A Meditation on Meditation

Co-authored by Prof. Dave Briggs

A long time ago in a living room far, far away…

Meditation is present in a lot of areas of my life. This is no accident since it is such an integral part of my existence. I practice meditation routinely the way most people brush their teeth. It is part of my preparation before I paint or write Japanese calligraphy. It is one of the reasons I chose to study taijiquan (tai chi chuan) as a martial art. Hell, I even practice standing meditation when I’m waiting in line at the register to buy groceries. And if you ask me why it has become such a big part of my life, the answer might surprise you. Sure, it calms the mind, relieves stress, promotes good health… all that good stuff. But none of those would be my answer. No, I would very matter-of-factly say, “I’m battling demons.”

When I considered writing this article, I thought about the moment I first became interested in the practice of meditation. In fact, looking back on it, I could trace it to the year 1980 when I saw The Empire Strikes Back for the first time in the theater. Luke Skywalker was one of my childhood heroes, and meditation was part of the training Yoda provided to him on his path to becoming a Jedi. I wanted to be a Jedi. Jedi are cool… but I digress, thus began my interest in meditation.

I started out by picking the right place. It was the living room of my parents’ house; a space that we rarely used. So, I was almost guaranteed to be alone and without interruptions. There was an old, comfortable easy chair in the corner, and that became the spot for my sessions. My first attempts were simple: just sit, relax and clear my mind. Or so I thought. Turns out clearing my mind is not so easy. Actually, it’s downright frustrating. But I kept at it and eventually moved on to guided meditation. I reasoned that if I wasn’t able to shut off my mind, then let me give it something to think about that was useful to the process. So, it was all the imagine an orange, healing ball of light stuff. That seemed to work better, but I still didn’t feel like I was on my way to becoming a Jedi. Keep in mind, I was eight years old.

As I got older, the practice of meditation caught on in the U.S., and I became more educated on the subject. I started trying other methods like deep breathing which is focusing on breathing slowly into your belly instead of your lungs. That led to box breathing; a method used by the Navy Seals. While these methods did improve my ability to focus my mind on the present for a longer period of time, I still found it difficult to shut off the random thoughts entirely. Even worse, was that my ego turned this struggle against me because I reasoned that I must not be very good at meditation. Things changed when I learned about mindfulness meditation, and realized it wasn’t about clearing my mind. Instead, the idea was to acknowledge thoughts that arise naturally before letting them go. This seemed to work well for me, and I was able to go deeper with my meditation sessions. And that is when things got weird.

There’s an app for that

Ensō – meaning circular form
An ensō is the spiritual practice in Zen Buddhism of drawing a circle in one fluid, expressive stroke. It is a visual representation of the artist’s character and state of mind.

Historically, meditation has been seen as a means of self-realization: to directly confront one’s inner conflicts, wrestling with them until they are quiet and permanently disarmed. A dismantling of the ego. In the stillness of meditation, one can deeply feel in the body and breath the structures that cause anxiety and are repressed, revealing them clearly. This can be eminently painful, yet ultimately a chance to relieve them of their power.

We’re a society supposedly hyper-focused on acknowledging the feelings of the individual, yet we have found all kinds of ways to avoid experiencing the feelings that make us uncomfortable. So much of our lives revolve around escapism and avoidance. This is understandable. It’s like going to the dentist. No one enjoys having a tooth drilled, but at some point, it is a necessary evil as opposed to living with a rotting, painful cavity. And if we truly do care about acknowledging feelings, then shouldn’t that include all of them, both the good and the bad. Isn’t that the end game, increasing our capacity to experience the complete spectrum of what it means to feel human?

However, the popularization of meditation has led to the notion that it is a feel-good measure. Like a drug, it can alleviate anxiety and increase performance. Methods such as the visualization of a ‘happy place’ or the use of soothing music are indeed valid methods for achieving some of these goals. Still, as with most eastern practices, meditation in the U.S. became a bastardized version of itself. Just one more in a long list of escape methods for people seeking the path of least resistance to happiness. A distorted message probably cooked up in a boardroom by marketing geniuses.

Take meditation apps for example. Yes, there’s an app for that! Headspace, the one with the orange circle, happy face logo. Their slogan is ‘Live a healthier, happier, more well-rested life in just a few minutes a day with the Headspace app.’ Healthier and happier in just a few minutes. Who wouldn’t want that? Then there is the app that’s actually called Ten Percent Happier. Rather shameless if you ask me. Their slogan is ‘Meditation for a happier, healthier you.’ Again, with the happier and healthier. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that meditation doesn’t make one happy, but the path tends to be long and winding, with many twists and turns. A basic tenet of psychotherapy is that you must ‘see’ your inner structure and feel how they make up your being. This is crucial in order to confront them and ultimately drain them of their hold on your posture, breath, and energy. Not a pill to relieve symptoms, but a tool to deal with the root causes. I guess the marketing geniuses didn’t think that would sit well (no pun intended) with a U.S. audience raised on instant gratification and safe spaces.

In short, it is not so much how you ‘should feel’, as in a happy pill, but more about how you ‘do feel’ in its naked form.

I have met the enemy, and he is… me

Maintaining a calm heart is a way of art.
Translation "Maintaining a calm heart is a way of art."

The Buddha once said, “Greater in battle than the man who would conquer a thousand men, is he who would conquer just one — himself. My path to conquer myself led me to study taijiquan, one of the three internal martial arts from China. Part of that study involves standing meditation, a qigong exercise. For this meditation you hold a relaxed posture with arms outstretched, as if you were hugging an imaginary person. You then continue to simultaneously relax all the muscles of your body as much as possible while keeping your structure extended – balancing somewhere between being completely limp and completely rigid. The purpose is to dial into a deeper level of sensitivity. During these meditation sessions, I have experienced everything from uncontrollable weeping to trembling anxiety that left my torso covered in hives.

This was my experience with what the Japanese call makyō, a term which means "realm of demons and monsters." It refers to the self-delusion and distracting thoughts that can occur during meditation practice. According to the history of Zen, monks in Japan sometimes suffer from 'Makyō' and develop 'Zen-byo', or Zen illness. They cannot always tolerate the severity of having to face the sudden release of unconscious material, and in some cases, this can even prove fatal.

We even see this in the aforementioned reference to The Empire Strikes Back. For those of you living in isolation for the past forty some odd years, I feel obligated to say this, SPOILER ALERT. Luke has two incidents during his meditation sessions on Degobah; one where he hallucinates that he is fighting Darth Vader and sees himself in the vanquished Vader’s helmet. And then another where he has a disturbing vision of his friends in pain. Obviously, these scenes were meant to foreshadow later events and move the plot along. However, I also think they were meant to show Luke’s inner struggle with his demons. And when he had these experiences, he didn’t deal with them by lighting up a Degobah doobie and getting high with Yoda. As entertaining as that may have been, it would not have provided him with an opportunity to learn from his struggles and grow as a Jedi.

As I learned with my early attempts, the ego is not one to surrender quietly or to go down without a fight. From the moment I would begin, thoughts start to flood my mind. “What’s on my ‘To-Do’ list today? Did I leave the stove on? Is there a large, hairy, black spider trying to find shelter under my leg (no kidding, that actually happened once)? Do I smell something burning and what was that noise? Shouldn’t I be painting? Am I good enough to create something that people will like? Am I good enough to make it as an artist, or am I just mimicking what others have done before me? What is so unique about my work? Maybe those kids in first grade, the ones who criticized my whale drawing were right. Maybe I’m not that talented or creative.” Suddenly these random thoughts from the depths of my mind have materialized into very real demons. And they have dropped the gauntlet. War drums are sounding off in the distance, and things are about to get ugly.

And, if I manage to win this battle, where does that leave me? Do I suddenly find myself full of confidence and assurance? Have I reached the promised land? No. I’m still on the battlefield, surrounded by the bodies of my demons. Alone. Exposed, with nothing to cling to anymore. No more excuses and nothing to hide behind. This is the nature of true meditation. Not a quick fix pill, but a long, arduous war with an enemy who has a thousand eyes and a thousand ears. An enemy who is intimately acquainted with you — all of your strengths and all of your weaknesses, and knows how to exploit them for its own gain.

Therefore, we have to redefine mindfulness as more than feeling good, and instead see it as having the capacity to experience the full spectrum of what it means to be human, all feelings – good, bad, and ugly. Without it, people’s fears, hurts, losses and abuse become an identity for them. With mindfulness, one can learn to be less reactive, so that we can make better choices each day.

So where does that leave us. Well, I’d like to relate a story as told to Dr. John Painter by Lama Trangu Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist monk. At the end of a day-long meditation workshop, someone in attendance posed this question to Lama Trangu. They asked, “What is meditation?” The Lama paused a moment to consider the question, then chuckled to himself before giving this answer. He said, “Meditation is sitting still until you bore the hell out of yourself.” So, I’ll leave you now to contemplate that little nugget of sage wisdom. Meanwhile, I’ll be off battling demons.

Prof. Dave Briggs is a fifty-year practitioner of Asian martial arts.

Ink and Brush Arts