The Myth of the Experienced Meditator
[Published in Tricycle, Spring 2008]
...I tell [Kyodo Roshi] I want to take my practice to a deeper level. “Deeper level?” He laughs again. “What you mean ‘deeper’? Zen practice only one level. No deep, understand?”
Lawrence Shainberg, Ambivalent Zen
I am, unfortunately, an experienced meditator. From the time I stumbled into an introduction to Transcendental Meditation in Vancouver, Canada, in 1970, through multiple eras (including my present 15-year old Soto Zen practice), I’ve sat and stared at many walls (and mandalas and candles, and the inside of my eyelids), reveled in sundry “bells and whistles” mental experiences, got bored, decided I was going crazy, became enlightened (no, really!), and now I’m ready to share everything I’ve learnt. It won’t take long. In fact I can sum it up in one word: nothing.
Not that ‘nothing’ is to be sniffed at. For years—decades!—I thought there was something to learn, and that all those thousands of hours on the mat were cumulative, that the more I sat, the more aware and compassionate and wonderful I would become. In a world where the attainment of goals is seen as a virtue, thirty-eight years of realizing nothing didn’t come easily or lightly.
By definition (mine!), if I did think I knew something about meditation, that wouldn’t be meditation. Sort of like God—if you can describe God to me, that ain't God. If, as I believe, meditation is simply awareness, then any past knowledge I have about it is not only useless, but slops over into my immediate experience. Knowing is antithetical to openness, and it’s the adventure of not knowing that’s the genius of meditation. Not for nothing (so to speak) are two of the most popular contemporary books on Buddhism called Beginner’s Mind (Shunryu Suzuki) and Only Don’t Know (Seung Sahn). I have this fantasy that next time I open my copies of these books, I'll find only blank pages.
So what is meditation about? I’ve heard many claims for the practice over the years, that it’s about: gratitude; emptiness; deepened, (or if you prefer) heightened, awareness; compassion; spaciousness; the discovery/realization/dissolving of one’s true self (your choice); attaining liberation; self-realization; being present in the moment; opening to the wonder of it all; finding inner peace; encountering one’s Buddha nature; becoming one with everything; cutting through delusion; (fill in the blank___________).
It seems to me, though, that meditation isn’t about anything: meditation is meditation. Any attempt to define it in terms of something else simply confuses the issue, making it vulnerable to being treated like any other self-improvement system. Lord knows, these days we are offered enough ways to be better people, get closer to God, find ourselves and enhance our circumstances. We’re swamped with therapies, self-help books and techniques—what the British philosopher called “the thriving economy of psychotherapists, designer religions and spiritual boutiques”—which treat our lives as projects to be tweaked and fixed. Isn’t meditation (if it’s anything at all) a relief from all this? Isn’t it the opposite of repairing and adjusting and striving and perpetually wanting things to be different?
For me, meditation is the haven away from the ubiquitous world of self-improvement. It's not just that there's no such thing as ‘bad’ meditation, but there's no such thing as ‘good’ meditation either. It is what it is. So when I hear words like “effort” and “discipline” and phrases like “deepening one’s practice” and “advancing along the spiritual path” spoken in the same breath as meditation, I wince. Just sitting (“shinkantaza”)—doing and wanting nothing, breath coming and going unbidden, eyes seeing, ears hearing—in this effortless state, thoughts flurry like falling leaves
So can a so-called experienced meditator offer anything to someone new to the practice? Probably not. If what we’re really talking about is awareness, how can we help someone notice what’s going on? This is what's going on: no more, no less. Unlike a subject like, say, carpentry, where we learn from the experience of those who have gone before us, meditation is defined by spontaneity, by not knowing. As the roshi says, “practice only one level.” Perhaps the best we can do is to reassure newcomers that each of us starts over with every sit and every breath.
Trust me. I'm an experienced meditator.