Zazen, mindfulness, and salad.
August 11, 2013 - 3:00 pm
It really is all tomatoes all the time this week in the Martin household, so I thought I’d make it a trifecta.
No, I don’t think Siddhartha used a tomato timer, but I’ve begun to see a similarity among several of the things I do as practices: Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages, the Pomodoro Technique as I use it, and zazen (“zah-zen”), the basic Buddhist meditation. But to explain that, I need to explain meditation, a column I’ve been meaning to write for a while.
Meditation is one of the basics, maybe the basic, components of Buddhist practice. It was the primary sort of meditation that Buddha taught his followers. In Japanese traditions, it’s called shikantaza (只管打坐, Chinese “Zhǐguǎn dǎzuò”) — which simply means “nothing but sitting.”
Okay, so it’s “just sitting”. Pretty easy, eh?
But wait, there’s more!
The trick is, it’s just sitting and nothing else. If you sit down someplace comfortable, turn off the radio and the TV, relax and let your eyes become unfocused, and just sit, pretty quickly one of two things will happen: either you’ll find your mind consumed with thoughts, or you’ll fall asleep. Maybe both. Your mind becomes consumed with one thought, and then another — sexual fantasies, imagined arguments with whomever you might be arguing with, blog posts or comments or what you would have said if you’d have just thought of it then. You find yourself dwelling on thoughts, and so you’re no longer just sitting.
You can read Brad Warner’s description of the formal process of doing zazen (坐禅 Chinese: “zuò chán”) at the Dogen Sangha page, also linked by at his blog — which I recommend by the way, both the instructions and the blog in general — but here’s an explanation of the sort of simpler form I first learned:
First, you find a place to sit. At least at the start, it’s best to find a quiet, out of the way place where you won’t be interrupted. You sit comfortably in a way you can keep your spine straight — which to most Western people used to sitting in chairs will feel like you’re arching your back a bit. Traditionally, we do this sitting on the floor with a little bit of a cushion under the tailbone. In Japan, this is often a zafu, or round cushion, and a zabuton, which is a flatter square cushion. (As usual, it sounds much more interesting and exotic in a foreign language: it really means “soft cushion” and “sitting cushion” and it’s basically the traditional Japanese sitting on the floor version of “chair”.) For myself, I’ve found that a yoga bolster is a little better support; the Boulder Buddhists use a square block cushion that some people find convenient.
Buddha, of course, used a patch of dirt, and I’ve discovered that if you find a small rise so your legs can go down a little, it’s actually a very comdforable way to sit on the ground. Ideally, you should sit in padmasana, “lotus position” in yoga. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t been able to sit in full lotus since I was eleven; I sit with my legs comfortably crossed.
Sort of rock around a little bit and you’ll find yourself settling down; push your chest out and your shoulders back a little to get your back really straight. Again, there are lots of formalities involved, but the point is just to get your back comfortably straight; when you find the spot, you’ll feel very solidly attached to the ground, with little urge to rock or move. I can actually sleep in that position without a back rest.
Of course I’ve been doing this for getting close to 50 years. If you’re just starting, and you’re used to sitting in chairs, you may have a little trouble with it at first. That’s all right; you can use a chair if you like. (These instructions are good for other positions.) The point of the position you sit is really simple: it should be a secure, comfortable way to sit that lets you breathe freely. It’s important not to slouch, because that makes it harder to breathe; it’s important to feel comfortable and solid and secure because if you don’t, it’s too easy to find yourself dwelling on thoughts about falling over. But the point of these positions isn’t to prove you are a good ascetic who can bend his body to his will — it’s to settle your body down safely so you can pay attention to other things.
I am, by the way, a little bit of a heretic in this: other people find the ritual aspects important, or find the practice of overcoming pain to be helpful. Me, I think you can expect some discomfort, especially starting out, but actual pain is a hint that what you’re doing that hurts might best be avoided.
Now, before you start meditating, just sit in that position for a minute. Most of us chair-sitting Americans find ourselves slouching, back bending out and stomach pinching in. Some of this is bad habit and muscle weakness, and will improve with practice, but it’s also a hint to adjust your position. Try shifting around so that you’re posing in a way that feels a little like a pouter pigeon — chest a little out, shoulders back a bit, and your butt sticking out like a Brazilian girl doing the samba. Move forward a bit on the cushion — one of my teachers said you should feel “like your asshole can see blue sky”, or in other words, slide forward on the cushion so that you’re sitting on your tailbone, and your rectum is just off the cushion.
Now rock back and forth, front and rear, and let the rocking motion settle down until you come naturally to a stop. That’s probably close to the right position.
Now we get to the good stuff. Imagine your breath is a string tied to a cannonball. Inhale, ideally through your nose, letting your chest and abdomen expand, feeling like the cannonball is pulling your breath down to the center of the earth. When you feel like you’ve taken a natural full breath (you haven’t) then exhale through your mouth with a tiny bit of force, so that you can hear a little bit of noise as you exhale. You need the force to pull that cannonball back up from the center of the earth. Focus your attention on the breath as it comes in your nose, and on the sensation of the breath coming out between your lips.
When you inhale, count “one”. When you exhale, count “two”; inhale again, “three”, out “four”. When you get to ten, go back to one.
The excitement is just building, isn’t it?
If you lose count, that’s fine. Go back to one. If you find you’ve counted to 42, that’s fine too. Go back to one. If you find you’re imagining Cindy Crawford in her prime, naked, covered with baby oil, reaching out to you with passionate moans and true love in her eyes, that’s fine too — go back to one.
Because that’s the key: what you are practicing, more than anything else, is not dwelling on your thoughts. If you start having an argument in your head with someone who is giving you trouble at work, note it, and go back to one. If you find yourself floating 500 feet in the air looking down on the world (this happened to me once) remind yourself that you’re practicing zazen, not having mystical experiences; go back to one. In other words, you’re dwelling on the thought of not dwelling on your thoughts. If you get bored, notice you’re bored and return to one.
That leads to one question, every time…
And the answer is “long enough.” A lot of people find 20-30 minutes is good. In a long practice session, we might sit for 45 or 50 minutes, and then do walking meditation for ten to loosen up our legs. before sitting down again. For a beginner, five minutes might be enough the first time.
I can tell you from experience, you often find yourself, especially at the start, thinking “My God I’ve been here for an hour!” and even fantasizing that something has happened, even that they’ll find your body in this position…. (What to do if you notice this? Say to yourself, “hmm, that happened” and go back to one.)
One thing you can do is get a mala, a Buddhist rosary (or a real rosary for that matter, or Arab worry beads) and count one bead for every breath. A full-sized mala has 108 beads, so you count 108 breaths, ideally. (If you find you’ve lost count, you go back to counting “one” but you start with the beads where they were.) You can also buy a bunch of different meditation timers, including some cool ones and some iPad, iPhone and Kindle applications. There are even Web pages with meditation timers — 15, 30, 40 minutes of silence with a bell at each end.
You know what I use, though? You guessed it, a kitchen timer. It turns out one tomato is a pretty good time for meditation, and I find the ticking helps me remember what I’m doing. Drift off in a daydream, and the ticking reminds you to come back to watching your breathing, and start at one again.
Ah-ha, he’s getting to the point!
Here’s the thing I’ve observed. There is a key to using the Pomodoro Technique: you use something to remind yourself, for this limited time, that you are focusing on, dwelling on, one particular task. If you’re writing, you dwell on what you’re writing; if you find yourself being distracted, especially by thoughts of how good or bad it is, or whether it will sell, or anything but the writing itself, you remind yourself it’s only a few minutes and turn your mind back to the writing. (And remember, if you find yourself thinking “Ah crap, I’m no good at this, I might as well quit!” that’s just another distraction too. Turn your attention back to the writing.)
If you’re doing the dishes, and you find yourself dwelling on thoughts about hating doing the dishes, remind yourself it’s only 25 minutes and pay attention to the dishes again.
If you’re reading something for school, and you find yourself dwelling on not liking the professor, or on the cutie who you saw in class, or on what you will have for dinner — remind yourself it’s only 25 minutes and turn back to the reading.
The Pomodoro Technique, I’m coming to think, is actually a method for practicing what Buddhists call mindfulness: putting your whole attention on what you are doing just at this very moment. The ticking tomato reminds us to be mindful — not looking forward to the next tick or back to the last one, just Doing the Work right now, in the space between ticks.