How to Meditate, Interview – April 16, 2010
HTM: How did you first get involved in meditation?
Will: A couple of things colluded to set a stage that made the actual beginning meditation very easy: The destruction of my marriage intensified my desire to find a way of looking at and relating to the world that made sense to me. My chronic inability to find a satisfying spiritual life within Christianity coupled with a distaste for the church politics and the like made me ripe to look elsewhere.
Looming in the background was my older sister who had, in recent years, been delightfully transformed by, among other things, her Zen practice of around ten years standing. The final background element was the purchase of a copy of the Tao Te Ching almost twenty years prior that had introduced me to and intrigued me with an Eastern way of thinking. These things were all on my mind at the end of 2006.
A rock was pushed over a cliff when a Zen book showed up in the house as a Christmas present for my children's mother. I borrowed and read it and was amazed. It was as if my own thoughts had been written down by someone else. When it described meditation, I thought, I can try that right here and now. With no cushion or bench, a couple bricks and a board were pressed into service, and I went out onto the patio under the deck. (The house is a 70's seen-one-seen-'em-all A-frame) I took a timer, not to ring and stop the sitting, but to see how long I sat. I mentally targeted ten minutes.
Following the description in the book, I sat on the makeshift bench and began what I would later know as shikantaza. When I came out of it around seven or eight minutes later I knew I was spiritually home. Something clicked, just like that. And so I began sitting every day outside under the deck in the cool South Carolina winter, moving in when it got warm and buggy. Eventually I was sitting thirty minutes once a day.
HTM: I would like to ask you a few questions about the "spiritual home" as you refer to it. However, I am intrigued by the fact that you have had experiences with both Buddhism and Christianity. I would like to hear about the your transition from practicing Christianity to practicing Zen meditation. In my experience Christianity externalizes God and Source, whereas Meditation internalized God and Source. How is it that you managed such a shift?
Will: It may not be quite as big a shift as one might think. Sometime in 2007, it fully dawned on me that I did not, and indeed, could not believe some of the things that, more or less, one is required to believe to call oneself a Christian, and that no amount of deciding or effort was going to change that. Additionally, I realized that I actually never had. One of the ideas that my mind would not sit still for was an externalized, interventionist God. I simply didn't buy it.
Now that was troublesome, having been raised a Christian, and it took some time to actually admit what I had already realized because of fear of damnation inculcated since childhood in the church. Once that admission was made, though, I let go of Christianity. I decided that I wanted a spiritual life that would work for me, not the other way around, and for the first time felt free to look outside the faith I was brought up in.
At that point, moving to Buddhism was easy for a couple reasons. First was that Buddhism seemed simple- which is not to say easy- and logical. Secondly, I was not asked to believe things that I could not. Everything was empirically testable. These things appealed to me deeply. Regarding an internalized God and Source, I find I'm not very interested in the questions "Where did I come from?" and "Why am I here?" When I made the shift, I needed something that was present and useful in a pragmatic way. I was more interested in "What do I do now?" I still am.
HTM: Regarding Buddhism, Christianity, etc. In moving out of Christianity and into Buddhism, you say that Buddhism seems simple by comparison, and yet not particularly easy or logical. And yet, as I understand it, what appeals to you is that it is testable and pragmatic. What I get from your response is that you appreciate the down-to-earth, present-moment "being" nature of Zen Buddhism in contrast to what Christianity offers, and that this is what you mean by "pragmatic". Is this the case? Also, what strikes you as not so easy and logical?
Will: My wording was a touch awkward. What I meant to say was that Buddhism is conceptually simple and conceptually logical but demanding to put into practice. By practice, I mean the ongoing daily effort of rooting out attachments, those of desire or those of aversion, and the clearing up of delusions. Meditation is a very effective tool in aiding the effort by fostering inner awareness of emotional and mental state.
I can much more effectively find attachments and delusions in the silent stillness of meditation than I can in the noise of normal life. What makes the practice not so easy is the relentless nature of attachments and delusions. They manifest in life incessantly and so constant vigilance is required. As efforts to drop attachments and delusions are carried out I can observe how my life is affected by the effort.
This is what I mean by pragmatic- or just practical- and testable. In Christianity, by comparison, there are a lot of "God works in mysterious ways" situations which had me trying to leave my well-being to something or someone that I couldn't really experience and didn't really believe in. There are other aspects to it, but that's the main one.
HTM: I enjoyed your statement that "meditation is a very effective tool in aiding the effort by fostering inner awareness". I don't believe there is any other practice that can accomplish this development of inner awareness the way that meditation can. For me, what inevitably comes up is pain (delusions, attachments), and what inevitably replaces it is awareness (self, stillness, and peace). I want to return to a question that came up earlier. You spoke previously of having found your "spiritual home". Can you tell me more of what you mean by "spiritual home"?
Will: This may be difficult to put into words. When I began sitting, particularly the very first time, the feeling that I was left with afterward was very much like the feeling of arriving home again after a vacation. I sensed a release of tension. There was a sense of arrival- that the search was over- that I had found what I had been looking for. The feelings of conflict and doubt about my spiritual life that had dogged my Christian faith were replaced by feelings of contentment and clarity.
The feeling of being on the outside looking in, of "not getting it", that I was doing something wrong, or worse, that there was something wrong with me, this feeling that lurked in the background with Christianity, was replaced with "Finally, I'm not alone, there are others like me". I felt calm and serene, like I belonged. All these things added and still add up to feeling like "home".
Let me say, too, that this plays on a couple levels. Certainly the emotional and spiritual levels are very important here, but the intellectual level is, for me, critical as well. I finally had a way of approaching my spiritual life that was logical, that I could reconcile with experience and observation. My mind was no longer at war with itself. This too contributed to the feeling of "home".
HTM: Can you describe how you meditate today, including details?
Will: I sit in the mornings, prior to breaking fast, anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes depending on how the morning schedule is going, 40 minutes on the weekends. Normally I'm in Burmese position on a kapok zafu but will sometimes sit in seiza if Burmese position won't work, as when I had an injured knee. I often light a single candle. A reading from a Toaist or Buddhist devotional book is usually next. I set a timer to end the period and then I ring a small brass bell, one of the little thick-walled bowl-on-a-cushion kind. I make gassho and begin.
The practice is straight shikantaza: As things- thoughts, emotions, images, physical sensations, whatever- arise, I attempt to let them go, neither engaging nor suppressing them. To observe and be aware only is the idea. When I realize I've engaged with something, I let it go and return to center. Also, for me, there's always a certain bit of dealing with the muscles of the middle back to get them to relax and so that is inevitably part of it.
The gist and theme of all aspects of it is one of release, of letting go. It is much like being still enough to let the silt settle and disappear so that the waters clear. If there is a goal, and one could argue that there isn't exactly. It's to simply and only be present and aware of whatever is there. When the timer goes off, I dismiss it, make gassho and ring the bell. Then, the rest of the day begins.
HTM: Is there anything more you can tell me about shikantaza? How is it different from sitting Zazen?
Will: Shikantaza is a form of zazen. This Wikipedia article gives a better description than I can, I think. The second section of the article on "Methods" gives a nice summary that is consistent with my experience. In particular the distinction between koans and shikantaza, the latter being described as "objectless". I did do some breath counting in the beginning but switched to shikantaza soon afterward. For about a year and a half, I sat at the Columbia Zen Buddhist Priori on Wednesday evenings, and the practice there is shikantaza.
The monk there related a story from Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett in which one of her students finally grasped the simplicity of it and said something on the order of "Ohhhhhh, you really do mean 'just sit'!" which is a literal translation of shikantaza. People often want to ask- do you do this or that? And the answer is always, "Nope. You just sit." It's sort of comical, actually. Like Buddhism itself, it's very, very simple in concept, difficult to execute.
HTM: Have you had any issues yourself with just sitting without doing anything else?
Will: I think my mind has a tendency to wander off with a thought and play a while but I'm able to come back without judging it for the most part. I'm told that's normal. Nothing I've read or heard from the more experienced people I've been around makes me think that I'm unusual. I don't think of myself as having issues with meditation. (The question makes me smile a little bit. Words are hard to use to describe scenarios within one's mind. It would seem almost impossible to really know if I have issues or not because it's so hard to communicate objectively about these things.)
HTM: I can absolutely see the humor. Now that I look at it again, it makes me smile as well. Looking at the question, I am re-thinking it, and would like to ask this instead; has meditation allowed you to root out any prevailing blocks, whether emotional, mental or physical? I have witnessed energy moving in my body in various places over the years and dealing with energy that had been held there. Often it will be clear to me when the block is resolved what past experience it dealt with.
Will: I can describe some things that I believe meditation has facilitated although I don't quite know whether to call them blocks: During my only retreat to date- a couple years ago, a seven day- tension on my middle back muscles was revealed via pain. I've work since then to relax those muscles during meditation. As well, I can now feel the tension collect there at times during the day and I can get them to relax now as in meditation.
My emotional awareness seems much better than before meditation and my emotions flow better now. They come and go, almost like breathing, and don't linger unnecessarily. For me this amounts to a more dynamic life where feelings arise and dissipate and life goes on. Meditation has given me the awareness that lets me actually know my emotional state, thus enabling me to let them go. My suffering is less intense and shorter in duration.
Interestingly to me, both of these things involve "letting go", not applying yet more effort. I believe "letting go" to be a key point in the Buddhist way of life. I say that fully aware that it's likely stating the obvious to the initiated, but for the non-initiated, say, for a Christian reader like I was years ago, it may very well be a completely new way of living.
HTM: I am really appreciating what you have said here about both "letting go" and "awareness of feelings". Meditation has offered me a similar ongoing insight and awareness into feelings and emotions. I remember reading somewhere about making suffering useful. I believe it was astrologer Dane Rudhyar and he may have been quoting someone else.
His point was that suffering with awareness is beautiful and healing, whereas suffering without learning from it just perpetuates the suffering. To allow the experience to take place rather than be compulsively triggered into applying effort as if there is something to solve, which only extends the entanglement. It is such a beautiful thing to be at peace with what is. Thank you so much for your words.
Will: You're quite welcome.