation, 3 on inhalation, etc.). The idea is to keep returning to 1, and notice where you mind was. If you get to where you can't remember whether it was 5 or 6, return to 1. If you get to 35 or 47 (the mind having gone off on its own parallel track)—return to 1. Again, that noticing is the point of perfect awareness.
Identifying my own emotions and mind states has been a major part of my practice. I was pretty much removed from them in any real way most of my life. I wasn't allowed to express my emotions, especially pain and anger, when I was a child, and learned not to cry, not to get angry, etc. As a consequence, I've been unable even to know what I was feeling much of the time. Instead, I used standards (shoulds and judgment). So at first what I felt was confusion. Also fear, an undifferentiated, nonspecific fear. That became my gateway. The fact that my teacher, and then gradually I, could sit calmly in the face of it allowed me to accept what was in my mind without judgment (at least most of the time).
Stuck and lost look a lot like confusion. When the fear gets overwhelming, I can go to what I call Shut-Down, which takes me to a place of numbness. Learning to observe the process with compassion and letting go of judgment has been the work of several years. Noticing the differences among these mind states so I can recognize them when they arise again is a huge step toward working with them compassionately.
Embracing details— yes, there's a difference between appreciating details and getting lost in them. In the barking dog example, the difference has to do with the fact that we focus on the sensation of sound, maybe the qualities, pitch, volume, noticing things like how far away, how do we know? (air currents, etc.). Maybe empathy for the dog, though I think that can be tricky (if we get started on stories, blaming, etc.). At some point knowing we are the same as the dog, or at the very least we are in the same world as the dog, we are sharing an experience together—all of that with compassion, non-judgment, and nonattachment. It can sound confusing at first, but over time, we get to notice the difference.
HTM: I get what you mean about the barking dog scenario. However, I want to rephrase it and then check in with you for clarity— encountering the barking with wonder and innocence (and hence, appreciation) as opposed to allowing it to trigger assumption, unconscious mind-tripping, etc. Please tell me if I am getting this.
I had a similar experience growing up—with anything emotional being utterly discouraged. It has taken years to heal (and still healing). There is this common view of gurus or masters as being blissful 24-7. So we assume we must overcome so-called "negative" emotions. Do you have any experience with the devaluing of less comfortable feelings, and the belief that mastery will mean no longer having these?
Also, you speak of noticing the difference in various mind-states and observing the process with compassion. Do you find yourself able to navigate on just a feeling level towards compassion? What I mean to ask is if you can recognize deeper alignment without going into the mind? Are you able to move in that direction without interpreting?
Genko: As far as the barking dog goes— yes, I think that's a fair summary of what I'm getting at. And still, noticing when the assumptions, mind-tripping, etc. click in. For example, what does that process look like? What triggers it? What does it feel like?—and having compassion, curiosity, and acceptance in the face of that.
In regard to ongoing bliss—yes, I've learned to be careful with some of the especially Asian monks' teachings that seem to say we must simply get rid of these feelings, because that feeds right into habit patterns of destruction/denial of emotions. Over time, I see to what degree all of those teachings are true and how they are different from my habit energy. But at first, it looked the same. As I began to differentiate them, I began to see them as parallel tracks, right next to each other. The destructive rut is right next to this new pattern I'm trying to cultivate, and at the slightest provocation, I can slide right over into the old rut.
Again, notice. Notice how it feels, both the slide and recognizing the difference. At some point, I may get to that blissful state of not having any more negative emotions. Not there yet. Mostly what I find now is that I can have those emotions without necessarily believing them, without having to act on them or react to them. A little bit of equanimity, which simply involves acceptance, recognizing that they are like the weather— now it's sunny, but tomorrow it's supposed to get colder and rainy again. It's all just as it is.
You asked if I am able to navigate on a feeling level. I'm beginning to be able to. It was tricky, because the whole deal was learning about my feelings. First there were only two states: denial or overwhelmed with terror. I had to learn to sit still with the terror, find ways to avoid Shut-Down and allow it to be. I had to learn to cry and accept crying. I had to learn to accept anger, to say yes to all those "No. Don't Want!"—2-year-old tantrums and see what I could learn from them.
Not easy. Not always skillful. Keep sitting still. Take a break. Accept. Come back— a stubborn persistence in the face of sometimes overwhelming despair. It's not that the mind isn't involved at all, but that over time I came to see (with the help of my teachers) that it isn't the best tool for teaching me about emotions. In fact, sometimes it's a huge obstacle. That's where body meditation practice comes in, where just sitting still with pure awareness becomes extremely valuable. Not easy, of course, but increasingly important.
So, two things—one, as I mentioned, is that it is extremely helpful to work closely with a teacher, because they can both model acceptance, kindness and compassion, and also see more clearly what's happening and encourage movement in the positive direction. The second thing for me has been the use of Other Power—in my case, Kanzeon, or Avalokiteshvara, as the embodiment of compassion.
My first hearing of the Universal Gateway Chapter of the Lotus Sutra brought me to tears and I didn't know why. Now I think it has to do with the affirmation that there is a force in the universe that cares and has power to change one's life, one's mind. When I got the most overwhelmed and agitated, I would use a mala and do 108 repetitions of "Namu Kanzeon Bosatsu" (Hail to the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara). It would change my mind state enough to make it easier to get through whatever it was. Kanzeon is the statue on my altar. I think, for me, it is a visual and mental reminder of the kindness and compassion I find living here, that I can rely on.
HTM: Thank you. I want to ask you to briefly describe what you believe is the most positive rendition one might expect to grow into— of what is now still experienced as "negative emotion". Do you really believe one (we) are capable of ongoing bliss? We have both the laughing and the angry Buddha, do we not?
I feel that we are coming to a natural conclusion of this meditation interview. You have provided a good solid example of the meditation experience in general—and of yours in particular. Thank you for that. I do have one more question in addition to the one above, and that is as to whether you feel that a master or teacher is necessary. If one is not moved to seek out meditation teachers, do you believe that something is awry?
Genko: I suppose I don't believe that humans are capable of 24-7 bliss, at least not as it is often portrayed. Part of being human is that we are fallible, even as we are glorious and noble. The Buddha's All-Knowledge is not encyclopedic knowledge but the ability to see through causes and conditions, to see what is in front of him or her clearly. Everything that has happened to me is part of what has given me the insights I have so far.
I have been told that it is possible to be in perfect equanimity even when terrified, and I believe that is true, and I am beginning to experience it. Okay, I'm terrified. Simply accept it that I'm terrified. I've been terrified before, and will be so again. This terror is simply the current state of weather, maybe a thunderstorm, maybe a blizzard. Hunker down, accept. And watch it pass, as it will, eventually. At the very least, I find negative mind states instructive, capable of teaching me, if I can be open to their teaching. This is not the same as believing in the terror and reacting negatively to it. It has more to do with learning to sit still and take a step back to observe.
In regard to meditation teachers— my experience has been that a teacher is essential. I can't speak for others. It does seem to me that it is too easy to go astray, because habit energy is so strong and coping mechanisms so ingrained, without someone observing from the outside who has experience with this stuff. In my case, I also really have needed someone human whom I could learn to trust, who wouldn't accept my bullshit or give me any more, who would care for, trust, and encourage me, give me hints as to how to proceed, monitor to make sure I was able to continue with what I was doing, etc.
I needed someone absolutely ethical, experienced, and unfailingly kind—someone who can embody the Buddha for me. My teacher(s) have provided this for me, and have earned my undying gratitude and devotion. Because of them, I am paradoxically more able to be truly myself. I hope to be able to pass this on to others.
HTM: You say that your hope is to pass on some of this teaching to others. As your responses may have been somewhat limited by my curiosity and questions, is there anything you would like to add here that might encourage or help those new to meditation— something we have not covered in this interview thus far?
Genko: I like to tell those who come to me for interviews (often in connection with a class), especially young people, but it applies equally to us older types, that we each have within us a voice sometimes called Way-Seeking Mind. If we can get quiet enough to listen to it, it will guide us where we need to go. We can trust it. And a meditation practice can look like it's not accomplishing anything. But it is. We can trust that as well.
HTM: There was something I wanted to get at before, but it was not clear. In the interim it has emerged from the fog and so I want to address it. I believe that we have agreed together in the course of this interview that all human beings are fallible— that emotions are what they are (though we may learn to observe them as if a storm). You believe that a teacher is essential— someone you can trust. I believe that nature itself can be trusted— trusted to be itself, whether human or any other expression— ultimately beneficent.
You mentioned that "there is a force in the universe that cares and has power to change one's life". Is this not a single force that is embodied in all nature? Why isolate this nature and trust it in a few persons only? I would be concerned over being somehow prevented from experiencing nature in its full range. You say "Everything that has happened to me is part of what has given me the insights I have so far." Is this limited to formal teachings? I wonder if you could address this.
Genko: Oh, that is skillful means— a teacher, that is. I believe that for me, it has been essential to have a teacher, and probably the specific teacher(s) I have found. Who knows what karmic conditions led me here? The teachings are what we sometimes call "a finger pointing to the moon"— cautioning not to value the finger over the moon itself. We can't really put into words what this is.
In Zen we talk about Emptiness or Suchness— a thing as it is or sometimes "that which is greater"—that which we can't define or put into any sort of words. I don't know that it is a single force. I certainly wouldn't isolate it or try to define it. I'm not sure I would agree that Nature is beneficent. I think it is much more neutral than that—saying that though, I would agree that there is a lot to learn from Nature—from simple observation and reflection.
My teacher is definitely fallible. I can see him as the goofball he is, with the failings he has, and also see him as Buddha. I have projected a lot of stuff on to him, and he simply sits there and absorbs it, to my great gratitude. I see myself projecting stuff onto him—see all the ways I falter in my relationship with him. And I see him as essential to my finding myself. At some point, I will be able to leave him behind. There are many sources of teaching—all my experiences, everything and everyone I meet day to day, moment by moment.
There are endless writings and commentaries of teachings. In Buddhism we don't have an agreed-upon canon of writings, though there are many that most Buddhist groups value. Nothing is left out. No one is left out. It is not mine to tell anyone else what their path is. I can only find my own path and follow it to the best of my ability. If someone can find some value in observing me, in my relating my experience, that is my wish.
HTM: All very well put in my opinion. Thank you so much for opening your heart and sharing so much of your personal meditation experience. I have enjoyed this process. I have no more questions. I just want to thank you.
Genko: You are welcome. It is part of my vow, of course, to cultivate just that openness and willingness to share. I've enjoyed it too. It always gives me more grist for my own reflections. I'm trying to write a dharma talk, and this has actually provided me with some material. So thank you also for pursuing your questions.