WHAT DO YOU DO when you feel a little uncomfortable
meeting someone? Or conversing with someone you find difficult
to be around? Or talking to someone who is mad at you? What do
you do? Get mad back? Go into the other room and slam the door?
Fidget? Look down? Lean back? Avoid eye contact?
A spiritual practice from Buddhism works
well in situations like that. It is called various things: Zazen,
vipassana, mindfulness meditation. Zazen is the shortest and
most fun to say. That's what Zen Buddhists call their meditation
There are basically two broad categories
of meditation: Concentration and mindfulness. Concentration meditations
involve focusing attention on one thing, and when the attention
wanders, bringing it back to that one thing. It could be a candle
flame or the sensation at the opening of your nostrils where
the air goes in and out. It could be a word you repeat over and
over. In concentration meditations, you continually return your
attention to a central focus.
Mindfulness meditation is somewhat different.
There is no particular focus. It is a process of paying attention
to your ongoing experience, whatever it may be at the moment.
If you have a pain in your knee and that happens to be prominent
in your awareness right now, you pay attention to that
not trying to concentrate, but simply noticing it and letting
it be there. You don't try to make it different. You don't try
to hold onto it. You just notice it as fully as you can, including
what is going through your mind about it.
Paying attention to your experience is
not difficult, but the mind has a strong tendency to wander off.
That's why it takes practice. It is a skill.
But it isn't necessary to practice zazen
sitting in a lotus position. You can use everyday opportunities
to practice. When you feel like flinching while talking with
someone, that is an excellent time to practice because it will
help you deal with the situation. Observe your experience
the person you're talking to, your surroundings, your bodily
sensations, the thoughts arising in your mind. Just pay attention
without withdrawing or flinching. It is very calming.
Fidgeting is not only a by-product of anxiety,
but it also produces anxious feelings. Somehow when you
zazen the situation, you feel a calm you don't feel when you're
fidgeting. And I have noticed that when I pay attention, my fidgeting
tends to stop.
The authors of New
Directions in Progressive Relaxation Training: A Guidebook for
Helping Professionals, a manual for therapists, indicate
that zazen is directly applicable to dealing with anxiety. They
focusing on the present moment precludes
[Anxious thoughts are about the] future and thus
can be let go of by gently refocusing each time they intrude
on the task itself. This procedure not only reduces the occurrence
of anxiety-provoking processes
[it] also maximizes the quality
(anxiety typically interferes with performance).
They use the example of focusing on your
interaction rather than on your worries and fears. The person
you're talking to is more likely to enjoy your interaction and
your chance of producing a good result is much greater.
Use this method especially when you feel
uncomfortable when you don't want to be there. Deliberately
be there. Take a deep breath, relax a little, and open
your attention to what's happening not just outside your
body, but inside too.
A feeling of becoming open that's
what it feels like. In some way you are closing up, puckering,
pinching, protecting, tensing up to close yourself off from your
experience of the moment. Zazen is letting it in. It feels like
an act of courage.
I sometimes feel my solar plexus is a kind
of metaphorical shutter, like you have on a camera. Have you
ever seen one? They open and close in a spiral. It feels like
my solar plexus opens up when I am allowing my experience to
come in rather than trying to close it off. In fact, I have heard
that pupils dilate a little when looking at something you like
and contract when looking at something you don't like.
That's what seems to be happening psychologically
when you zazen a situation. The practice of zazen is opening
your psychological shutter and letting in your experience. It
is a worthy practice with practical advantages.
In an experiment at Thomas Jefferson University
Hospital in Philadelphia, over a hundred chronically ill patients
completed a mindfulness meditation training program. The participants
suffered from many different kinds of illnesses, including asthma,
panic disorder, cancer, sleep disorders, depression, hypertension
After the program, the participants' symptoms
both psychological and physical had improved. They
reported they had less tension, more ability to handle stress,
and a greater feeling of well-being as a result of the training.
The researchers gave a follow-up questionnaire a year later and
those who kept up with the practice maintained the benefits.
That's a lot of benefit from just learning
to be present.
If you have a persistent problem on your
mind, try using zazen on it. Sit in a quiet room and keep your
mind on your problem not trying to think about
but looking at it in your mind's eye. Just be with it for a half
hour to an hour. You'll be shocked. The problem will begin to
be here and experience
This is zazen: Just be here and experience.
It is not only worthwhile in uncomfortable situations. It will
enhance your life to do it often. Be in your body, wake up to
your world, perceiving, being alive, being here right now.
This is a subtle practice. You and I are
hardly ever just being here and experiencing. We're usually thinking
about what we're going to do in the future, or trying to think
of something clever to say, or remembering something that happened
once, or wishing we were someplace else, or resisting something,
reacting to something, pretending to be something, and so on.
It's very rare we think this moment is worth experiencing.
But the moment becomes worth experiencing
when we do experience it. And I'm not talking about something
esoteric or fancy. Experience is just what's happening: The way
you feel, what you see and hear and smell, the thoughts running
through your mind it's just your experience.
You know how you can sometimes be so absorbed
in a book that you don't notice a sound or that someone walked
through the room? In the same way, you can become so absorbed
in what you're doing that you don't notice much of anything else
other than your purposes. And for the most part, that's just
fine. Being absorbed in a task is a beautiful thing. But there
are times when it's worthwhile to check in just to notice
and not try to do anything about it. It only takes a moment,
and it's good to do several times a day.
For one thing, it's relaxing, because when
you check in on your experience, you'll usually notice is there
is a muscle somewhere in your body holding tension unnecessarily.
Some muscles you have to use just to sit up or hold your head
erect or to do whatever you're doing at the moment, but almost
always you'll find you have other muscles contracting
for no purpose. And when you check in on your ongoing experience,
you'll tend to notice that tension and automatically relax a
little. So that feels good. But also, you just feel alive. It's
almost like we're machines the rest of the time, doing what we
should be doing, and going and going and going like a solar-powered
robot. When you just be here and experience, you feel
the breeze and notice the weather and take in the person you're
talking to you'll stop trying to impress her and actually
be with her and notice her and experience her. It's different.
Like I said, it's very subtle, but there is a difference, and
it's a difference that makes a difference.
Just try it. Even if you think I'm talking
gibberish, try it. Right now, don't try to do anything but be
where you are, experiencing what there is in your surroundings
and in your body right now. As Alan Watts wrote in Tao: The Watercourse Way:
You are asked temporarily, of course
to lay aside all your philosophical, religious, and political
opinions, and to become almost like an infant, knowing nothing.
Nothing, that is, except what you actually hear, see, feel, and
smell. Take it that you are not going anywhere but here, and
that there never was, is, or will be any other time than now.
Simply be aware of what actually is without giving it names and
without judging it, for you are now feeling out reality itself
instead of ideas and opinions about it. There is no point in
trying to suppress the babble of words and ideas that goes on
in most adult brains, so if it won't stop, let it go on as it
will, and listen to it as if it were the sound of traffic or
the clucking of hens.
Let your ears hear whatever they want to
hear; let your eyes see whatever they want to see; let your mind
think whatever it wants to think; let your lungs breathe in their
own rhythm. Do not expect any special result, for in this wordless
and idea-less state, where can there be past or future, and where
any notion of purpose? Stop, look, and listen...
It's a funny thing to talk about because,
what else is there? I mean, I can easily imagine someone thinking,
"What do you mean be here and experience? How could I do
otherwise? I'm here, aren't I? And obviously I'm experiencing!"
And that's certainly true. But it is different
to just experience, just pay attention. The Buddhists
call it bare attention and it takes years of practice (mindfulness
meditation) to be able to do it for any length of time. As Henepola
Gunaratana wrote in his book Mindfulness
in Plain English, Updated and Expanded Edition:
The process of mindfulness is really quite
different from what we usually do. We usually do not look into
what is really there in front of us. We see life through a screen
of thoughts and concepts, and we mistake those mental objects
for reality. We get so caught up in this endless thought-stream
that reality flows by unnoticed. We spend our time engrossed
in activity, caught up in an eternal flight from pain and unpleasantness.
We spend our energies trying to make ourselves feel better, trying
to bury our fears. We are endlessly seeking security. Meanwhile,
the world of real experience flows by untouched and untasted.
It requires some effort, but it's tremendously
worthwhile. Even if you do it for a moment. As Gunaratana wrote,
"The ironic thing is that real peace comes only when you
stop chasing it." And that's true even if you only stop
chasing it for a minute. You get a minute of peace.
Just being here and experiencing produces
an effect. When things are nice, it enhances the moment like
a little salt on food it brings out the savor. And when
things are bad, it can prevent you from reacting and that's a
good thing, because when we get upset and react, the actions
we take in that state of mind will probably be counterproductive
or self-defeating in some way.
If there was a way you could remain happy
when bad stuff happened when you were arguing with your
spouse or someone cut you off on the freeway your response
would be saner. Using zazen is a way to remain feeling good,
or at least feeling better, during stressful events. And one
of the positive side-effects is that saner actions will issue
forth from you.
When you're upset, you're at your worst.
You can't think straight, and your point of view is one-sided
and heavily biased. Your reactions tend to miss the mark and
tend to be regretted later. So if, when you found yourself in
a tense situation, with somebody yelling at you, for example,
or something happening that normally sends you into a rage, if
you tried to just be there and experience, it would drastically
change the outcome of the encounter for the better.
In fact, in their book Stop! You're Driving Me Crazy, the authors
give this as the first step of bringing a situation back to sanity
a situation that is about to drive you crazy: "Stop,
look, listen, and feel." That would be a good definition
of zazen. Reacting to craziness just makes more craziness.
When someone is upset with you, they're
usually not reacting sanely. The powerful negative emotions are
strongly survival-oriented. An upset person is no longer sane.
The problem is, when someone is upset with you, you become
upset, don't you? And therefore not very sane yourself. It's
like cornering a wild animal: It becomes ferocious, it goes berserk.
It is fighting for its life. That kind of reaction is almost
never constructive in the world we live in now. Sure, if you
were surrounded by a gang of thugs who were about to beat you
to death, that might be a good response, but that's pretty much
the only kind of situation where it is. The rest of the time,
any reaction you have when you're upset is bound to be unproductive.
It'll cause more trouble. You'll end up hurting someone's feelings
or worse. It's just not good.
Here is something you can do instead: Just
be here and experience. Look, listen, and feel. Feel your face
get hot. Hear the rise in the other person's tone of voice. Notice
your desire to strike out and hurt. Notice where in your body
you feel that desire. Notice what thoughts come screaming into
your head. Notice the temperature on your skin. Feel the movement
of air over your forehead. Feel your midsection. I don't mean
with your hand, but from the inside. Pay attention to the changes
as they're happening, without reacting to any of them.
That's the power of zazen. Instead of being
driven by the forces of your programming (or conditioning, or
upbringing, or whatever you want to call it), instead of being
marched around like a puppet by your programming and your biology,
you can simply observe the impact these forces are having on
you. You can experience the forces while not being controlled
by them. When you observe, it takes the center of control away
from the machine and puts it on hold. It takes the spinning gears
and disengages them so your behavior is no longer driven by your
programming or your biological instincts, at least for the moment.
And sometimes that is an extremely good thing to do.
good for your health
Facing and experiencing the distressing,
painful experiences without avoiding them is saner. It is also
Jonathan Shedler, PhD, professor of clinical
psychology at Adelphi University executed the following experiment.
He first separated the volunteers into three groups:
1. those who habitually show their negative
2. those who habitually hide negative feelings
from others but not from themselves
3. and those who habitually hide it from
others and hide their negative feelings from themselves as well
Shedler hooked them up to heart rate and
blood pressure monitors and showed them pictures and phrases
well-known for their ability to get a rise out of people. These
pictures and phrases raise psychologically threatening issues.
The third group's heart rate and blood pressure jumped the most
in fact, they had the kind of spike that damages arterial
linings, the kind of powerful surge that leads to arteriosclerosis.
The other two groups didn't react as strongly.
In other words, the two groups who were
experiencing their negative feelings had a less damaging
reaction than the group who didn't feel their feelings. Resisting
and denying a negative experience creates more suffering than
just experiencing it.
Zazen is not just for the negative stuff,
but also for the positive stuff. Try it when you're making love.
Be there and experience. Feel what you feel, hear what you hear,
smell what you smell, taste what you taste, and see what you
see. It's wonderful. You become aware of being alive.
We actually forget that we're alive. It's
a funny thing. It's the most obvious thing there is, and we're
so used to that amazing fact, we don't very often notice it.
It's like walking into a house where something is cooking and
it smells wonderful. At first. Then after awhile you get used
to the smell and forget about it. It's no longer in your experience.
Being alive is like that. It's the most
wonderful thing there is. Here we are in the universe, breathing
and eating and talking and experiencing. What a wonderful thing.
But it becomes so obvious and we become so accustomed to it,
we forget about it and spend our time thinking about money and
whether these shoes look good and if we're going to make it home
in time to watch a TV program things that are really not
that important compared to being alive.
Not that you can go around being blissed
out about being alive all the time. You'd get used to the bliss
and forget about that too. But once in awhile even several
times a day it's nice to just be here and experience for
a moment. Just be here and be alive. It's wonderful.
Here's an interesting experiment. Researchers
had subjects dunk one of their hands into a bucket of ice-cold
water and see how long they could stand it. They gave about a
third of them this instruction: Focus all your thoughts on
the pain. The next third was told to distract themselves
from the pain by imagining their bedroom at home. The last third
were told to try to suppress all thoughts of the pain.
The average length they could keep their
hand in the water wasn't much different between the three groups:
About two minutes. But there was a difference in how quickly
the pain went away. It went away quickest for those who had focused
their attention on the pain. The pain lingered longest for those
who had tried to suppress all thoughts of the pain.
what to pay attention to
When you do zazen, what should you pay
attention to? Obviously you can't experience everything that's
happening all at the same time. You can't fully hear every sound
in your environment while noticing every visual detail coming
into your eyes while feeling your feet and hands and belly and
forehead and shoulders and so on, while feeling the pulsing of
your heart while feeling the emotional sensations moving through
your body. There is an overwhelming amount of data coming in
at any given moment even when "nothing is going on"
and if you could pay attention to it all, you wouldn't
be able to walk across the room, you'd be so busy experiencing!
So let me tell you a little trick to help
you. Choose something ahead of time. Then when you want to be
here and experience, pay attention to that thing. For example,
say you choose the temperature of the air on your face. The point
is to have a specific place to start. Notice the sensation of
the surface of the skin on your face. From there, you can go
to the rest of your body or whatever else you want to experience,
right here, right now.
Physical sensations are a good place to
start because they are always happening now. If you started with
checking your feelings, (emotional experience), you may notice
feelings of anger at what someone said to you five minutes ago,
and it'll tend to take you away to remembering what happened
or fantasizing about what you should have said or whatever. You
won't be here experiencing. Your attention will be somewhere
else. And usually somewhen else too.
Start with your specific thing. Pay attention
to physical, concrete, real experience happening in real time.
The teacher, G.I. Gurdjieff, had an interesting take on this.
He said paying attention to your experience was nurturing. He
said experience was a nutrient and if you don't get enough of
it, you would have problems physical or psychological.
His idea was that people could be "experience-deficient"
just like they can be "iron-deficient," and the deficiency
would have an unhealthy effect on their lives.
I don't know where he got that idea, and
I don't know if it's true, but it does seem to be a scientifically
testable idea, and I'll bet some time in the future it will be
found to be valid. Even some of the studies I've already mentioned
it indirectly indicate it is true.
Occasionally taking the time to pay attention
to what's happening right now does something. It's subtle, but
it's real and you can somehow tell it is Good. It does something
good for you. I wish there was more research on the subject and
I could tell you something more definitive than that, but I can't.
But you don't really need any outside verification; you can try
it for yourself. Make your own experiment. No belief is necessary.
You could actually get in the habit of
doing this, and it would "awaken" you. It would make
you more aware, more alive, more happy, and more sane, and your
wisdom and bliss would continue to grow throughout your life.
That seems like a huge exaggeration, but it is not. The habit
of experiencing your own experience can transform your life.
Aside from any beliefs or systems of philosophy,
the practice of this single practice is a Way, in the Eastern
sense of a Way of Liberation, or a Way to become wise, or a Way
A Buddhist teacher, Sogyal Rinpoche, wrote,
There is a story that I remember hearing
in my childhood in Tibet, about an old woman who came to the
Buddha and asked him how to meditate. He told her to remain mindful,
present, and aware of every movement of her hands as she drew
water from the well each day, knowing that if she did so, she
would soon find herself in that state of alert and spacious calm
that is meditation.
Sure, you can do it sitting cross-legged,
and that's good practice and very calming and healthy. But you
can do it anytime and anywhere, and several times, for a moment
or a minute, throughout any given day, without losing time or
becoming less productive.
This practice changes your attitude. It
makes you happier. It'll tend to make you more honest. It will
usually make you more effective at your job. It keeps you from
wasting your time and emotional energy on fruitless worries.
Over time, just from paying more attention to your experience,
life will be sweeter for you even in the unlikely event
that your circumstances don't improve.
When you pay close attention to your experience,
you begin to freshly notice the difference between those actions
that are truly worth doing, and those that aren't. When you pay
attention, you just know. It's not a mystery. And when you know
what experiences are really worth having, you can have more of
them, and fewer of the less satisfying experiences, and your
life will be richer for it.
For example, maybe you have a conversation
with a good friend, and you are not trying to do anything in
particular, you are just enjoying the conversation. During the
conversation at some point, you deliberately just be there and
experience and you realize this is really enjoyable, this is
really worth doing. After the conversation, you know it had a
payoff in terms of satisfaction and enjoyment.
Then you have another conversation. You
use your wit to prove to the other how clever and successful
you are. You've done this many times before without really thinking
about it, but this time you pay attention, and, much to your
surprise, you notice it has no real payoff. There's a kind of
disagreeable glee, but no enjoyment, no satisfaction.
Pay attention enough, and you'll know enough
to do more of the enjoyable, satisfying things, and less of other
things and your life will slowly change just by paying more attention
to it. It becomes richer in truly satisfying experiences.
When you don't know where to go, when you
don't know what to think, or when you are just happy as a clam,
come back to this practice. Return to right now. Look, listen,
breath in, smell the air, feel your arms and legs and torso and
face. Just be here and experience. It is your home base. Come
home. You can rest here, and rejuvenate yourself.