I’ve been failing to meditate for over a decade. When I sit for zazen, I try for a half lotus each time, and the first several minutes are always about adapting to the discomfort. I guess I have bad posture, generally speaking, because I also strain to keep my spine straight. It always feels like I’m going to tip over.
Instead of focusing on a mantra or koan, I try to just practice simple breathing meditation, letting my mind empty with each exhalation of breath and slowly refill with ideas as I inhale again. Anything less than five minutes feels like a wasted session, but I start to really lose sense of time after ten or fifteen. I still haven’t found a pleasant way to rouse myself out of it. Any alarm is, well, alarming.
When I started meditating, I didn’t have to worry about that stuff. I was introduced to zen by my karate instructor in college, Jorge H.-Aigla. He wrote a book titled, Karate-Do and Zen about the connection between the martial art and the mental discipline. I hesitate to refer to zen as a spiritual discipline if only because that wasn’t the emphasis he placed on it.
Every session, whether it was a technical workout, a kumite sparring match, or a belt test, began and ended with a silent meditation. Actually, I don’t remember if stretching, pushups, and sit-ups preceded the opening meditation or not. I mostly remember the closing meditation, after I was sweaty and sore, struggling to get my breath under control.
He would have us sit in Vajrasana, a modified kneel where buttocks rest on the heels while the feet lie flat against the ground. It hurt to get into, it hurt to sustain, and some research suggests it may cause long-term damage to the knees. Jorge gave us very little instruction aside from to close our eyes and try to relax.
The first time I entered the dojo, on the first day of classes, Jorge gave everyone a printed copy of a poem from Zen and the Birds of Appetite by Thomas Merton. I don’t know what Merton’s credentials were, how he was qualified to write about zen, but maybe there are no qualifications for poetry. Every subsequent year started the same way, with Jorge reading a modified version of the poem. He would substitute “karate-do” for “zen” and read,
Karate-do enriches no one.
There is no body to be found.
The birds may come and circle for a while…
but they soon go elsewhere.
When they are gone, the ‘nothing,’
the ‘no-body’ that was there,
That is karate-do.
It was there all the time
but the scavengers missed it,
because it was not their kind of prey.
Part of the way he taught karate-do was to encourage his students to liberate themselves from their attachment to their body, to approach the practice as someone who was already dead. In a lot of ways, I practice meditation in preparation for death.
Jorge would tell us to sit, close our eyes, and then we would all sit in silence, dressed in our karategi, ankle tendons and quadriceps burning, until he made a noise again and we arose for the session—or to leave the dojo for the day. I never knew how long we sat there, or how Jorge decided when to end the meditation, but that’s sort of the point. If you’re still aware of what time it is, you need to meditate longer.
I don’t meditate in the hopes of attaining enlightenment or nirvana. I’m pretty sure that even if those states were attainable, it wouldn’t be by trying to get there. My extremely limited understanding of zen is that it’s partly about detaching from goals and objectives like that, partly about liberating the mind from attachment to constant thought, and mostly about practicing zen.
“Zen enriches no one.” Practicing meditation isn’t about becoming a better, more compassionate person—although that may be a welcome side effect. Shunryu Suzuki, whose lectures still comprise the majority of what I have read about zen, says that “zazen does zazen.” The whole point of the practice is to get the human mind—and, to some extent, the body—out of the way fully enough for our intrinsic Buddha mind to manifest itself.
But there’s no way to force it, and in that sense, all meditation is failing to meditate. I know that I feel better when I maintain a meditative practice and there are a lot of studies about why that might be the case, but even that is not the goal of zazen. To have a goal is to miss the point.
I would like to say it gets easier with time, that the more times I sit and meditate, the better I’m able to sit down and clear my head the next time, but it’s hard to sit still. It’s hard to be quiet. It’s hard to sit still, be quiet, and intentionally do nothing, to practice being nothing, or practice just being.
The truth is, when I am sitting still, paying attention to my breathing, and trying not to chase any thought rabbits through the thickets of my mind, I am no more or less alive than I am doing any other thing. I don’t know why it’s so hard to sit still and do nothing, especially to think nothing—it sounds like the bare minimum of control I would have to exert over myself—but it is hard.
Maybe that’s why I keep trying. Within the confines of each session, I struggle to maintain a comfortable posture, struggle to keep my mind clear, and struggle against the increasingly urgent need to make sure I did, in fact, set the timer. Then, between sessions, I struggle to convince myself enough of the merits of the practice to actually sit down and do it again.
But sometimes, I get it. I sit, and after some time has passed I experience brief moments of no-mind, of emptiness, of simple awareness of the world around me and my existence within it, with none of the baggage of conceptualization. And despite that emptiness, I continue to exist.