Monday, January 23, 2017

Zen Stoicism: Meditation and Mindfulness

When did you first consider meditating? I'm not saying you've done it, but a lot of people at least think about it these days. That openness is in part due to a strain of meditation practice, called Mindfulness, that has caught on among the corporate class. Stripped of any woo-woo, and backed by science, Mindfulness has largely brought Zen meditation into the mainstream.

I say that Mindfulness is a form of Zen meditation because its founder, Jon Kabat-Zinn, practiced as a Zen Buddhist with none other than Thich Nhat Hanh, arguably the most famous (in the West) Zen Master that isn't Shunryu Suzuki. Kabat-Zinn repackaged Zazen, a technique that's been around for millennia, and centered his new therapy on one of Zazen's most helpful side-effects: mindfulness.

(Point of order: when I refer to Mindfulness with a capital M, I'm referring to Kabat-Zinn's technique and program. When I refer to "mindfulness," I mean the buzzword. And when I refer to mindfulness, I mean the state of mind.)

Mindfulness is, as a Zen priest once told us at Austin Zen Center, a tool for awareness. It is something that naturally happens when one sits Zazen. However, Zazen - Zen meditation - is not a technique aimed at fostering mindfulness. Zazen has its own purpose, which is complicated but ultimately involves experiencing the non-dualistic nature of reality. Piece of cake, right? Mindfulness, in Zen practice, is the icing on that cake.

In practicing Zazen for about six years, I've experienced mindfulness as a strengthened faculty of inner awareness. With practice, I've learned to separate feeling from immediate reaction. Thoughts no longer automatically lead to other thoughts, and feelings no longer automatically lead to actions. Mindfulness describes this tendency to be able to step back from what one is feeling, thinking, and doing, in order to see it for what it is, with no attached judgement. With practice, negative behavior patterns become apparent, and with some action, eventually break down. Self-limiting beliefs become apparent, and break down. Lingering anxieties fade away. This process of expanding awareness is not always peaceful - it can be emotionally taxing to realize one's self-deceptions - but it is healthy.

Jon Kabat-Zinn must have realized that the health benefits of meditation could be repackaged and sold without any of that pesky philosophy or moralizing, so that's what he did. I personally don't blame him, though I know many Zen masters are skeptical. A lay practitioner at the San Francisco Zen Center put it to me this way: "Hitler could have been mindful. Without a base of morals, it doesn't mean that you're doing any good." I'm personally of two minds: widespread meditation practice would be an excellent boon to mental health everywhere, though I don't think training people to be more comfortable sitting in cubicles all day is what's good for society. Though I do think mindfulness is more apt to help somebody realize that their lifestyle is making them miserable, whatever it is.

If you're interested in learning how to meditate, I submit that there is little practical difference between following this instruction guide on and taking an introductory course at your local Zen center. The Buddhists would probably give me flak for saying that, but if your primary interest is meditation, and you're just starting out, I think either one is fine. The Zen people are more likely to give it to you straight, as they won't patronize you with hype, but that's my personal bias. I understand that when people ask me how to get into meditation, they aren't necessarily interested in Buddhism. I'll have more to say about that later, but just know that the Zen people don't ask you to believe in anything and that there is no dogma involved. Even if you're not interested in sticking around, there's no reason not to learn the basics from them, in a group setting where you can ask questions.

To relate this all to Stoicism: I don't think modern Stoicism can really be effective unless somebody is training themselves to be mindful. And I think somebody who has had Mindfulness training would find a lot to like in Stoicism. I may write about that next.

Read the last post in this series: The Cessation of Suffering

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