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The art of not thinking

<llowing is an excerpt from a reflective essay I wrote after staying in a Rinzai Zen monastery for a month in Japan in February of last year. If you have any inclination towards meditation, I hope you will find it useful:

There are many reasons not to go to a monastery. Most people do not feel even the slightest inclination towards training at a monastery, and when you look at the facts objectively, it’s easy to see why. You get up at 3:30 AM every morning, you spend the bulk of your time sitting still and doing nothing, only to be hit by a wooden sword if you start to fall asleep. You spend your mornings doing unpaid menial labor and all meals are eaten in silence. All variety of muscle problems are common, especially during osesshin, when everyone meditates 12 hours a day and there is no talking allowed for a week. By the fourth day the entire zendo ( the hall where we meditate) smells like various muscle creams.

Luckily, the goodness or badness of the monastery experience is just a matter of perspective, and to explain this, I’d like to invoke Hamlet, Prince of Denmark from Act II Scene ii: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” For Hamlet, his ill-thinking made a prison of Denmark, for me, the more I thought about the objective difficulty of the monastery schedule, the more unpleasant it became. Fortunately, meditation is the practiced art of not-thinking, and there’s no better place to practice meditation than a monastery.

Meditation is a process of disconnection. There’s a passage in Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, in which one of the main characters, Mr. Nakata, is learning how to think from a truck driver who’s giving him a ride. The truck driver asks him if he likes beef on top of rice. Nakata answers, “yes.” The driver then asks if Nakata likes chicken and egg on top of rice, and Nakata answers, “yes.” The driver shouts, “There’s a connection! You just build up more and more of those connections and it makes a web and that’s all thinking is!” This is a rough paraphrase, but it gets the essential point across. Thinking is a process of connecting the things and ideas of the world to other things and ideas. Meditation, therefore, is the temporary severing of these connections, tearing down the framework of the web of thought. Breathe in, breathe out, 1. Breathe in, breathe out, 2. Breathe in, breathe out, my knee hurts 3. Breathe in, breathe out, how much time is left? 4. Thoughts will always arise, but if these thoughts are disconnected to any other thing, then they pass with the breath and your mind does not stop on them.

I think it is often underestimated how much energy thinking takes up. When I first entered the monastery and was constantly aware of the newness of everything and thinking all the time, I constantly felt tired and sleepy off of only 6 hours of sleep. However, as I learned to think less and less during the day, I felt more and more active and alert off of the same amount of sleep. In osesshin, when sleep is cut to 5 hours, I felt as rested as if I had gotten 10 hours of sleep after a night of particularly good meditation. It’s often said in Zen circles that those who practice meditation seriously during the day only need 2-3 hours of sleep. I think this is because going to bed with an empty mind let’s you enter immediately into the deepest and most efficient type of sleep. Dreams, while fun, take your energy and make sleep not as restful as it could be. I haven’t remembered a dream since leaving the temple, and I have always felt more rested. (update: I started remembering dreams again a few months after stopping serious meditation).

There was one Polish monk named Jobal who I spent a lot of time with. He taught me a form of Tai Chi called Pushing Hands, and we would practice together whenever both of us had the time. In turn, I taught him how to play Frisbee with a crappy 100 yen Frisbee from a department store down the street. Then, one day, it was announced that Jobal would be leaving in a few days. On the morning of his departure, I saw him briefly in the morning, then he vanished. He’d been at that monastery for 5 years and just disappeared silently in the morning without much of a goodbye to anyone. Perhaps he knew he would be back, but I think there’s a greater lesson here, a lesson that explains why a reflective essay about meditation is like a dance about rocks. An experience like this is not something you constantly look back on in photos. The experience is always with you, and it is by living presently that one reflects on meditation. This is why Jobal vanished without a word.

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