“Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.”
Om. I have found no greater antidote to worry than my meditation practice. I have kept a daily Zen meditation practice for nearly five years now and have experienced again and again both its practical and spiritual benefits. Yet I am just a normal guy living a very normal life in American society. I go to college, am doing an internship this year, and have everything on my mind that everyone else does – family, money, romance, car problems, my ambitions, etc. Yet I have found in meditation a peace that transcends all of these important yet conditional spheres of my life. For in them is a ceaseless fluctuation of ups and downs, goods and bads, victories and defeats- to seek freedom from worry through them is nothing short of ignorance! Meditation, on the other hand, can connect us with what the Buddha called “the unconditioned,” a changeless inner peace which Jesus metaphorically referred to as “The Kingdom of Heaven.”
Yet largely because of this type of poetic language many people have a mystified image of meditation. They think they have to escape to India, grow dreadlocks, or change their name to “moon-child” in Sanskrit to begin a serious meditation practice. They think of levitation, the yogic powers, and spirit beings with creepy sounding laughs. Yet in reality meditation is deceptively simple and can easily be integrated into the average modern life. It is, of course, not the Philosopher’s Stone that will fix all your problems, but I can testify that it is something worth taking seriously. And, when considering the war against worry that everyone in our hectic modern world faces, there are few things that compare to its potency.
Relative Freedom from Worry: Content v. Structure
The difference between the content of worry and its structure can be symbolized by numerators and denominators. The numerators (or the content) of worry are as diverse as life itself- you may be worrying about a test you need to study for, a grandparent in the hospital, a girl or boy that wont text you back, what you are going to have for dinner, money problems, or etc. upon etc. upon etc. until the end of time.
Yet all of these numerators share a common denominator: they are all thoughts. Without exception all worry shares a common structure: the thinking mind separates from the present moment and projects itself into the past, the future, or a fantasy. We all know this is true yet most people have never considered how destructive this process can be if it is never mastered. Unchecked worry can literally cause illness, make life a living hell, and waste massive amounts of our time in a depressingly unproductive way (as Jesus said, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?”).
With this in mind we should realize that freedom from worry cannot be attained by perfectly arranging the content, by creating a life that is somehow free from all ambiguity. These are the branches of worry that will keep sprouting up in new forms if the root of worry remains unseen. This root is thinking itself. Thinking is not inherently evil, and in fact is obviously necessary to function in the world. Yet the addiction to thinking that permeates modern society is indeed an evil that creates unbearable anxiety for millions of people everyday.
So how does Zen meditation address this problem? Zen is all about returning to the ever-present Awareness that precedes thought. Our True Mind simply experiences the present moment before our thinking mind forms an opinion about it. This Mind (frequently called “God”) is always at peace. Worry only arises when we separate from It and falsely identify with our impermanent thoughts, feelings, sensations, etc. Additionally, what separates Zen from more intellectual religious traditions is that it offers a practical way to actually do this.
This method is mind-blowingly simple: since the body is always in the present moment, we can use the body as a tool to root our awareness in the Now. In Zazen (seated meditation) we simply return to the breath every time we get stuck in thought. If you practice this daily you will eventually become single pointed on the breath and the mind will calm by itself. Also, throughout the day you can avoid worry by constantly returning to the reality of whatever you may be doing. You may hear this and say, “aha! That’s the ticket!” but if you actually try this for more than three breaths you will realize how difficult it is to do. In fact, it takes many years of dedicated spiritual work to even begin training the mind.
Yet you can easily start this process today! Because, hilariously, the goal of Zen is simply about returning to what is already happening. So to practice Zen you can have a daily sitting practice for, say, half an hour (I describe this at length in my book) and also meditate throughout your day. When eating food actually taste the food instead of thinking. When showering-just shower! When taking a walk- just take a walk. When working – just work without complicating things with thought. And in all these things you can hold the question, “who is the One experiencing this?” and see that the real You is always at peace. This practice enables us to really live while we live, and replaces the sterile poison of worry with the all-satisfying nectar of a life centered in appreciative awareness.
Absolute Freedom from Worry
Yet even this facet of meditation (concentration, along with ethics) is like the soil of a garden, the foundational first step that cannot be skipped. Absolute freedom from worry, however, can only be attained by the realization that we are God. The Buddha taught that all suffering (including worry) is based on the illusion that we are a separate self. We all have this inescapable sense of “I” that is tied to our body and mind. We seem to be mortal human beings and base this assumption on the tangible evidence of our body, mind, and feelings. We spend endless lifetimes defending this “self” we think we are, and our whole life can be viewed as the pathetic attempt to give it pleasure and shield it from pain.
The Buddha, however, challenged his followers to systematically explore this sense of “I” in meditation. Are you the body? If so, are you the finger, the toe, the torso? Are you your thoughts? Are you your feelings? If this inquiry is followed to its conclusion the practitioner becomes freed by the realization that all these things are impermanent, unreal, and “not self.” To use a metaphor, the victorious practitioner finally sees that they are the Watcher of the movie, its formless enjoyer instead of the temporary victim or hero prancing across the screen.
Many people falsely think this type of realization involves a negation of the world’s beauty. On the contrary, enlightenment means the understanding that this very world is the manifestation of God. As the 18th century Zen teacher Hakuin exclaimed in his famous poem, the Song of Zazen, “This Earth where we stand is the Pure Lotus Land, and this very body the body of Buddha!” Through realization one can participate fully in life without fear because they experientially know that they can never die. As Jesus said, they are “in the world, but not of it,” set free to play their part in the spectacle of the history from the peaceful perspective of the Eternal Lord.
To realize this takes intense spiritual work, but I believe it is the goal of life. Meditation and all spiritual practices in all traditions lead to this one goal. And in my opinion there is no lasting solution to worry, fear, hatred, or any other human affliction apart from it.
The thing I most dig about Zen is its scrupulous practicality. Even if you don’t believe in the metaphysical mumbo-jumbo I mentioned in the previous section you can still benefit from meditation in many ways. For there is indeed nothing metaphysical about your breath, which we can all agree is happening right now! And we can also agree that worry is a big problem these days, a problem that needs to be addressed with new solutions that transcend our capitalist society’s childish attempt to temporarily sedate us with an endless barrage material enjoyment.
Having a formal meditation practice (and meditating in activity) can easily be incorporated into a busy modern life, and I have found that this is a powerful antidote to worry. Yet Zen (and all spiritual traditions) simultaneously offers something more for those people who are not satisfied with temporary relief from suffering and desire to know the Truth that underlies all change. For when followed to the end the spiritual path reveals that we ourselves are the Divine all religions symbolically profess; that the God we seek is seeing out of our own eyes; and that despite the pain of this hurting world we have always lacked nothing.
May you and all beings find lasting peace. Om.
– Some regular peeps doing Zazen.
P.s. I have taken great pains to explain the actual methodology of Zen meditation as I understand it in my new book, particularly in the sections entitled “concentration on the breathing” and “the practice of inquiry.” Posture, meditation supplies, and other practical things are also discussed in detail. This book is available for free download in another part of this website. For this reason I did not mention the “how-tos” of Zen meditation in detail in this post. Two other great introductory Zen books are “Meditation in Plain English” by John Daishin Buksbazen, and “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” by S. Suzuki.
- Being and Doing
- Freedom from Worry Part 1: Understanding Grace
- Airports, Musing, Hafiz…!
- A Few Thoughts on Spiritual Peace
- Merry Christmas from Bodhgaya!
- Zen Meditation in Activity
- Purposes of Meditation
- Homosexuality, Christianity, and The Future of Scripture