In a way, meditation is the opposite of landscape painting. A landscape painter starts with an empty canvas and slowly fills in a picture. In meditation, we start with something like a full picture and slowly remove its content. At its most complete, meditation brings us back to the empty canvas, what Zen calls “Original Mind.”
For many of us, an early lesson when we first start to meditate is how little control we have of our mind. Early on, if I could keep my mind focused for twenty seconds I felt like it was an accomplishment. We like to think that at the center of our being our governing ego is in control, but if that were the case, meditative concentration would be easy to attain. Instead we are confronted with the monkey mind and its propensity to distraction.
One Beginner’s Path
I started to learn meditation at the age of sixteen. I had no teachers, just a couple of books on the subject. One book was in the Soto Zen tradition and concentrated on breathing. The other was in the Raja Yoga tradition, and provided a variety of meditation exercises. I found one of the exercises from this book particularly helpful. In this exercise you gaze upon a candle flame for about a minute, concentrating on the flame as well as you can. Then you take your hands and gently put them over your eyes. The flame leaves an impression on the retina; the challenge is to keep this impression in the center of your vision for as long as you can. It’s not easy to explain how this works, but try it once and you’ll see.
I made a lot of mistakes trying to learn meditation on my own. The most persistent and serious was in trying to force my mind to be quiet. With time I learned that to find quietness in the mind, I had to give my complete concentration to the things that were creating turmoil there. I had to learn to listen to and understand the voices of the various yapping monkeys. Giving them my full attention, which is to say attending fully to the state of my soul, I found that things quieted naturally.
Several years after I first started to meditate, I took formal lessons at a Zen Meditation center, under Katigiri Roshi, a prominent Zen teacher. By that time I had gained a degree of mastery in meditation, but with a genuine master I was able to gain a better sense of what was still to be accomplished. My first time at the center, I learned an interesting lesson. The Zen Meditation Center in Minneapolis is located in a big old house across the street from Lake Calhoun. On warm days the Lake is abuzz with people swimming and partying on the beach. In addition, it is under the flight path of an international airport. I had always chosen quiet places to mediate and I wondered how I would ever be able to meditate with so much noise.
The lesson that day was similar to the earlier lesson I had learned about concentrating on the noise in my mind rather than trying to make it be quiet. As I sat in meditation that afternoon, I learned to just listen to the sound of the world without judgement or attachment. As I did this, the sounds from the park simply became the right sounds, the perfect sounds for meditation. That the basis of perfection is in the state of our mind, not a state of the world, is one of the great lessons of meditation.
In many ways, despite the mistakes I made, I am glad I learned to meditate on my own, rather than learning within an established tradition. It allowed me to explore many traditions and learn different approaches. While I sometimes meditate in the Zen manner, I often “contemplate” in the Western manner. The distinction here is between a meditation that ultimately brings you back to that empty canvas and one that focuses the attention on a thought, symbol or image, that results in a deeper insight into the subject (I call the first of these “meditation” and the second “contemplation,” but in general usage, these two terms are usually synonymous.)
As a writer, it is usually through contemplation that I gain ideas for articles like those I have shared on this site. I am too interested in matters of the intellect to ever be a really good Zen Buddhist. But the contemplation of intellectual ideas ultimately can bring one to very much the same place as Zen meditation, which is to say to the center of one’s being.
A Suggestion for Other Beginners
I have been asked on a few occasion to try to teach meditation. Having learned meditation in a rather haphazard way, and being eclectic in my approaches, I have never really found a simple approach to helping others learn meditation. Also, I’m just not a very good teacher. But I will offer a few suggestions for someone who is starting out.
Unlike when I was young, today the practice of yoga is very popular and yoga centers are as common as Starbucks. If you can find a good yoga teacher, hatha yoga can be a great starting place for meditation. By “a good yoga teacher” I mean someone who is certified through one of the long standing yoga traditions and who understands the spiritual and meditative sides of yoga — not in a shallow New Age kind of way, but in the depths of the tradition.
We live in stressful times, and stress tends to show up in the body, so a practice like hatha yoga that works with the body is a good place to start. Further, done correctly, yoga focuses our concentration and draws it inward. Inward concentration is essential to meditation and a good yoga practice will enhance this skill. Also, many yoga sessions end with an asana called shavasana. This is a pose of deep, focused relaxation. Shavasana puts you in the vestibule of meditation.
Most hatha yoga classes don’t go into meditation, and some that do probably shouldn’t. While learning meditation, I followed an approach that utilized both yoga and Zen, and I still believe these two traditions have mutual benefits for each other. So if hatha yoga only brings one to the vestibule of meditation, a Zen teacher can take you from the vestibule into the temple. Unfortunately, it is even harder to find a good Zen teacher than a good yoga teacher.
As mentioned earlier, one of the first lesson gained when I started meditation was how little control “I” had of my mind. The last forty plus years of practicing meditation, has taught me how much control of the mind we are capable of — a control, paradoxically, that is obtained by relinquishing the desire to control.
Further, I have come to understand the degree to which “reality” is created by the mind – and how through the control of mind we gain control over our reality. I am not suggesting there is no reality outside the mind, but pointing out that how we perceive that reality, and how we evaluate and respond to it, is determined largely by the attributes and qualities of the mind. Through meditation, how the world affects us becomes a matter of choice rather than a determined response. Our control of outer events is limited by our power, and the control of even the most powerful people is rather limited. The control of how we respond to outer events, with some exceptions, is limited only by the power of our meditation.
For this and other reasons, I am deeply thankful that I set out those decades ago to learn meditation, and that I persisted through the many obstacles and impediments I encountered.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.