Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Zen Moments

Gothic Rose
Gothic Rose, Helsinki, 2005

Since I started to practice zazen a bit over a year ago, I've come to appreciate little experiences that I've labeled "Zen moments." Mostly they're just little moments when I suddenly notice all the stuff I usually filter out – the sound and feel of the wind, the smells, the hubbub on the street, the light, the feelings of the body, and so on. I don't even know if they have anything to do with Zen as such; perhaps I've always been having them. However, since starting to mess with Zen, I have been noticing them more. I do notice that I seem to happen on them more often if my practice is going well.

I don't think they have any huge, cosmic significance, but they're nice, and they brighten up my day whenever one happens. They're also very varied, as varied as, say, different flavors of food. Most of them are rather tiny, and the one I've had that involved a fairly spectacular emotional high was, I think, the least significant of all, because it wasn't really mine; it was borrowed. Perhaps it wasn't even a Zen moment at all, although I have mentally filed it under that heading. It was quite educational too, though, but in a different way.

The first such Zen moment happened in July of last year. I'd only been meditating for about a month or two. It was a hot day. My knee hurt. I have occasional problems with it, ever since I crashed my bike some 25 years ago and banged it badly enough to be hospitalized for it. It's acting up again, as a matter of fact, which is annoying because I have two days of zazen coming up on the weekend.

I had been thinking about no-self, anatta. I was walking back to the car from the Saturday farmers' market in Apt, in southern France. The car was parked too far, because we were late to get there. There was a lot of stuff to haul. I was in a bad mood, hating the sweltering heat and the pain in my knee and those heavy groceries and feeling resentful at my wife, whom I unjustly blamed for being late to the market so we had to park so far.

Then, all of a sudden, something shifted, and for a moment I saw – or conceptualized, or whatever, I didn't actually see anything unusual – the universe and myself like this. There's a bunch of junk floating on a sea, with a wave carrying that junk along. When I go to sleep at night, the wave falls into the sea. When I wake up, it picks up that junk again, and carries it a bit further. Perhaps it picks up some more junk, or some junk floats off, or sinks. Then, one day, a wave won't pick up that particular configuration of junk, but some of it will be picked up by different waves, and the rest will sink or scatter.

While I didn't feel that that experience had any particular importance beyond what it was, the thought was very comforting, and it remained with me. It has shaped the way I look at things in some subtle ways that I can't easily describe. It's certainly fairly crucial to pushing me to find and stick with some people who can help me make sense of this stuff, and perhaps point me in directions that aren't totally in the woods.

Another one happened some days later. I was shaving, when suddenly things shifted, and I really felt myself shaving. I wasn't thinking or even "doing" it. There was just the feeling of the shaver against my skin, and the motion of moving it across my face, nothing more, but that, very intensely and "fully." It only lasted for a moment, but was memorable enough that I can recall the feeling easily. It was nice.

One happened I was riding my bike, last April I think. I was suddenly very aware of the sound and feel of the wind, the kinetic feel of the bike, the feel of my body as I was pedaling. My riding became much smoother and freer than usual. Going around bends, cranking up a hill, spinning down it, all felt liquid, confident, and effortless in an immensely pleasurable way. There was just the action, no thought of it, even the physical exertion happened by itself. This lasted for several kilometers, almost until I arrived at the office.

Yet another one was really funky, not altogether pleasant, and somewhat disconcerting. I was having lunch with my colleagues at a cafeteria. I don't even remember what I was having, but my colleague sitting opposite me was having oven-baked rainbow trout in a sour-cream and dill sauce with boiled potatoes. All of a sudden, I found myself tasting her food rather than mine, as well as feeling the tactile sensations of eating it – the metal of the fork, and so on. It tasted rather repulsive; the fish wasn't entirely fresh, it was oily and overcooked, the sauce was congealed into little half-dried lumps; the potatoes were rubbery. That spooked me out enough to ask the sensei about it. (He was reassuring but noncommittal, for which I thank him.)

Then the spectacular one, that I think wasn't really a Zen moment at all, although my practice probably did open me up to it.

That happened at a Leonard Cohen concert a week or two ago. He was playing in Finland as a part of his world tour. It involved a massive emotional high, real fireworks going off in the head, followed by a correspondingly stinging crash a couple of days later. The other ones came and went easily, without causing much emotional disturbance either way, other than perhaps imparting a generally peaceful, easy feeling.

I'm usually not all that powerfully affected by music, despite my father's diligent efforts to educate me. I think he gets this kind of thing out of music all the time. This time, I found myself absorbed in Cohen's songs the same way I'm absorbed with my breath when meditating on it. By "Partisan Song" it felt pretty rapturous; I don't think I've ever gotten that kind of high out of music. All of a sudden, again, there was a shift of perception, and I felt that it was my late grandfather (whom I think about a quite a lot, and miss a quite a lot too) singing there, while at the same time it was Leonard Cohen, and then I felt that it was me too, and then everybody. It's very hard to describe, but for a moment there, I felt that everyone – literally – was there, singing and listening at the same time, and it all made sense. I found myself thinking, "So that's what they mean by rebirth! Of course! It's perfectly simple!"

Unfortunately, by the time I was in the bus, packed like sardines with the rest of the (mostly) happy, sweaty people heading for home, that feeling of insight had faded like a dream. And two days later, I got the backlash from that huge emotional high; I felt really down in the dumps, more than I had felt in a long while, and nearly threw my computer out the window when trying to connect it to the stereo to get it to play a suitably gloomy Nick Cave song off Spotify. Nick Cave is the dark side of Leonard Cohen.

I've been thinking of that experience a bit since, and while it was clearly the most spectacular one so far, I also think it's the least significant. My "meditational" focus opened me up to the music, and I let myself be transported by it. I think there are terms like "disassociation" or "depersonalization" for that kind of thing. The concert felt in some ways like a religious ceremony, with huge energy from the crowd and the performers, and pretty rapturous things can happen with crowds like that, if you let them.

Thing is, that experience and feeling of insight wasn't mine – it was given to me by Leonard Cohen and his utterly magnificent group of musicians. There were the tracks of an ox there, I think, but if so, they were from Leonard's ox, not mine. In a way, I may have caught a vicarious taste of Leonard Cohen's enlightenment, but once he stopped singing, it was gone. Perhaps it was also a taste of what practices like shaktipat or guru yoga are about, and if so, it's kinda scary – I can see how easy it would be to get hooked on emotional highs like that, and if someone told you that that's spirituality, not just entertainment, you could get into real trouble. Chasing after that sort of thing could be a very seductive false scent, I think.

Was that a Zen moment, then? Yes, and no, I think. My practice opened me up to the experience, although the experience itself was, I think, vicarious.

So I'm glad to have had that experience, and especially glad to have gotten it in a concert from one of my all-time favorite musician-poets rather than from some scary guru type, who's probably able to induce something very like it with far worse motives, and minus the artistic depth.

Whatever it was, though, it did strengthen my feeling that there is an ox there somewhere, and it is worth trying to look for those tracks. Perhaps the very process of looking is the whole point of the exercise.


  1. You know Suzuki Roshi was asked once what his opinion on the effects of Zen practice and human consciousness. He responded, "I just teach my students how to hear the birds sing."

  2. Having been raised around the Charismatic Christian scene my encounter with these types of experiences since I got into zazen practice has been a wary one. I guess, perhaps leaving aside your experience in the carpark which had a kind of analytical dimension, I can't help wondering if the others where mainly about the postiive feelings (maybe of unity?) that samadhi / concentration type experiences can give. I mean why call them insights per se?

    That said I agree that it is encouraging and positive to get a sense of the boundaries of awareness and consciousness being more complex than we usually realise/experience - I guess that is a kind of insight. Though by that standrad being drubk would also be a kind of insight!

  3. I didn't actually call them insights (nor do I think of them as such). They're just momentary shifts in perception, perhaps like being drunk, only in the direction of more awareness rather than less.

    I did call the one I had at the concert a "feeling of insight." That's the closest I can get to describing it. You know when sometimes you're half asleep and you suddenly have a feeling that you get It, whatever It is? You think "Oh, of course, that's It, how silly of me not to realize that before." Then you fall asleep, and in the morning it's gone. That's happened to me every once in a while, long before I had anything to do with Zen. The concert experience was pretty much exactly that. A feeling of insight, minus the actual insight.

  4. Hi Petteri, yes I got the term 'insights' from the bit about the concert. Anyway I hope you didn't read my comment as a critique. It was more meant to be a 'pondering-with'. I totally identify with the things your wrote about. I guess your single use of the word insight and the bit about the tracks of the ox got me to thinking about the status of such experiences in terms of Zen practice. What I am trying to say is what if the 'feeling of insight (minus the actual insight)' is really nothing more than a meaningless (emotional?) artifact of experiencing a kind of perceptual shift. As you say these kinds of experiences are pretty common outside of meditative practice. Your car park experience seems more promising though ... a kind of blend of shifting and re-assessing.

  5. Not at all. I just wanted to clarify. These things aren't easy to describe, and I'm not very good at describing them.

    The funny thing is, I think, that I honestly don't care what, if anything, they "mean." They are what they are, and they're mostly nice and always interesting.

    The only one that shook me up a bit was the one at the concert, and upon reflection I figured that that was actually less "Zen" than the others, except that my practice may have allowed me to open myself to such things now. I never really understood real fandom, and perhaps blocked out rapturous group experiences like that at some fairly deep level; meditational practice may have weakened or dissolved that block.

    But I do think that the other shifts were more internally-driven, whereas those concert fireworks were externally-triggered; a combination of powerful art, a powerful performer, and an electrified crowd, meeting a mind that was receptive to them.

    Vicarious or not, though, I'm glad for the experience.