Recently I had a conversation with a friend which wound up on the topic of meditation.
“I’ve tried it,” she said, “I know you’re supposed to empty your mind, but I just can’t do it.”
We were at work during this conversation, and at this point an interruption put it to bed. What she said has nagged at me since, and I’ve been turning it over in my mind, because it’s not the first time, nor is it likely to be the last, that someone has equated meditation with “emptying your mind.”
That’s not what it is at all.
Now, it is possible to empty one’s mind. That is the favored suicide technique of Zen masters who have decided that they no longer can contribute to this plane of existence. When the mind goes, the body, bereft of purpose, will follow.
That’s no way to live your life.
There are many forms of Zen meditation which require you to have something in mind: novices can be assigned the task of counting or following their breaths. The most famous examples of idea-based meditation are the so-called “Zen riddles” known as koan: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” is one of the most well-known. The idea is to hold that riddle in your mind until you stop analyzing it, and instead comprehend it in a deeper manner than that attained by abstract, intellectual understanding.
To illustrate what I mean by that, consider, for example, the difference between knowing in an intellectual manner, how a motorcycle is ridden, and actually getting on the sucker and knowing how to ride it.
It takes some doing.
There is also a form of Zen meditation which requires you to have no fixed object in mind. This is called shikantaza. Loosely translated, that means, “just sitting.” And that is not a metaphor, that is as descriptive as names get. Sitting is what you do, and you focus your attention on sitting. In this form of meditation, you’re not thinking about anything…but your mind is not empty.
A 20th Century Zen Master named Yasutani would explain this to his students this way:
“…you will still perceive what is in your line of vision, since your eyes are open, and you will hear the normal sounds about you, as your ears are not plugged. And since your brain likewise is not asleep, various thought-forms will dart about in your mind. Now, they will not hamper or diminish the effectiveness of [Zen] unless, evaluating them as ‘good,’ you cling to them, or deciding they are ‘bad,’ you try to check and eliminate them. You must not regard any perceptions or sensations as an obstruction…nor should you pursue any of them.”*
So in other words, Zen, or meditation, or whatever term you use for it, is not about “emptying the mind” but rather, “not allowing the mind to run away from you.” That runaway train feeling inside your head can be controlled.
If you’re looking to use meditation as an anxiety medication, this is the part where your ears should be perking up. Before I go any further, may I remind everyone that I’m not a medical or psychiatric expert, and if you’re really in need of serious help, for the love of God find a professional to talk to, rather than some yo-yo on the internet who actually calls himself a lunatic.
That disclaimer out of the way, I will say that meditation has helped me to no end over the years, even though it took me over a quarter century to begin getting the hang of it. I will never forget the moment I realized that, for the first time, I was only thinking about what I wanted to think about. If that sounds insane, then you have never had your mind full of random thoughts, and you have been blessed by at least one god. As for me, my mind was in my youth like a series of dominoes that somebody had thrown a bucket of marbles at.
To be sitting there that evening, and have my head be quiet…that was astounding. I experimented by focusing my attention on one thing or another in my immediate vicinity, and I felt as though I was aiming a laser pointer.
That was just the start. That’s a surface scratch, but still, when you realize that a lot of our little insecurities, and even some of our major ones, arise from the sense of powerlessness that modern life tends to instil, the idea that it is even possible to take control of one’s own thoughts, one’s own sense of priority, one’s own life, is something of a relief.
Actually doing it takes some time and effort, but in my experience, even a single moment of self-control puts everything into perspective. Hell, that one moment is more than a lot of people get in their life.
Your mileage may vary, but it couldn’t hurt to try.
So how does one do that?
There’s the typical perception, where you put on a saffron robe, shave your head, seclude yourself, and sit in a lotus posture away from everything.
That’s not always possible, and so there’s also the practice of taking the Zen state with you everywhere you go, applying total focus to walking, sitting, eating, whatever. I read somewhere that there are monks who seek and attain this state even while sleeping.
That’s a little extreme. I’m not knocking it by any means, but let’s bring this into the practical world with a practical example.
If you’ve been paying attention, you know where I’m going to go with this.
The purpose of the lotus posture is to still the body as much as possible. In a later post I might go into detail but for now I’ll just say that the legs are folded to eliminate the distractions your body can come up with when it’s free to roam about the country, the twitches and movements that impose themselves on your consciousness. You cup your hands in your lap for much the same reason, lightly touching the thumbs together. Above all, the spine and head are held straight. The same Zen master I quoted earlier also said, “A slumping back equals a slumping mind.”
If you take nothing else away today, take that.
When you ride, it’s the same thing. Proper posture is essential. You sit, you only have so much motion available to you, and you have to dole out that motion sparingly, because most of the time it is your movements that make the difference between being a rider and being a pavement smear.
In order to ride at all, you have to be aware of your movements and their consequences, and control yourself…focus on the task at hand, without obsessing about it. Obsession is the extreme form of focus. It’s not healthy in general, but the unhealthiness is far more apparent on the freeway.
And finally, the bike is an antidote to any sense of powerlessness; you can’t control the traffic, or chunks of airliner hurtling Earthward…but you can control you, and you control the bike.
You can see how the quote at the beginning, about being aware of things but not clinging to them, makes for a perfect introduction to riding a motorcycle. Back at the rider safety class, the instructor described a traffic situation, and asked us how to handle it.
The correct answer was, “it depends.” There is nothing so important on a bike as an open mind. Not an empty one.
The purpose of Zen is to be in the moment. If you are constantly searching your memories for instructions, or constantly inventing situations that haven’t happened yet, you’re going to miss out on the present moment, which is where everything happens. Being in the present moment puts it all into perspective.
The bike is a fantastic tool for this. While it does not force you to put everything into perspective, it does make it easier. The political Tweets your asshole ex posts are not even remotely as important as keeping the shiny side up.
And when riding, why wouldn’t you live in the moment for its own sake? That moment is made up of the landscape, the wind in your face, the acceptance of the dangers involved without being controlled by them. That’s life, baby.
That’s what’s important.
Priorities, man. It’s all about priorities, and living in the moment. If you ever hear anyone describe riding a motorcycle as a Zen moment, you should now know that it’s not a metaphor or an exaggeration. A Zen moment is not something that can only be achieved in saffron-robed seclusion on a mountaintop.
Not everyone uses the bike that way, of course. And nothing says you have to.
But if you are looking for a way to put things in perspective, I recommend it.
Until next time, remember: Truth rides a motorcycle.
*Quote taken from The Three Pillars of Zen by Philip Kapleau, 1965 Edition.