Awareness an interview with Grace Schireson

 How to Meditate, Interview – March 22, 2010

HTM: What form of meditation do you practice?

Grace: My home base for meditation practice is 45 years of experience in Soto Zen shikantaza, or the school of silent illumination. Many times throughout the day I will find my breath for a minute or two of practice. I meditate every day (20-30 minutes) with this method, once or twice a day. I also lead regularly scheduled meditation retreats, classes and workshops where I teach this practice and point out the way it changes your life from the inside out.

I have determined that this specific practice is most reliable for me and my students and does not require close supervision from a teacher. While I believe it is essential for meditation students to have a teacher for guidance, some practices are more risky in my view—that is they can create energetic imbalances and require closer supervision. For example, koan practice from the Chinese, Korean and Japanese traditions may require a kind of forceful effort that may leave a student off balance or depleted.

I have studied this method with my own teacher in Kyoto, Fukushima Keido Roshi of Tofukuji monastery, but I only teach it to students who are committed to working closely with me, and who are of a steady and mature temperament. I have also studied Tibetan practices and visualizations, but I believe that these more elaborate trainings require closer supervision and ongoing and extensive trainings.

HTM: Thank you. I am excited to hear more. I am a bit confused. You mention that you "find your breath" for a minute or two, and then you write that you meditate for a 20-30 minute period once or twice a day. Are these separate practices, and what do they entail exactly. Perhaps you can describe the process of each.

Grace: Finding the breath is informal meditation wherever you may be, sitting for 20-30 minutes is formal meditation. One needs to practice both ways.

HTM: Can you describe to me how "finding the breath" works?

Grace: My teacher always said that a good Zen student always knows where her breath is. So even though we breathe automatically, we can become conscious of the subtle qualities of the breath—where it is in the body, is it long or short, tight or loose— and work to develop a softer, more refined and healing breath. We can notice where our bodies are tight, breathe into the tension and let go.

Seated meditation involves taking a meditation posture, as is customary in a particular tradition, and focusing on the breath, especially counting the exhale at the beginning. One counts from one to ten, exhales only and returns to one again. The attention is focused on the breath, and the mind is like a big sky, where thoughts cross, but are not engaged as a thinking activity. As concentration deepens subtle signs appear—peacefulness, bliss and a quality of engaged and tangible presence.

HTM: Is it your personal experience that these practices of breath counting meditation and sitting meditation carry over something of their quality into those moments when you are not in meditation?

Grace: Our practice proceeds naturally when more and more often we remember to turn towards the light of opening our minds rather than turning towards our habits and defenses. This is a gradual change that occurs at first with discipline and effort, and then later it begins to carry itself forward. It is like a seed that we have planted after cultivating the ground. We need to weed it, and we need to remember to water and nourish it, but soon it takes on its own shape and turns toward the light knowing its own rate of growth and blossoming in surprising ways.

HTM: I like the idea of turning toward the light. I wonder if we could look a little closer at the mechanics of the sitting meditation. I want to understand the breathing. Is the count to ten during the inhale or the exhale?

Grace: The counting in Zen occurs on the exhalation. In every arena of our life, except yoga and other forms of stretching, we are encouraged to push and accumulate. We get little training in releasing and accepting. By focusing on the exhalation, we bring our attention to the process of letting go. How do we build the muscle to let go? In the beginning we have no strength, no way to accomplish the command to “Let go!” but with continuous practice, this ability is strengthened and our lives respond to a more harmonious balance of effort and ease.

HTM: I am enjoying this interview. I notice that much of what you have offered in response is couched in terms appropriate for teaching, which is all very good. However, I wonder if I could ask you to go into this a little more personally and speak from your direct experience. What does this process of exhaling and inhaling feel like to you? Perhaps you could recount your initial success and excitement at having found something that works for you personally. This approach, I believe, more than instruction, would be encouraging to readers.

Grace: Just as I described previously, this is my experience, not just my teaching. I feel where the tension is in my own body when I bring my awareness to the breath. When I feel troubled, there is a focus on the trouble, when I return to my breath, I have a softer view that includes both the trouble, the breath and the entire universe. I can still feel the pain and the magnetic pull to engage with the suffering in my habitual ways, but rather than fight the pain, I turn towards the suffering, the habit, and the aversion to just be present. Being present with the tension allows it to dissolve.

HTM: Thank you. It may be just the use of "I" rather than "Our" that makes a big difference in accessibility, at least for me— so thank you. This description is something I can identify with in my own process. I have a friend who was reading a book called "Buddha Brain" or something like that, where the author recommended holding a joyful image/feeling whilst in the midst of a hurtful image/feeling and that something joins them and allows the pain to move and release. This last response of yours reminded me of that.

I suppose there is often a physiological counterpart to our healing experiences in meditation. I want to ask you about your experience with stilling thoughts, watching thoughts, slowing or stopping internal dialogue. In a previous response you mentioned witnessing them pass by while you were engaged in counting. Can you tell me more about how you work with thoughts? Does "engaging with the suffering in habitual ways" refer to thinking patterns?

Grace: Interesting, the bigger Self is a “we” not an “I”. I describe my own personal theory of working through difficulty as having an analogous process to inflammation in the body. The injury or painful thoughts or feelings require being encapsulated, but there is a point that the body begins to break down swelling, scar tissue and the compartment to restore a flow.

As far as stilling, I don’t give that a thought either. I cultivate awareness around the sensation, thought, image or feeling. There is a Buddhist expression: All defilements are self-liberating in the great space of awareness. So I cultivate this space of awareness and allow nature to take its course with the persistent problems of habit mind I have referred to earlier.

So habit mind is an automatic response that has components of feeling, thinking and acting that are not helpful, but they are repeated due to lack of awareness and long term conditioning. This may not work for others who are overwhelmed by trauma or difficult states of mind. I prescribe a metta practice, cultivating loving kindness, when there is not yet sufficient stability in breath awareness practice.

HTM: I find it interesting, that for some, pure awareness generates a "we" and for others an "I". It may be due to the filter of language in addition to wholeness being of both one and many. Incidentally, I love your analogy of inflammation in the body. I understand the bit about all defilements being self-liberating, and yet it brings up a question for me. Is there not something we do to cease in unconscious perpetuation of the pain, by actually paying attention of witnessing through these meditative practices? Nature more readily takes its course when we "allow" it to?

Grace: It is my experience that we are almost constantly blocking with defenses and fears before we enter practice, so that when we make an effort to let go, life naturally proceeds to liberate us. Nevertheless, my favorite (teaching) example of this is when Lauren Bacall kisses Bogey for the first time in “To Have and Have Not.” And then she kisses him again, and she says “It’s so much better when you help.” I think our full attention and participation is of great and mutual benefit and enjoyment.

HTM: What a great example, and with humor too. Have you found that after having meditated for some time— time being relative here, the attention (or help) needed is less? In short, life itself becomes a meditation, and the process of healing or liberation continues having integrated itself into your day-to-day?

Grace: It all becomes one unfolding. But there are times when I reach a particularly painful or stuck part. I have confidence in the process, and I have confidence in the team of resources I turn to for help.

HTM: Perhaps you could share some information about these resources and the nature of how and where you teach meditation.

Grace: I teach meditation in Fresno, Modesto and North Fork every week. I also lead longer retreats, lead Zen women’s workshops and teach from my book Zen Women: Beyond Tea Ladies, Iron Maidens and Macho Masters. My groups in Fresno and Modesto are open to the public at the Unitarian Church and the Church of the Brethren respectively. My other events can be found through

HTM: Grace, thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview. It has been inspiring.