Zia Hassan

What We Want From Meditation

When I was fifteen, I developed an interest in Zen Buddhism. The practice of zazen in particular drew me in.

Fifteen is a tangled web of rage and depression (at least it was for me) so the idea that a daily practice of sitting (the direct translation of zazen) appealed to me.

The rules, at least according to the Buddhist philosophers, were relatively straight forward. You sit. You acknowledge thoughts when they arise but you don’t judge them. And that’s it. You trust that this daily repetition will have long term effects.

The first time I tried it, it felt like I was doing it wrong. I wasn’t, but it felt that way, and I couldn’t understand why.

Since then, mediation has become quite trendy. Westerners pay a lot of money for yoga sessions that touch on the idea of meditation but don’t quite get to the heart of it.

For instance, I once went to a yoga class where the instructor told us to meditate on a thought during each pose.

Meditate on a thought? Wasn’t that the opposite of what zazen taught us?

And then there are the apps. Many apps that walk people through a “guided meditation.” There are sounds of nature, calming words, and step by step instructions. I guess it’s a bit like having a coach in the gym, talk you through the routines as you’re doing them.

But it runs contrary to the idea of Zazen. And not that there couldn’t be two different interpretations of what it means to meditate, it’s just… why would I want a voice other than my own buzzing in my ear?

Isn’t the goal to manage your own inner voice? How much harder does it get, and how much of its usefulness is lost, when another voice joins in, even if the step-by-step is helpful for a beginner?

I see Zazen not as a calming ritual, but as a practice for daily life. The idea is that if I can practice acknowledging but not grasping onto my feelings too hard, I could get better at doing it when I’m not sitting on the zafu (meditation cushion).

I don’t know if that can happen with the apps, or with guided mediation. If it’s not just me, my mind, and the sounds of the room, can I effectively gain this skill to be used out in the real world? Or would I need to plug in some earbuds if a particular event triggered me?

Which brings me back to the idea of feeling like I’m not doing it right. Despite all that the apps remove from the experience, they give people the feeling that they’re doing it right. And I think that’s what many people want from meditation – to feel that they did it right, not necessarily to experience the benefit of mindful living in daily life.

Sometimes, the question of whether or not it’s working can’t be answered until a steady and daily practice has been built. You’ll know you did it right when your brain can jump right into mindfulness whenever you choose. Or at least, you’re better at it than you were before.

And for the Buddhist monks, that’s all the time. Cushion or not. Grocery store or monastery.

And they call it enlightenment.