Missing zen

I am quite ashamed of myself lately. I have not been meditating as I used to do. It’s been like this for about two years now. Lately, it’s been an on and off thing where before there were periods that stretched to months when I would meditate almost daily.

It was my regular practice that nurtured me spiritually. I felt stabilized, balanced and light and it helped give me a decent amount of equanimity in my daily life. I felt a grounding that made me calm and less distracted by the pull of emotions, strong opinions, pride, fears and other attachments.

In the evenings, before I slept, I would sit on my meditation pillows, and while in a Zen lotus position, I would stay still for 25 minutes. No movement, no scratching, looking at my watch or anything. I just stared with eyes half open at a blank wall. The idea was to be in proper posture, unmoving, and not to entertain thoughts. I would just concentrate on my breathing. I would do this almost every night.

It did not take me too long to like Zazen (Zen meditation). I loved the spaciousness it created in my being. There was a “big mind” that opened inside me that was quite liberating. And there was a peace that was blessed. It’s amazing what the simple act of sitting can do.

The practice of Zazen awakened in me a consciousness I never knew I had. I could see everything clearly. The clarity of “true seeing,” as people in similar practices sometimes describe it, made almost everything in daily living an inexhaustibly rich experience. It’s as if I had stumbled on a goldmine.

But before reaching the state of true seeing, I felt a melting away of many conscious and unconscious layers of pretenses, affectations and illusions I had about life and myself. The power of Zazen called the bluff on many of the things that I identified with.

Before Zazen, I had certain conceptual ideas about myself which I thought defined me as a person. One of them was, I felt special because I enjoyed a certain amount of fame and status in the society I lived in. I also felt good because of the way I looked and my family and educational background. But Zen uncovered the layers that made me think I was special in any way and showed me the beauty of ordinariness in all things, especially about myself. It opened me to true reality minus any spin, bias, or any set opinions or attitudes I may have had before.

In its place, reality appeared simply as itself, just as it is — neither good nor bad. It was a powerful experience to meet that paradox which showed that with eyes open, the mundane can be extraordinarily special. It’s amazing what one can stumble upon while sitting and doing nothing.

Chuang-tzu, an ancient Zen monk, put it this way: “To a mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.”

Zen practice is walking the edge of everything you know and it asks that you drop any attachments to them. In doing this, it can seem like one is waging a great war against a clingy self. You soon realize that you are not what you know. You are not your opinions, so why fight or even die for them? You are not even what you think you are, so why invest so much time in being self-conscious. You are certainly not what you own. You are not even your history. What are you then?

I was once talking to an old practitioner, an enlightened person who was my sensei (teacher). She is, in Zen parlance, a Roshi, an esteemed Zen teacher and I remember telling her that, during one deep meditation I had, I found myself bathed in a glow of love that seemed to permeate everywhere and everything. I felt that the “ground of being” I discovered, so to speak, was love and that the whole universe rested on it.

She turned to me and smiled. She then narrated her experience of the “ground of being” which she had during her deepest meditation. To my surprise, she said that she saw “nothing.”

I was frankly quite shocked and disappointed at what she said. I felt then that there was a cynical underpinning in her statement. But many more months of Zen sitting brought me to a similar understanding, appreciation and a similar experience.

Thinking back, my experience of love during a deep sitting which I shared with her, though real to me, may still have been just another layer before hitting the ground of being and not yet the real experience of the true essence of things. Her experience of seeing “nothing” awakened in me a great, fantastic realization of what I can only describe as “unlimited autonomy.”

I realized then that I am not necessarily someone “born to love,” as a lot of books might describe the meaning of what it is to be human. While it is a good meaning and purpose and I do subscribe to it as a goal in life, I felt the ground of being was even deeper than that. The big “aha” realization for me was that I am a being who can “choose” to love. The “nothingness” that is the ground of being is “pure potentiality,” to be whatever it is I wish to be, do, have, want, etc. In fact, I am a being who can choose anything I wish to experience.

“Emptiness is form. Form is emptiness,” is a saying that has baffled many. From nothing, or emptiness, arise all things. Even religious books talk of the void before the light breaks. Things arise from nowhere. And we can create anything we want.

I have written four books (more like spiritual diaries) while in this state of mind as I experienced it. The topic is inexhaustible and one can never be too “Zenned out” exploring the depths.

I realize though that my writing about this is not a good thing. At the onset of my practice, my own teacher cautioned me against reading books about Zen. Why? Because Zen is too important to merely talk about. It is something that needs to be experienced fully. Words are not only pitifully inadequate but also get in the way of it because by nature, they make the understanding of anything an intellectual, conceptual one.

As an example, pain is a concept which hardly means anything until one is actually going through it. By the same token, a menu is not real food but only a representation of food. Neither can a mere map of Manila ever be a substitute for the experience of actually exploring Manila.

One of the things I want to do in the next few years is to live in an ashram or a monastery and be put in a situation where I will be forced to do nothing but sit for a month. But I know that the very thought of it may be putting me on the wrong path. After all, what is it that is not accessible right now that one needs to go somewhere to get?

I ask this in all seriousness. Dogen, a Zen patriarch, liked to say, “If you cannot find the truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?” Robert Pirsig, a Zen writer, asked the same thing when he wrote: “The only Zen you find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.”

How true is that?

Alas, another affectation bites the dust.

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11 years ago

[…] Missing zen […]

Tess Herzog
Tess Herzog
11 years ago

Dear Mr. Paredes,
I identified with your Zen column today and felt the urge to share with you my experience at a magical place called BODHI ZENDO (www.bodhizendho.orge) in Kodaikanal, South India. I strongly encourage you to visit this place – I’m sure you will find the peace and quiet you are seeking. You can stay as long or as short as you need. I only stayed 10 days at the time because I had a small child to attend to back in New Delhi. However, the people I met there had already been “residing” for three months or more! There is also a little school you can teach at if you stay long enough. The Philosophy of the place is a fusion of Jesuit spirituality and Zen Budhism. Look for Fr. Ama Samy, SJ.
All the best on your quest.
Tess Herzog

Tess Herzog
Tess Herzog
11 years ago
11 years ago

Hi Jim.

Thanks for this post. I’m intrigued by Zen — am just starting to sort it out. I suppose I have a long way to go.

Craig Peihopa
11 years ago

I liked this post Jim. I have been one who had been sceptical about such things until I was encouraged to start retiring to a quiet place outside with nature, as I love nature, and just think about a favourite place and recall the way things look, the way the air smelled, the way the ants were moving, and every finite detail of the favourite environment and then remove yourself from them and remain quiet without thought. What it did for me was open me up to be more accepting of myself, my environment and of others. I certainly havent reached the stage of feeling nothing, but I do feel that the “universe” does unfold to a quiet mind, I have certainly felt that it has for me.

11 years ago

Hi Jim,

I enjoyed your blog as always on “Missing Zen”. I understand that we all experience “spiritual dryness” in our lifetime. I empathized with what you are experiencing within. I guess the path to spirituality is unique in many ways. There is no instant path and it is 3 steps forward and 2 steps backward. I hope and pray you will get back “with the Zen of things”.

I believed that it is in spiritual struggle that uncovers our real spirit. Take a Sacred Pause, Befriend the Rhythms of Rest.

Please check out the Taize community at: http://www.taize.fr/en It is a interesting community for all especially the youth.


Bass Poet