Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Meditation, beginning and beyond

Les Johnson

If you break open a cherry tree
where are the blossoms?
Just wait for spring time
and see how they bloom

Meditation is a practice of, and the development of, our ability to pay attention and be aware. From its practice we dispel the social conventions and the social mystique that shape our perceptions of our world and of ourselves. We become more centred; more attentive to the here and now; more attuned to our connections. We have a happier disposition and enhanced abilities to cope.

The most important thing is to approach meditation with the right attitude, which is to be open to the experiences of the present moment. This openness to experiences of the moment is all you need to start and continue with Zen meditation. You are not required to have any prior beliefs or come to believe anything subsequently. The experiences are all you need to write your own story. This guide is to get you started. It gives only the basics but nothing more is needed.


In the Soto Zen tradition we train our attention not by stifling 'distractions' but by the gentle act of returning again and again to the focus of our attention in the here and now. We simply acknowledge the intrusive thought, feeling, image or emotion and let it be. We don't try to change it in any way and we don't go along with it. We let it be and let it go by. We are like a person working at a desk whose attention is caught by someone walking outside across the street and we simply note who they are and return our attention to what is on our desk. We do not engage with the person. We simply let them be, and let them go by. We don't judge them positively or negatively or in any other way. Similarly, we don't praise or blame ourselves for them walking by. They are what they are. We let them be without any kind of evaluative judgement.


First time

Before you start the practice of meditating you may benefit from finding your "still point", locating your diaphragm, and scanning your spine. You need do these once only.
Stand up straight, arms hanging loose, feet two firsts apart, head looking straight ahead
Two or three fingers below your naval you will be able to detect your still point. Feel for it. It isn't a physical feature of your belly: it is your centre of gravity for your body. When you think you have found it, you have. Now, with the back of your hand feel up and down your lower back. There is a gentle curve inwards. This is how your back should be when sitting.

Now hold your breath. Just after you stop breathing you will feel a slight contraction of the muscle that runs right across your torso three or four fingers above your navel. You will feel the contraction at the front. This is your diaphragm.

Mind set

Perhaps the best start to a meditation is to acquire a particular mental set. As though you are a visitor to the place where you are planning to meditate. You don't own it or have any responsibilities for it. You don't have to think about tidying up, repairs, or anything else. You are in no hurry - even if you only have ten minutes for a quick meditation. You might imagine that you are the only passenger on a long-haul flight. You have no fear of flying and no practical concerns; everything is taken care of, you have no responsibilities. Your two heavy suitcases of past concerns and future expectations are in the hold. So, after carrying them yourself for quite a while, this provides a double liberation: from the weight of the past and the fear of the future. Unburdened, you decide that the only thing you want to do is sit and be still.

Body set

We sit in a relaxed but upright, straight, posture that gives a gentle curve to the lower back, as though we were standing. In this posture, there are no constrictions that inhibit our breathing. We use a chair or stool, or sit in a yoga position. If we sit on a chair we plant our feet on the floor, shoulder width; ideally, our thighs slope down slightly and we might add a cushion to sit on. We don't rest our back on any support. Swaying back and forth and then side to side, in gradually smaller arcs, stretches the hips and lower back and help us to locate an upright posture. When straight, we stretch our spine up, and, as we relax down, we stack one vertebra on top of the other.

Our hands rest on our lap with the back of the fingers of our more passive hand resting on the fingers of our active hand palm up. We touch thumbs at the tips. We tilt our head down as though reading a book. Our eyes are lidded but not closed (look at the floor two or three feet in front of you without focusing your eyes).

As we settle our body, we completely squeeze out a breath through our mouth and then breath in and out once deeply. From then on, we breath in and out through the nose with the mouth closed and the tip of our tongue resting broadly and lightly on the roof of our mouth, just behind the top teeth (this prevents our mouths from drying or drooling).

Our preliminaries seems a little complicated but they are part of the meditation and are a lot easier to do than driving a car and you don't have to pass a driving test. So, don't get too hung up on doing everything right. No one is watching you or judging you, including you!


Calming Meditation

The meditative state is stillness itself. But, no matter how still you become your breathing continues, even if very very shallowly. So, we start from that constant - breathing - and move towards a deep stillness.


We breathe in though the nose (tongue resting lightly on the roof of our mouth) by pulling our breath down to our still point and holding it there a flash. Then we push the breath out from the still point to our nose by gently contracting our belly. Of course, the air actually goes no further than our lungs but by the physical acts and imaginative effort we help our breathing to be regulated by the right muscles in the belly. Our belly rather than our chest goes up and down. We keep the chest as still as possible.
We pay attention our breathing. For example, we 'track' the in breath in three places: the nose, the chest (even though it is still), and the belly as we pull the breath down to the still spot. If you pull your breath down to the still point, your belly is raised and is ready to contract and push the breath out.

Paying attention to the sensations at these three points helps you find a rocking chair rhythm and feel. When you have an easy, gentle, rhythm, focus your attention a little more narrowly to your belly raising and falling. Take a little longer in the out breath. Squeeze steadily. Let the raising and falling be your focus. Belly rising. Belly falling. Beginners can even say these words a few times silently while breathing. Let the rhythm of your breathing settle. There is no need to control its rate; your body will find the rate it requires. Follow your breath.

Quick body scan

The next phase of our calming meditation is to quickly scan our body from head to foot, inside and out: is there a sensation? If we find there is a spot of tension, we soften that spot. 

If there are stronger sensations such as pain, we don't try to numb them or avoid them, we let them be what they are and go where they must. We ask: Size? Weight? Shape? Texture? Temperature? If a sensation doesn’t have these features, we ask can conceive of it in those ways?

Just This

When we have finished our quick body scan, we feel our whole body expand very very very slightly as we breath in and as we feel it shrink back as we breath out. We feel embodied, integrated, and alive. But, the emphasis is not thinking these things as "self-talk"; the emphasis is on the awareness of sensation. A shadow of a smile is felt at the corners of the eyes.

To consolidate, you can say the following silently: Belly rising: "I smile", Belly falling: "I relax", Belly rising: "Just", Belly falling: "This".


Keeping awareness of your breathing and your body, feel the space above and around you. Feel the floor where you are sat. Go under the floor and down to the earth. Expand your awareness to include "feeling" the room you are in - we sort of glow. 

Keep awareness of your breath, body, and place going together for a while.

Expanding more

We expand our awareness to include our surrounding. Hear the faint sounds in the distance. We acknowledge them but don't dwell on them.  Feel the contours and shapes of the land and buildings. Feel part of it.

There is no need to keep on expanding, but you could expand to local, city, region, country, and the world. It's up to you. It's unlikely you will find the time to do all this in your short beginning sessions.

Acknowledging and labelling

At any point in a meditation, your mind may wander. Simply acknowledge the thought, feeling, emotion, picture, or sound and gently bring your attention back to your breathing - belly raising; belly falling. Focus on your belly rising and falling and the sensations of breathing until you're steady again. Belly rising. Belly falling. 

The way to acknowledge that you have been wandering, or there is an intrusion, is to label the distraction: "Hearing", "Thinking", "Musing", "Sadness", “TV” and so on. Do not blame or praise yourself.

It is very common to stray and wander and have intrusions. You typically have to return to your focus again and again. You let intrusions be what they are and merely acknowledge them without trying to change them in any way. You let them pass you by and you return to your focus.


1.     With your eyes wide open, stare at the corner of a brick, leaf of a plant, or any other small thing. Stare - do not allow the eyes to move. At the same time stop breathing and concentrate on fixing your object. You are not thinking about the object but using it to stare at. Whilst you hold your breath, you will find that you can prevent thoughts coming into your mind. You may feel something like the stirrings of a thought but that can be kept under control. If you repeat this experiment several times, you will find that you can inhibit even the shadow of a stray thought. You have experienced non- thinking. In meditation, non-thinking isn't becoming brain dead, you are fully aware. Non-thinking is inhibiting dispersed attention and stray or wavering thoughts. It is paying attention - here and now.

2.     You can do the above experiment lying down. Whilst laid down, go on to feel the different muscular  "weights" in belly breathing laid down compared to being sat upright.

Try breathing through your nose using your belly muscles but rounding your shoulders and slouching even a tiny a bit. Now, sit upright with square shoulders. You will find that it's much easier to belly-breath when your posture is straight. The whole point of belly breathing is to breath efficiently; it brings in more oxygen with less effort. Your breath can then become extremely shallow.

3.     Learn to feel the difference between pulling your navel in and squeezing abdominal muscles with your diaphragm in opposition to them. The latter in the way in Zen, the former is the way in yoga. The differences reflect differences in purpose. In Zen, your sole purpose is to be as still as possible. In the first experiment above, the tension in the diaphragm helped to enter into non-thinking. Belly and brain are connected!

Insight Meditation

In Zen, there are two types of meditation. The first type is the calming meditation where we focus on breathing to become still in body and mind. The second type of meditation drops a pebble into this calm pool.  It is always conducted after a period of calming mediation. This type of meditation is called insight meditation where a word, phrase, sentence, poem, emotion, or image is allowed by you to be of interest. You ask: What is it? What does it really mean? What meaning can I give it?
You are not required to drop a pebble in the pool every session. But, when you do so, do it consciously and only do it after at least five, preferably ten, minutes of calming meditation. You can set an interval chime on a timer.

Examining an emotion

One common pebble to drop is an interest in fear. Facing and exploring fear is a powerful means of 'healing' it. Turn your mind to the fear and feel it. What does it actually feel like? Are there sensations? Does it have, or could you give it, a size and shape? Is there an image associated with the fear? After answering these questions, return to an awareness of your breathing/body/place and then repeat the exercise noticing any differences.

Now, focus your mind on the nature of fear. The Buddhist says we are like an artist who paints a picture of a tiger and runs away in fear. Is this so? What is fear? Meditate on the fact that fear can be dispelled through awareness. 

Examining a dialogue

After we have settled into a meditation, we might be aware that a 'big' internal dialogue has started, "What should I do about...” or "I showed them", or "I'm an idiot", or "I have to get better at...” or "I'm really good at...” "I've got so much to do, there's ... ". If so, then you can allow yourself to be interest in that dialogue. You can take that dialogue as the object upon which to focus your attention. Acknowledge the dialogue and acknowledge that you intend to meditate upon it. Then silently: "Are there specific bodily tensions I have as a result of that dialogue?". "Is the breathing more rapid? Is the jaw tense? Is the gut churning? Is the pulse increased?” And, so on. If you have had the dialogue before, ask, "Are these the same observations as the last time I had these thoughts/images/emotions?" After we identify its bodily manifestations we ask, "What does it really mean? What meaning can I give it?"

The process here is exactly the same as any other observation: We don't indulge in the egoist's praise or blame. We don't judge. We observe. The dialogue is what it is and we become aware of it without trying to change it. We stay in the observer's chair.


The observer's chair

At any point in your meditation, if an intrusive thought, image, feeling or emotion occurs you can choose to observe it. Observation is aided by labelling a thought, image, or internal dialogue. But, do not praise or blame. Even labels hide evaluations and so we need to label with care to keep an observational stance. Drain the labels of evaluations, think of them as word tags only: “hearing”, “Wondering”, “sweetheart”, “Tingling”, and “Rehearsing”.

When we take the observer's chair, we are not the observer any more than we are the things observed, nor are we a taskmaster who returns us to the observer's chair: We shouldn't conceive ourselves as fixed in that way. We, each of us, are the set of stories that we tell ourselves; stories that change or transform by themselves with no help from the observer, the observed, or a supervising ego. 


To say it again and in another way: distraction is not frowned upon in Soto Zen because the tolerance of distraction comes from a very deep appreciation of The Way. As the sense of a fixed essential self is said to an illusion there is no separate/deeper/essential/transcendental self/sole that is distracted. Only distraction is happening. Therefore, awareness of distraction is the only meaningful practice of present awareness possible.

Just sitting

It is in the act of imaginative effort that things change. Thinking is an act and like all other acts has Consequences. But, there is no goal that when achieved, means we stop meditation. Even enlightened Buddhas practice meditation daily. Meditation is an expression of who we are and is an act of self-cultivation and care.

When asked what they are doing, Soto masters often say "nothing just sitting". Any other answer would be misleading because it would be misunderstood. In meditation, meditate: sit. As a beginner, you don't want to get too hung up on doing everything right. With more experience and insight, you will understand that such concerns belong to your needy and fearful self and such concerns will drop away.


There is no such thing as a good sitting or a bad sitting. To apply these notions you would have to make a judgement on things already in the past; judgements that encourage either your needy and fearful self or your greedy and grasping self and thereby reframing your next sitting. But, sitting is not approached with expectations, fears, or hopes, based on past sittings. Many meditators do 20 minutes twice a day, every day, as though they were fully aware and yet still a beginner. Monks do several hours each day, every day, as though they were Buddha, and yet as a beginner. We approach sitting with openness to the experiences of the moment as they come. We just sit. Whatever comes is what it is. Be it boredom, joy, irritation, bliss, sadness, happiness, pain, frustration, sound, smell, insight, understanding or any of many things, if it comes, let it be, and let it go. We don't hang on to, or avoid, anything that comes.

Performative perspective

Meditation is commonly conceived to be instrumental. It's purpose to attain a heightened mental state. The great Zen Master, scholar, Abbot, and the second founder of the Soto School, Eihei Dogen, however, took what in modern parlance we would call a performative view of meditation. On this performative view we would say something theoretical like: Meditation is the performative expression of enlightenment and not a means of attaining it.

Just as dancing is not learning steps even if we improve our dancing by dancing, meditation is not learning to meditate and thereby attain enlightenment. We meditate to meditate. Meditation is meditation. Wholeheartedness is more important than 'learning'. The essential point of practice is not seeking something in the future (yes, this appears to contradict my opening quote). The practice brings benefits but these benefits are not to be striven for directly: they are not the objects of doing the mediation. They happen.

Meditation is transformative but practice and enlightenment are the same. Because of this, beginner's practice is the totality of their original enlightenment. Thus, the essential attitude for practice is openness to the experiences of the moment – an expression of awareness.

Deep awareness is not a capacity we acquire at all. It is already in our nature. If it were not in our nature, meditation would be like trying to “polish a tile with a rock to make a mirror”. Meditation is not like this; we are a mirror already (dust free too). Deep awareness is in our nature.


Ritual doesn't have to involve elaborate fancy dress or decor. But, ritual has its place. Ritual does something to practitioners. It shapes them into perceiving the world and understanding themselves through repeated action. It establishes a context for experience in that certain moods, desires, emotions, mental states, and other actions come to the fore.
(Ritual may serve other purposes too.) 

Keeping it going

Daily meditation practice is recommended. But, as a beginner, or to start meditating again after a break, don't over commit. Resolve to re-read this guide each time and meditate or experiment, say three times a week, for two weeks, starting at 200 seconds. When your set time is up, don’t jump up, sit for a while and gather yourself. So, a 200 second meditation, with preparation and gathering yourself at the end, should take about 300 seconds. (Meditation timers, even free ones on your smart phone, allow you to set chimes to mark each phase and thereby free you from thinking about the clock.)

At the end of your term, make a new resolution: frequency, time, term. For each term, do no more and no less than you have resolved to do. Make your own rules but stick to them as best you can. Avoid making meditation a matter of grim resolve and determination.

This gradualist approach is to get you into a familiar routine. It is not for you to ‘work up’ to a proper ‘work out’. No, from day one your meditation is all that it needs to be. To repeat a point made earlier, openness to experiences of the moment is all you need to start and continue with Zen meditation.


Body Awareness

Body awareness is an important part of the Zen way. This is not a shift from a focus on mind to a focus on body. It is a shift to an integration of mind and body: a sense of wholeness and connection. If you do a body scan every so often, you can rekindle its deeper body awareness in a quick body scan that is a standard part of a calming meditation.

A body scan is a worthy practice, but it is not described in any illuminating way. So, you might gain more benefit from skip reading this section and return to it only when ready to try things out.

Body scan

A deep scan takes about fifteen minutes. Start with a few minutes of calming meditation. When you are ready, focus on sensations only, some of the labels you might use are: hot, cold, tingling, numb, aching, fluttering, wet, dry, smooth, rough, painful, pleasant. Or, no sensations at all. Just acknowledge each sensation (or lack of sensation), and "go up" to it. Allow yourself to be interested in it. Even if you are experiencing pain, let it be, let it go where it goes, don't try to make it different or go away. Move up to it, as it were, rather than away from it. Focus on it. Find its boundaries, its depth, and its character. Focus intensely. Is it causing you to tense something? Soften there.
Start at the soles of your feet: In order, and slowly, feel: Each toe. Toe Nails, Balls of the feet, Arches, Heels, Ankles, inside to the bones, feel the joints. Inside and out: Calfs, Shins, Knee Joints, behind the knees. Hamstrings, Thighs, and up to the point where the legs join the hips. Feel the joints. Feel across the pelvic cradle. At each point label the sensations.

Now focus inside the pelvic cradle: Pubic bone, Genitals (inside and out), the two systems of elimination, and the one of reproduction. If you become aroused, or cold, or burn, or anything else, just let it be without trying to change it. Finish by focusing on your buttocks and then move up your spine.

Your spine often keeps emotions, slowly move up it one bit at a time right up to the base of your skull. Tail bones, lower back, waist, between the shoulder blades, shoulder hump, neck, connection to the skull. Ease back down the sides of your neck, feel the neck muscles, shoulders, shoulder muscles, and over your shoulders to your arms: triceps, biceps, elbows, inside forearms, outside forearms, wrists, hands, palms, fingers, fingernails, and fingertips. 

Your hands are near your belly: Move your attention to your belly: navel, silent spot, underneath to the systems of absorption and elimination: the large intestines, small intestines, kidneys, liver, up to the stomach, pancreas, still inside up to the Adams Apple. Out over the top and down to feel along the collarbone, the breasts, and the nipples. Inside to the sternum, follow the ribs and sense the rib cage enclosing the heart and the lungs. As you breath out, think of the rich red blood flowing from the lungs to the heart for circulation around the body. Can you feel your heart beating? Take a while to feel it. Can you feel blood pulsing around your body? Take a while.

Your lungs expel though your windpipe, nose, and sinuses; feel them. Now feel the mouth, jaw, gums, teeth, tongue, lips, cheeks, nose, eyes, eye balls, eye brows, forehead, scalp, hair, ears, inside the ears to the brain, frontal lobes, round and back down your brain stem and spinal column following the nerves that radiate all over the body, head-mouth, arms-hands, torso-stomach, torso-genitals, legs-feet.

Your heart pumps enriched blood all around the body; your nerves serve all parts too. You are wrapped in skin and pulse with the life that you can feel. You are glowing with life. Your body expands and contracts by very small degrees as you breath. Feel the pulsating glow of your whole body inside and out. Don't place your mind in one part. Your body as a whole shares your mind as a whole. With your whole body and mind, feel the place where you sit and the room in which you sit.
Body awareness is an important part of the Zen way. But, this is not a shift from a focus on mind to a focus on body. It is a shift to an integration of mind and body: a sense of wholeness and connection.


a)     Breathing just as it comes, picture your breath as starting at the base of your spine, then as you breathe in picture the breath as travelling up your spine to the top and round the inside of your skull to your nose. As you breathe out, picture the breath moving down the centre line of your body to the pubic bone. This completes a circle. Breathing in, up the back, breathing out, down the front. Keep this going for three or four breathes. This ‘circular breathing’ is just a useful exercise and an alternative means of focusing yourself when you start a session (instead of using the three points of breathing in). It has a cleansing relaxing feel.

b)     As the skin is also quite literally an organ for breathing, we can picture our breathing as from it: on the in breath picture pulling breath in from your skin (or hands, feet, knees, elbows, back of the neck) to your still point and out from there through your skin (or hands, feet, etc). Breathing ‘through the skin’ can make you feel very attuned. This exercise in imagination is also an alternative means of focusing yourself at the start of a session

Other variants


Try meditating outdoors where there are trees or water or mountains. Adopt the visitor's mindset and walk around the area where you intend to sit. As you walk around, hear and see sounds and sights without internal commentary. That is, hear and see not as a newsreel running in your head. Instead, listen as though you were blind and look as though you were deaf. Then sit and start a calming meditation in which you expand your awareness to include the local. Be there.


Sit in a busy city location with an inconspicuous but upright posture whilst belly breathing. Be still and aware. Cast your eyes down and listen to the traffic as sound: sound, not noise. Sound as equal in value to music. You are John Cage: sound is always here and now and like laughter doesn't have to have any meaning. It is what it is, here and now.

Doing things in the moment

Whilst walking down the street or driving a car keep in the present thick moment and treat what you are doing as the focus of a ‘meditation’. That is, do what you are doing and label distractions and return to your focus. Now, this thick moment, is the only time in which you can realise your potential for action. Things are always done here and now, not there and then.


1.     Imagine you have a very large lemon in your hand. Feel its weight. Heft it up and down. It has a beautiful skin, a deep waxy lemon. Get a large very sharp broad bladed knife and wooden chopping block. Place the lemon on the block and slowly cut it. Now notice, as the knife cuts through, the lemon juice starts to ooze out along the blade. When it's cut in two you can see that it is a beautiful and juicy lemon. The juice runs over your hand. Bring the lemon to your mouth to suck on it. Now what is happening in your mouth?
This is a demonstration that imaginative effort can have definite physiological effects. Knowing this helps to commit to imaginative exercises and experiments.

2.     Make real imaginative effort to adopt the traveler’s mind set before the next few meditations, and thereafter.

3.     Have you really listened as though you were blind and looked as though you were deaf?

Meditation on impermanence

In this section, the meditation needs framing before we engage in its practice.

n Zen Buddhism, a meditation on impermanence is said to bring great positive potential (karma). And, therefore, anything that reminds us of the transience of things can stir the heart. As a result, “a sensitivity to ephemera" developed. This explains the great appreciation of the cherry blossom in Japanese culture. The short-lived blossom and its falling petals are deeply evocative of the beauty and transience of life.

In some Japanese flower arrangements, they will have just one flower.  Even at a wedding, they can have just one flower on an alter. The singularity of that flower stands out.  You can be much more aware of a flower’s uniqueness, and much more aware of its ephemeral nature.  The framing of the experience highlights those qualities and thereby that single flower speaks of all things.

A whole aesthetic is part of the Zen tradition. This aesthetic is calledWabi-sabi, defined as the beauty of things "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete" and is an integral part of the Japanese culture. All things in Zen are considered as either evolving from or dissolving into a realm of potentiality. As they do this they show signs of their coming or going and these signs are considered to be beautiful. In this, beauty is an altered state of consciousness and can be seen in the budding and decay of things, or in the imperfections of things. But, these signatures of nature can be so subtle that it takes a quiet mind and a cultivated eye to discern them.

A bowl with obvious roughness, asymmetry, and other imperfections is wabi-sabi. Broken bowls may even be repaired with gold and be considered even more beautiful for having been broken.

There are seven major concepts that come together in Wabi-Sabi. These are: asymmetry, irregularity; simplicity; basic or weathered; without pretence, natural; subtle profound grace, not obvious; unbounded by convention, free; tranquillity.

Second level impermanence 

To narrow the scope of this discussion, let us take a closer look at impermanence. Things are impermanent because they are produced by causes and conditions. Things arise dependently. As conditions change at some point things dissolve into other forms. But, this is true not only of things in the sense of objects. It is true of all things in the widest sense. This includes our character and the things we do, and the thoughts we have. Once we understand this we can indeed accumulate the positive potential that builds up the mind’s openness and receptivity. And, here I am hinting at a second level of impermanence.

The second level of impermanence is at the insight level when we experience things without the filter of our conventional labels and concepts.  In ordinary discourse, we tend to give things a semblance of permanence through the conventions inherent in our concepts and labels.  It is very useful and easy to do this but we limit ourselves. For example, when we put ourselves in certain categories and create a sense of permanence that is limiting. To be able to drop behind the concepts is a desirable but radical thing to do. What you will find if you look at the relationship between your conceptions and your inner life of happiness and discontent, is that your discontents are rooted in conceptions about how things are. If you can drop behind the concepts and labels, you will have a different perception of what is actually going on. It is not that the concepts and categories are always wrong, it is that they can be limiting in ways that lead to discontent. Is that really an ugly old woman? To have the flexibility to see more fully is what we mean by dropping behind the concepts. If we are always seeing things through the filter of conventions, then we are missing really important parts of what is actually happening. Why not go out and try to see an old woman? If you think about her, you will not see her.

Zen puts a lot of emphasis on the experience of change.  You might try that in your life and in your meditation—to begin seeing that aspect in your present moment experience.  You can watch new things arise in the present—something new comes, and something that was, goes away. You can notice that things arise, things pass; suddenly things are there that were not there before, and then they are gone. Try to do this by dropping behind the concepts and labels.

When you engage in insight meditation, consider the arising factors, and the dissolving factors of any object of meditation. For example, what are the arising factors and dissolving factors of your anger?

End Notes

This guide has no other authority than it’s being my guess at what I would have liked to have read when I started meditation. It is just one way to begin to meditate in just one tradition. Nevertheless, all techniques of meditation train the attention by the returning the mind to a focus. I have chosen Soto Zen perhaps because of the greatness of its founder Dogen whose writings are a national treasure of Japan.

All roads lead to Rome but you have started your journey already and you are here, now. You need to know nothing more. You don't need several maps. You can move forward now: sit!

July 2015

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Wabi-Sabi and spiritual exercise

The explicit formulation of an aesthetics in the Western sense only started in Japan a little over two hundred years ago. But, by the Japanese aesthetic we tend to mean, not this modern study, but a set of ancient ideals that include wabi (transient and stark beauty), sabi (the beauty of natural patina and aging), and yûgen (profound grace and subtlety). These ideals, and others, underpin much of Japanese cultural and aesthetic norms on what is considered tasteful or beautiful. Thus, while seen as a philosophy in Western societies, the concept of aesthetics in Japan is seen as an integral part of daily life.

The Japanese aesthetic ideals are most heavily influenced by Buddhism. In the Buddhist tradition, all things are considered as either evolving from or dissolving into nothingness. Koren says that this 'nothingness' is not empty space. It is, rather, a space of potentiality. Let me use an analogy, if we take the seas as representing potential then each thing is like a wave arising from it and returning to it. There are no permanent waves. There are no perfect waves. At no point is a wave complete, even at its peak. Nature is seen as a dynamic whole that is to be admired and appreciated. 

Wabi-sabi is the aesthetic defined as the beauty of things "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete" (Koren, below). Things in bud, or things in decay, as it were, are more evocative of wabi-sabi than things in full bloom because, like the falling cherry blossom, they suggest the transience of things. As things come and go, they show signs of their coming or going and these signs are considered to be beautiful. In this, beauty is an altered state of consciousness and can be seen in the mundane and simple. The signatures of nature can be so subtle that it takes a quiet mind and a cultivated eye to discern them. 

In Zen philosophy there are seven aesthetic principles for achieving Wabi Sabi:
Fukinsei: asymmetry, irregularity; 
Kanso: simplicity; 
Koko: basic, weathered; 
Shizen: without pretense, natural; 
Yugen: subtly profound grace, not obvious; 
Datsuzoku: unbounded by convention, free; 
Seijaku: tranquility.

Each of these things are found in nature but can suggest virtues of human character and appropriateness of behaviour. This, in turn suggests that virtue and civility can be instilled through an appreciation of, and practice in, the arts. Hence, aesthetic ideals have an ethical connotation and pervades much of the Japanese culture.

As can be seen from the above list, in the Zen tradition Yūgen is just one of the components of Wabi Sabi. Nevertheless, it is an important separate concept in traditional Japanese aesthetics and strongly informs the notion of Wabi Sabi. 

The exact translation of the word depends on the context. In the Chinese philosophical texts the term was taken from, yūgen meant "dim", "deep" or "mysterious". Yugen suggests that beyond what can be said but it is not an allusion to another world. It is about this world, this experience. All of these are portals to yugen:

" To watch the sun sink behind a flower clad hill. 
To wander on in a huge forest without thought of return.
To stand upon the shore and gaze after a boat that disappears behind distant islands.
To contemplate the flight of wild geese seen and lost among the clouds.
And, subtle shadows of bamboo on bamboo." 

(Zeami Motokiyo) 

Zeami was the originator of the dramatic art form, Noh theatre, and wrote the classic book on dramatic theory (Kadensho). He uses images of nature as a constant metaphor. For example, "snow in a silver bowl" represents "the Flower of Tranquility". Yugen is said to mean “a profound, mysterious sense of the beauty of the universe… and the sad beauty of human suffering”.

Wabi, sabi, and yugen refers to a mindful approach to everyday life reminiscent of the mindfulness in the arts. 

Geidō refers to the way of the traditional Japanese arts: Noh (theater), kadō (Japanese flower arrangement), shodō (Japanese calligraphy), Sadō (Japanese tea ceremony), and yakimono (Japanese pottery). All of these ways carry an ethical and aesthetic connotation and appreciate the process of creation[9]. To introduce discipline into their training, Japanese warriors followed the example of the arts that systematized practice through prescribed forms called kata - think of the tea ceremony. Training in combat techniques incorporated the way of the arts (Geidō), practice in the arts themselves, and instilling aesthetic concepts (for example, yugen) and the philosophy of arts (geido ron). This led to combat techniques becoming known as the martial arts (even today, David Lowry shows, in the 'Sword and Brush: the spirit of the martial arts', the affinity of the martial arts with the other arts). All of these arts are a form of tacit communication and we can, and do, respond to them by appreciation of this tacit dimension.

After the introduction of Western notions in Japan, Wabi Sabi aesthetics ideals have been re-examined with Western values, by both Japanese and non-Japanese. Therefore, recent interpretations of the aesthetics ideals inevitably reflect Judeo-Christian perspectives and Western philosophy. 

Koren (below) says that “The immediate catalyst for [his] book was a widely publicized tea event in Japan. ... It suddenly dawned on me that wabi-sabi, once the preeminent high-culture Japanese aesthetic and the acknowledged centerpiece of tea, was becoming—had become?—an endangered species …”

I agree with Koren wholeheartedly and his book is an important contribution to the literature. 

Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosopher by Leonard Koren

Wabi Sabi is best thought of as looking upon nature in itself as a spiritual exercise. The photographs throughout the book are a clue as to where to look but they are not the thing itself: put the book down and go out and look.

Much of this review is taken from my contribution to Wikipedia.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Nichomachean Ethics

In this short piece, inspired by re-reading The Ethics, Aristotle (384 to 323 BCE), I intend to illustrate what ethics means and implies for Aristotle. This has a modern relevance, especially because of the development of Virtue Ethics, and needs to be pointed out as so many modern uses of the term 'ethics' unhelpfully reduce the content and scope of the term. 

In The Ethics, Aristotle sets out to examine the nature of human flourishing. Aristotle argues that human flourishing consists in the 'activity of the soul in accordance with virtue'. So what are virtues? They are precisely those principles of excellence that lead to human flourishing. In its earliest appearance in Greek, this notion of excellence was ultimately bound up with the notion of the fulfillment of purpose or function (telos).

Aristotle argues that it is for the sake of thriving that we do everything else - what leads to this? Just as the virtues of an axe leads to its excellence in chopping, it is the virtues of the soul that lead to human thriving. The virtues of an axe would be in something like its heft, its robustness, and in its hard edge. So what activities of the soul constitute our virtues? First, let us remind ourselves that to the ancient Greek it would be almost incomprehensible to wonder if virtue (arete) might not lead to flourishing. It would be as odd as wondering if a good heft, a robust and well secured shaft, and a hard-sharpish edge might not lead to the ability of an axe to chop well. To the ancient Greeks, it was obvious that virtues led to flourishing (if the virtues could be identified and cultivated). Hence, the Aristotelian quest is to articulate human virtues - those principles of excellence that lead to flourishing. For an axe flourishing is to chop. For a person flourishing is living up to one's full potential.

One proposal for a principle of excellance is the 'Doctrine of the Mean'. Aristotle states that a virtuous activity of the soul is one that aims for the mean or middle ground deficiency and excess. Thus, he tends to view virtue as a relative state: there are no absolutes: morality calls for judgment. This doesn't make his ideas 'Moral Relativism'. He makes an the analogy with food. He would say that for a toddler a slab of meat might be too much but for a body builder it might not be enough. The sufficiency is not in the meat but in a relationship between the properties of the meat and the particulars of the one who needs feeding. For each situation, "the mean" exists between the state of deficiency and the state of excess but this is not laid down in some pre-given measure, a measure that does not take into account the precise and individual circumstances. 

Aristotle proposes many different examples of virtues and vices, together with their mean states. There are moral virtues, such as courage and justice, and intellectual virtues, such as knowledge and wisdom. He discusses things like generosity and anger. All of this very interesting and insightful. He was aware, of course, that there are things, actions and emotions, that do not allow an actual mean state. His main point appears to be that leading a life that flourishes implies the ability to make judgements that find a balance.

For Aristotle, the virtuous person is one who is capable of observation and ratiocination (the bases of informed judgment) for only such a person can be sensitive to the situation and find the middle ground. We are imperfect and err on one side or the other. 

Aristotle says virtues have to be cultivated. Further, he says, only one who has been brought up correctly is fully capable of virtue. Thus, Aristotle argues that virtue is not a natural state; we are not born with it and can only acquire it through an enculturation that is wider than a formal education. 

A virtuous person, being properly brought up, does not have to calculate that disgusting things are disgusting - they see it straight away. There is an art to living and this are means that sometimes one must just see things straight away and at other times one contemplates the options.

Without the art of living one is likely to reduce virtue to a recipe [or Code of Conduct, or Professional Ethics] and thus miss the middle ground in some circumstances. In other words, not to be virtuous after all. Thus, to be virtuous one must act virtuously with the intention of virtue, and not just the form. To be virtuous,  amongst other things, is to be mindful and fully engaged with living.

- - - - -
I recommend the latest edition of the book by Irwin. It has a good revised translation with generous notes that include a summary of the argument of each chapter. (The Ethics, is a compilation by his son Nicomachus, or possibly the notes were dedicated to him, and thus it is called the Nicomachean Ethics.)

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius contain wonderful aphorisms that have been cherished for generations. The purpose of the review is to enable to reader to better understand, and profit from, a reading the Meditations.

Marcus Aurelius was Emperor of the known world at the time but he was also known to be a philosopher even though the people of Rome knew nothing of his writings. The Meditations were not intended for publication and were given no order or title by Marcus Aurelius himself. We shall come to understand why.

Philosophy in antiquity was not topic but a way of life: a lived practice of virtues. Alongside this way of life a philosopher engaged in philosophical discourse which justified and motivated that choice of life. But, the discourse was philosophical only if it supported a personal transformation. The personal transformation is what philosophy was about. A philosopher was identified by his or her choices in life and not by what they wrote, or by the system of thought they developed.  Thus, Marcus Aurelius was a philosopher because of the way he lived: to become better.
Although not all philosophers valued philosophical discourse, for example, the Cynics, the Stoics, and other schools, thought that philosophical discourse, that was meant to have a transformational function, was an integral part of the philosophical life. They emphasised that philosophical discourse was not enough, on its own. That it was possible to develop an 'empty discourse' unrelated to a philosophical life (the peddlers of empty discourse were severely criticized by philosophers, and others). So, when a philosopher expounded on doctrine (what we today would interpret as pure theory) it was always, in its mode of expression and its end, practice. The philosopher aims to form rather than inform. This is the key to understanding the Meditations.

The "Mediations" of Marcus Aurelius were an authentic philosophical discourse: they were written by himself, about himself, and to himself, in order to establish within himself an inner discourse and a set of dispositions which would allow him to practice philosophy. He had no thought of systematic exposition of theory. The function of his writing was to 'dye his soul', or strengthen his soul for action. It is this feature of his writing that distinguishes his Meditations from modern literary genres. What were later called his "Meditations" were, in fact, spiritual exercises practiced according to Stoic traditions and according to specific methods. The surface form of this writing was given to him by this Stoic tradition and the literary conventions of his day and we must not read into the text too much about him or his psychological states (e.g we must not read into the text that Marcus Aurelius was lonely, pessimistic, despondent, doped, and such like). In reading him, we must constantly bear in mind that his writings are not an exposition of doctrine, a stream of consciousness, or his recollections. His writings were exercises. Thus, when he says of fancy food "This is the corpse of a fish", or of a fine wine "This is just some grape juice", he is not expressing distain. These statements have a definite function: they are to situate fancy food and fine wine within the perspective of universal nature and strip them of social mystique (that is strip them of their aura of heightened value). So, there is nothing autobiographical about the statements. The autobiographical aspects of his work, although real, are very subtle.

So, what are spiritual exercises? Pierre Hadot defines them "as voluntary, personal practices meant to bring about a transformation of the individual, a transformation of the self". He says elsewhere that philosophical discourse "could be presented in such a way that the disciple, as auditor, reader, or interlocutor, could make spiritual progress and transform himself within." Marcus Aurelius' Meditations are just such a discourse: they are an inner discourse where Reason strives to describe the philosophical way of life to his Soul (his true self, the breath that holds his body together as a living entity). Reason sketches out the model that Marcus must have constantly in view: the good person. The good person will act justly in the service of others, accept serenely those events which do not depend upon his or her will, and see the objective truth (strip things of their mystique). This vision represents a world view as an indivisible inner disposition. It was embodied in three rules of life by Epictetus. I will express his rules as follows:

Epictetus, Ep.ic.TEE.tus
Epictetus, Ep.ic.TEE.tus
1 Accept the world as it is,

2 Conduct yourself justly,

3 Give assent only to those things that are objective

When we talk about philosophy (or teach it), rather than live it, these rules entail the contemplation of three topics: physics, ethics, and logic. Taking about philosophy and breaking it down into these three themes is a pedagogic necessity only. Other break downs of doctrine were recommended and used too but Marcus Aurelius followed Epictetus.

By physics, the Stoics meant something like the natural world but this included what we would call theology. They thought of the world as continuous and held together by a divine rational spirit. Marcus talks about God and Gods but this is a legacy way of speaking. He believed in a divine rational spirit that generated and permeated everything. Uniquely though, Human beings are given a share of the divine rationality as their own. They remain part of the whole and to live well is to live in harmony with that whole.

Epictetus said "You are a human being, and a human being is a mortal animal that has the power of using appearances rationally. And what I mean by 'rationally' is complete conformity to Nature. The unique thing about you is the rational faculty. Adorn it and beautify it."

The essence of a philosopher is the disposition towards goodness, the love of wisdom. This indivisible inner disposition runs the risk of fading or weakening unless constantly dyed or strengthened. To dye the soul for action (to strengthen the soul) we must repeatedly render images to ourselves that are vivid and forever renewed. These images, and the careful crafting of them in literary writing, are intended to be psychologically effective and instil the principles at the foundation of the model. A shopping list of truths would NOT do the job. We must train. The philosopher must repeatedly engage in spiritual exercises that are both imaginative and discursive. In this way, the philosopher can establish an inner discourse and the profound dispositions which would enable him or her to practice concretely the three rules of life set out by Epictetus.

The themes that we find in the structure of the Meditations just are those exercise themes laid down by Epictetus. Since judgement, desire, and inclination depend upon us we can discipline them. Each maxim is carefully crafted to develop one, two, or all three topics. Each maxim is an exercise of assimilation of one or more of the three disciplines of life. The Emperor wrote about himself for himself to train himself, not to hold forth on theory, nor to 'express himself'. He was training for wisdom.

At the heart of this enterprise is the thought that "Everything is a matter of judgment" whether it is a about physics, ethics, or logic. In each case, it is always a matter of examining and criticizing the value-judgments which one brings to bear. For the Stoics, Logic (reason) penetrates the whole of conduct. So, it is perhaps helpful to bring out this thought because it is at work throughout the "Meditations". To make this notion of judgment and value-judgment clearer we need a metaphor. I will use one suggested by Chrysippus who said "Just as when your push a cylinder you have caused it to begin its movement, but you have not given it the property of rolling, so likewise an appearance will no doubt mark and imprint its form up the soul; and yet our assent will still remain free within our power". This metaphor is useful, let us develop it. I find it helpful to think of two shapes, in this case, cylinders. If one, or the other, of the objects were cones, say, then it would roll very differently but the analogy would still work.

Let us image two cylinders. The first of these we will take as the cylinder of perception (taken in its widest sense). The second, let us say, is the cylinder of judgment. The first is pushed and rolls and in its turn pushes the second and it rolls (this implies that human beings apprehend reality in terms of meanings). Now, just as the first cylinder does not get its properties from the push, nor does the second. On a larger view of this situation, the push itself does not cause the roll. The "internal causes" of the cylinder, its shape, are necessary for it to roll in the characteristic way it does. On this metaphor, we can see that the 'second' part of our soul the judging part, has established inner dispositions (the properties) that lead to assenting or declining judgements. These dispositions can be created by convention, prejudice, ignorance, or, importantly, the imposition of reason.

The 'second cylinder' is our character and because of it we are responsible for the actions that result from it. The helmsman of the soul, the superior, guiding, part of the soul (the intellect or divine part) is free to make judgments. It alone can give or refuse assent to that inner discourse which enunciates what the object of perception amounts to. The superior part of the soul is completely free.  It can, in principle, and given time, change the dispositions of the soul. We can give shape to our character. Thus, we are responsible for our character whether given to us by habit, society, or the imposition of reason.

As the cylinder analogy is intended to show, it would be wrong to regard fate as being external to agents. We should view fate as operating through agents. We are partners with the all prevading reason, working within it to bring about the history of the world as it is meant to be brought about.
The essential and unique part of a person just is this capacity for value-judgment: our rationality. Reason can guide the soul to correct action. Thus, the correct reading of the Meditations is as Marcus Aurelius' Reason exhorting or guiding his Soul on a pattern laid down by Epictetus: "What troubles people are not things, but their value-judgements about things",

  • "Get rid of the value-judgment, get rid of the 'I am hurt,' you are rid of the hurt itself." (viii.40)
  • "Everything is fruit to me which your seasons bring, O Nature. From you are all things, in you are all things, to you all things return." (iv.23) 
  • "How ridiculous and how strange to be surprised at anything which happens in life!" (xii.13) 

All of these are judgments about value-judgment. More generally they say things cannot touch us because they cannot touch the guiding principles within us. We are free to lovingly accept what the world has to offer and treat people with a heart free of bitterness.

- - -
My interpretation of the Meditations as spiritual exercises comes from Pierre Hadot. Others mention them but rarely see the pervasive depth and significance of this insight and what it means for our reading of the Meditations. See Hadot's 'Philosophy as a way of life'.

Remember that the books of the Meditations were not ordered that way by Marcus Aurelius himself. For the most interesting read, I would recommend reading the meditations starting at book III, then book VII, read the rest in any order but leave Book 1 to last (it was actually written last). Book 1 expresses gratitude for those people who have made him into who he is. It makes for more interesting reading when you have been exposed to his other books first.

Monday, 6 January 2014

The last days of Socrates                 

The publisher's summary is as follows: "The trial and condemnation of Socrates on charges of heresy and corrupting young minds is a defining moment in the history of Classical Athens. In tracing these events through four dialogues, Plato also developed his own philosophy, based on Socrates' manifesto for a life guided by self-responsibility. Euthyphro finds Socrates outside the court-house, debating the nature of piety, while The Apology is his robust rebuttal of the charges of impiety and a defence of the philosopher's life. In the Crito, while awaiting execution in prison, Socrates counters the arguments of friends urging him to escape. Finally, in the Phaedo, he is shown calmly confident in the face of death, skilfully arguing the case for the immortality of the soul."

The key to understanding Socrates, says Hadot, is to see philosophy as a way of life: ''a love (philos) of the good.'' That philos comes from within, but after it is awakened it must be renewed through self-questioning and self-examination as a kind of internal dialogue. But what characterises Socratic therapy above all is the “importance [given] to living contact between human beings”.

Hadot illuminates how much of what Socrates said was a form of spiritual exercise; a thing done in dialogue. Socrates taught that knowledge was not a body of propositional knowledge to be passed on from one to another. No, instead, knowledge was a way of Being communicated through dialogue. Famously, he brought his interlocutors to a state of frustration by showing that on their conception of what they thought they knew, they did not know. For example, when one interlocutor defines Justice Socrates reveals his inconsistencies. Challenged to quit his irritating others with his clever but confusing arguments and offer his own definition of justice, he replied: ''I never stop showing what I think is just ... I show it by my actions.''

Thus, doing philosophy no longer meant acquiring "knowledge" but meant questioning ourselves because we have a feeling that we are not as we ought to be. What was required was an inner transformation. In doing philosophy, propositions do get packaged in various themes but they aim not to inform. Instead they strive to persuade, train, and thereby transform. When we strive for wisdom - that is live philosophically - everything that is separately packaged must be lived and practiced inseparably. To acquire wisdom, the philosopher must strive to cultivate their character (internal) for right living (external).

Above all Socrates addressed himself to those who thought they possessed wisdom through their education: the aristocrats and the Sophists he met in the market place. The Sophists thought they could sell their "knowledge" to all comers. But, for Socrates knowledge was not their packaging of propositions (or formulas) that could be sold ready-made. When Socrates claims he knows only one thing - that he knows nothing - he is repudiating the traditional concept of knowledge. He is saying that not only cannot knowledge be acquired ready-made but that it must come from within and be nurtured from within (through dialogue with others and oneself). When Socrates harassed his interlocutors to a point where they were no longer sure of what they knew and what was the basis of their actions he was engaged in a kind of therapy. The interlocutors begin to question themselves or dropped into a state of confusion or irritation. The first step to 'recovery'.

Socrate said that he was like his mother who was a midwife providing a public service by attending to his fellow citizens. His 'maieutic' [may-YOO-tik] method of bringing forth ideas from an interlocutor comes from the Greek word for "of midwifery". He also, likened himself to a gladly as, at times, he had to sting people into thought.

Socrates' ministration were intended to be very different from the teaching of the Sophists who taught for pay. The Sophists had the ability to construct clever argument and were willingness to teach others to do the same. They were not Greek. They travelled, noted and spoke of the fact that people believe rather different in different places. They said truth was not to be found in transcendent sources such as the gods; they built a view of justice on the notion of social agreement or culture. It is easy to see that they could be judged to be a threat to a stable society.  Their ability to persuade by clever argument and technique, led many Greeks to see them as a dangerous element in their society, "a public nuisance and worse".

Unfortunately, although Socrates went to great lengths to distinguish himself from the Sophists, his fellow Athenians couldn't make the distinction in their hearts or minds. Thus, it is understandable that those who were motivated to do so, did not find it too hard to convince the Athenian assembly that Socrates was a danger to the state. He was tried and sentenced to death.

The four short dialogues on the last days of Socrates are a delightful read and are quite moving. Socrates life is one of the most profoundly influential lives in Western culture. This would not have been so had he ran away from Athens. It was the fact that he did not run that showed, then as now, that he was no ordinary sophist.

"O Crito, if it thus pleases the gods, thus let it be. [They] may kill me ... but hurt me they cannot." 

Socrates' death was messier than the book portrays, death by hemlock poisoning isn't a dignified matter. It was a heavy price to pay.

End note:
Some of this review is drawn from my review of Hadot's Philosophy As A Way Of Life.