You guys can say whatever you want. All I know is that the comments section under my Suicide Girls articles is always pleasurable and informative. The comments section here is like a visit to the nut house.
OK. I’m overstating things. As usual. I always overstate things. That’s one thing you should know. I always overstate. Sorry. Deal with it. Anyway, it’s not a total nut house in there. But it can get scary sometimes. Mostly I avoid reading it. I read all your e-mails, though. But I’m really slow to respond because I get a lot of them. There’s a lot less venom spewing in e-mails.
So I thought I’d answer some questions I’ve received in e-mails here. I picked these first two because they’re fairly representative of some questions I receive pretty often.
I am considering taking up zazen, hoping it might give me a little mental clarity, self-control and understanding, but I have a question that has bothered me. I have come across a few references to studies of possible links between meditation and psychological disorders such as depersonalization and disassociation. I was wondering whether you are familiar with those ideas and what you think of them? That might be a too open-ended question, but I’m not sure how to frame it. To me, sometimes Buddhist ideas about the “true nature of reality” sound a lot like the medical literature describing mental disorders such as depersonalization. Maybe I’m reading the wrong books.
I don’t know what books you’ve been reading. But I’m familiar with the view that meditation practice can lead to psychological disorders. To me, it’s all about what kind of meditation you’re talking about and how you approach it.
Some of the meditation practices I’ve seen promoted out there do strike me as pretty dangerous and potentially damaging. This is why I was so vehement in my criticism of Gempo Roshi’s Big Mind® scam. Any practice that promises Enlightenment experiences quickly is bound to lead to psychological problems. No two ways about it. In fact, even the more supposedly “traditional” approaches to Buddhist practice that emphasize Enlightenment as a goal and encourage students to experience it as quickly as possible strike me as potentially very hazardous to a person’s mental well-being.
In order to live among your fellow human beings you need to be conversant with and able to navigate your way through the consensus view of reality held by most members of the society of which you’re a part. The problem is that this consensus view of reality is utterly mistaken. Buddhist practice can help you see through the consensus view and get to the underlying reality. But you need to take this process very slowly. If you go into it too quickly the shock can be devastating. You’ve learned this consensus view since the day you were born. You trust it and rely on it. To have it suddenly swept from under you can be extremely scary. It’s this shock that manifests itself as psychological disorders like depersonalization and disassociation.
If you go into your zazen practice slowly and without too much ambition it’s highly unlikely that you’ll encounter any of these kinds of difficulties. You need to slowly acclimate yourself to the truth without trashing the useful aspects of the consensus view.
On the other hand, even people who study relatively slow moving practices can sometimes get over ambitious with it and cause themselves trouble. This is why it’s recommended to have a teacher who can help slow you down if you get too fast. Still, it’s really unlikely you’ll have a need for this during the first months or even years of practice. In my own case, I didn’t have any seriously weird experiences until I’d been at this zazen thing for about five years.
I need to overcome being lazy. I’ve read a lot of books. I’ve listened to dozens and dozens of dharma talks (ever heard of audiodharma.org?). I have little buddhist one-liners that I’ve found to be helpful all over my workspace. I’ve even spent a week out at my favorite Buddhist place in the beautiful hills just out of town with some wonderfully patient Chinese monastics (I ask them questions occasionally but their English isn’t all that great), and still.. i think I’m just too lazy.
So here’s why: No matter how much I “try” to let go of my thoughts, or see them as thoughts and let them just pass, or to stop trying to do anything at all because I know it’s inherently a waste of time to maintain a state of mind that reaches for any particular goal while sitting… nothing seems to work because I end up just sitting there in a dream, not aware of anything except the TV show going on in my head. In other words, every time I try to establish a regular zazen practice, I end up doing well for a short period and then I just give up. It feels as if every time I sit I end up lost. Thoughts are running the show, not me. There is no clarity, there is no cessation of my desire to eat fried chicken, there is no way to not getting carried off by a sexual fantasies, and I spend inordinate amounts of time trying to figure out where I want to go with my next project (I’m a musician too). I try to snap myself out of it, but I spend most of my zazen not really in the moment at all. This happens just about every time I sit so I guess that’s why I usually end up just quitting after a while – I mean, I can daydream anywhere, why sit uncomfortably to do it? I think the truth of the matter is simple… zazen is a waste of time. But somehow I don’t really believe that. But I just don’t know how to muster up any more will to persist.
It doesn’t matter. It really does not matter. If you think your zazen is good, fine. If you think your zazen is bad, also fine. If it seems neither good nor bad, no problemo. The practice goes on in spite of your assessment of it. It’s like exercise. It is exercise, in fact, as much as Yoga or jogging or pole-vaulting. Your muscles get toned up even if you hate doing it. Just do it.
Shunryu Suzuki said, “Don’t think you do zazen. Zazen does you!” This is an absolute fact. The good news is that if you keep up the practice the days when it seems good will start to outweigh the days that don’t. But it still doesn’t matter either way.
While I was at the Great Sky retreat this year, at one point I noticed that zazen went on even when I was thinking and daydreaming and fixing my social calendar. Not to say you should do that stuff while sitting. Avoid it when you can. But know that zazen goes on in spite of whatever your conscious mind is doing to try and interfere with it.
I’m in Ohio now. Here’s the gig list again:
November 7th at 7PM I’ll be at the Akron Public Library downtown.
November 10th 0DFx plays at the Spitfire Saloon in Cleveland.