Meditation and the Comfort Zone

Here’s a question: Does your meditation make your comfort zone more comfortable? Or less? Which do you prefer?

Let’s unpack this. The term “comfort zone” here means the states and activities to which you are most accustomed. They are generally states in which awareness is operating at a bare minimum, and the rest of our energy is flowing into patterned, automatic behaviours.

Oddly enough, this comfort zone isn’t always comfortable. It just feels “normal” — sometimes kind of pleasant, and sometimes unpleasant.

For example, if your “normal” is “getting things done,” it can feel pleasant (“All done!”) and it can feel unpleasant (“I don’t have time for this!”). Either way, though, it feels pretty normal.

So your comfort zone is the state you tend to default to when awareness is switched off.

What’s your comfort zone? Moving through your to-do list? Chatting with friends? Being entertained by TV or a book?

So, what does this have to do with meditation? Well, good and bad news. The good news is that meditation can be used to make your comfort zone more comfortable. If you’re okay with “normal”, meditation can be helpful to relieve stress, increase focus, get more ideas, etc. — all while staying in your comfort zone.

No, wait… that’s the bad news!

OK, so here’s another possibility: build a meditation practice that supports becoming fully present in whatever you’re experiencing, moment by moment. Not to prefer one state (like calm or bliss) over another (like frustration and depression). In this kind of meditation there is no notion whatsoever of achieving calm or insight or anything at all. And if such notions arise (they do!), they are simply more phenomena to be aware of. The end goal is to wake up to your actual experience.

This kind of meditation makes your “comfort zone” less comfortable, sometimes MUCH less comfortable. You may begin to become aware of anxiety, depression, anger, and other things that you had previously been able to ignore. You may begin to become aware of things outside your comfort zone that you might like to experience. Both very inconvenient. Both potentially uncomfortable.

What do you want from meditation? What matters to you? Pleasure? Feelings of security? Getting things done? And how do you use meditation now? To feel better? To feel more secure, more stable? To be more effective in your life?

There is no “right” answer to these questions. And the answers are far, far less important than the asking of them — asking over and over again. Because things change. You change. And asking is opening… opening to your moment to moment experience.

If you’d like to learn and practice meditation in a small-group setting and you are in south-west Florida, consider this 6-week course, starting February 10: MEDITATION FOR REAL LIFE. Click here for details.

Do You Want To?

Almost nobody begins a meditation practice for reasons that will permit them to continue once they hit the wall.

If you meditate because you believe yourself to be special, your reward will be to discover that you are nothing special at all.

If you meditate because you believe it will bring you peace, your reward will be to have your understanding of the nature of peace shattered.

If you meditate because you think it will help you manage your life, your reward will be to discover you have no control over anything whatsoever.

Still want to practice? Most do not.

Below is a lengthy quote from an article by Ken McLeod. He begins the section with a Nasrudin story:

One day, while staying at a friend’s house, Nasrudin peered over the wall into the neighbor’s yard and saw the most wonderful garden he had ever seen. He noticed an old man patiently weeding a flower-bed and asked,

“This is a beautiful garden. I’d like to have one just like it. How do you make a garden like this?”

“Twenty years hard work.”

“Never mind,” said Nasrudin.

And then he continues:

“You say you want to be awake and present in your life, but you practice only occasionally, and even then, for relatively short periods. Maybe you do practice regularly, but your practice only goes so far, stopping at a wall that you can sense but can’t name. What stops you? Are you willing to touch that wall, touch it and go into it? Are you willing to be present in any and every experience that arises, whether it be anger, shame, love, success, heartbreak, victory, insult or failure? What do you actually want from your practice?…

“Willingness means you practice living in the world of immediate experience, the world in which there is no time, the world in which you cannot trade or share a single thing with anyone, the world in which not a single person, not even you, exists, the world that is what you experience right now. It also means ‘twenty years hard work.’”
— Ken McLeod, in “Three Questions”, and article on the Unfettered Mind website

Thank you, Ken, for (much more than) twenty years hard work.

Cheerful News

Ink scroll by Nagasawa ROSETSU (Japan, 1754-1799)
Ink scroll by Nagasawa ROSETSU (Japan, 1754-1799)

The world is assailed by death
And smothered by old age;
Pierced with the arrow of craving
And always obscured by desires.

The world is assailed by death
And besieged by old age;
Eternally beaten, with no relief,
Like a thief beneath the rod.

Old age, illness and death approach
Like three great masses of fire.
No strength can resist them.
No speed can out-run them.

Spend your days without confusion,
Whether few or many remain.
For every night that slips away,
There is that much less of life left.

Whether walking or standing,
Sitting of lying down,
Your final night is drawing near.
You have no time to be lazy.
 
 
 
From Sirimanda Thera, Theragatha VI.13, vv. 448-452, trans. Andrew Olendzki

Distracting Thoughts

sodo“All you have to do is decide that wherever you are is the best place there is. Once you start comparing one place to another, there’s no end to it.” — Sodo Yokoyama

The late Zen teacher Sodo Yokoyama gave a clear summary of his teaching in a letter to a friend in 1977. This is taken from longer excerpt in the excellent book, Living and Dying in Zazen by Arthur Braverman, which I recommend with enthusiasm. “Zazen” means “just sitting”, and is a Zen word for meditation. “Satori” means a sudden flash of awareness or awakeness; a brief experience of Enlightenment.

“My teacher, the late Sawaki Roshi, often made the following self-evaluation: ‘I am an eternally deluded person. No one is as deluded as I am. I am deluded with gold trimmings. How clear it is to me when I do zazen!’

“What a strange thing this zazen is. When we practice it, distracting ideas, irrelevant thoughts — in short, delusions, which ordinary people are made of, suddenly seem to feel an irresistible temptation to arise and appear on the surface. Then there is a desire to drive these thoughts away, in irresistible desire to which our complete effort is added. Those who don’t do zazen know nothing about this. Why is it that when we practice, deluded thoughts continue to surface one after the other? The reason, which we learn from Zazen, is that each one of us, from prince to beggar, is an ordinary (deluded) person. The attempt to drive these deluded thoughts away — delusion being so much nonsense (interfering with the happiness of oneself and others) — is also something brought home to us through zazen. We tentatively call this zazen that guides us in this way, ‘Buddha’.

“According to this teaching, simply the awareness that you are deluded, which comes from practising zazen, makes you, in reality, a Buddha. It’s zazen that teaches us that we too are deluded, and hence delivers us from this delusion. When we actually practice zazen and look carefully at all the deluded ideas that keep popping up, we realize how ordinary we are and how little we have to be proud of or to brag about; nothing to do other than quietly hide away. This is, after all, what we truly are.

“Satori is being enlightened to the fact that we are deluded. There is then the desire, however small, to stop these deluded acts. That is how ordinary people are saved by zazen. So we realize, beyond a doubt, our ordinariness through our zazen practice, and any departure from zazen (Buddha) will give rise to the inability to deal with these delusions and hence we will lose our way. We can say that the world has gone astray because it can’t deal with its delusions…All the troubles in this world, political, economic and so forth, are created from situations in which the awareness of one’s ordinariness is absent.

“Sawaki Roshi said, ‘Those who are unaware of their ordinariness are from a religious point of view shallow and comical.’

“The devil — that is, illusion — when seen as the devil, can no longer exhibit its powers, and disappears of its own accord.

“Shakyamuni was enlightened beyond all doubt to the fact that he was an ordinary person and became a Buddha. Then he began to live the life of a Buddha. When you realize your ordinariness, you are a Buddha, and when you are a Buddha, no matter how many distracting ideas and irrelevant thoughts appear they are no match for a Buddha and hence no longer remain obstacles. Delusions that no longer obstruct us are called fantasies. The Buddha way — the way of peace — is turning of delusion into fantasies.” — Sodo Yokoyama 1907-1980

Te Shan

When Te Shan left northern China on foot heading south, determined to destroy what he had heard as the teaching of a special transmission outside of doctrine, he was a dedicated Buddhist scholar thoroughly attached to formal learning.

One day close to the end of his southern journey he met an Old Woman selling refreshments by the roadside. He set down his knapsack to buy some refreshments whereupon the old woman asked what writings had he been carrying that were so dear. “Commentaries on the Diamond Cutter Sutra,” he responded, commentaries which were actually books on books on ways to reality that he considered so indispensable that he had to carry them with him everywhere he went. The old woman then said, “The Diamond Cutter Sutra says ‘past mind can’t be grasped, present mind can’t be grasped, future mind can’t be grasped’: which mind does the learned monk desire to refresh?” Te Shan in all his scholarly learning was rendered speechless.

By the time he reached the monastery he was completely devastated by his ‘defeat’, especially by a ‘mere’ roadside vendor. But Te Shan was no longer there to contend or do battle with the teaching of a special transmission outside of doctrine. Within days all was behind him as Te Shan experienced Awakening under the auspices of Long T’an and the now famous ‘blowing out the candle’ sequence.

The morning following his Enlightenment Te Shan took all of his commentaries into the teaching hall and raising a torch over them declared to all assembled:

“Even to plumb the full depths of all your knowledge it would be no more than a piece of hair lost in the vastness of the great void; and however important your experience in things worldly it is even less than a single drop of water cast into a vast valley.”

He then took the torch and set fire to his commentaries, reducing his once valuable books to ashes.

I lifted this story from this site, a very rich resource. Please visit it and mouse around. — Franca