Before we meditate, Taka talks to us about Zen and Japanese culture and history. He measures the time with an incense stick: when it burns down, so much time has past. This is a very old, traditional method of timekeeping. If people start shifting around or falling asleep, he comes over, taps you on the shoulder with a stick, and then smacks you lightly on the pressure points on the back of the shoulder to wake you up and relieve muscle tension.

We meditate for 15 minutes, take a break, and then meditate for another 15 minutes. He says that consistent practice is much better than practicing for long stretches, and that the human brain can really only sustain complete concentration for about 15 minutes at a stretch. Of course, in monasteries and Zen retreats, they meditate for much longer. Monasteries are not well-heated, and they often meditate in the cold for ages. They got dinner, but held a warm rock to their bellies at night to fool their stomachs into feeling full. (This is where the name of the gourmet meal kaiseki comes from - kai, mid-section, seki, stone.)

He announced that he was going to give us the austerity experience once, so we could see the difference between that and what we're doing regularly. One rainy morning, we all bundled up, and he opened all the windows to the garden, told us that if we moved AT ALL, he would be round with the stick (not to beat us, just to give a little smack to our pressure points - it doesn't hurt), and we meditated for 35 minutes.

For about 15 minutes, it was actually wonderful. With the windows open, you could hear the rain and bird calls. The air felt crisp, not cold (though it was actually about 40 degrees), and I felt as if all my senses were spread out like a spiderweb - as if I could sense every warm body, every drop of rain.

Then it got so cold that he closed the windows. For the rest of the time, I was mostly obsessing about not moving. I guess he was right that humans can only concentrate for 15 minutes. Afterward, he said that he thought that people not in monastic training who go in for stuff like the Buddha gave up on, like sitting beneath trees for months and eating roots, meditating all day for weeks, meditating under a freezing waterfall, etc, are often either acting out of curiosity (what's it like?) or ego (I can meditate like a badass.) I see both those motivations operating in myself while I was sitting there in the cold, determined to keep still. But the first bit, while we were breathing the rainy garden air, was lovely.

I have been trying to practice non-attachment on this trip. That doesn't mean not having an identity, or not wanting anything. It means not getting attached to things going in a particular way - focusing more on the journey, and less on the destination. It has been helping my meditation a lot, I think, that I have been focusing just on sitting rather than on sitting with perfect concentration, etc. This is related to a type of Japanese therapy (Morita therapy) which is influenced by Zen and which we got a lecture on a couple days ago. It basically says that we can't and shouldn't try to control our flow of consciousness and our emotions, but we can control our behavior. You can't force yourself to be peaceful or undistracted. But you can easily make yourself sit down and pay attention to your breath.

In the convenience store, I grabbed a can of hot coffee (Japan has hot canned coffee and other hot canned drinks) and a hot dog. At least, I thought it was a hot dog. It looked exactly like a hot dog. But when I bit into it, I discovered that the "hot dog" was a fried fish stick, and the "ketchup" was tartar sauce. I was immediately disappointed that it wasn't a hot dog, the outcome I had expected. But considered as a fish stick... it was quite a good fish stick.
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