On Stopping & Starting Meditation: Real-World Sleep Cycle

We dream, and keep dreaming, until the alarm rings.

“Dropping out” of meditation is a common concern among meditators. You can have an established meditation practice and then find yourself slowly drifting towards other things in lieu of sitting down on the mat.

You may have noticed your mat (or your cushion) gathering dust when the realization struck – you’ve been gone for a while!

While you might feel a grain of guilt sifting in, you should know that this is normal.

One of the main premises of Zen meditation is just that – we ebb and flow in awareness. This extends to everything that we do, on and off the mat. Even Zen masters talk in terms of “being awake” and “being asleep”. “Dreaming” is an interesting metaphor for awareness – or lack thereof – because, while it often gets a bad rep in Buddhist terms, it is a necessary part of life. Dreaming keeps us human. While it can certainly include anxieties & fears about the future, dreaming pushes us to plan, act and evolve in the world itself.

Although “dreaming” in Zen terms often refers to being lost in thought, it helps to remember that sleeping itself is a crucial part of mental wellness. The brain uses sleep to process the mental activity of the day. Crucial information is consolidated into long-term memory, while extraneous activity is more or less discarded. Importantly, the sleep cycle is a synchronized process happens in stages. There are four stages of sleep, each of increasing depth and particular significance, which culminate in REM – the stage where the actual dreaming happens. Interestingly, brainwave activity patterns during REM sleep are strikingly similar to wakefulness.

So what happens, in the phenomenological Zen sense, when we are caught in the so-called, “real-world” dream?

We are essentially living, in real-world terms (here I use “real-world” to refer to the egoic situations of daily living. I don’t intend to imply that one is better than the other). Life demands egoic activity sometimes, and we all get caught up in it occasionally. But if you have been able to notice how the “real world” affects you and have been able to apply what you have learned on the mat to your daily living then congratulations, you are leveling up in your practice. Like losing the training wheels on a bike, you might find yourself needing the mat less as you apply its lessons on the hard concrete floor of the “real world”. Does that mean that the mat is useless? Never. The mat is always there for you to pick up and extend your practice. It just so happens that what we consider “the mat” extends itself to other circumstances. To return to the bike simile, losing your training wheels doesn’t mean that you are a master cyclist. You can – and will – fall flat on your face and scrape your knees a couple times in the process. No – what it means is that you have been enthusiastic and commited enough to stick with the practice and bold enough to embrace your Self; to commit to learning and change, and the authenticity and responsibility that such a change brings.

We wake. We ride our bike throughout the day, doing what needs to be done. We dream. We wake. We keep riding the bike. We take in the sights – some familiar, some brief novelty that perks the senses – gratefully. We stay awake. We learn and we grow. We fall asleep. We dream, and keep dreaming, until the alarm rings.

Being is Breathing

“So when we practice zazen, all that exists is the movement of the breathing, but we are aware of this movement. You should not be absent-minded. But to be aware of the movement does not mean to be aware of your small self, but rather of your universal nature, or Buddha nature.”

-D.T. Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

What is zazen?

In its practical sense, zazen is a sitting meditation where you focus on breathing. The instruction is simple: sit in the lotus position, keep your back straight, and maintain your focus on breathing for as long as you can.

Inevitably, your mind will wander, as it usually does. Feelings may arise. You might feel annoyed or you might feel bored. The instruction is not to fight these feelings but to notice them and focus on the action of breathing.

And breathing is an action, though we don’t generally think of it that way. Breathing is an ever-present metronome in our lives; we tune it out most of the time, because it is so automatic. We breathe through every moment of our lives, until we don’t. Breathing is the pulse of life.

So when we intentionally pay attention to the breath, we are paying attention to life. With every inhale, we draw the world in. With every exhale, we let it go.

And you may have heard that expression countless times. But the words are not the point. Set an alarm for 1 minute, and focus on what happens when you breathe. Notice how your belly expands when you inhale; how it contracts when you exhale. Notice your thoughts when you inhale – what does it bring up for you? I sometimes become self-conscious of my belly, and so my mind is more prone to wandering when I inhale. Still I breathe, whether I am aware of it or not. But, life is simpler when I am aware of my breath and its rhythms.

Suzuki says that the breath should connect you to your universal nature. I bring up Suzuki because I have begun re-reading his book, and also because, being a Zen master, he might know a thing or two about breathing. In any case, think about your breath, and how it connects you to other human beings. We all breathe.

Think about your breath, and how it connects you to other forms of life. Mary Oliver beautifully expressed: “You only have to let the soft animal of your body loves what it loves (…) Meanwhile, the world goes on.”

The breath can bring attention to the “soft animal of your body” – it reminds us of the interdependence between creatures and forms. The process of inhaling and exhaling will bring many things to the front — we have to love ourselves through the process. Focus on the act of breathing itself. Pema Chodron has talked about how exhaling can bring relief; we are letting go. Inhaling begins a new cycle of the breath, and so it too brings life and wholeness. Life moves in a similar way. Sometimes we “hold our breath” while waiting for a response or an outcome. On a greater plane, we are in the inhale of our life. When we are done with a situation, we have exhaled. We have let it go. We have exerted a cosmic out-breath.

These terms might sound esoteric in a way, but they aren’t – not really. Think about it. The breath is the basic pattern for life. Our life moves based on the breath. The next time that you feel anxious or stressed, notice the flow of your breathing. You might notice that it is shallow; a lung breath is not the same as a belly breath, nor will it make you feel the same way. A lung breath is somewhat disconnected. Belly breathing – also called diaphragmatic breathing – is full. It is the breath as it is intended to be. If you have a cat, notice how it breathes. A cat’s belly expands and contracts with the breath. A cat is ever-present in the moment; ever-curious and awake. We can learn much about zen from noticing their animal nature.

Suzuki regards breathing as a revolving door. With every inhale and exhale, entire worlds enter and exit at their will — each thought autonomous, each moment fleeting. Focusing on the breath is not absent-mindedness. It is being fully grounded in your essential nature – breathing.

Posture

“Enlightenment is not some good feeling or some particular state of mind. The state of mind that exists when you sit in the right posture is, itself, enlightenment.”

– D.T. Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Any book on Zen will tell you that Zen is simple. Complications arise from our own hang-ups and the nature of the mind itself. We think things through and we overthink things. This tendency can either help us or hinder us, depending on the situation. But, more often than not, stepping back from the thought-chatter opens the scope of your perspective. Your real voice – your inner wisdom – then shines through.

In the second chapter of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Suzuki talks about the simplicity of the Zen state of mind. Well – he talks about the simplicity of the Zen state of mind throughout the entire book, but here he talks about the importance of regularly adopting the Zen posture to cultivate this particular mindset.

He also states that Zen posture is a reflection of enlightenment.

Now, this can be confusing. Does meditation practice lead to enlightenment, or do we meditate because we are already enlightened?

The answer, dear reader, is not so clear cut. There is a sense of interdependence between meditation practice and the Zen state of mind. Namely, a regular meditator becomes more adept at sustaining the Zen state of mind. A number of studies have found that regular meditation practice increases brain volume in key areas for attention and memory. Other studies have found that habitual mindfulness practice improves pain management in those with chronic pain. While the discomfort itself is not eliminated by Zen practice, the ensuing mindset enables the person to notice the early stages of a pain episode, and manage accordingly. The definition of pain itself broadens to include other sensations that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. It also raises awareness to the effect of posture on the body.

Suzuki encourages you to notice your posture. If you are slouching, you are most likely “dreaming” (caught up in mind chatter; thinking). The moment when you say, “Shit! I’ve been letting myself go. I haven’t sat down to meditate in a while” – that is essentially your moment of awakening. Noticing is enlightenment. Actually sitting down to do the thing is the wisdom. As you can see, the Zen state of mind is quite succinct. Zen mind is simple, but overthinking makes it complicated.

Shoshin or Beginner’s Mind: Full Receptive Awareness

An open mind is a receptive mind. “What Will Eye Choose?” by Marie Ro

“It (Zen) is difficult because it is hard to keep our mind pure and our practice pure in its fundamental sense.”

– D.T. Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

“An impure mind” is not a moralistic reprieve. In the context of Zen, an impure mind is a mind cluttered with thought. It is difficult to quiet the mind, because thinking is our default setting. On a conscious, explicit level, we frequently engage in what cognitive psychology calls executive functions: planning out the day, reviewing our “to-do” lists, taking steps towards initiating a task, and so on. In this sense, thinking can be helpful because it helps us fulfill our goals and responsibilities; it helps us maintain the structure of our lives and our more adaptive habits. The mind is wired to think.

The mind is wired to think — and in this mode, it is endless. As you start (or maintain) your meditation practice, you will notice yourself coming back to a set of thoughts. Some of these thoughts are fleeting and nonsensical, others are more persistent. Some of these thoughts are amusing, others are sources of significant anxiety. As a built-in, natural function, stress is the mind’s way of preparing you for an important event. Stress helps you gather the cognitive resources needed to “get something done”. For example, “rumination”, or the tendency to dwell upon a specific issue, involves cycling around a situation that needs to be resolved, but for some reason you are holding back. Sure, you can ask yourself, “Why?”, but that may lead to a rabbit hole of endless rumination (and straight-up depression), so just be straightforward about it. Recognize and accept your reasons, and if you are satisfied with them, let the issue go. If not, then act towards resolving it, one step at a time. Once you cross-off something from your to-do list, the mind moves on to something else. It has accomplished its task. Stress is no longer needed as a response because the matter is “closed”. Your mind is liberated from thinking about the problem, and you are stress-free (… until the next situation comes along, of course). Problem-solving really is that simple, but the mind can distort an issue to no end. Its job is to think, after all, and what will it do after the problem is solved?

The moment between our accomplishment and the next item on our to-do list: there is our chance to be.

There is seemingly no limit to what the mind wants to do, or what it wants to accomplish. It moves on from one thing to the next automatically, effortlessly. This is why Zen Buddhists affectionately call the ego mind, “monkey mind” – it swings from one desire to another – one problem to another – like a monkey climbing a tree. If it searches often enough, it might just come across a tasty banana. Maybe – if it’s lucky enough – it will come across an entire bunch. The inconsistency of this reward and its possibilities are what makes the climb so enticing.

This is true of everything. In Buddhist Sanskrit terms, this constant wanting and striving is called samsara, and it is one of the major sources of suffering, because no accomplishment will feel like enough. The thinking mind evolved after eons of evolution because somewhere along the line the brain decided that it was more efficient to think through a problem instead of impulsively jumping in front of a bison because we need a source of food and maybe it won’t try to maul us this time. Because it evolved out of a need for survival, the thinking mind is driven to pursue and acquire. It will not dispense joy until it gets what it wants, and even then, a sense of satisfaction is fleeting.

We are so used to thinking in this way that the prospect of an “empty mind” may become daunting. It is tempting to devalue an empty mind as stupidity when thinking is essential to survival. But the no-mind mode of thinking must be placed in its proper context. In Zen terms, it simply refers to a state of full receptive awareness; the silent pause between one note and another – one thought and the next. A non-dualistic way of being.

*

Think of the first time you tried to do something. In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki gives the following example:

Suppose you recite the Prajna Paramita Sutra only once. It might be a very good recitation. But what would happen to you if you recited it twice, three times, four times, or more? You might easily lose your original attitude towards it. The same thing will happen in your other Zen practices. For a while you will keep your beginner’s mind, but if you continue to practice one, two, three years or more, although you may improve some, you are liable to lose the limitless meaning of original mind. (Suzuki, p.1).

If you are invested in learning something, there is a solid chance that you are immersed in the process. Mihaly Csikczentmihalyi, a prominent positive psychologist, calls this immersion “a state of flow”. With Zen mind, you may notice things that an expert might miss, simply because you are observing them with fresh eyes. From the standpoint of cognitive science, all learning is like this. The best way to learn something is to study it assiduously, and more often than not this involves repetition. This is how some tasks become rote, and how expertise is gained through repeated experience. In workflow and productivity terms, this also means that only focusing on rote tasks is a quick route to burn out. Challenges keep the mind sharp. As such, one of the best ways to counter burn out is to return to whatever you were doing with the intent of a beginner.

On the flip side, this is also how repeated meditation practice helps cultivate and maintain the Zen state of mind. Awareness is brought to sensations; sensations are regarded with curiosity. Even a painful sensation may not be as intense as initially regarded, or may have other qualities that point to the true nature of a problem. The same is true for learning. Adopting a step-by-step approach with the curiosity of a beginner, instead of “going through the motions”, can widen the scope of your interest and keep your perspective fresh. Sometimes the insight dwells where you least expect it.

References

Suzuki, D.T., & Dixon, T. (Ed.). (2010). Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (40th anniversary edition). Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Fūryū of the Fisherman: Finding the Original Mind

“Fūryū of the Fisherman” by Marie Rō

“Finding the Original Mind” is somewhat of an oxymoron – one cannot find what is never lost. And yet, the statement succinctly describes what fūryū is all about.

But what is fūryū, you ask?

According to Qiu (2001), the term fūryū first evolved in medieval Japan as a way to describe elegance, or a “penchant for courtly romance”. It essentially alludes to a sense of refinement, though it later evolved to represent the sort of poetic sensibility innate to Zen contemplation. One such proponent of the term was Ikkyū Sōjun, an iconoclastic Zen master known for revolutionary acts such as burning his seal of transmission. In his poems, Ikkyū often uses the concept of furyū to set the scene for his romantic or erotic verses.

“Seeing My Beautiful Mori Taking a Nap”

Furyū of the age, a fair lady;
Love songs, delicate feast, melodies exceptionally novel.
Singing a new song, I lost my heart to her lovely face and dimples,
As the flowering haitang [Chinese crabapple tree] of the Tianbao time, Mori, you are a sapling in the spring.

While Ikkyū compares Mori’s beauty to a “flowering haitang“, the concept of furyū transcends any one comparison: “love songs, delicate feast, melodies exceptionally novel” also work to contextualize Mori’s loveliness. In nature, a crabapple tree stands out against a backdrop of lush greenery due to its unique essence. The lovely rose hues of a crabapple tree are instantly memorable; a cascade of rose petals enrapturing. Such natural beauty imbues the scene with its fragrant aesthetic. In this sense, furyū is not only the aesthetic sensibility but the libidinal charge that results from his poetic appreciation of Mori’s beauty. Fūryū allows the poet to transcend the physicality of his muse to “sing a new song”, or appreciate the present moment with a fresh, original mind (for a solid introduction to the concept of “Original Mind”, see Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki).

The idea of fūryū as a vehicle for regaining the Original Mind is also seen in the poem “Fisherman”:

Learning the Way and studying Zen, one loses the Original Mind.
A fisherman’s song is worth a thousand pieces of gold.
Evening rain on Xiang River, the moon amid the clouds of Chu—
It’s boundless fūryū to chant poems night after night.

In the first verse, Ikkyū laments the loss of the Original Mind by “Learning the Way”. During Ikkyū’s time, many of his Zen contemporaries used their status to wield power and influence in political circles, and so he frequently criticized the hypocrisy of their ways. There is also grief in his criticism of the establishment, as he states in “Everyday, Priests Minutely Examine the Law”:

Every day, priests minutely examine the Law
And endlessly chant complicated sutras.
Before doing that, though, they should learn
How to read the love letters sent by the wind
and rain, the snow and moon.
(Ikkyū as translated by Arntzen, 1986)

Through his poetry, Ikkyū encourages his contemporaries to regain their Original Mind; to learn “how to read the love letters” sent by Nature. Like the Fisherman, he sings about the Zen inherent in the natural rhythms of life. Absorbed in the moment, the Fisherman is not deterred by the elements but charged by them. His fūryū is that of a fish as it swims the nightly currents with his natural, unified mind.

References

Arntzen, S. Ikkyū and the Crazy Cloud Anthology, a Zen poet of medieval Japan, translated and introduced by Sonja Arntzen with a foreword by Shūichi Katō.Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press (1986).

Kincaid, C. (n.d.) Sex, Zen, and Poetry: The Life of Ikkyu Sojun. Retrieved from: https://www.scienceandnonduality.com/article/sex-zen-and-poetry-the-life-of-ikkyu-sojun

Qiu, P. (2001) Aesthetic of Unconventionality: Fūryū in Ikkyū’s Poetry. Japanese Language and Literature, 35(2): 135-156.