A personal approach to Zen

Kategorie: Zentricity


From very early on starting with Zen practice some are confronted with koans.

One of the most popular ones is…

… When both hands have clapped a sound is produced; listen to the sound of one hand clapping.” Sometimes the koan is set in question-and-answer form, as in the question “What is Buddha?” and its answer, “Three pounds of flax.”

Some definitions say a koan is a riddle or puzzle that Zen Buddhists use during meditation to help them unravel greater truths about the world and about themselves. Zen masters have been testing their students with these stories, questions, or phrases for centuries. … It is up to the Zen student to tease out their meaning.

After reading some of them and books like Dropping Ashes on the Buddha, I don’t believe that as well, because they don’t seem to be riddles to be solved.

It is something to meditate on and lose attachment but I don’t get behind it.

I know I shouldn’t even think about getting behind it and just sit with them. Even that seems to be too much.

As I do get that Zen practice is a lively exchange and dialogue between master and student and there, koans do have their own meanings and dynamics.
As I don’t have a live Zen master but approaching this through books and podcasts those koans are very troubling.

I do get that they should help to lose any attachment, to be like a meditation in words, to lose any logical sense of the world and just let me sit, unattached, but aware.

I don’t know if that’s right but according to Zen practice there is no wrong or right, there is just it, and that’s ok.

Maybe I get to a retreat once and learn from real masters and get a better approach to koans. For the time being, I just let them be as they are and not disturb me.

When meditating and asking myself „Who am I?“ I think of „a blue elephant with a red ponytail sitting on a cloud“ and I hear some master say „You are attached to color“ and my reply would be „I’m a protein bar without chocolate“, maybe he’s answering „you are hungry?“.

As I did study literature and I know about the power of concepts created by our own language and how misleading they can be, my western socialized mind thinks of Jacques Derrida and his deconstruction.

This comes from an intellectual point of view near to the concept of koans, demanding to question everything which comes as a tradition through language over time, constructed by men and their biases.

I know I shouldn’t use an intellectual approach because this seems just wrong in Zen practice but I can’t help it.

Maybe I just should let that go but it seems too important.

I also tend to look back at lyrics where language is used to create a feeling and also is illogical in many cases.

Benjamin Myers, in his novel ‚The Offening‘, lets his protagonist Dulcie say to Robert…

… a good poem breaks open the oyster shell of the mind to expose the pearl within. It finds words for feelings whose definitions defy all attempts at verbal expression.

With such a definition I can work and I decided, though it has nothing to do with Zen practice, I go back to lyrics (many poets are Zen practitioners also) and away from koans, for the time being, not neglecting them totally but let them rest.

Maybe time gives me a good teacher and I can reactivate an approach to koans again.

Maybe time also resolves all the cognitive dissonance and after they sit with me for a while and meditating with them I’ll find my peace with them.

Picture from Book of Longing, by Leonard Cohen, a collection of his poems and drawings from the last twenty years. Reprinted by arrangement with Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishing, ©2006 by Leonard Cohen

Being Anxious

I’m meditating now for several months on different schedules and methods, from extended (for me) 15 minutes to half an hour or just very short sessions.

The effect surprises me because I’m getting more and more anxious and the opposite was expected.

Actually, I do feel emptiness and fear especially after I tried transcendental meditation. I feel isolated and alone and I am more afraid about the future than I ever have been.

Plus, I do feel socially isolated, though I’m living with my family, my wife, my wonderful kids who I love a lot. It’s crazy but I feel like I don’t get a connection to them.

Maybe this is supposed to be and to happen when you confront yourself with your inner self without layering noise and actions above your inner life in order to numb your inner voice.

But actually, with the anxiety growing, I do tend to do exactly this, trying to numb it down. Playing music because I can’t bear the silence, drinking in the evening because I can’t bear my own thoughts.

I do worry as I ever did but it scares me even more and my gut feeling is very bad, I do feel ‚dark clouds‘ or something similar like a weight in my belly and I definitely don’t feel free or light or happy at any time of the day.

The only pause is when asleep and in deep dreams and certainly the short time after awaking, there I feel ok. But then the other stuff crushes in immediately.

So, does this mean it does me badly or shall I confront myself with every fear and try to knock it down or try to resolve it through deep changes in my life?
I can’t narrow it down. It doesn’t make sense and makes sense. Everything is coming up where I made compromises and didn’t feel well with them.

And there are those things that I don’t want to admit to myself.

Mostly, it’s connected to my vulnerability and the inability to post it to other human beings, especially the ones who are near to me. The reason for sure can be found in the way I was brought up and the way I think I have to behave in this world, being strong, not showing my fears.

The stillness is also frightening because I see the ‚normal‘ life as a failure, our consuming, producing, polluting strategy. War in Afghanistan, people kill other people for no reasonable reason.

Climate change is inevitable and will affect my children. My children getting addicts and fuck up their lives. Anything.

It’s more than being worried.

No strategy is to be found yet, and I can’t accept the Zen saying that everything is meaningless and life is suffering.

Yes, it is but I can not overcome it, I feel it and to numb it through meditation seems counterintuitive and wrong.

About waiting

We spend a large part of our lives waiting.

Despite the hectic pace of our daily lives, it’s waiting for a bus, a train connection, a meeting or an appointment, or even a better life.

Often it is as absurd as in Samuel Beckett’s „Waiting for Godot.“ I have waited countless times for a bus connection in Munich and calculated how much of my life I waste on it and it was not insignificant.

In recent years I have thought a lot about waiting and have learned to appreciate it.

Often life is about making room for something you don’t know yet.

A new job, a new direction in life. Then I decided to make room, to end relationships, to quit jobs, even though nothing new was in sight yet. And then it is time to wait.

This time can be used to reflect on yourself and there is an art to accepting the time of waiting as something valuable.

To learn new things, be it through podcasts or books, to enjoy the moment and not to think about the waiting itself but about the time in the now and how it is given to you through waiting.

Suddenly that time makes sense and it’s not just a wasted life. Twenty minutes of meditation or short breathing space while waiting on a bus.

We often waste so much time on meaningless activity and waiting seems annoying but the attitude towards it changes everything.

Often it is the act of willing ourselves to spend time waiting that leads us to more freedom. Especially when we question relationships and activities that exist only for their own sake and we let them go.

It is difficult because we are afraid of the ‚empty‘ time, the time in which we do not know what to do with ourselves. Then it turns out that this time is necessary to learn more about ourselves.

The emptiness and the waiting can also prepare us for the new tasks and challenges we don’t know yet. It is important to get involved in it and to accept it and use it in these times.

I wish that we draw strength from the time of waiting instead of being angry about it and seeing it as wasted.

I wish that waiting is accepted as a possibility to live life in this so-called lost time.

Maybe a new adventure starts right there.

Fear. Anger. Hate. Suffering.

Fear becomes anger and anger becomes hate and hate becomes suffering; I know this is a Star Wars quote but actually, I found some passages in Star Wars the most practical advice in Zen I ever received. Because you get what they mean and somehow it is philosophy in a fictional format.

I learned it for myself, I loved, I got rejected or disappointed by lovers, friends, employers, or even parents.

The most traumatizing experience was definitely the divorce of my parents and everything that followed this event in my life. I still struggle with the effect of how it shattered my worldview. It took away my basic trust in everything. It took away my feeling to be secure in the world.

Also, losing loved ones and handling loss and death and mourning is a traumatizing event in which the western culture is bad at processing.

And it is true, the fear, the mistrust, and the angst of losing someone; or not being loved, lead to anger.

This anger can appear in the most subtle ways. It can also come out directly and affect all other personal and lesser personal relations to surrounding people.

These actions on the other hand will lead to more anger and eventually become hate.

Indifferent hate at the world and everything that’s connected to it and your own life. The hate can be subtle and you feel like you’re or were a lovable person once, but now you don’t know where life had led you.

And then begins the suffering. It is terrible and it all becomes a circle, a circle where you don’t find an easy way out because it all got created by you, and also it became a habit to act or react wildly, in anger, in pain, in agony.

So, how to overcome this painful downward spiral of negative feelings that are not only making you miserable and others too but in the end will make you physically ill?

I found the proclaimed meditation method of loving/kindness meditation very helpful. It’s described and adverted from Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield and others and it is very, very simple.

You sit and think of others or you even sit and observe others, maybe even strangers and you wish them a loving life and you wish for them to be happy.

Here! Listen; I think; I wish you a good and happy life, health, wealth, well being. I wish you loved ones who make you feel loved. I wish you security and the feeling to be safe in the world.

Do this, simple to your wife and your kids and everyone you love and wish to be loved and do it unconditionally. Most importantly, do it for others that mistreated you. People from who you think of that they got you wrong. Even for people that you don’t like. Even for people that you hate.

You will experience some change in your life and you will receive immediately a gift from yourself, from your body, and what we might call soul. It will feel like a cleansing. It will feel like there is a chance to let go of all negativity. It will give you hope for the day.

It will improve your day.

So, do it in the morning.

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