Why do you meditate? I think it may have been the second serious question Sensei asked me after I started meditating with him. Basically, why are you here to meditate tonight? To give you context for the answer I gave, I’d just read the chapter on Hinduism in Huston Smith‘s “Religions of Man” (newest edition is “The World’s Religions”). He was born to American missionaries in China where he grew up, then after his Ph.D. had a career as a professor of Philosophy at MIT. This chapter has a nice section about how Hinduism enumerates the maturing wants of a person: 1) pleasure 2) success 3) service 4) liberation (moksha). This last one includes the desire to continue to be, to be aware and know, and to feel joy. The desire to know spoke to me at the time I met Sensei as I was completing my own PhD at UCLA in particle physics, as Huston wrote: “Second, we want to know, to be aware. People are endlessly curious. Whether it be a scientist probing the mysteries of nature, a businessman scanning the morning paper, a teen-ager glued to television to find out who won the ball game, or neighbors catching up on the local news over a cup of coffee, we are insatiably curious.” So I answered “curiosity”. I wanted to understand how the mind worked, how consciousness worked, how we ourselves work, and believed the answer lay in mastering meditation. I’d been meditating initially in the TM, then Chapel, and later the Soto Zen traditions all my life, but Sensei didn’t know that. He rejected my answer, saying something like “Curiosity is just a passing motive, something you might do on a weekend. What is your real motivation?” Fast forward to now. Here are some potential answers you might consider: a) I need to relax and let go, b) I need to get clear and motivated, c) I’m searching for answers and solace, d) I love meditation. The first two depend on what conditions you are facing in your life at the moment, and after years of practice and coming to know jhana, I find I simply love to just be present with that degree of perspicacity. So, what brings you to meditate at this time? There are no wrong answers, and the usefulness of the answer is to know your current self better. Your answers, like you, may mature in the sense Huston Smith described.


It’s important to be able to let go. In our daily life we have to let go to sleep, make love, or just enjoy the day. In meditation we have to let go in order to be fully present with ourself. Jhana and Enlightenment are basically the same, but with jhana you let go temporarily and with enlightenment you let go permanently. Let go of what? Of the attachments that obstruct you from being in perfect harmony, free and spontaneous to do anything you choose, from realizing universal consciousness. So then consider a short meditation period like 5 min compared with a longer one like 60 min. If you meditate for 5 minutes and spend them in jhana, that’s awesome, but unlikely for most persons. Instead some obstacle(s) will keep you from it, some anxiety you can’t let go, some concern you can’t stop worrying about, something in your environment or body that keeps grabbing your attention. In order to learn how to let go of those things you have to first separate yourself from them, and that requires applying keen investigation and holding steady clear perception of what the obstacles are. It does not require that you understand them or their mechanism; in fact that most always comes in hindsight. So don’t get lost in analytical reasoning and trying to “solve” for a solution. Well, when we meditate for a long time like 60 min, whatever we are holding on to that is holding us back starts to feel tired and worn out. That helps us perceive it. If we can hold our attention steady and crack ourselves open to let it go, then we’ve made the space for jhana. On the other hand we may get fully exhausted before we get that and have to try again another time. You may always exhaust without clearing the space, but don’t give up because anytime you might just let go and find it’s suddenly easy. After that experience, meditation practice becomes a real joy and new obstacles are welcome on the cushion and even in daily life. Eventually all obstacles are gone and you are just free and happy.


Some more thoughts on: A) the common perception of meditation, B) the 5 minutes twice-a-day practice prescribed in the Chapel curriculum, and C) the 30-60 minute traditional Buddhist breathing meditation practice. A) the superficial perception of meditation by a person just a little curious and trying it out is that it’s something you do in seeking a reprieve from stress/pain/etc similar to a vacation, time off work, hug, massage, etc. So it’s a way to obtain comfort. B) the Chapel practice of short meditations can help you overcome laziness since you only have 5 minutes to get still, but in general the purpose is to use your ability to create a steady and sensitive mind in order to practice other skills and generally live with more awareness. So you need to be comfortable in order to succeed in creating that. C) The lengthier practice where you allow your circle of awareness to remain open and hold your attention steady despite initially overwhelming distractions and disturbances is a confrontation with yourself. It’s opposite your instinct to seek comfort. Here we are training ourself, learning how to be comfortable with our discomfort. There are many layers of discomfort: physical like exercise, waking up early, eating; emotional like starting a new job, quitting a bad relationship; mental like public speaking, an exam or job interview; or our values like a career change, cross-country move, or grieving a death. It’s natural to grieve change (a death, a job, a relationship, money, etc) but we cling so tight that we get stuck on it. By facing it and creating peace we can get over it and move on with our life. This is true during an hour’s meditation practice as well – can you set aside your discomfort/trauma/story-line temporarily? Remember habits are comfortable, so when you go outside that circle (by choice or not), you have to face the discomfort. They say that post-satori practice (after the surprise of experiencing jhana for the first time) is moreso a welcoming of pain, embarrassment, difficulties that come to us in life as opportunities to create peace and comfort. There’s plenty to practice with. So as we start meditation, consider the easy circumstances you can arrange but don’t be obsessive about creating comfortable conditions because you can transform the experience.


The common perception of meditation is that it’s something you can do on occasion to relax, calm yourself, and improve your health. You may also hear something like, “it also helps you remember your connection to the divine by bringing that specific energy into you.” Here we consider the why of meditation more specifically. “Bring that energy into you” is basically a vague reference to 3rd jhana, where you experience yourself as merged into something greater than yourself. Practically speaking, to be in 3rd jhana you can’t just set an intention and have it happen to you. Life and meditation are like a staircase from Hell to Heaven and you have to take each step — there are no elevators where it happens to you just because you want it. You have to get 1st jhana first, and to do that you have to free yourself from every disturbance either negative or positive. Those are the stairs by which you can “visit Heaven” during a meditation period in jhana. That means, e.g. if you are concerned about the noise your neighbor is making while you meditate, you have to let that go and not care whatever noise they make. Also, simply plugging your ears may not do it, because you know that you are plugging your ears to avoid something disturbing and that’s enough to miss 1st jhana. It’s not a matter of arranging circumstances until you feel good, it’s a matter of feeling good regardless of circumstances. Rev. Gene Larr, in “Your Dawning Awareness” puts it simply: “Keep your mind still and allow it to relax….All distractions should be removed because you are going to have to still your mind and any of these distractions that can be removed before the practice of stilling, the easier it will be for you.” And here we move into the how of meditation. Keep it still and allow it to relax. Just as I’ve been saying, ‘let go and pay attention, at the same time’. The common instructions for meditating are to separate yourself from the external senses and let go of your thoughts. That’s good, but ANYTHING that catches your attention needs to be let go of to get to 1st jhana, not just the external senses. Typically a person who hasn’t meditated or is not too settled at the time is most distracted by external sounds, etc. But after some practice or in a more settled state, I see folks more often get caught by their reasoning mind mulling over problems, memories, etc. On the other hand some people get more often caught by how their body feels. There are many techniques and crutches to help with specific things, but in the end you have to let those things just be and realize you are independent of them. 1st jhana is just the sudden sensation of that freedom, when you feel your “body and mind dropped off” as Dogen Zenji wrote.