Before I start, my very first on-line retreat at Tricycle.com is going on right now. Check it out!
Several people, including the lovely Whitney, have forwarded me different versions of an article that says we’d rather administer electric shocks to ourselves than sit quietly with our own thoughts. The first one I saw was from the Boston Globe but the one from i09.com is a bit more detailed.
The articles say pretty much the same thing since they’re all drawn from the same Science Magazine article. We’d rather do pretty much anything in the world than be alone with our own thoughts for a while. When test subjects were given a device that delivered painful electric shocks, they chose to zap themselves rather than sit quietly without any outside stimulation.
The article says that Timothy Wilson, the University of Virginia psychology professor who led the study, ”wonders whether people who regularly meditate will rate the experience differently.” I’d be interested to see that too. I’ve spent seven days at a time with nothing to entertain me but my own brain farts, and I also do it for an hour a day every day of the week, so I’m pretty sure I could go 15 minutes without zapping myself. But who knows how others will react?
This study shows just how hard it is to really meditate. Like for realsies, with nobody talking you through it, no mantra to repeat to yourself, no pretty pictures to stare at, no goal to achieve, no silly questions to ponder so you can try to impress some old guy in golden robes with your answer…
The researchers don’t know it, but this is a study about shikantza, or “just sitting” meditation practice the way we do it in the style Dogen brought back from China. The researchers’ knowledge of the varieties of meditation probably won’t be sophisticated enough for them to make that distinction. I doubt they’ll realize there are plenty of dodges available for people who want to look like they’re facing themselves when really they’re just finding more subtle forms of distraction.
I don’t think most people — even when they have advanced degrees in psychology and stuff — really understand just how difficult it can be to really remain quietly alone with yourself. It takes a lot of effort. The more mystical among us might posit that the existence of the entire Universe is what happens when God has to try to be alone with his own thoughts for a while. Even he can’t do it!
On our own human level we can see that we’ll do all sorts of horrible things just to distract ourselves from seeing what we really are. We’ll fight wars. We’ll carry firearms around in shopping malls. We’ll eat Big Macs and tell ourselves they’re really good. We’ll go to the most extraordinary lengths just to avoid having to look at who and what we actually are.
The irony of all this is that when you make the effort to actually look at yourself what you inevitably find at the very core of your being is unspeakably beautiful. Of course, in order to get to this point you have to sift through a lot of awful smelly garbage and ugly unpleasantness. But it’s worth the effort.
I hope some people out there who have been discouraged with their initial forays into meditation practice will read this article and see its implications. It’s scientific evidence that meditation is hard work. I think a lot of people go into it expecting meditation to be easy-breezy. It’s just sitting still, after all. Anybody should be able to do that!
But sitting still is hard work. It was just as hard for Buddha and Bodhidharma and Dogen and the Dalai Lama and Thich Naht Hanh as it is for you. I put a video about being still at the bottom, which proves everything.
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Thanks for your support! Like I keep saying, I’m deeply into a new book about Dogen which is taking up all my time. As a result I haven’t been touring lately and haven’t been making any money at all. Your contributions really help!
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Here’s my upcoming touring schedule:
Aug. 2 9:30 AM – 3:30 PM All Day Zazen at Angel City Zen Center Los Angeles 4117 Overland Blvd. Culver City, CA 90230
Aug. 16 I’ll host a screening of the movie Zen, about the life of Dogen, in Los Angeles
Sept. 5-7 Houston Zen Center (The folks from Austin have vanished! So I’ll probably just go back home after this gig)
Oct. 3-5 Helsinki, Finland all events to be determined
Oct. 6 Movie Screening in Espoo, Finland
Oct. 8 Lecture in Munich, Germany
Oct. 9-11 Retreat in Munich, Germany
Oct. 12-17 Retreat at Benediktushof near Würzburg, Germany
Oct 18-19 Retreat in Bonn, Germany
Oct 20 Hamburg, Germany
Oct 24: Lecture in Groningen, Netherlands
Oct 25: Day-long zazen in Groningen, Netherlands
Oct 26: Lecture in Eindhoven, Netherlands
Oct 27: Evening zazen in Eindhoven, Netherlands
Oct 28: Evening zazen in Nijmegen, Netherlands
Oct 29: Lecture in Rotterdam, Netherlands
Oct 30: Lecture in Amsterdam, Netherlands
Oct 31: Movie screening in Utrecht, Netherlands
Nov 1-2: Retreat in Utrecht, Netherlands
Nov 4-6 (or 3-5 possibly) Retreat in Hebden Bridge, UK
Nov 7-8 Something in Manchester, UK (to be determined)