This Is It by Alan Watts made a big impression on me, as a teenager. It struck me as profound that the “mystical experience” should be a seemingly-universal thing, and that it could be induced artificially. He makes it sound so appealing, right from the beginning:
To the individual thus enlightened it appears as a vivid and overwhelming certainty that the universe, precisely as it is at this moment, is so completely right as to need no explanation or justification beyond what it simply is. Existence not only ceases to be a problem; the mind is so wonder-struck at the self-evident and self-sufficient fitness of things as they are, including what would ordinarily be thought the very worst, that it cannot find any word strong enough to express the perfection and beauty of the experience. Its clarity sometimes gives the sensation that the world has become transparent or luminous, and its simplicity the sensation that it is pervaded and ordered by a supreme intelligence. At the same time it is usual for the individual to feel that the whole world has become his own body, and that whatever he is has not only become, but always has been, what everything else is. It is not that he loses his identity to the point of feeling that he actually looks out through all other eyes, becoming literally omniscient, but rather that his individual consciousness and existence is a point of view temporarily adopted by something immeasurably greater than himself…
Surrounding and flowing from this insight is an emotional ecstasy, a sense of intense relief, freedom, and lightness, and often of almost unbearable love for the world, which is, however, secondary. Often, the pleasure of the experience is confused with the experience and the insight lost in the ecstasy, so that in trying to retain the secondary effects of the experience the individual misses its point–that the immediate now is complete even when it is not ecstatic. For ecstasy is a necessarily impermanent contrast in the constant fluctuation of our feelings. But insight, when clear enough, persists; having once understood a particular skill, the facility tends to remain.
The tendency is for the first paragraph to overshadow the second. In one sense, these types of experience are the entire point of a meditation practice. In another sense, the real benefit of meditation is its promotion of good habits and emotional stability, and a really epic meditation session shouldn’t be emphasized more than the normal ones before and after. Both are true, but throughout the history of Zen the “slow vs. gradual enlightenment” controversy has been about which aspect of practice to emphasize.
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind is the one Zen book I’d recommend to everyone. Suzuki came from the Soto sect, so he has more of a “gradual enlightenment” point of view. This view tends to emphasize the perfection in imperfection, the identity of nirvana and samsara, the idea that there’s nothing to attain, etc. The way he puts it is that “It’s not that satori is unimportant, but it’s not the part of Zen that needs to be stressed.”
Sometimes meditation is presented as offering an intense, otherwordly bliss a lot like tripping. Or there’s an expectation that the mind should be blank, or that one’s life will improve in some way. Those things can happen, but the paradox is that they’re more likely when you stop seeking them. Does the desire not to desire things make sense in the first place? I like Ending the Pursuit of Happiness as the title of a book about Zen.
Western psychotherapy and Buddhism have a lot in common, and the same concrete meditation practices can be used in both. The meaning of meditation and the underlying value system aren’t necessarily the same, though. Westerners probably start to meditate to get some benefit or another, but Suzuki is insistent that the way to practice properly is to abandon any “gaining idea” connected to it. “Use mindfulness to be more effective at your job and get a raise” isn’t really the Buddhist way of looking at things, although it’s true that improvements to executive function and emotion regulation can help you accomplish things. Suzuki starts off the book by saying that Zen is difficult because “it is hard to keep our mind pure and our practice pure in its fundamental sense.”
Suzuki describes the “correct” attitude towards meditation:
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. If you cannot be satisfied with the state of mind you have in zazen, it means your mind is still wandering about. Our body and mind should not be wobbling or wandering about. In this posture there is no need to talk about the right state of mind. You already have it. This is the conclusion of Buddhism.
What about “I can’t stop thinking” and similar issues? I was relieved to read this paper, which found that even highly experienced meditators got distracted every 80 seconds or so . I think starting to accept this is one of the ways meditation promotes “self-compassion.” On a cognitive level, you’re training your ability to monitor and redirect your attention. If you’re distracted, getting back on task by definition means “letting go” of whatever distracted you. Suzuki tries to clear up the “empty mind” misconception:
If you want to obtain perfect calmness in your zazen, you should not be bothered by the various images you find in your mind. Let them come, and let them go. Then they will be under control. but this policy is not so easy. It sounds easy, but it requires some special effort. How to make this kind of effort is the secret of practice. Suppose you are sitting under some extraordinary circumstances. If you try to calm your mind you will be unable to sit, and if you try not to be disturbed, your effort will not be the right effort. The only effort that will help you is to count your breathing, or to concentrate on your inhaling and exhaling. We say concentration, but to concentrate your mind on something is not the true purpose of Zen. The true purpose is to see things as they are, and to let everything go as it goes. This is to put everything under control in its widest sense.
Really, there are many styles of meditation, with different views of mind wandering. Different practices have different effects on brain activity. Anyway, for Suzuki, meditation is helpful with stressful situations, but not in the blissful way we wish it did:
Actually the best way to relieve your mental suffering is to sit in zazen, even in such a confused state of mind and bad posture. If you have no experience sitting in this kind of difficult situation, you are not a Zen student. No other activity will appease your suffering. In other restless positions, you have no power to accept your difficulties, but in the zazen posture which you have acquired by long, hard practice, your mind and body have great power to accept things as they are, whether they are agreeable or disagreeable…The awareness that you are here, right now, is the ultimate fact. This is the point you will realize by zazen practice. In continuous practice, under a succession of agreeable and disagreeable situations, you will realize the marrow of Zen and acquire its true strength.
He knows you’re skeptical:
Our unexciting way of practice may appear to be very negative. This is not so. It is a wise and effective way to work on ourselves. It is just very plain. I find this point very difficult for people, especially young people, to understand. On the other hand it may seem as if I am speaking about gradual attainment. This is not so either. In fact, this is the sudden way, because when your practice is calm and ordinary, everyday life itself is enlightenment.
In modern terms, we might say that Ikkyu had comorbid mood and substance use disorders and sexual impulse control problems. He was also officially enlightened and wrote cool poetry. If he felt these things, enlightenment is not what we might hope for:
night after night after night stay
up all night
nothing but your own night
one long pure beautiful road of
and the beauty of death and no pain
that stone Buddha deserves all the birdshit it gets
hear the cruel no-answer until
blood drips down
beat your head against the wall of it
I’m pure shame
what I do and what I say never the
wife daughters friends this is for
is mistake after mistake
sometimes all I am is a dark
I can’t hide in the sleeves of my own robes
ten fussy days running this temple
all red tape
look me up if you want to in the
bar whorehouse fish market
up all night in this fisherman’s hut
his wife hates me bangs her spoon
on the kettle
something in us always wants to
someone we love knows hears
don’t wait for the man standing in
to cut off his arm help him now
so burning’s knowing and I’m not
even drunk on three wines
plunge into the fire reality pure
don’t hesitate get laid that’s
sitting around chanting what crap
in war there’s no time to teach or
learn Zen carry a strong stick
bash your attackers
alone with the icy moon no
these trees this mountain nothing
nobody understands why we do
what we do
this cup of sake does
There you have it, from the master himself.