The First Lesson of Zen


When I first set out to try Zen meditation I had a hard time finding a good place to do it. All the rooms in our house fell short. None were as calm and peaceful as the garden above. I wished I had some kind of dedicated meditation room like the Dalai Lama has. Eventually I settled on our home’s second bedroom.

As I sat down problem number two became apparent. Sitting for a long time was uncomfortable, I needed a cushion. Also a timer to let me know when I was done. But I needed a timer that wouldn’t make a tick-tock sound because that would be distracting. Once I got the cushion and the timer, I was set to give it another go.

Problem number three – after a couple minutes of sitting in silence I realized how noisy it was in the afternoon in our second bedroom. That was a tough one to solve, we lived in a busy town and this was the quietest room in the house. Maybe I could do it in the early morning or at night? Then there wouldn’t be so much street noise. How much easier this would be if I were in the mountains in Tibet, I thought. But I soldiered on.

Problem number four – this is boring. So very boring. And I have a lot to do today. Many more things than some celibate monk staring at candles and chanting. I bet his schedule is jam-packed with prayers and banging bells. Me, I’ve got people to meet and it’s a beautiful day outside. I’m hungry. Maybe I’ll give this another shot after I’ve had a snack. No, no, I’ll keep going to get this over with. Stupid Zen.

Most_a445c2_2802216Enter the cats. I wasn’t even halfway in on the planned ten minute session when our two cats were crawling all over me, purring and wanting attention. “Get off of me!” my brain screamed, “Can’t you see I’m trying to meditate!!” I bet the Buddha didn’t have to deal with his wife’s cats like I did.

I tried again despite the cats and noise. The phone. You have got to be kidding me. The phone rings now. I should go down there with a hammer and smash it to pieces. Forget it, this sucks.

Eventually I gave up. “How the hell is anyone supposed to find peace with all these goddamned distractions?” I thought, “Where can I go to be free of all them?” Sure, meditation is no problem when you are a monk holed up in a temple in the mountains in the middle of nowhere but what about the rest of us?

That’s when I realized my error. Zen isn’t about finding the perfect external setting for peace to wash over you like a wave. Zen is achieving a state of peace regardless of where you are. It’s not about the external at all, it’s all internal. Thinking one needs a perfect setup before practicing Zen is just a form of procrastination.

You don’t need a cushion. You don’t need a set amount of time. Zen is when your cats are crawling all over you and it doesn’t even phase you. You can do it any room. Just stop what you are doing and breathe. Count your breaths to ten and then repeat the cycle. Stop thinking and breathe. This, for me, was the first lesson of Zen.

Why Zen?

Recently I picked up the practice of Zen meditation. The way it works is you go to a room with a group of other people, pick out a cushion and when the bell chimes, you all sit and stare at a wall in silence for a half an hour.

When I told my wife how it works she said, “That sounds unbelievably boring.” My mother had an even harder time with it and asked, “Why would anyone do that?”

It’s a reasonable question – why does a group of people stare at a wall in silence? I’d say Zen meditation has three benefits – regular meditation will improve your:

1. Focus
2. Patience
3. Emotional Awareness

First I want to review how Zen meditation works. It’s pretty simple really. You sit on a comfortable cushion and focus on your breathing. You count “one” on the inhale and “two” on the exhale. Then you count “three” on the inhale, “four” on the exhale – all the way up to ten before starting over again. If you lose count, you start on “one” again.

All this fixation on breathing is key to improving your focus, the first benefit of regular Zen meditation. Paying attention to something as simple as breathing teaches you to be in the moment and not be distracted. When you sit in this state for a half an hour, you become acutely aware of what the Buddhists refer to as “monkey mind.”

What’s monkey mind? Monkey mind is when your attention starts drifting and you start making grocery lists in your head. It’s what you do when you have insomnia or aren’t listening to a speech. Some of you may be doing this right now. Monkey mind is when our brain acts like a monkey – jumping aimlessly from thought to thought.

While you are meditating, you are going to experience a lot of monkey mind. What Zen teaches you is to identify it when it happens. You stop and think, “Ah, that’s monkey mind” and you focus all your attention on your breathing – counting “one” on the inhale and “two” on the exhale. By focusing on your breath, you learn to keep you mind still and focused.

This increased focus can help you a lot in your career. A big concept in our modern workplace is the importance of multi-tasking. Unfortunately, multi-tasking is just a way of doing a lot of tasks very poorly. Ever see someone type an email while talking on their cell phone? The results are unimpressive – the email is incoherent and the phone call conversation is boring.

Zen meditation reminds us to stay focused. Our society is filled with constant distractions and we often willfully give in to them. Zen allows you to focus on the moment and be absorbed by the task at hand and do it well.

This is the same approach used by a lot by professional athletes. Are any of you familiar with Phil Jackson, the coach of the Chicago Bulls and later the LA Lakers? Jackson was a big proponent of Zen meditation for his players. He felt it gave them the focus they needed to win. Considering he won championships coaching Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, it seems to have worked out fairly well.

The second benefit of Zen – patience – is related to the first. Zen meditation teaches you to be patient. Sometimes when I’m meditating I start getting anxious. I’ll think, “Man, I’ve been sitting here awhile. When is this going to end?” and want to sneak a peek at my watch. When these thoughts creep into my head, I let them go and focus, again, on my breathing. Think of patience as a muscle and meditation is the workout that strengthens it.

This benefit has had a huge effect on my life. For one, commuting to work is much less stressful. When I’m stuck in a traffic jam, I don’t get upset about something I can’t control. I don’t rage at the drivers around me. Instead of raging, I look to being flexible. I look to solve the problem at hand rather than rage about things I have no control over.

This increased patience has also made me a much better parent and teacher. I have two small daughters, age five and two. There are times when I’m watching them struggle with something and every inch of me wants to step in and do it for them to speed things along. Zen has taught me to hold back and let them work it out themselves. This is a win-win; my daughters learn something new and I get to do less work.

Which brings me to the last benefit – increased emotional awareness. Zen allows you to disengage from your emotions and see them for what they are – momentary states of consciousness. The typical emotion last 90 seconds. If you can refrain from acting on your emotions for a minute and a half, you should be good.

Recently I got upset with a co-worker. He said something that angered me. Instead of reacting, I realized, “Anger. I’m experiencing anger right now” and instead of making a scene, I walked away. By identifying the emotion, I got a lot more effective at handling it. That co-worker eventually was let go. Turns out his co-workers handled anger a lot better than he did.

I hope I’ve convinced you to give Zen a try. Who among us wouldn’t want to be more focused, patient and calm? It doesn’t require a half a hour, give it a try for 1-2 minutes a day.

I remember the story of the man who taught Zen meditation to convicted criminals. All these prisoners eventually stopped doing it. When he asked why, they gave the same reason – they “couldn’t find the time.” I encourage you to make the time, give it a shot and experience these three benefits for yourself.