Saturday, March 21, 2009

Am I doing it right?

I lead the Tuesday and Thursday evening practices at Empty Gate Zen Center. Zen isn't terribly popular, particularly since the 70s. Nonetheless, an attendee or two generally shows up at these sittings. One such young woman, a university student who's a Thursday night regular, even started a group that sits on a different night, in the International House dorm where she lives.

Last week, someone in the I-house group asked her, "How do I know if I'm doing it right?" (I assume the reference is to sitting Zen.) She wasn't sure how to answer, so she asked me. I first gave her my gut response: "You don't know. You just try."

Zen tradition isn't so big on explanations. But my American society... particularly the sub-culture I swim among in Berkeley, one heavily influenced by psychoanalytic theory and such... is awfully big on explanation. I'm sometimes torn when it comes to gut reactions vs thought-out ones.

Whatever. After I'd considered it for a few minutes, I said to her, "If someone's wondering if they're doing it right, it means that they're holding some idea about 'right' vs 'wrong.' It means that they want something, so they're concerned about whether or not they're gonna get it. When thoughts like that appear, it's a really great opportunity to examine them closely, question them, see them for what they are."

I don't want to have canned answers to the Big Questions. I want to -- to some extent anyway -- respond freshly and flexibly, according the particulars of the situation. This question (Am I doing it right?) comes up constantly with beginning Zen students. How could it not? A couple decades ago, a new student had asked me, and I told her, "It's called sitting. If you're sitting on the cushion and haven't fallen off, then you're doing it right. And if you have fallen off, that's OK too."

I dunno. That answer may have been good or bad, or both, or neither. In any case, I enjoy the irony of the question. We've all been sitting, no problem, practically since we were born. Then we visit a Zen center and formally learn to "sit," and all of a sudden, we're not so sure any more that we know how to do it right!

If any reader has any thoughts about how I should answer this type of question, please speak up.


Doug said...

My perception of how to sit right changes often. I think that evolution of perception is part of how zazen works, how it has to work. As a teacher you can help someone assume the traditional posture, maybe offer a little encouragement and compassion; but what more can you really do beyond that? In the end it boils down to individual effort.

Every person has their own mental hangups, their own unique set of contexts and delusions through which they view the world. No one else can truly know the state of your mind, so nobody else can tell you exactly how to do zazen properly. But if you sit regularly and give it your best effort, you'll discover for yourself what your own hangups are. You'll know you're doing it right when you realize you're doing it wrong. =D

BTW, starting this summer I will be visiting Davis, CA on a regular basis, since my wife will be studying there, and probably coming through the Bay area on my way from Seattle. At some point in the future I may even be living there a while. I'd be curious to drop by Empty Gate some time and meet the infamous Stuart. :)

Anonymous said...

>>meet the infamous Stuart. :)

There are many infamous people to meet at EGZC!

Aric said...

Since you asked...

I'm a perpetual beginner, since I have not sustained a regular practice. I was taught Zen by a 20-year practitioner friend but have never been to a zendo or spoken with a 'Zen master.' My understanding is based strongly on the book 'Everyday Zen.'

From my perspective The key to 'doing it right' is attention. If you're just sitting and daydreaming then you're not doing zen. If you're sitting and daydreaming and watching yourself daydream then you're doing zen. I don't remember where (it probably was everyday zen) but I like the metaphor of a puppy (or was it a bunny?). You set it down somewhere and it starts to wander off, so you pick it up and gently put it back again. It wanders off and you put it back. The puppy is your attention, and you keep reminding yourself to bring it back to the present. After thousands of times the puppy will wander off less and less. As long as you are bringing the puppy back then you are doing it right.

I don't think I would ask this question, and I think it is something any student deserves to know.

Stuart said...

Doug said...
> I'd be curious to drop by Empty
> Gate some time and meet the
> infamous Stuart. :)

Hey, Doug, that's great, I look forward to seeing you in Berkeley. The Bay Area in general is beautiful; I don't think you'll be disappointed with visiting or living here. And while I can't vouch for the infamously snarky Stuart, it's true what Anony says, there are plenty of a interesting folks at Empty Gate who'll make your visit worthwhile.

Aric said...
> I like the metaphor of a puppy
> (or was it a bunny?). You set it
> down somewhere and it starts to
> wander off, so you pick it up
> and gently put it back again.

I don't know who originated this teaching... but fwiw, Zen Master Bon Soeng has used the puppy metaphor several times when talking about meditation at our Weds night programs.

> I don't think I would ask this
> question, and I think it is
> something any student deserves
> to know.

Yeah, it's a great question to ponder, and it's hard to imagine how someone could not ask it at some point. At the same time, any idea that you're doing it "right" or "wrong" is just an idea, and ought to be questioned.

Zen Master Seung Sahn used to simplify life by saying that there are only 4 problems that are the source of all our suffering:

1. Attachment Mind (I like/dislike something)

2. Wanting Mind (I want to get something)

3. Holding Mind (I want to keep something), and

4. "Checking" Mind.

"Checking" Mind is a bit trickier to understand... but I believe he was talking about this type of thinking, the thinking that says, "Is this good, or is it bad? Did I do that right, or wrong?"

ZM Seung Sahn always said (long before Nike), "Just do it." I believe this specifically means that overlaying an idea that what you're doing is good/bad, right/wrong, is adding something unnecessary.

Anonymous said...

For me, unfamiliar with zen, the question begs several others. What is the purpose of sitting? Is there a purpose? Alternatively, what do I (the sitter) hope to get from sitting?

It seems to me that the question can't be answered until the above have been answered.

For example, if there is no purpose to sitting other than to sit, then as long as a person sits, they have accomplished exactly what they set out to accomplish and accomplished it correctly.

If the purpose is to sit in a certain posture, for a certain length of time, then the answer to the question is that if the student sat in that exact posture for the exact length of time, then yes they did it right.

For both questions above I've assumed that the metric for deciding rightness and wrongness is based on accomplishing a certain task. Which of course is not the only metric.

Is there another goal? If there is, then one metric of rightness (as before) is to measure the progress made towards accomplishing that goal (here I assume that absolutely wrong = 0% accomplished and absolutely right = 100% accomplished).

The above statements probably give you more of an idea of how my mind works rather than answering any question or making any point.

Stuart said...

Anonymous said...
What is the purpose of sitting? Is there a purpose? Alternatively, what do I (the sitter) hope to get from sitting?

It seems to me that the question can't be answered until the above have been answered.

Thanks, anony. As a computer programmer and poker player, I love the type of clear, meticulous analysis displayed in your comment. Really; I eat it up with a spoon.

Most of the things we learn in life come from following an authority. So we get this deeply-ingrained habit of always looking for answers externally.

But the weird thing is that there is no authority for determining the meaning and purpose of our lives. Sure, there's no lack of scriptures, teachers, or dogmas that supply us with answers. And there's not the slightest reason to believe any of them. When someone else tells me the purpose of my life is [yada yada]... why in the world should I accept it??

The practice of sitting is metaphorically like looking in the mirror. It just reflects what's there. The strange fact that we get born into this world not knowing where we come from, where we're going, why we're here, or who we are... is reflected in these questions about the purpose of sitting.

You hit the core of the matter when you say, "what do I (the sitter) hope to get from sitting?" Everything swings on whatever it is that I want.

People begin a meditation practice with some idea of getting something... an idea they're likely not even fully aware of. What we want from sitting arises from what we want from life.

As we see it all in the mirror of sitting practice, the light of awareness shines on these wants. Once we see the wants, we can question them. Why do I want this? Is it just out of habit? Out of following what other people have told me I should want? Are all these wants anything more than thought-clouds appearing and disappearing?

It boils down to: when someone asks "Am I doing it right?", maybe it means it's their time to start questioning this whole issue of getting answers from external authorities. As Buddha said in some poetic way, it's all about carefully examining our experience for ourselves.

Doug said...

As an engineer and programmer, I'm in the same boat as Stewart in loving the straight analytical approach to judging whether one has accomplished one's goal while "sitting."

The problem of applying this to zen is the same as applying it to a real world engineering problem, in that the requirements (goals, etc.) are very often not clearly defined at all. As I said in my first response, my perception of how to sit right has changed often since I took up the practice six or seven years ago. One of the things that has changed is what I'm expecting to get out of the practice. Back to my point, as in the business world, trying to analyze performance against an ill-defined metric is frustrating and disheartening, even harmful. But try telling that to some of the managers I know...

In the Three Pillars of Zen, Phillip Kapleau translated a lecture given by his Japanese teacher to a class of beginners. One of the first topics Yasutani-sensei addressed was that of motivation. In Japan, where zen is a more familiar religion to the wider public, he saw people who wanted to learn about it for a staggering variety of reasons. Some believed they could develop extranormal powers, some wanted to improve their concentrative abilities for sports or martial arts, still others were seeking psychotherapeutic relief from emotional distress, some believed zen practice could bring spiritual fulfillment independent of specific religious doctrines, and still others were specifically seeking the Buddhist path.

Yasutani gladly accepted any reason or motivation that a person earnestly brought with them, but he explained that he would not prescribe the same methods of practice to all those different motivations. To those hoping for physical or concentrative benefits, the practice of following the breath would probably be the alpha and omega. To those who came seeking the Buddhist path, an initial breath practice might give way to a koan (spiritual riddle) or the practice of "just sitting" (jap: shikan-taza.)

Nor is it as simple as plopping a person into a category and giving them a metric that fits their new label. Most people that practice zen do it for any number of intertwined reasons, and many don't have any idea why they're drawn to zen at all. Half the journey is just figuring out why you've set out in the first place, much less where you are going. :)

Stuart said...

Doug said...
Yasutani gladly accepted any reason or motivation that a person earnestly brought with them

There's some old story about a newcomer to the Zen temple, and upon meeting him, the Master's first question was, "How much do you believe in yourself?" The beginner replied, "10%!" And the Master said, "Oh, Wonderful!"

Later, someone who'd heard that conversation, asked the Master, "Why did you tell him it was wonderful? 10% really isn't much." And the Master said, "It was enough to get him into the zendo."

yomamma said...

One teaching i like is the one about about being comfortable with imperfection. the other that i like is Adyashanti's letting everything be as it is.
At root Zen is an inquiry tradition, don't you think? Everything can be an inquiry , so there is no right or wrong. that would be incongruous to Zen.

yomamma said...

any way i think you did fine, but an old zen pat probably would have whacked her on the head or barked like a dog or something.

Stuart said...

Hey, yomamma, thanks for writing, good to hear from you again.

Yeah, the Zen school, as I practice it, is an inquiry tradition. When people asked ZM Seung Sahn what kung-an (koan) they should start with, he'd immediately ask, "What are you?" Keeping a questioning mind is a key practice for me.

Re whacking people or barking like a dog... I once said to ZM Bon Soeng that I can see how the bizarre teaching methods used by ZMSS and other Masters can help people sometimes. But given my own personality, I can't imagine feeling comfortable using those methods myself. ZMBS replied, "Then don't."

yomamma said...

i do some bodywork that is in essence very zen, you engage in some inquiry with your client, introducing that to , especially new ones has been one of my biggest challenges. sometimes they ask what am i supposed to feel? i guess they want me to tell them what they feel! /what i have to realize is that checking in with themselves bodywise is foreign to some , and to try and come up with non threatening ways to educate about this. i haven't gotten the" what am i supposed to feel" thing in awhile , maybe that's good. but certainly it's better not to try to tell them. Is the energy just questioning or is it kind of a brick wall? if it's a brick wall i know to back off.

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Bobby G. said...

I believe there is a correct way to sit in zazen. There is a correct way to perform asanas in Hatha Yoga. The crux of meditation is to forget the body.

Probably the question of "Am I doing it right?" refers to the inner dialogue of the restless mind. The first point is: if it is a dialogue then who is one talking with in one's own mind? It would be a monologue if one did not ask the question, "Am I doing it right?"

To me, this begs the question, "Are there two subjects in one's mind?" That would be, one to ask the question and one that is expected to answer it.

So, to "Do it right", it seems natural to think one needs to eliminate one of the subjects in order to do it right in the inner world.

Once this happens, with the inner world at peace from the conflict created by a false duality in the mind, meditation occurs naturally and continually.

It is a very good question to ask if it is answered properly.

I came to your blog from a link on Non Dual Phil at yahoo groups.

Bobby G.

Stuart said...

Bobby G. said...
I believe there is a correct way to sit in zazen. [...] The crux of meditation is to forget the body.Hi, thanks for stopping by and commenting, Bobby G.

One type of meditation is to sit with the intention of forgetting the body. There are all sorts of intentions you could bring to meditation: a desire to feel good, to get happiness, to get understanding, to get a longer healthier life, to get good fortune, etc etc.

Another type of meditation is to have a clear intention. That is, to hold no particular intention at all, and just sit. Then all thoughts and desires and expectations and judgements appear and disappear like clouds.


Stuart said...
This comment has been removed by the author.