The 5 Gates to Zen Meditation

What is Zen

Starting and Deepening a Meditation Practice — Even When You Can’t Be Bothered | By Woody Evans.

Daily meditation practice is very useful and good, but hard to do. It’s hard to start, hard to keep up, and hard to re-start once you fall out of the practice.

I’ve been struggling with this for over a decade. A friend introduced me to the zen practice of zazen on a clay hill near Pearl, Mississippi, in the last dusk of the last millennium. Despite the auspicious start, I didn’t stick with the practice. I tried off and on for years, and I still try. Sometimes I sit daily for weeks, and sometimes I don’t sit at all for weeks.

Here are a few tips that I’ve come by over the years—either by having the good sense to listen to my teachers, or by accident, hard knocks, and luck—that sometimes help me keep a steadier practice.

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1. Don’t let yourself decide whether you should meditate.

Because your normal self is likely to say, naaah. I’ll be watching Doctor Who, thanks, and sipping a chilly Tuborg. If you stop and think “whether” to do it, you’re much more likely to decide against sitting. So make it like flossing (do it when you brush your teeth, no debate!), and sit without “deciding” to sit. Wake up, sit.

2. A little ritual goes a long way.

This is a big one, because it has to do with respect for the practice. Yes, you can meditate anywhere, any time you like. Yes, you can do it casually and comfortably and erratically. But if you take the time to establish a bit of a ritual element to your practice, it gets down deep in your subconscious. Ritual teaches us things symbolically that it might take years to learn in other ways. So treat your cushion with respect. Use a special rug, a corner of the room you like best. Light a candle or burn some incense, if it helps. And if you’re religious or want to honor some particular idea or being from an inherited mythos, hang up a picture of him or her, or place a little statue on a shelf in the room you use. Once you make the meditation a rite, the practice somehow gets deeper—and you’re on the hook to take it that way.

3. Meditate with others (sometimes).

Back in Mississippi, I associated with a sangha in the Deshimaru lineage. I didn’t sit with them every week, or even every month, but when I did get the chance to visit (especially for a multi-night meditation retreat, a sesshin), it deeply enhanced my practice. You get to see that you’re part of a community of other folks struggling with similar problems. Here’s a recently-divorced bank teller who feels guilty for having to kennel her dog this weekend. There’s a busy young dad, sticking out the zen even though all he really wants is to go back home and play Legos with his son on the floor of their double-wide trailer. It helps a hell of a lot to remember that we’re in it together.

The Zen

4. Thoughts are bubbles in a toilet.

I get discouraged if, after a few days of sitting regularly, I feel like I’m having “bad” meditations. I still get dragged along by my thoughts, and I don’t get that special something, you know, that… that little wow or clarity that might be some very distant retarded cousin to kensho. We want the ecstasy, the Moment, the Enlightenment. But you may have a lot of what you’d consider “bad sits” for a while, and this can break up your practice if you let it. Don’t let it. Feel victorious that you have again returned to meditate, even though you’re not having “good” meditations lately. I think it was Livingston Roshi who said that thoughts are like bubbles in a toilet. They form, they pass—so what. Whether it’s a thought you like (or don’t), or a meditation session you like (or don’t), it passes. Just get back on that cushion. Meditation sessions are like bubbles in a toilet.

5. Don’t get all religious about it.

Daily practice is useful and good. But if you start to cling to it, get all high falutin’ about it, and get testy when it’s interrupted, then maybe it’s getting to be too much like a religion. In my own meditation practice, the main idea is to sit there and not get hung up on stuff. Just let it pass. If the practice itself is something you become all hung up on, then maybe it’s time to skip a sit and go get an ice cream in the park. Sure, be serious in your dedication and intention. But please don’t mistake an attachment to the practice (or a revulsion for things “not of the practice”) as progress on the way.

Stay loose. Be silly. Enjoy. Keep going.

(Check out the classic on the subject: The Three Pillars of Zen)

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