Sunday, July 6, 2014

Degenerate Zen

Photo credit: Ladyheart from

Having taught weekly meditation classes for over a year now, one of the repeated themes that comes up is that of the "bad meditator." It's rare that a month goes by without hearing someone say something about not being "good" at meditating, or having tried it "once," but found that their minds were really noisy, or that they couldn't sit still.

There are a lot of stories about what meditation "should" look like, and most of them are hindrances. You're not doing it right if you're mind is full of thoughts. The "goal" is to force all thoughts into silence. You have to sit in full lotus or half lotus. Meditating on chairs isn't meditation. If I can't find a perfectly quiet room to meditate in, I can't do it. The list goes on and on.

I have meditated on buses, park benches, in the middle of protests, and in public restrooms amongst other places. I also frequently chant while bicycling, and for two winters in a row, did lovingkindness meditations while walking in the skyway system in downtown St. Paul. Of course, I also do the normalized formal practice on my meditation cushion at home, at zen center, and in my classes at the yoga center.

And sometimes, I do none of the above.

One of the problems with meditation culture in general, and Soto Zen in particular, is a fixation on one practice. As if it's the only gateway to awakening. Or even the "best" one. I personally think it's an excellent gateway, but that's about as far as I'll go.

Meditation has been a good friend for most of my adult life, always ready to hang out and just be, regardless of how I am. But I have other spiritual friends, and actually, I think we all do, even if we've given in to the notion that whatever practice is the one and only for us.

The dharma name I was given is Tokugo, which translates to "Devotion to enlightenment." Not "to zazen" or "to Zen," but to awakening itself.

I sometimes wonder how the old Zen masters really lived. Not the carectures that have been handed down to us, but the actual people. I'm guessing they weren't really like what we think they were.

The Buddha predicted the eventually decay of the teachings, and lately I've been wondering if we aren't living in the degenerate age he spoke about. There's obviously high levels of social corruption and oppression present in the world today. However, the past was no where near perfect either. The main difference, as far as I can see, is that we have become more efficient as a species, globalizing many of the hells that once were localized.

When I think of all the noise and distractions in the world today, it's hard not to wonder if even issues like "the bad meditator" narrative aren't indicative of causes and conditions of a degenerate age, where the dharmas of awakening are easily overshadowed. At the same time, I'm open to the idea that Joanna Macy and others are putting forth that we are in the middle of a "Great Turning" that is transforming the way we are in the world towards a more awakened, shared experience.

Perhaps both sides of the coin are true together. Devotion seems to keep calling me in that curious direction.


yeti said...

But can you meditate while patting your head and rubbing your belly at the same time?

Nathan said...

I almost did that during the meditation class I taught last night. Lol!

Was Once said...

It is more a sign of western self-hatred, and not being kind to one's self. I was there for longest time, seeing people meditate and never attempting and making all kinds of excuses.
it took profound suffering to try anything, and it was never quick...but with-in a year I began to feel peace, and then about 3 years later...I could see it was my path to wisdom, with small glimpses of catching anger or distress and not going there. Still not perfect, but doing longer sits and a daily practice.
Here is two Metta talk that might help people be kinder to one's self:

Inge said...

Terrific post! It's refreshing to read that there is no perfect or one way to meditate. Maybe those who think their way of meditating is the only correct way are fixated on following a certain dogma. ie: Zazen compared to TM. I think its best to choose meditation that seems right for them; one they resonate with.