The other day in my sangha, we had a new student who asked, “How do I know if I’m doing it right?” I didn’t answer right away as I wanted to think about this. How does one evaluate changes and progress in one’s meditation practice?

Now, I’m no authority on zen as I’ve only been meditating on and off for two years. But for what it’s worth, this is more or less how I would answer.

killer napkins-meditation orgasm

society6/killernapkins

You’re doing it right if you are generally becoming less of an asshole.

I stress this first because in my observation, people tend to focus on meditative experiences rather than outcomes. I’m not saying that it’s not immensely beneficial to be able to situate yourself on this well worn path of zen practice and to map your experiences onto those that have been experienced by so many others before you. However, as much as spiritual experiences, especially “peak” experiences, can help facilitate and catalyze one’s spiritual growth, they will not intrinsically make you wise and ethical.

You know you are on the right track if you find yourself becoming more receptive to the world and to others. It’s not a straight path, and the ego may throw up resistance, but generally you should find that your insight and compassion will come more and more effortlessly and organically.

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I’m reading Eat Sleep Sit: My Year at Japan’s Most Rigorous Zen Temple.* I’d been describing my own retreat as “rigorous,” but now, that seems like a laughable description considering what the Eiheiji monks endure for their training which includes frequent verbal assaults and beatings, poor nutrition (trainees suffer from beriberi symptoms) and sleep deprivation (in bed at 22:00, up by 01:30. Yes, 1:30 AM.) Every mundane daily task from eating to shitting to sleeping requires a strict adherence to instructions written by the Zen monk, Dogen. All these symbolic but also kind of arbitrary rules reminded me of orthodox Judaism or Islam. Except more hardcore. Because a zen monk isn’t doing this for god, or a better afterlife. Nor do senior monks entice trainees with the promise of any kind of spiritual deepening.

I think people have this idea about zen meditation that’s relaxing and I’ve had more than one person express misgivings to me about meditation practice because they’re concerned they’ll lose their edge and become too sensitive. Truth be told, I’ve had those misgivings myself. Concerns about losing my mental sharpness and my rapid fire reactiveness in emergency situations which have served me very well (as well as undermining me when I did not size up the situation accurately) in the past. I remember eating at a vegetarian restaurant run by students of an Indian guru and thinking that they all seemed lobotomized. Way too calm and slow to run a restaurant. My spacey waitress forgot the water. Three times.

My training is nowhere near as severe as what goes down in Eiheiji, but relaxing is really a poor description of the endeavour. Fears of replacing my structured thinking mind with a soft tofu mind have proven to be unfounded. I can stay present in all kinds of conflict now that before would have reduced me to tears. I am more ok with not understanding something, being in the unknown, not needing to pin something down and trusting, surrendering to profound processes that evade my comprehension. If anything, I think zen’s made me a bit more hardcore.

* The title, by the way, is not a riff off of Eat Pray Love; it’s a very close translation of its original Japanese title which is Ku Neru Suwaru: Eiheiji Shugyoki (the first three words are the infinitive forms of verbs and the last two are the name of the temple). Ku Neru Suwara was published in 1996.

hot air balloon gaia house

A hot air balloon rises outside GH's walled garden


I’ve just returned from a silent zen retreat at the magical Gaia House. I would highly recommend GH. It is a former convent now run by Zen Buddhist practitioners. The place was very well run, the teachers were excellent, and there is something very special about the Devon countryside. Coming from N. America, we don’t have the same history of cultivation of our land, so that our nature and even our farms, are in comparison, very raw and wild. In Devon, you really have a powerful sense that the energy of the land has been processed by people over centuries and it is qualitatively different.

My retreat was a combination of chi gung and vipassana meditation instruction over 4 days, and then I stayed on for a personal, self guided retreat. I thought I would share some practical considerations for those considering a similar retreat for the first time.

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On this blog, I’ve classified zen meditation and yoga (which I use here to include its various branches) into one category. But as I study both zen and yoga further, I’m noticing a degree of polarization between practitioners regarding two approaches that I had always considered as complimentary orientations toward mind-body work. From my understanding, these are some of the stereotyped criticisms of a more fluid yogic approach and a more austere zen approach:

Yoga Zen
Lacking rigour, weak Cold, severe, overly disciplined
Indulgeant, narcisstic, magical thinking Empty, absurdist
Trite, sentimental Lacking passion, dry

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