There’s More to Meditation Than Meditation

meditation stressOnce again another article about the dangers of meditation is making the rounds of the Interwebs. This one is from the Guardian in the UK and is called Is Mindfulness Making Us Ill. My favorite part of this new article goes:

Rather than removing the source of stress, whether that’s unfeasible workloads, poor management or low morale, some employers encourage their staff to meditate: a quick fix that’s much cheaper, at least in the short term. After all, it’s harder to complain that you’re under too much stress at work if your employer points out that they’ve offered you relaxation classes: the blame then falls on the individual.

I’ll let you read the rest of the piece for yourself. It’s just that one little section (above) I’d like to comment on here.

There is a lot of very deep confusion out there about how meditation can be beneficial. It seems to me that quite a number of people appear to imagine that meditation works kind of like magic or, if they’re a bit more rational, sort of like a drug.

Take LSD. Well, don’t actually take LSD! But take it — as in consider it — as an example. When I was 19 I took LSD. I swallowed a tiny piece of purple blotter paper, waited about an hour and then all of a sudden I was in the groovy land of yellow submarines and girls with kaleidoscope eyes. Nothing to it!

I get the impression from articles like this one and many others I’ve seen that a lot of people expect meditation to work the same way. They imagine that they’ll take the posture, count some breaths and then ~ presto! ~ they’ll be free from all their worries and stress. There are a plenty of people who know it’s not quite that simple. But still, even a huge number of those folks seem to think that meditation will have some kind of near magical effect.

I know this because that’s how I thought of it myself. That’s how I approached it when I started. At first I thought I must have been right because initially meditation did seem to make me calmer and more even-keeled just by virtue of simply doing it.

It took a while before I started noticing something else. As I got deeper into my practice, the darker side of it began to show. I became aware of thoughts and urges I had repressed for a very long time. It could be uncomfortable. In fact, it often got downright terrifying. If you feel like purchasing the new edition of my first book Hardcore Zen, check out the chapter titled I Think of Demons for further details on one of the more memorable times when that happened.

Some of the most useful insights I’ve gathered from meditation were about the things I was doing when I wasn’t meditating. Often it would become suddenly — even shockingly — clear to me that certain things I had been doing as normal, routine parts of my every day life were actually quite harmful and damaging. I knew I needed to quit doing these things, but often that was extremely difficult.

It was difficult because some of these were the kinds of things all of society tells you that you should do. They’re things that nobody in their so-called “right mind” would ever tell you to stop doing.

My own best example related to the piece I excerpted from that article would be the time in late 2009 when I was offered a cool job that would have paid me a lot of money.

For the entire year 2008 I was living in Los Angeles and receiving a retainer from Tsuburaya Productions in exchange for the promise that I wouldn’t take another full time job until the new management could offer me one. They’d sent me to LA four years before that and, in the meanwhile, the entire company had been sold and bought by new owners. The monthly retainer was just about what I was paying in rent. This meant it wasn’t quite enough to live on. But I was getting a little bit in book royalties and doing a few paid speaking gigs, plus I had some savings, so it was just enough to keep me from accepting one of the offers I’d been getting of a full time job at another Japanese film production company.

At the end of the year Tsuburaya Productions bought me a plane ticket to Tokyo and put me up in a hotel there for a couple days so I could have a meeting with them. At that meeting they offered me a much better position than I’d had before with them at a much higher salary. The only catch was I’d have to move back to Tokyo.

I didn’t like LA all that much back then (I do now) and I loved Tokyo. I’d been struggling financially and didn’t know if I could ever make enough to support myself on the meager earnings from my books and the tiny bits of dana (donations) I got when leading retreats.

Yet some little voice in the back of my head told me that even though the sensible choice was to accept Tsuburaya’s offer, that wasn’t really what I ought to do. After much deliberation I politely declined the job offer. Ever since then I’ve been a lot poorer, but a lot happier.

That’s just one example, and it happens to be one that’s fairly easy to articulate and easy for others to understand. There have been countless other examples that would be much harder to explain, yet fundamentally much more important.

The point is it wasn’t that meditation magically reduced my stress levels. It’s that meditation allowed me to see how much of my stress was caused by working the way I had been when I was at Tsuburaya Productions. It allowed me to see that making a lot less money and working a hell of a lot harder for it was actually the more sensible choice.

Now maybe I’d have been able to see that even without daily zazen practice. It’s the other, less easy to articulate things that I know for sure I would not have been able to see without the practice. Many of these are very private matters or just really hard to talk about in public. But there have been countless little and big things I noticed about my regular life off the cushion that needed to be changed. Many times this meant radically revising my habitual ways of doing stuff. Quite frankly, it has often made me into even more of a weirdo than I was before I started meditating. But I’ve been happier because of it.

So, while there are what one could call “direct benefits” of meditation practice that come about simply from the very act of sitting down and shutting up for a set period each day, a huge amount of the benefit of meditation comes from the way the practice allows you to see things you need to work on outside of your practice.

Sometimes just seeing this stuff can be stressful. You’ll notice problems you didn’t even realize you had. Or you’ll notice there are things you do that nobody would ever label as “problematic” that you have to alter or stop doing altogether. But the good thing is that the practice often allows you to have the confidence necessary to be better able to do what needs doing.

That part, I’ll admit, is sort of magical.

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February 3, 2016 Ventura, California Ventura College

February 28, 2016 Houston, Texas Houston Zen Center

March 5, 2016 Austin, Texas Austin Zen Center

March 18-20, 2016 Mt. Baldy, California SPRING ZEN& YOGA RETREAT

March 25, 2016 Venice, California Mystic Journey Bookstore 7:00pm

April 22, 2016 New York, New York Interdependence Project

April 23, 2016 Long Island, New York Molloy College “Spring Awakening 2016”

October 23-28, 2016 Benediktushof Meditation Centrum (near Würzburg, Germany) 5-Day Retreat


Every Monday at 8pm there’s zazen at Silverlake Yoga Studio 2 located at 2810 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Beginners only!

Every Saturday at 10:00 am (NEW TIME!) there’s zazen at the Veteran’s Memorial Complex located at 4117 Overland Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230. Beginners only!

Plenty more info is available on the Dogen Sangha Los Angeles website,

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One of the main ways I make money now that Tsuburaya Productions doesn’t pay me is through your donations to this blog. I won’t get any of the recent Angel City Zen Center fundraiser money. I appreciate your on-going support!

21 Responses

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  1. Fred Jr.
    Fred Jr. January 25, 2016 at 1:08 pm |


  2. Dogen
    Dogen January 25, 2016 at 2:08 pm |

    They say unexamined life not worth living. So study self and be enlightened by 10,000 depressing things.

  3. minkfoot
    minkfoot January 25, 2016 at 4:34 pm |

    I’m glad to see a model actually in full lotus. Now, if only she would get a zafu and get her left knee down . . .

    I was catching up on filling in the holes in my Firefly experience. Episode 9 of season 1 had barely begun when I came across this bit of dialogue:

    (assembling his gun)
    What’s the point of coming to the Core
    if I can’t even step off the boat?

    You could have got off with Shepherd
    Book at the Bathgate Abbey. Could
    have been meditating on the wonders of
    your rock garden by now.

    Well it beats just sitting.

    It is just sitting.

    Is this an easter egg from Whedon? Or just coincidence?
    It seemed kinda obvious . . .

  4. minkfoot
    minkfoot January 25, 2016 at 4:43 pm |

    Well, it is magic. And it’s like LSD. And it also isn’t.

    It’s like Joss Whedon said:

    The Onion: Is there a God?
    Whedon: No.
    The Onion: That’s it, end of story, no?
    Whedon: Absolutely not. That’s a very important and necessary thing to learn.

  5. Wedged
    Wedged January 25, 2016 at 5:45 pm |

    what if though…all the things that Zazen shows us could be easily pointed by a psychiatrist in 6 months rather than spending 6 years painstakingly misinterpreting one insight after another? Mediation good for the other stuff too but should it be meditation and therapy? I’ve been confused on this point for months.

    1. The Grand Canyon
      The Grand Canyon January 26, 2016 at 4:58 am |

      Why choose one and reject the other? Why not use both meditation and psychotherapy (and philosophy, and exercise, and diet, and art, etc.) to supplement each other?
      Suggested reading.

      1. Wedged
        Wedged January 26, 2016 at 7:07 pm |

        ya that’s sort of where i landed…i was very confused and maybe still am, but clarity on the subject is slowly coming. I was so 100% sure in Zen and mainly zazen that i snubbed anything else. all Buddhist books talk about suffering, confusion…the need to go through that ring of fire as part of the path. So when therapy was suggested i didn’t get it. nothing in Buddhism then or now suggests therapy, Brad above in the comments says it’s 2 different things. my suffering is on par with normal suffering, it’s the first noble truth. The 2nd isn’t “seek therapy”…the whole means to get out of suffering is the 4 noble truths and the 8 fold path and therapy isn’t mentioned, of course it didn’t exist but to add it now is like changing the constitution. “well, Buddha didn’t say we should own a gun, but guns weren’t invented and if they were…he’d say own a gun and it would be a 9 fold path”. if i push too much, people get pissed off…yet, can’t really give me a clear answer. my own conclusion is it’s helping me see Buddhism as a tool, not the truth – which it never claimed to be, but i still saw it that way and everything else was wrong. Jung has helped me understand the old “finger pointing to the moon” . He helped me untie a few mental knots really quickly and helped me deepen my understanding of Buddhism pretty quickly too. Anyway, time shall see. Between Brad and getting to read feedback in the comments section, so appreciated…I mean, this blog is the shit.

    2. ichabod801
      ichabod801 January 26, 2016 at 6:28 am |

      I’ve been in a lot of therapy, with a lot of therapists, good and bad. I’ve gotten far more out of Zen than I ever got out of therapy. It’s actually made me really suspicious of therapists.

      One of the disturbing realizations I got out of Zen instead of therapy was that I was making myself be depressed because I wanted to be depressed. That one wrapped my brain into a pretzel.

  6. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote January 25, 2016 at 9:49 pm |

    You’re sure you wouldn’t have been happy in Japan, Brad? Maybe you could have been a married salaryman, again. You know, they say Zen ruins your life…

    I’d like to offer for your consideration and that of any other fun-loving souls here on the hardcore site, what I hope will be my final response to Jiryu Mark Rutschman-Byler’s short-story that begins:

    ‘”Shikantaza not here,” he insisted in elementary English, pointing to his head. “Not here,” he continued, pointing to his heart. “Only point here!” He drove his fist into his lower belly, the energy center that the Japanese call hara.’

    Shikantaza and Gautama the Buddha’s “Pleasant Way of Living”

    As I recall from “Thank You and OK!”, David C. also got a demonstration from his teacher, who raised up a fist with the thumb down and then plunged it to his hara (the teacher’s, not David’s).

    I can’t keep up with the Joneses, on a zafu. But I’m having fun, just like you said, Brad.

    1. Fred
      Fred January 26, 2016 at 7:06 am |

      “Mindfulness, the practice of sitting still and focusing on your breath and thoughts, has surged in popularity over the last few years, with a boom in apps, online courses, books and articles extolling its virtues. It can be done alone or with a guide (digital or human), and with so much hand-wringing about our frenetic, time-poor lifestyles and information overload, it seems to offer a wholesome solution: a quiet port in the storm and an opportunity for self-examination”

      Brad, is the mindfulness referred to in the article actually meditation, or the type of meditation in Soto Zen? If there is meditation in just sitting.

      Anyone can call anything meditation.

  7. Shinchan Ohara
    Shinchan Ohara January 26, 2016 at 8:14 am |

    McMindfulness making you sick? Forgive it with McHo’oponopono

  8. Michel
    Michel January 26, 2016 at 1:35 pm |

    Actually, this is, once again, a problem of vocabulary. Meditation really means, stopping and REFLECTING upon something, a theme, an idea or a problem.

    Which is obviously NOT what is taught in Zen.

    In reality, we ought to use the word “contemplation” which better corresponds with Dhyâna.

    However, it is rather difficult (if not outright impossible) to change language bad habits.

  9. rjmungall
    rjmungall January 26, 2016 at 7:51 pm |


    One reason I really appreciate your blog is your consistent critique of meditation as a modern quick fix used to assert “control” over symptoms, and I understand that you often use these articles simply as jumping off points to more interesting ideas. I’ll do the same by pointing out something I believe your reading of that quote misses: the ideological framework in which it is made. I would claim that in reality it doesn’t really matter if meditation works or not, just like it doesn’t matter if CBT or anti-depressants work or not (neither do, and for those interested there are plenty of resources that can demonstrate this but this isn’t the place for that argument). Ideologically, in the dynamics of our culture, these programs work not to help people but to multiply the ways in which the blame and responsibility for the “collateral damage” of industrial capitalism can be shifted to the individual. This is the key point.

    For instance, let’s take a biological example. 5% of women experience really intense periods, now clinically called premenstrual dysphoric disorder. This creates often incapacitating pain, fatigue and irritability. My girlfriend has this and for 7-14 days a month she’s a total wreck. Now, before modern birth control was invented – the only treatment available – she may have received more compassion and support (depending on the historical time/place, of course). But now that there is a “treatment” available, it is virtually required that she take it – if she wants to keep a job – regardless of the side effects (of which there are many serious ones) for taking a drug that plays with the incomprehensibly complex hormonal system of a human being in ways that likely do long term, lasting damage – all in order to alleviate painful symptoms so that she can maintain a highly productive, uninterrupted role to fill the heartless and relentless needs of capitalist production. There is this basic, unconscious gut feeling in our culture that she has no excuse, she needs to take the pills and that’s it.

    Now, for the person psychologically distressed by capitalism – a imminently normal human response to inhuman working conditions (whether the factory or the cubical), stresses which have been pathologized into 300+ “disorders” in the newest round of DSM mind control – this person now has many ways to “deal” with “their” stress: therapy, anti-depressants, gym memberships, and now the co-option of eastern practices, stripped of all spiritual, philosophical, and cultural meaning to be used as ideological tools for corporate and military America. Of course we’ll skip over the easy critique that hidden within this, when one punches out one is still obligated to continue work, on their stress.. But again, the main point is that it really doesn’t matter if these stress-reduction techniques work or not, because in the highly efficient externalizing machine of capitalism, whether it is environmental destruction, the colonization of 3rd world peoples, or American psychological distress, capitalism’s response is the same: “That’s not my problem, it’s YOUR problem.” If we don’t want to use all means available to stay at work, no matter how much time they take outside of work, no matter how destructive they might be to our biology or psyche, well, that’s our fault, because we’ll get fired and there will be no legal recourse.. There is only one unwritten rule: never blame capitalism itself. So go meditate.

    In the early 20th century this excess stress did not have a band-aid solution or an individualized excuse like those mentioned above to draw on. Instead this radical energy led to the dawn of the labor movements, unionization, etc. People recognized over 100 years ago that the socioeconomic system was a major factor in their misery and worked together, rather than individual and alone, to address that. And it WORKED. Today the labor movement is nearly dead and 1/5 of adults (not to mention a terrifying 1/13 of children) are being medicated, and this is only rising. We can better understand this as the coerced numbing of 20% of the population which would otherwise have no choice but to become radicalized in their intolerable distress. Today, in contrast to the labor movement, this angst is not directed outwards towards oppressive hierarchical organizations but inwards towards a reinforcement in a belief of the self’s inadequacy: it’s inability to “properly” tolerate perpetual and high levels of stress (which, of course, we did not evolve to handle at all). In reality, those who ask their employees to meditate neither understand, nor care, what meditation really is, it’s just another reason the employee can’t complain about how they feel. So I claim that we should stop reading the CONTENT of these admonishments to meditate our short term stress away and start to see the social ideological manipulations that it accomplishes.

    At the same time, when I express my sadness at this situation, my zen teacher holds out hope that, with corporate America pushing all this, people will ACCIDENTALLY discover the liberatory potential of meditation, and as their illusions about the world begin to dissolve, so too their beliefs in this socially constructed system of global exploitation.. And to come back to the beginning, this is exactly what your insistence on an authentic, non-goal-oriented practice hopefully accomplishes in this barren ideological landscape. We need to wake up in many ways.

    1. french-roast
      french-roast January 27, 2016 at 12:53 am |

      Oh boy, you are so funny, I hope for you own mental stability that you do not believe to strongly in all the poops you are writing.

      Maybe it is because I completed Fred jr. process that resulted in my directly seeing all that as complete crap.

      1. Le Petit Canyon
        Le Petit Canyon January 27, 2016 at 3:47 am |

        Je vous remercie de votre existence 🙂

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