Monday, January 17, 2011

What is this Zen you speak of?

Shadows on the wall
Shadows on the wall, Apt, France, 2005

I was interviewed for a health and fitness print magazine the other day. Another first for me. They had gotten in touch with the Helsinki Zen Center and wanted to talk to someone who does the Zen thing, but hasn't been doing it for too long, and one of the guys in charge asked if I wanted to do it, so I said OK.

During the interview, I realized exactly how exotic this stuff looks for most people. I know that many of you, dear readers, are looking for stuff about photography or cameras and therefore probably are pretty puzzled about the Zen stuff, and may be curious about it. This piece is for you. It's in question and answer format, inspired by that experience of being interviewed about it.

What got you started with this Zen thing, Petteri?

A couple of years ago, it occurred to me that I have everything everybody says I need to be happy. I'm healthy, I'm married to a wonderful woman I love deeply, I have a challenging job with colleagues I enjoy working with which pays enough that I don't need to worry about money, a nice little apartment just where I want to live in, a dog and a cat and a loving family and some good friends. Yet I'm still anxious and stressed-out and dissatisfied and, most of the time, downright unhappy. I realized that doing more of what I've been doing so far is unlikely to help. I had previously come across the Buddhist theory of dissatisfaction—called the Four Noble Truths—and it made some kind of sense to me, so I thought I'd give it a shot. Also, my wife encouraged me.

Did you try something else first?

Yeah. I've tried physical things like cycling and some other sports. I also checked out a Tibetan Buddhist place, but it felt too devotional and too New Agey for my taste.

So, what exactly do you do when you do the Zen thing?

I take a square mat that's stuffed with cotton and is about 60 centimeters on a side and put it next to a wall, about 15 cm from it. The mat's called a zabuton. Then I put a round cushion that's stuffed with kapok—a springy kind of plant fiber—on it. The cushion's called a zafu. I sit on the cushion facing the wall. If my knee isn't causing me problems, I fold my legs so I'm sitting cross-legged, with one foot resting on the other leg's calf. The position is called "quarter-lotus." If I have a pain in my knee, I sit on my knees instead, with the zafu standing on its edge between my legs and toward the back so it doesn't press on any sensitive bits. I set a timer for 25 or 30 minutes.

Then I place my hands on my lap so that the fingers on my left hand rest on the fingers of my right hand, and my thumbs touch lightly. I straighten my back, relax my shoulders and legs, breathe in and out from my belly a few times, put my tongue against my palate, half-close my eyes, and look down about 45 degrees.

I direct my attention to my breath and try to keep it there. If I notice that my attention has wandered away, I just return it to my breath. If I notice that my posture has slumped, I straighten up again, but other than that I don't move until the timer sounds.

The name of this practice is zazen, or sitting meditation. There are other ways to do it as well; the specifics of my practice are just one possibility.

I do this at home on most days, sometimes twice a day, and try not to skip two days in a row. I go to the Zen center, or zendo, about once a week, where we sit like this for two or three rounds, with 5-7 minutes of walking meditation (called kinhin) between them. About once a month, I attend a zazenkai at the Zen center, where we sit about eight or nine rounds like this with a couple of longer breaks in between. I've also attended two weekend retreats with about eight hours of meditation a day, a by-the-minute program, and complete silence.

The stuff at the zendo also includes ritual, such as chanting, bowing, and ringing bells, listening to a Zen teacher's or instructor's lectures (called teishos or dharma talks), and one-on-one talks with the teacher or an instructor (called dokusan or daisan). I like that stuff a lot too. We also have tea and biscuits and talk about all kinds of stuff, from Android versus iPhone to the great question of birth-and-death.

Do you have to wear some sort of special clothing for it?

Nah, as long as it's not so tight it makes sitting uncomfortable. At the zendo, it's polite not to wear bright colors or things with text on it, as it's a bit distracting to read somebody's band T-shirt when doing kinhin. At home I sit in my normal clothes, or PJ's, or gym pants if I've been stretching. At the zendo, I wear a robe.

A robe?!?

If you had an excuse to dress up as a Jedi, wouldn't you?

What happens when you do this "zazen?"

Usually, my thoughts just go round and round and I keep bringing my attention back to my breath. Sometimes I get sleepy and have to struggle to stop myself from dozing off. Sometimes it hurts a lot physically, especially on those zazenkais and retreats, although it's been getting easier as I've done more of it. Sometimes it's really boring and I can't wait for the bell to ring. However, when I get off the zafu, I almost always find myself feeling lighter, calmer, and in a better mood. In fact, sometimes I find that a really foul mood has completely lifted after a round or two of zazen. More intensive practices have had bigger effects; the last weekend retreat left me feeling very peaceful for a week or so.

On a few occasions, I've had my mind quiet down a quite a lot, and been able to keep my attention on my breath for extended periods of time. That feels really pleasant, and gives a very intense experience of the sensations coming in through my senses all the time. Sometimes some slightly weird stuff happens, such as seeing pictures appear on the wall, or having my sense of scale change. These are called makyos, which are harmless side-effects that should be ignored until they go away.

What longer-term effects have you experienced?

Well, meditation isn't a magic happiness pill, but it has made a difference to a number of observable things. I have a very volatile temper, but I've been managing to keep it on a leash a little bit better than before. I sleep better. I'm less stressed out. My foul moods dissipate more quickly. I'm more aware of what's going on in my mind and body than before; for example, if I'm eating, I'm aware of how I'm going to feel afterward. This has made me avoid eating too much, or heavy foods that make me feel bad. I've also found that I don't enjoy the effects of alcohol anymore so I stop at one or two beers or glasses of wine. My posture has also improved, and my legs and hips are a lot more flexible because I've been doing stretching exercises in order to be able to sit more comfortably, and I find it easier to haul my lazy ass to the gym because I'm more aware of the consequences should I skip it. My wife thinks I'm generally nicer to be around.

You mentioned 'teacher' and 'instructor.' What's the difference?

A teacher's sort of like a tenured professor, and an instructor is sort of like a graduate student.

Do you worship Buddha?

No. At least not in any usual sense of 'worship' and 'Buddha.' I'm a bit uncomfortable about devotional practice—prayer, worship, that sort of thing. I think of Shakyamuni Buddha—the guy who got the ball rolling on Buddhism—much like I think of Sir Isaac Newton or Socrates: someone who discovered something really important and managed to pass along that discovery.

Do you believe in reincarnation?

If you mean what I think you mean, then no. There's more to it than that, though. I've explored my thoughts about it here.

Are you a vegetarian?


Are you a Buddhist?

Tough one. I'd find it very odd to write "Buddhist" in a slot marked "Religion." On the other hand, I think that Buddhist teaching makes a lot of sense, and I try to understand and apply it as well as I'm able. I do Buddhist stuff, but I don't know if I am a Buddhist. I'm not even entirely sure what that means.

Do you have any advice for someone who's interested in trying meditation?

This is very difficult to do on your own. Some kind of instructor and group is really helpful. Keep your eyes open and look around. Lots of people will try to sell you stuff. A few will try to recruit you into a cult. Some just don't know what they're doing. And the rest—which is still a quite a lot—are a very varied bunch, teaching meditation for any of a number of reasons, in any of a number of traditions. Some do it as a form of therapy; some make it a part of a devotional practice; some have their roots in any of a number of Hindu traditions, others in any of a number of Buddhist ones. There are Christian, Jewish, and Muslim meditative traditions, and a quite a few others as well. Different styles suit different people. I would encourage you to go ahead and test-drive groups that you think look likely to work, but do a bit of research first to find out how controversial the group is, and then keep a cool head. The Internet is a great source of information for that sort of thing, as long as you remember not to trust everything you read. If the meditation teacher is demanding something that feels weird or wrong, it probably is, which is your cue to go somewhere else.

Give it some time. Most meditative practices are very simple, but also very difficult, like hitting a golf ball with a club is really simple but very difficult. It takes some time to get into the groove. For the first several months, I was mostly just struggling with pain in my legs. Also, don't expect 'results.' The trick with any meditative practice is just to do it; hang onto it no matter what. This is harder than you might think, because your mind will be constantly trying to distract you from it. An expectation of results—whether it's something concrete and immediate like dispelling a bad mood or something transcendent like enlightenment—is a very powerful distraction. It also invites you to compare your 'progress' to others or some imaginary goal you've set up for yourself. You will inevitably fall short, which will do nothing to help either. Or perhaps you won't fall short, which might be worse as you might get some really funny ideas about it. So just stick with it and give it a few months; by then you'll know if it's working out for you or not.

Cool. Where do I find out more?

The Internet is good. Wikipedia has lots of stuff on meditation. Google will also help you find groups near you; there are more out there than you might expect.

Which group did you meditate with again?

That would be the Helsinki Zen Center, which is associated with the Zenbuddhistiska Samfundet and ZengÄrden, a Zen training temple in Sweden. You can look up where they fit in the big picture from their websites.

If there's anything else you'd like to ask me, go ahead.


  1. They actually asked if you worship Buddha????

    Nice article for the layman: enjoyed your patient and mildly tongue in cheek tone as well.

  2. These weren't the exact questions she asked. They're a combination of that, plus questions I've been asked before, plus questions I'd like to have been asked.

  3. "A teacher's sort of like a tenured professor, and an instructor is sort of like a graduate student." -A nice analogy. Maybe I should start to use it too when asked. (And quite often it is asked). Thanks, Petteri.

  4. It is a good analogy. Even the salary of a graduate student approximately equals that of a Zen instructor.



  6. And oh, can't help myself for posting this awesome and classic clip! :D

  7. You're welcome. :) I just think those are funny! Great reminders for not taking this Zen Business too seriously. I think the practice itself is very, very serious but all these instructor/teacher roles etc. are just an act, kind of a play, I think. And this doesn't mean that those can't be serious. But for me, they're just part of this 'religious' play. :) Of course we need teachers and instructors and practitioners but if we're taking them too seriously or thinking that our Zen teacher is kind of a guru, you know, I think Zen is turning into some very dangerous cult shit. Crossref Shimano case and all other looney cases.

    Great post by the way! :)


  8. Yeah. I think of it more as taking the wrong things too seriously and not taking the right things seriously enough. Probably everybody screws this part up some of the time. Reminders come in handy, for both sides of the coin. Middle Way again?

  9. Yeah! I think we all screw everything up some of the time. But I think that's the big part of our lives and our practice. I think it's important sometimes to remind ourselves that teachers also make mistakes and behind the scenes they're also human beings. I like the attitude of yours. Big up!

    Take care, man!