The Pursuit of Emptiness

A couple weeks ago, I began attending beginning meditation classes at the local Zen Buddhist temple. I did this in large part because I'm getting to a point in Karate where I realize that I need more focus, and that focus needs to come from inside; from meditation. We meditate at the beginning and end of Karate class, for a minute (more or less), but it's not enough. So I decided to check out the Zen Center.

Zen meditation seemed like a good choice for a number of reasons. For one, Karate was originally developed by Zen Buddhist monks, and it seemed worthwhile to explore the roots of my martial arts tradition. For another, Zen Buddhism - at least the variant practiced at the Austin Zen Center - is very nonprescriptive when it comes to belief. It is, as was explained to us at the beginners' class, a meditation practice, not a religion. I'm wary of organized religion (and, perhaps, of religion generally), and so the fact that they weren't about to tell me what to believe was a big selling point.

So what is the Zen meditation practice? Well, I'm no expert; I've had a few beginning classes and been to a couple lectures. But here's what it looks like from where I stand. Zen meditation is an attempt not only to clear the mind of thought, but also - ultimately - to break down the boundaries between the self and the rest of the world. Fascinatingly, I've been reading some postcolonial theory that calls for exactly the same thing.

According to psychoanalysis, our very conception of who we are begins at the moment when a child realizes, "That person is not me." (This happens so early that it's not verbal, but for the sake of explanation, let's pretend that the baby thinks in proper English.) So the division between self ("me") and other ("not me") is at the root of our identity.

This division between self and other is not only at the root of the individual, but it's also an essential component of culture, made up as it is of these individuals. (Now, the question I've asked, and which I haven't found an answer to, is whether this is true in all cultures. Most psychoanalysts have focused on a very limited cultural range, and so I believe it's possible that there are or have been cultures where this process happens differently or perhaps doesn't happen at all.)

In any case, the stuff I've been reading suggests - as have many others - that this division between self and other is also one of the roots of colonialism, racism, sexism, and so forth. Because the self, in fact, needs an other in order to be the self - that is, the baby can only recognize "I am me" by seeing that "that person is not me." The negative precedes the positive. And the same, eventually, goes for society. "England" is England only because it finds, in its colonies, places that are other, places it can define itself against. "White people" did not exist until there were other types of people to be defined against.

And so some very smart and radical people have suggested that perhaps in order to change these negative patterns, we need to consider breaking down the self, becoming less attached to the notion of "I," of "me," and becoming instead conscious of "others" as a part of ourselves, ourselves as part of others. That is, breaking down the division between self and other. It's something that's incredibly difficult even to imagine, but it's an important idea.

And that's what you're supposed to be working toward in Zen meditation, too. The teacher explained that Zen meditation is a practice of awareness; you're not trying to step out of the world, you're trying to be wholly in it. For that reason, we meditate with our eyes half open, looking out at middle distance. ("And," the teacher added, as we sat there at 8:30 on a Saturday morning, "having your eyes open also makes it harder to fall asleep!")

And the meditation period at this temple is forty minutes. I have no idea if it's like that everywhere, and they also have times when you can meditate for longer. Right now, forty minutes seems like plenty, because this meditation is not an easy thing. Try not having thoughts for thirty seconds. Yeah, right. Now try it for forty minutes… They've taught us to focus on counting our breaths, clearing our minds of everything else. You go back to "One" every time you have a thought. It helps, but so far, I've only ever gotten to five. (See sidebar…)

But I can tell that even the attempt to clear my mind - that's where this meditation practice really begins - is powerful. I walk out of there more focused, feeling awake even though I woke up at 7:30 on a Saturday, more mindful of the world around me.

The trick, of course, is to somehow understand the purpose of the meditation without actually thinking about it when you meditate. Clearing your mind of all thought eventually makes you open to the world in a different way; it's a key step in breaking down the barrier between self and other.

And I figure it's worth a try. (And as the sidebar shows, right now, try is the operative word!)

 


18. September 2002

 

Meditation:
What actually happens.

Breathe in. Breathe out. One.

Am I supposed to be counting just exhales, or do I count inhales and exhales? Hm. I don't know.

Shoot. That was a thought.

Breathe in. One. Breathe out. Two.

That feels wrong. I think I should probably be just counting … damn, that's a thought. Stop thinking!

One… Two…

This position is kinda uncomfortable. I wonder if it's going to bug the person next to me if I shift. OK, ok fine, I'm thinking, but geez, I need to figure this out. I think if I just change a little, I'll be fine.

OK, ok, much better. Now I can focus.

One…

Ooh, I need to remember to tell my students about the new due date.

One…
Two…
Three…

Check it out! I got to three! Aw crap… that's a thought.

One…

I wonder if the other new people are having trouble meditating? Will anyone notice if I turn my head to look at them?

Probably. Um, brain? Shut up.

One…
Two…

Maybe it would be easier if I counted in German.

Eins…
Zwei…

Yeah, my dad said that you could tell someone's real native language by how they count. Interesting. I wonder…

Eh. Shut up.

Eins…
Zwei…
Drei…

It's kinda cold in here.

Eins…

Man, I miss Berlin.

Eins…

Geez, I wonder how my friends in Berlin are. I should call them.

OK. Maybe counting in German is not such a hot idea after all.

One…
Two…
Three…

My foot hurts. I need to shift again.

One…

I wonder if it's really possible to just not think. I don't know.

One…

Two…

Counting is kind of thinking, isn't it?

Oh, shut up.

One…
Two…

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