Some Thoughts on Zen Practice

“The more I sit in silent meditation, the more I believe in God.”

Len Swanson

There are two factors that typically inspire people to seriously pursue a spiritual path:  suffering, and the reality of death.  This was certainly true in my case.  My senior year in high school was the most difficult period of my life so far.  I had some family issues from the past I was dealing with, and was generally freaked out by the absurdity of life in general.  Why am I on this tiny planet with seven billion other people who continually attempt to destroy each other?  Why do I and these infinite galaxies even exist at all?  What is the point of doing anything if in the end it is taken from us by the impersonal wrecking ball of death; if the sun itself explodes in due time, forever making a mockery of civilization and all its flamboyant pageantry?

When I was 18 I resolved to begin meditating everyday in response to a personal crisis I wont elaborate on in this post.  So I cleared out my room, resolved to read the Dhammapada (which means sayings of the Buddha), and began my spiritual journey.  A few hours later, as I was moving my dresser into the attic to clear a space for meditation, my leg fell through the ceiling and went directly into my father’s room (which luckily he was not in at the time!).  It left a hole the size of a basketball and an even larger hole in my savings account.  God, you will learn, has a sense of humor.

Despite this initial setback, I began meditating daily.  With a clearer mind, I was able to observe myself with more detachment.  Even though I was feeling painful emotions and thinking many anxious thoughts, through the power of meditation and God’s grace I began to experience that “this is not my self.”  I am not my thoughts, my emotions, or even my body.  That doesn’t mean that this realization causes these things to disappear (a common misconception).  As Ramakrishna said, the realization of God is like seeing that the snake you fear is actually a rope.  The universe and its troubles do not disappear with realization, but ultimately they can be seen as nothing more than dream images which cannot actually harm the Dreamer.  The images on a movie screen, however joyful or grotesque, cannot harm you if you realize that you are the watcher of the movie.

The beautiful thing about most eastern religions is their emphasis that intellectually understanding this is not enough.  The classic metaphor in Zen is that all the teachings are like a finger pointing to the moon.  Once you see the moon for yourself, you can forget the finger.   God is the direct experience of Eternal is-ness, not a lifeless description of something outside of you that gets angry when you masturbate.  Experiencing the bliss of God is the purpose of religion and the highest goal of human life.  And to experience Him I believe that the first step is to single point the mind in the deep stillness of meditation.  We cannot see our reflection in a boiling pot of water, and similarly we cannot see our True Self without calming the raging waters of the restless mind.

With that said, I’ll end this post with some thoughts on a practical way to do this.  There are many types of meditation, but Zen meditation is the only type I have meaningful experience with.  Zen is a practice, not a belief system.  For this reason, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Christian, or a member of any religion can practice Zen.  There are many facets of Zen practice, history, and culture, but in this post I will focus on the basic practice of concentration.

As it was explained to me, there are two basic functions of the human mind:  thinking and awareness.  The thinking mind is what thinks in images, words, and ideas.  It typically thinks of the past or the future (which are ideas), and for whatever reason almost never dwells in the present moment (which, ironically, is all that exists).  The mind of awareness is what simply sees, hears, tastes, smells, and feels.  It is seeing your computer screen, feeling your body, and hearing out of your ears right now.  We do not create It; It is always present, It is the source of all things, and It never dies.  So the practice of Zen meditation is switching from the limited thinking mind (which we mistake to be “us”) to this unbounded mind of awareness, or “God” (which is our true self).

So how do we do this?  The basic introductory way is to follow the breathing.  The body is always in the present moment, so it can be used as a wonderful tool to anchor awareness in the Now.  Zen practice initially begins by taking an upright posture and simply following the breath (for more on the posture, I have recommended a good book below.  There is also much information online).  A good point to begin is the tip of the nose or the belly, as these two areas are filled with potent sensations that are relatively easy to follow.  This sounds easy, but if you attempt it for even a few breaths you will find just how stubbornly addicted your mind is to thinking.  But whenever you find yourself thinking, the practice is simply to return to the breath and the body, which is always present.  To aid in this process, it is also helpful to count one’s breaths on the out breath to help engage the mind in the practice.  It is best to pick a certain period of time (twenty minutes is a good starting place, but even 5 – 10 is better than nothing) and do it every day.  And because the Mind of awareness is always present, everything we do can become meditation.

Although it is difficult to still the mind, it can be done.  One sage said it is like a wild animal tethered to a pole.  The animal keeps violently trying to escape the process, but if it remains tethered to the pole it will eventually give up and rest.  With practice it becomes easier and easier to dwell in simple awareness, and eventually the mind begins to rest in its natural state of peace all the time.  This level of “calm mind” has obvious benefits, but ultimately it is only the launching pad.  From this state of peace, you can then explore questions like, “who am I?” which chisel away at the ingrained notion that we are the limited body/mind.  Ultimately, the practice of meditation leads to Self-Realization and the direct experience that you and God are One and that you never die .  This experience is what is termed “salvation” and it is available to anyone who seeks it and practices a good method.

Meditation is a method, but not the goal.  As Yogananda says, you can get to Florida by walking, by car, or by plane.  He calls meditation the “airplane route” to God.  It is the speediest path to God, but it is only a path.  Ultimately, only the grace of God can reveal the inconceivable Truth, but this is far more likely to happen if one has a dedicated meditation practice.  That is why in the Hindu scripture it says that it is extremely fortunate karma to even hear about meditation.  It is possible to realize Oneness with God without meditation (through selfless service, prayer, and ethical living), but it will probably take a hell of a lot longer!

Hafiz, the Sufi poet, once said, “The Pitcher needs a still cup.”  I practice meditation because it brings me peace of mind and makes me a happier person.  But ultimately I believe that doing this practice will enable God to reveal Itself to me.  That said, one person’s medicine is another person’s disease, and there are no cookbook methods on the way to God. Everyone has a unique path and should ask the Divine to lead them to the one that best suits the life circumstances of their current incarnation.  The Lord will certainly respond to you since you are His dearly loved child and since His nature is love Itself. Thank you for reading.

May God reveal Himself to you and lead you to the highest happiness,


– A legit dude doing zen meditation

p.s. If you are interested in learning more about Zen practice, here is a link to Great Vow Zen Monastery Podcasts.  The teachers there have been practicing for over 40 years, and truly have a gift for teaching.  I personally have studied with them for over 7 months of my life, and will always be grateful to them.

Also, here is a link to a really good “how-to” zen practice book.

Anther great Zen book is “Zen Mind, Beginners Mind” by S. Suzuki

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