I’ve never really liked guided meditation. I said so in therapy, something like “introspecting through someone else’s voice is anathema to me.” She asked if I liked people reading to me as a kid. I did, I just never would’ve connected the two on my own.
I like watching talks and reading texts. There’s something soothing about the ideas and the imagery. I sit in silence, though.
It’s been interesting reading Vajrayana texts and reconsidering what exactly I do while I’m sitting. I chose zazen/shikantaza early on, and I’ve stuck with that. Since getting into the Tibetan stuff, meditation’s been going better, though. I put my little yab-yum statue in front of my cushion to give me something to fixate on. Usually I have my eyes pointed at the wall above it, but it does help to foreground Buddhist concepts. It stimulates thinking about the right things.
My meditation style has been deliberately passive. It’s like free association. It’s like giving my unconscious space to chew on what it needs to chew on. Somebody else talking over that process feels invasive to me.
Vajrayana has so many techniques. It’s very technical. Shikantaza has none, but it gets to the same place. I think it’s because as long as Buddhism is fresh on your mind when you sit down, you’ll end up visualizing things, counting breaths, silently focusing on breaths, thinking distractedly, listening to background noise, fighting the impulse to move, noticing distraction and reorienting, generating feelings of compassion and contentment, etc.
What I do in any particular session might be very fragmented. If my practice isn’t going well, I’m too scattered to visualize a whole complicated sequence of things and not lose the will part-way through. I think it’s more that Tibetan Buddhism is really complicated and gives your mind a way to be busy with Buddhism stuff while you sit. I look at the yab-yum statue, and it symbolizes my lack of a girlfriend, something to visualize myself as both members of simultaneously, emptiness and compassion, agitation and dullness as obstacles to sitting, wrathful and peaceful exercise of compassion, and probably other stuff. Then I realize I need to stretch my legs. I’ve gotten better about just doing that and getting back to sitting, so I’ve been sitting longer. Before, I was treating it as a sitting-still endurance exercise, which I guess is very Zen. The Tibetan stuff emphasizes relaxation a lot more, and it does help to just work with the stimming.
Following a guided meditation is the opposite of letting my thoughts go where they go, letting my mind settle. I think sensory deprivation works because it’s removing external noise that keeps disturbing your mind from the deep, still baseline that Buddhism worships. Noise in general is painful because it’s a loss of control over what my brain is doing. The disturbance propagates from auditory cortex to the rest of the brain.
I don’t think I’m going to start thinking of myself as a Vajrayana practitioner. If anything I’m more inclined to just say “Buddhist” when I would’ve said “Zen” before. I think the Vajrayana stuff has made the stuff that spontaneously comes up during meditation richer. I’m finding that I now switch back and forth between opening and closing my eyes, and pay more attention to the internally-generated static and patches of light.
I usually see visualizations presented in a very linear way: “development stage” of visualizing followed by “completion stage” of dissolving the visualization into emptiness. They might happen as separate phases of training, or in sequence during a session. I think I could benefit from a bit more structure in what I’m doing, but reading the following passage in Dzogchen Deity Practice was very encouraging to me. I see a lot of similarity between Dzogchen and shikantaza. It’s the highest secret teachings, or something like that:
This is also why development and completion are basically a unity. The developed in development stage refers to “what is formed as an expression of unobstructed awareness.” Thought, on the other hand, can obstruct rigpa. When the expression moves as thought, there is delusion. Ordinary thinking is the process of forming one thought, then thinking of something else, and so on, incessantly. The new thought interrupts the previous one, and the next thought interrupts that one. True development stage is not like that at all. The key point lies in this unobstructed quality of rigpa; the samadhi of illumination does not cut off the samadhi of suchness. The seed syllable manifesting in the middle of space doesn’t obstruct the compassionate emptiness. In fact, it is the expression of compassionate emptiness. Thus, you are not only allowed to let visualization unfold out of compassionate emptiness, it is the real way of practice.
This type of development stage takes place without having to leave behind the state of mind-essence. There is no need to avoid recognizing mind-essence in order to think of these things; let them unfold naturally. Simply allow the visualization to unfold out of compassionate emptiness, the unity of empty cognizance. This is called “letting development stage unfold out of the completion stage.” In this way, there is no real separation between them. Otherwise, a common misunderstanding is that the development stage steals the completion stage, and that later you have to kick out the development stage to give the completion stage a chance. Similarly, when you start to think of one thing, the previous thought disappears. That is called “visualizing with dualistic mind.’
This is how it may seem in the beginning, when you are being taught, but, really, it isn’t like that at all. The reason is that primordial purity and spontaneous presence are a natural unity; they cannot really be divided…You are not only definitely allowed to let the development stage unfold from within the completion stage, but also it is perfectly all right and permissible to do so. There is no conflict between the two. As a famous saying goes, “Some say development stage is right. Others say completion stage is right. They pitch development against completion.”
…Applying this approach is not always possible for every practitioner. The next best way is when you think of one detail at a time, like the head of the deity, the arms, the legs, the body, the attributes, and so forth. Every once in a while, you’ll recognize who is visualizing, and again you’ll arrive at the state of original empty wakefulness. Then again think of some visualized details, and again recognize, alternating back and forth between the two. That is called the “next best,” the medium way of practicing. The least, or minimum, requirement is to first think that everything becomes empty. Recite the mantra OM MAHA SUNYATA…and after that say, “From the state of emptiness, such-and-such appears.” In this way, think of one thing at a time, and at the end of the sadhana, again dissolve the whole thing into emptiness. These are three ways to practice development and completion together.
However, while again and again recognizing your buddha-nature, you can allo the visualization to take place unobstructedly. There is no law that you have to think of one thing after another. The expression of awareness is unobstructed.
When I think about it, contemplating buddha-nature is already a type of deity meditation. From The Gateless Gate, a classic koan collection:
Daibai asked Baso: `What is Buddha?’
Baso said: `This mind is Buddha.’
Mumon’s Comment: If anyone wholly understands this, he is wearing Buddha’s clothing, he is eating Buddha’s food, he is speaking Buddha’s words, he is behaving as Buddha, he is Buddha.
This anecdote, however, has given many pupil the sickness of formality. If one truly understands, he will wash out his mouth for three days after saying the word Buddha, and he will close his ears and flee after hearing `This mind is Buddha.’
Under blue sky, in bright sunlight,
One need not search around.
Asking what Buddha is
Is like hiding loot in one’s pocket and declaring oneself innocent.
A book on my wish list is an encyclopedia of symbols in Tibetan Buddhist art. Since each part of the deity represents several things at once, it’s like what I described with the yab-yum. Cycling through the Buddhist themes while you meditate.
I think the convoluted and ambiguous symbolism serves the same purpose as koans in Zen and “oracular interpretation” in Lacanian psychoanalysis. From Bruce Fink’s A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Theory and Technique:
Interpretation as oracular speech thus does not mean that an interpretation cannot be understood at all by the analysand; rather, it means that an interpretation plays off ambiguities in its very formulation. The analyst deliberately seeks provocative, evocative ways of expressing him- or herself, preferring, for example, formulations that include words containing sounds that are part and parcel of words or names that have been important in the analysand’s discourse.
Certain analysands are inclined to become impatient when presented with oracular speech, but the analyst only defeats his or her own purpose by giving in to requests for explanation. Rather than provoking the analysand to ponder the why and wherefore of the analyst’s interpretation, explanations feed the analysand’s demand, leading only to more demand.
The real, as I have presented it thus far, is what has not yet been put into words or formulated. It can be thought of, in a certain sense, as the connection or link between two thoughts that has succumbed to repression and must be restored. It can also be thought of as what Freud calls trauma–traumatic events (usually sexual or involving people who have been libidinally invested by the subject) that have never been talked through, put into words, or verbalized. This real, according to Lacan, has to be symbolized through analysis: it has to be spoken, put into signifiers (“signifierized”). As Jacques-Alain Miller has put it, analysis involves the progressive “draining away” of the real into the symbolic. Aiming at the real, interpretation helps the analysand put into words that which has led his or her desire to become fixated or stuck.
The idea in all cases is that pondering and pondering these things eventually changes your personality. Buddhism is saying you can sort out some of your real issues without words.
The Dzogchen passage above does a really good job of expressing things that are hard to talk about. I think that being in front of computers all the time gets you into the habit of constantly shifting your attention impatiently. If a page takes 20 seconds to load, you can take a minute or two to skim an article or some headlines. I see it spilling over into the rest of my life. Half-finished tasks around the house. Counting or cultivating a stable visualization is good for that agitation. Other times, watching the noise go by is the stabilization.
In a sense, practicing this way takes a lot of faith in your own unconscious learning. Skateboarding helps build such faith. Like…how do you explain how to do a bigflip? You could never understand from watching this video:
It’s a visceral, concrete experience of the unconscious. It struck me that he uses varial kickflips as his mental basis for the trick. I only do that for fakie big fips, or big flips on a bank (where forwards tricks feel backwards and vice verse).
I learned forwards and backwards bigspins separately. The backside 180 feels like the foundation of big flips to me. Starting to face backwards during liftoff changes the feeling significantly for me. A varial flip is like flicking the board away from me and jumping forwards and to the right to catch up with it. There’s a feeling of being out ahead of the board, so the board catches up and folds into your feet. Big flips are more “floaty” and varial flips are more “stompy.”
We manage to do the trick with pretty different mental models. I’d heavily emphasize learning forward bigspins and then add the flip. The feel of the trick will also change a lot depending on whether you catch it with your body at 90 degrees or 180 degrees. Kyle Billups uses the first method:
All of this builds intuition for the concept of mathematical equivalence.
All the skateboarding talk is still about meditation.
Tantra makes a big fuss about engaging with the world and making everything practice, but the same ideas are present in Chan/Zen. Zen is different for making a big deal of cultivating faith and doubt. From around 1600, in Boshan’s Exhortations for Those Who Don’t Rouse Doubt, “The Disease of Quiet Meditation”:
If you’re unable to rouse doubt when practicing Zen, you may develop an aversion to the world of conditions. Thus, you escape to a quiet place and sink into zazen meditation. Empowered by this, you find it quite fascinating. When you have to get up and do something, however, you dislike it. This too is simply your wavering mind; it is not Zen.
Sitting long in zazen, sunk in quietness, within this mystic darkness the senses fuse, objects and opposition disappear. But even if you enter dhyana absorption without mind movement, it’s no different from the Hinayana. Any contact with the world and you feel uneasy with your loss of freedom: hearing sounds or seeing sights, you’re gripped by fear. Frightened, you become as if demon-possessed and commit evil acts. In the end, you waste a lifetime of practice in vain. All because from the first, you failed to rouse this doubt–thus, you did not seek out a true guide or trust one. Instead, you stubbornly sit self-satisfied in your quiet hole. Even if you meet a good teacher or Dharma friend, if you don’t immediately recognize your error, innumerable buddhas may appear and preach the Dharma but they won’t be able to save you.
Another good one is “The Disease of Self-Indulgence.” Remember that this from about 1600:
If you’re unable to rouse doubt when practicing Zen, you may fall into self-indulgent and wild ways. Meeting others, you sing, dance, and carry on. By the river and under trees you recite poetry, prattle, and laugh. Swaggering about busy places regardless of others, you convince yourself that you’ve resolved the great matter. When you see a worthy teacher open a meditation hall, establish rules for the sangha, do zazen, chant the name of the Buddha, and do other virtuous acts, you let out a scornful laugh and curse him. Since you’re not able to truly practice, you disturb others who are. Not knowing how to truly recite the sutras, worship, or confess your faults, you hinder others who do. Unable to truly inquire, you interrupt those who do. You can’t open your own meditation hall, so you interfere with those who have. Unable to give a real Dharma talk, you interrupt those who do. Seeing a worthy teacher present a Dharma talk in front of a large congregation, you think up complicated questions and indulge in silly exchanges, giving a Zen shout or a slap. The worthy teacher recognizes such things as no more than ghostly spirits playing games. If he does not indulge you, however, you spread groundless rumors: “He doesn’t understand the Dharma principle–what a pity!”
This is your wavering mind obsessed, if you continue this way, you will fall into demonic paths and commit serious offenses. Once your good karma is exhausted, you’ll fall into the hell of incessant suffering. “Even good intentions have bad results.” Alas!
Here’s the health reform we really need: 90-minute yoga classes should be banned.
Everywhere I look—whether in my ClassPass app, which is like Blue Apron for exercise, or in MindBody, which is like Uber for your glutes—too many yoga classes on offer are 75 or 90 minutes long. Most classes, blessedly, stop there, but I’ve occasionally even seen two-hour-long meditation classes—for the woman who has everything, I guess, except a job.
Make no mistake: I love yoga. I would simply like to do less of it when I go. I have been “coming to the mat,” as the most annoying among us say, since I was a Texan teenager, sending my “sitz bones” skyward on the lonesome prairie. I have taken yoga classes of all different lengths in various countries. Never, ever have I left one that lasted 60 minutes and thought, “dang! I wish that had been longer.”
It honestly never would’ve occurred to me use satellites in outer space to find places to pay someone to talk at me while I do yoga. I just have a sequence of stretches I do at home, from a mix of yoga, gym class, and childhood martial arts classes. Being annoyed at someone for offering a class that’s too long, because you can’t stretch and breathe by yourself! Maybe this is me being autistic? She interviews people about awkwardness and autism, even:
Khazan: Your mention of baseball statistics reminds me, what’s the difference between awkward people and people who have Asperger’s, or just people who are socially anxious?
Tashiro: Autistic symptoms are normally distributed in the general population along the bell curve. As you get out towards the 80th percentile, 85th percentile, on that bell curve, that’s where you start to think, “Wow. This person’s a socially awkward person.” You can follow that all the way up to the 99th percentile, and at the 99th percentile is where the cutoff general tends to be for autism. The Broad Autism Phenotype is oftentimes what they’ll call it in academic studies.
Khazan: It’s sort of like sub-subclinical autism, basically?
Tashiro: Exactly. It’s just like someone who’s really high strung doesn’t necessarily have an anxiety disorder, or someone who’s pretty melancholy doesn’t have a major depressive disorder. Someone who’s awkward doesn’t necessarily have Asperger’s or autism.
She actually links to the counterpoint, dismissing it this way:
Some say 90 minutes is simply how long it takes to pace through all the sacred asanas, and that we shouldn’t tamper with tradition. But there is nothing traditional about most of today’s yoga studios, which are more about monetizing relaxation than they are about honoring whomever yoga is supposed to honor. I recently went to one class, supposedly a hybrid dance-yoga endeavor, in which the instructor shimmied around a stage to Jason Derulo. We’re not exactly meditating in the Indus Valley anymore.
But the counterpoint was very thoughtful and correct:
Perhaps the most important reason for 90 minutes is the chance for internal struggle and therefore, possibility for refinement. When you enter the room for a 90 minute class, you must choose over and over to remain. To remain in the hot room for the full 90 minutes. That, in and of itself, may be the most significant challenge. Lying in savasana wanting some ease, some air, some water, some relief can be the hardest yoga that is done in the room. When you stay in the room for 90 minutes, you have conquered a real and significant challenge. You learn the most important lesson that is to be learned – that you are stronger than you thought. When you stay in the room for 90 minutes, even if you are laying down half of the class, you have at some point faced yourself, your fears, your weaknesses and you have used your mental focus and determination to put those thoughts, perceptions, or physical feelings aside and you conquer. It may not be a transcendent feeling. It may feel more like giving up. A surrender to the heat and struggle. But either way, you have accomplished what you set out to do. You challenge your body and mind, through a 600- to 1,200-calorie effort, you stretch yourself to the limit, you grow stronger – inside and out.
Olga Khazan is clearly very smart and capable of understanding this. She writes:
Stereotypes about the practice suggest that people who go to yoga don’t care about wasting time (see, for example: “If you’re not into yoga, if you have half a brain.”) But anxious people go to yoga, too—it’s how we persuade our therapists that we’re trying to get better. And anyway, it might behoove even non-angsty Americans to do more yoga, but in smaller bursts. There aren’t many good studies on yoga, but some suggest you only need to do a few minutes of it regularly to reap health benefits. One paper found that just one 20-minute yoga session temporarily improved working memory. Another showed that a 12-minute yoga routine, practiced daily or every other day, led to better bone density. If the “every day” part is key—which we’ll never know until the government makes funding yoga research a priority, haha—then shorter surely is better, or at least more realistic.
I actually agree that making a big production out of practice is bad, and 15-30 minutes twice a day works wonders, partly because it’s not easy to follow through with it. But many ancient Zen masters once said that thinking everything is emptiness so you don’t need to practice is a disease.
This statement as remarkable to me: “it’s how we persuade our therapists that we’re trying to get better.” It actually does work if you really do it. I don’t understand the concept of paying someone to let you dishonestly convince them you’re trying to get better? The approval-seeking is stronger than the rage to master!
Khazan: Finally, what is the rage to master, and how can awkward people use it to their advantage?
Tashiro: The rage to master comes from research on giftedness. The term was coined by Ellen Winner, who’s one of the leading researchers on giftedness. It means that gifted kids have personality dispositions that make them very passionate about not only learning area of interest or field, but wanting to learn everything they can and completely master their interest or their field.
It’s really interesting to watch a gifted kid and watch their rage to master because they will persist for far longer than your average kid will, and they do it with a methodical nature that’s also unusual.
Awkward people tend to have this sharp focus, they tend to see details with quite a bit of clarity, and they’re extremely enthusiastic about what they love. It has a lot of parallels to the rage to master. Given the overlap between giftedness and an awkward disposition, it’s actually a really nice marriage between those two qualities. If someone has an area of giftedness and they have this obsessive interest and this enthusiasm for it, it’s a great combination to either achieve expertise or even innovative breakthroughs.
lol nice guys finish last:
This person is unreachable by intellectual means! Lol Frantz Fanon:
I was not mistaken. It was hatred; I was hated, detested, and despised, not by my next-door neighbor or a close cousin, but by an entire race. I was up against something irrational…I personally would say that for a man armed solely with reason, there is nothing more neurotic than contact with the irrational.
She writes critical articles about American culture with amazing charts about the level of excitement in people’s photos and ideas about happiness:
The US is an outlier, and I’m into ideas from the opposite end of the chart. I want relief from overstimulation, not more overload. That’s the opposite of people who fit in, basically. Why would you sit with your thoughts for a couple hours or date somebody boring? The Dharma is utterly useless!
I would be open to dipping below an hour, especially when deadlines are as tight as my shoulders. Another L.A. class I was more fond of, but which I attended less frequently because it had fewer parking spots, packed yoga into 30 minutes, rocketing through the basic poses and dispensing with the zen stuff entirely. But sometimes it felt too brief, as though just as soon as I had found parking, the thing was over. (I always felt this way in L.A.) If you really just need to pop your scapulas back into place with the aid of some quick down-dogs, in other words, perhaps a YouTube video would suffice.
For a class, though, 60 minutes is the platonic ideal. WTF kind of time period is 90 minutes, anyway? Sixty minutes is The Americans or Game of Thrones—award-winning cable programming. Ninety minutes is a Disney Channel original movie.
An hour is more than enough time for the active sun salutations, the relaxing sitting poses, and even the butt-in-the-air one that no one can do. Shavasana will be over before the urge to check your phone becomes overpowering.
Yoga teachers, I beg thee, give the people the workout they want in the time window they can afford: one hour. Namaste.
Something is lost when you take the Buddhism out of Buddhism. I’m starting to sound like something I always hated reading: it’s very important to find the right teacher, or at least teachings. Buddhist literature is a lot about complaining about all the people who don’t get it.
Taigu is a white guy pretending to be Japanese, but in some ways he’s more real than Olga Khazan.
It’s also interesting that he uses all the language about cutting or severing.
The British monk who taught me zazen quit doing that after a while, and became a tai chi instructor. His comments were something like “too much sitting” and that Zen was “severe.” Yes, and Vajrayana has wrathful deities.
In Buddhism, when somebody does finally get it, it’s like OMFG and they have a ceremony and keep track of all the mind transmissions in big charts, which the Tibetans instruct you to visualize as a big tree with your guru as the root. When people get it, tales of those moments are recorded as sacred treasures to be meditated on for 1000 years.
In the founding myth of Zen, the Budda held up a leaf and the one person who got it smiled, and they had a moment, and it’s been mind transmissions ever since. Actually, it’s been a lot of fabricated lineage stories, but it sure is hard to find people who share a wordless understanding, to the point that you might mythologize the event. Also from The Gateless Gate:
A philosopher asked Buddha: `Without words, without the wordless, will you you tell me truth?’
The Buddha kept silence.
The philosopher bowed and thanked the Buddha, saying: `With your loving kindness I have cleared away my delusions and entered the true path.’
After the philosopher had gone, Ananda asked the Buddha what he had attained.
The Buddha replied, `A good horse runs even at the shadow of the whip.’
Mumon’s Comment: Ananda was the disciple of the Buddha. Even so, his opinion did not surpass that of outsiders. I want to ask you monks: How much difference is there between disciples and outsiders?
To tread the sharp edge of a sword
To run on smooth-frozen ice,
One needs no footsteps to follow.
Walk over the cliffs with hands free.