Shunryu Suzuki

Day 20 of Wildmind’s 100 Day Meditation Challenge

100 day meditation challenge 020The other day when I was meditating, I was really beset with thinking for 35 minutes, because of being tired and being overwhelmed at work, and probably also because it was late in the evening. I don’t freak out about that kind of thing, but it did feel like a struggle.

And then for the last five minutes, something really interesting happened. I just gave up — in a very positive way. Out of the blue, I found I just wanted to let the mind rest. And I was able to just sit there, in what seemed like a slightly low energy but calm and content state. It felt absolutely right.

Sometimes these creative impulses just come up, completely unexpectedly.

The tension between freedom and discipline, effort and rest, is an interesting one, and some people experience this in relation to whether to sit. A writer I know recently wrote to me saying that it was a real struggle sometimes to stay on the cushion. She’d keep looking at the clock and having a desire to move. After one turbulent sit, she too had an out-of-the blue revelation:

When the bell sounded, I decided to sit for a few minutes longer. I wasn’t forcing myself to meditate; I was meditating because I was choosing to, and I could stop whenever I wanted to. I was struck by the difference in the quality of this “free,” rather than compulsory, meditation. It felt less pressured, more open, more relaxed. Now I’m wondering how to bring that feeling of freedom into my daily practice, given the fact that I *know* I need the structure of a time goal each day.

If you have trouble getting on the cushion, I think the thing to do is to choose to take the freedom out of the situation completely. It’s when we’re not quite committed to sitting that we end up in a will-I-won’t-I struggle with ourselves. I was stuck like that for the longest time (to be a bit more specific, most of the past 30 years!) until a few months ago when I decided that what I need to do was redefine my sense of self. And that led to this post which was a complete game-changer. In the last 100 days I’ve missed one day, and having seen how that missed day came about, I’m absolutely sure I won’t miss one in the next 100 days.

Once you’ve decided that meditating is just what you doit’s part of who you are then you have a different kind of freedom. You have the freedom of not having to make a choice. You just do it. And “doing it” is a self-chosen minimum commitment, like five minutes per day. Five minutes is your fall-back position for those DEFCON 1, one-step-away-from-the-loony-asylum types of days, but hopefully you’ll average more than that.

And then there’s how to deal with the thoughts — although hopefully by now they’ll no longer be thoughts so much about whether you’re going to stay on the cushion or not. Suzuki Roshi said that if you want to tame a wild horse (or maybe it was a bull) give him a big field to stand in. Try to confine him and you have a fight on your hands. But in a big field, he just stands there quietly. So you can create a big field of awareness by really noticing the space around you. Really notice the light, and space, and sound in front, behind, and to the left and right. Feel, if you can, like your mind is filling that space. Feel a slight stretch as your attention goes in many different directions at the same time. And keeping that sense of spaciousness, start to notice the breathing. The mind has freedom, and you’re sitting in a committed way.

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How we use effort to get to a state of effortless meditation

A person's lower legs and feet mid-jump, appearing to hover over grass.

From time to time I’ll hear people saying that meditation shouldn’t involve effort. For example, Krishnamurti said, “All effort to meditate is the denial of meditation.” And I just stumbled upon a website that decried the “arrogance” and “ignorance” of those who say that meditation involves effort, because “Effort is the antithesis of meditation.”

It’s clear, though, when you look at the Buddha’s teachings, that he encouraged us to make effort in meditation, and in our lives generally. His last words, in fact, were “With diligence, strive on.”

And in my own meditation I find I have to make effort all the time. I have to let go of compulsive thinking, steer my awareness back to the body and the breathing, correct my posture, adjust my attitudes.

One section of the Eightfold Path — one of the Buddha’s key teachings — is “Right Effort.” Right effort is counted as being part of the meditation (samadhi) section of the path.

Right Effort, in the context of the eightfold path, is seen as one of three pivotal aspects of practice, along with Right View and Right Mindfulness. Every aspect of practice depends upon effort, mindfulness, and view.

Effort, mindfulness, and view are described as three states that “run around and circle” all other practices. For example, if you want to practice Right Speech, you first have to be mindful of your speech. Without mindfulness, there is no possibility of any practice. You also have to have a discriminating awareness (or view) of which speech activities are unskillful and cause suffering, and which are skillful and lead us away from suffering. And then you actually need to make effort to abandon unskillful speech and to cultivate skillful speech. So on every step of the path, effort is involved, along with mindfulness and view.

Right Effort is usually defined in terms of the Four Right Efforts, or Exertions. These are:

  1. The effort to prevent the arising of unskillful qualities that have not yet arisen.
  2. The effort to abandon unskillful qualities that have already arisen.
  3. The effort to cultivate skillful qualities that have not yet arisen.
  4. The effort to maintain and increase to fruition skillful qualities that have arisen

Of course we can make either too much or too little effort. There once was a monk called Sona, who was considering giving up monastic life because his efforts weren’t paying off. Just as he was wondering whether he should return to his family, the Buddha appeared to Sona. (This was described as the Buddha “magically” appearing, but I think we could take this as the image of the Buddha appearing in Sona’s mind as he debated with himself.) The (imagined) Buddha asked Sona:

“Before, when you were a house-dweller, were you skilled at playing the lute?”

Sona of course replied that he had.

The (imagined) Buddha went on:

“And what do you think: when the strings of your lute were too taut, was your lute in tune and playable?”

“No, lord,” replied Sona.

“And what do you think: when the strings of your lute were too loose, was your lute in tune and playable?”

“No, lord.”

“And what do you think: when the strings of your lute were neither too taut nor too loose, but tuned to be right on pitch, was your lute in tune and playable? … In the same way, Sona, over-aroused persistence leads to restlessness, overly slack persistence leads to laziness. Thus you should find the right pitch for your energy, attune the pitch of your faculties, and thus begin your reflections.”

How do we know when, like Sona, we’re making too much or too little effort? The thing is that for our effort to be “right” effort it needs to be combined with mindfulness and right view. Mindfulness allows us to notice what the results of our efforts are, which right view lets us know whether those efforts are helpful or unhelpful, and whether we’re making the right kind of effort.

For example, if your mind lacks mindfulness, and you’re simply drifting, lost in thought, then you’re not exerting enough effort. If you’re feeling a sense of despair about your practice, then you also probably don’t have enough effort. If you’re getting tense and uptight, then you’re making too much effort. If you’re in a state of elation and aren’t very sensitive and kind to others, then you’re probably making too much effort. If you’re giving yourself a hard time, you’re trying too hard. It’s our mindfulness and our “view” that let us know what’s going on and whether it’s helpful.

You need to keep noticing what’s happening around your effort; what’s happening as a result of your effort. When we do that, our effort is more likely to be balanced.

The word “effort” and the related word “work” sometimes give the wrong idea. We can think of work and effort as being joyless activities. So when I talk about working in meditation, and putting effort into our practice, I like to flank the words “work” or “effort” with the terms “rest” and “play.” There needs to be a relaxation of any unnecessary effort — the effort that goes into making the body tense, or that goes into endless thinking, for example. So around our effort there needs to be an attitude of restful, mindful, expansive awareness. And the effort we make should ideally not be forced or unnatural, but light and playful. Meditation can become a joyful exploration: “Where can I go today?”

Yes, there may be times when we have to struggle (to stay awake for example) or have to forcefully restrain ourselves from doing something that we think is grossly unhelpful (for example when we repress the urge to say something unkind) but these should increasingly be unnecessary as we retrain the mind.

Now, it is possible to get to a point in our meditation practice where we don’t need to make any effort. The mind clears and becomes still, joy arises, and we’re simply present to our experience as it unfolds. The positive factors we’ve been developing in the mind reach a kind of critical mass and establish themselves stably. It seems that you’re not meditating — that your meditation is simply doing itself. It doesn’t seem that “you” are doing anything. But to get to that point we need to first put in some effort — usually a lot of effort. On the way to effortlessness in meditation, we find that we generally have to use a subtler and subtler kind of effort. We start to realize that any effort we make creates a kind of disturbance in the mind, and so we refine our effort. One image I love is of catching a feather on a fan; we have to make effort to catch the feather, but if you move too quickly you’ll blow the feather away. But we still have to make an effort — at least for a while.

As Shunryu Suzuki said, “Strictly speaking, any effort we make is not good for our practice because it creates waves in our mind. It is impossible, however, to attain absolute calmness of our mind without any effort.”

It’s not really possible to short-cut this process, and jump straight to effortless meditation. Eventually we get to the point in meditation where effort is in fact unnecessary, but to get there we need to use an effort that is balanced, mindful, and, where possible, playful.

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The power (and pitfalls) of criticism

wrathful deity

From time to time people write to me with interesting questions or observations. Often, the less time they’ve been practicing Buddhism and meditation, the more interesting the questions are. As Suzuki Roshi said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” (I don’t think Suzuki is entirely right here, but he’s certainly not entirely wrong either).

The other day a fellow called Boon wrote to me from England. He’d been reading the Dhammapada, which is one of the most ancient Buddhist texts, written in an archaic form of the Pali language. He’d been wondering about criticism, and its role in spiritual practice. He’d seen passages such as these:

One should pay no heed to the faults of others, what they have done and not done. Rather should one consider the things that one has oneself done and not done.

He who pays attention to the faults of others (and) is always irritable, his defilements grow. He is far from the destruction of the defilements.

Boon correctly understood that what’s been warned against here is getting caught up in criticism based on ill will. Our negative emotions are rather sneaky, and try to take over the more creative aspects of our life. So we take up Buddhist practice, which is about learning to eradicate ill will (plus craving and delusion) from our lives, but our ill will co-opts our spiritual practice. We take spiritual “rules,” and ideas about right and wrong behavior, and instead of using them as tools to help us develop more mindfulness and compassion, use them to judge others. We take the yardstick against which we are to measure our own practice, and use it as a rod to beat others. And so we’re neither mindful nor compassionate. We think we’re being “spiritual” as we criticise others, but really we’re just reinforcing our sense of separateness and superiority. This is the opposite of spiritual practice, disguised as spiritual practice.

But, Boon wondered, does this imply that we should “simply stand aside and watch [others] as they slide down the slippery slope, continuing with their unskilful ways without pointing out their faults or helping them?”

That doesn’t sound very mindful or compassionate either. Once a horse master came to talk to the Buddha and said that when he worked with his horses, sometimes they needed mildness, sometimes they needed harshness, and sometimes they needed both. If a horse reponded neither to mildness nor harshness, then he’d simply destroy the horse.

The Buddha said he did the same with his monks! Some needed encouragement. Some needed criticism. Some needed both. If a monk responded to none of these approaches, then the Buddha would destroy them by refraining from giving feedback at all. What the Buddha meant by this was that someone who isn’t open either to encouragement or to reproof is beyond saving. They’re headed on that slippery slope, and there’s nothing you can do for them. In reality, the Buddha didn’t destroy anyone; people destroy themselves. But we can take from this that it’s spiritually very destructive not to give people criticism when they clearly need it.

Boon said he’d also seen other passages in the Dhammapada suggesting that criticism was spiritually useful.

Should one see a man of understanding who, as if indicating a (buried) treasure, points out faults and administers reproof, let one associate with such a wise person. To associate with one like this is good, not evil.

Let him instruct, let him advise, let him restrain (one) from uncivilized behaviour, (and the result will be that) he will be dear to the good and detestable to the bad…”

We need to be open to criticism. What’s clear here is that the criticism that’s being described is coming not from ill will that has co-opted a person’s spiritual life, but from a place of clarity and insight. When someone can see that we’re engaging in actions that will cause suffering for ourselves and for others, then it’s helpful for us if they share their wisdom.

Intent is crucial. If the intent is to be helpful, and comes from genuine compassion, then this is totally different from ego-based criticism that causes separation and a sense of superiority.

Given how hard it is to avoid ill will, I do think we need to be very careful about offering criticism. And we should try using the carrot of encouragement before resorting to the stick of criticism. But sometimes is has to be done, and notions that Buddhism is “non-judgmental” can often be misleading.

The emphasis on the Dhammapada is on receiving criticism, anyway, not on giving it. Compassionate criticism is a blessing that we should be grateful to receive, but when it comes to doling it out, we need to be cautious.

So how can we skillfully give criticism?

  • Remember that your concern is with the wellbeing and happiness of the person you’re talking to. Even if you’re talking to them because they’re causing pain to others, they’re causing themselves pain as well. The aim is not to hurt the other person, or to impose your will on them, but to end up in a state of mutual harmony.
  • Ask permission. If you say, “Do you mind if I make an observation?” the person will be primed to receive your viewpoint, and it won’t come as a random bolt from the blue.
  • Be careful to distinguish facts from value judgements. Let’s say you tell someone they’re “irresponsible” or “driving badly” because at the speed they’re driving you don’t feel safe. Probably that person thinks they’re being perfectly safe. Presumably they’re not themselves feeling fear as they drive. There’s no point of contact between their experience and yours. They don’t think they’re “irresponsible” or “driving badly” and your criticism just seems like an attack. That’s because you’ve imposed a value judgement on them. What if instead you said, “Actually, I’m feeling anxious travelling at this speed …” [That’s a true statement of fact, not a value judgment.] “…I think I’d feel more relaxed if we were going a bit slower.” [That’s also a fact, not a value judgment].
  • Concentrating on facts (things any neutral observer, even your “opponent” can agree on) also means that you don’t focus on the person, but on actions. You’re not using inflammatory language, where you criticise the person as a whole. You’re just concentrating on one particular facet of their engagement with the world.
  • Know when to back off. When you get heated, or the other person gets heated, it’s time to cool down. At the very least, pause the conversation, even if just for a minute or two, so that both of you have time to regain some composure. When your conversation stops being a discussion and starts being an argument, it’s all become rather pointless. If it’s clear that you’re just going to fight, apologize for bringing up the topic at a bad time, and move on to something else.
  • There’s a lot more to skillful criticism than this, but these are things I’ve found useful. What have you found useful in giving constructive feedback or criticism?

    [Mea culpa: I don’t always have the mindfulness or compassion to practice these hints. That doesn’t detract from any validity they may have.]
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    Meditation is an emotional rollercoaster.

    wildmind meditation news

    Ed Halliwell: About four days into my first meditation retreat, I started crying. Not little droplets of tears, but great, big, uncontrolled sobs – it felt like I was throwing up wave after wave of stale sadness. I’d expected the long days of sitting to be boring, annoying, physically demanding and (with a bit of luck) illuminating, so to find myself repeatedly breaking down into a noisy heap of grief came as a shock. These spontaneous outbursts of wailing continued throughout the month-long programme – it says much for the teachers’ equanimity that they didn’t chuck me out.

    So when would-be practitioners ask about the benefits of meditation, I tend not to give a straight answer. Will it help you be less stressed? Reduce your pain? Make you think more clearly? Stop you from eating too much? Well, maybe it will help with all of those things, but there’s no guarantee, and even if it does, you might find there are other effects too, like finding yourself questioning Read the rest of this article…

    your career and relationships, or feeling increasingly unwilling to fit in with whatever herd you usually hang out with. You might discover that meditation opens you up to powerful surges of rage, disappointment, doubt, yearning or regret that you didn’t know existed. Of course, none of these things are certain either, but they do happen. Most of them have to me, at some point over the last 10 years.

    A lot of people now come to meditation having read reports on the virtues of mindfulness. Last week there was one claiming it can ward off ageing, and one suggesting meditators make more rational decisions. A month ago mindfulness was declared more effective for pain relief than morphine (maybe, but I still wouldn’t fancy the dentist’s drill without an injection), while it’s also being said to increase grey matter in the brain, ease the fear of dying, and help US army troops operate effectively in a war zone, as well as protecting them from post-traumatic stress. Two new books are out in May, offering meditation plans as a proven path to wellbeing.

    Such reports and regimes are genuinely helpful – I’ve written and enthused about similar ones myself – but collectively they can start to give the impression that meditation is the cure for all life’s ills, and that if we could just sit down and follow the breath, problems and pain will fall away. Ten or 20 years ago, meditation suffered from an undeserved association with flaky new-ageism; today there’s a danger of another unhelpful image – mindfulness as hassle-free, quick fix.

    As anyone who’s actually sat down to practise knows, this is a consumer fantasy. Mindfulness has a great many benefits, but they tend to come as a by-product of getting up close to unpleasant experiences like pain, turmoil, and “negative” thought patterns. Striving to avoid unwanted aspects of ourselves and our lives creates stress – by facing them openly in meditation, we give ourselves a chance to relate to suffering more skilfully, with confidence and compassion.

    This means we have to experience and befriend our sadness, anger, physical pain and so on. When we omit to mention this, and fixate only the “positive” results of meditation, we risk passing on a partial description of the path, which involves being present to every aspect of life – what Jon Kabat-Zinn calls, after Zorba the Greek, “Full Catastrophe Living”.

    When mindfulness meditation first came to the west, its Buddhist context offered a counter-balance for the tendency to turn it into a goal-achieving mental workout. The Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi used to instruct his students to “die over and over again” as they sat still in zazen, until their desire for enlightenment began to dissipate and they could begin to appreciate a taste of it. If you thought you were going to get something from meditation, then you weren’t getting it.

    As mindfulness teaching expands beyond these lineages, there’s an ongoing risk that a rich and challenging spiritual practice will be reduced to a lightweight lifestyle add-on that’s more palatable to our cultural taste – ironically, this would probably negate the benefits that everyone’s getting so excited about. Meditation is deep work with an uncertain outcome. It’s worth it, but it isn’t always comfortable.

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    Muhammad Ali: “Children make you want to start life over.”

    Muhammad Ali

    Probably all of us have looked at a child and wished we could start our lives over again. We can’t erase the past, but can we find a way to start over? Bodhipaksa, Buddhist practitioner of 25 years and a parent for one year, looks at the art of starting afresh.

    I find something touching in the image of Ali, a giant of a man whose career involved a brutally physical sport, looking at a the joy and innocence of a child and wishing to start life over again.

    I’m sure we’ve all had those thoughts — “Wouldn’t it be great if I could go back and erase that error? Wouldn’t it be great if I could erase all those mistakes, make better choices, start over, create a better life?” We all have those moments of regret, of wishing that we could right the wrongs of our past.

    And yet here we are, trapped in this eternally-unfolding present moment. The past is out of reach because it doesn’t exist. Certainly we have memories of past events and an imagination that can visualize our returning to past events and re-running them so that they unfold differently, but those memories and imagined episodes take place of necessity in the present moment. There really is no going back.

    Ultimately those regrets, those desires to create a new past amount to our unhappiness with the present that we find ourselves in — the present that we, and events outside our control, have created. We look at the present, at our circumstances, our feelings of unhappiness, the absence of experiences we desire and the presence of experiences that we would rather not have, and the answer seems to lie in the past. In somehow changing the past. In changing a past that is out of reach and immutable.

    And those feelings or dissatisfaction with the present, of wishing for a different present, can become awakened when we are with a young child. There the child is, full of potential. And children, although by no means blank slates or free from negative emotions, lack many of the unhelpful learned habits that we have accumulated over the years.

    I look at my 14-month-old daughter and I see a being who is completely free from hatred. She has no regrets, no baggage. She doesn’t label herself, doesn’t judge herself. She doesn’t think of herself as being successful or a failure, popular or unpopular, good or bad, rich or poor, lucky or unfortunate.

    And to her everything seems new and fresh. Today’s 20th reading of “Pat the Bunny” or “Barnyard Dance” is as delightful to her as the first (I wish that were the case for her parents). When she falls down she simply picks herself back up. She doesn’t lie there saying “I’ve tried walking. It doesn’t work. I’m just not a walking kind of person.”

    The simplest things are intriguing. She’ll take immense pleasure simply from moving her hands. A leaf picked up on a walk is a world of fascination.

    She has, in short, what Suzuki Roshi called “Beginner’s Mind.” And that’s something we all, certainly at times, want, and even crave.

    There’s no chance, of course, of finding our child-like wonder and freedom from baggage by transporting ourselves back in time and literally starting life over. Such magic is for another universe, not the one in which we find ourselves. But we can find another way to start over. And that way is through mindfulness.

    When we long to start over we are, paradoxically, doing the exact thing that has caused many of our problems in the first place. We’re unmindfully getting caught up in longing and craving. We’re caught up in an aversion to our present-moment experience, fleeing to an imagined past in order to escape the present moment.

    But the freedom of the child lies in being entirely in the present moment, not being caught up in thoughts, fantasies, and regrets, but simply experiencing and staying rooted in actual experience: experience of the body and its sensations, in the heart and its emotions, staying rooted in the senses. That’s the key difference, in this regard, between us and young children. We have learned to spend more time in our thoughts than in the full range of our experience. We become lost in thinking. Thought becomes a kind of alternative reality — like the Matrix of the popular movie — in which we live out our hopes and fears.

    To escape from this Matrix we need the Red Pill of awareness. We need to become mindful of our thoughts. And this requires experiencing the parts of us that are not thoughts. We need to learn to stay grounded in the body and its physical sensations, to remain alive to the senses and the rich impressions that flow through them into the theater of the mind. We can do this by immersing ourselves in the sensations of the breath flowing in and out, in the sensations of the body as we do walking meditation, in the heart’s feelings as we cultivate lovingkindness.

    And in doing so, the power of the Matrix — our inner alternate reality — becomes less strong. We’re less drawn to becoming lost in thought.

    And we begin to see how our judgments of ourselves are part of the Matrix of illusion. Our sense of ourselves as successful/failed, good/bad, rich/poor, blessed/damned starts to fade away. We’re no longer as fooled as we were by those categories, which we start to see as extraneous to reality and artificially imposed upon it by the mind.

    Increasingly free from judgment, increasingly rooted in our present-moment experience, we find that we are “starting life over.” In every moment we are starting life over. We’re starting to experience Suzuki’s Beginner’s Mind, not trapped in the present moment but free in the present moment.

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    “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind,” by Shunryu Suzuki

    book cover Available from and

    A respected Zen master in Japan and founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, Shunryu Suzuki has blazed a path in American Buddhism like few others.

    From diverse topics such as transience of the world, sudden enlightenment, and the nuts and bolts of meditation, Suzuki always returns to the idea of beginner’s mind, a recognition that our original nature is our true nature.

    With beginner’s mind, we dedicate ourselves to sincere practice, without the thought of gaining anything special. Day to day life becomes our Zen training, and we discover that “to study Buddhism is to study ourselves.”

    Suzuki had a rare dedication to the teaching of meditation, which was apparently due not only to a natural inclination in that direction as a gifted teacher, but also because as a newcomer to the US he found his English to be inadequate to expounding the deep Zen teachings that he has mastered. And so, turning a handicap into a strength in true Zen style, Suzuki taught in a simple, although suitably paradoxical style.

    Although his grasp of english was basic and he taught in simple language, his teaching does not in any way lack depth. On the contrary, Suzuki finds ways of surprising us and even of shocking us out of complacency. The central teaching of Beginner’s Mind — a complete openness to our experience — is a profoundly useful one and one that has entered the wider culture.

    My favorite teaching from this book is the notion that if you want to control a wild bull, give him lots of space. Try to confine him and he’ll fight. Give him a big field and he’ll just stand and eat grass. The bull of course is the mind, and the field is mindfulness. Have a spacious, expansive, open field of awareness, and the mind will settle down.

    I’ve often heard readings from this book dropped in before sits on intensive meditation retreats, and perhaps this is the best way to use this book. Reading it through like a novel would be to miss the point, for Suzuki taught from a state of meditation and his words should be received in meditation. That doesn’t mean you should only read the book on retreat, but that it’s best read in small doses, reflectively, and perhaps just before your daily practice.

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