Susan Blackmore

Susan Blackmore Ph.D.

Ten Zen Questions

Do you want to meditate but find it too hard?

Advice to help you meditate.

Posted May 11, 2009

If you've been reading my blog you'll know that I found myself falling into Zen practice and working very hard at mindfulness. But it's SO hard to keep going. If you've ever meditated you may well have found the same problem. Like mindfulness, meditation skills can easily be lost, and the motivation can become buried by the burdens of everyday life.

I knew I wanted to ask some really difficult questions - like "Who am I?" "What is consciousness?" but to do that I needed a clear mind - and that meant I had to keep meditating - ideally every day without fail.

Just about everyone who meditates regularly says they have, or once had, trouble establishing regular daily practice. For me it was the encounter with mindfulness that made it possible, but some hints and tips from others also helped a lot. So I pass them on in case they are of any use.

Most important is not expecting too much of yourself. The Transcendental Meditation organisation, for example, recommends two periods of twenty minutes a day. Tibetan Buddhists are also expected to practice twice a day and to carry out visualisations intended to invoke mindfulness, compassion or insight at the start of hour-long sessions. Zen sessions are usually half an hour, but serious practitioners do several sessions a day with short breaks in between. This is easy on retreat, or at inspiring conferences, and if you go to one you may be tempted to think you can keep it up, but it is a big chunk of time out of a busy day, and if you fail you end up feeling bad about yourself and giving up altogether.

Personally I'm not prepared to give that much time outside of retreats, nor do I want to agonise each day about whether I'm going to sit or not. So I meditate for about 15 minutes a day, first thing in the morning, often with my partner, and this suits me well. It seems, gradually, to establish deep changes that I welcome, and it is - after all - a lot better than nothing. Most obviously, calming the mind becomes gradually easier. You may be able to do a lot more than I do and that would probably make for much deeper practice, but I am sure that a little is better than none, and every day is better than intermittently.

I was once helped greatly by someone who told me this "Commit yourself to sitting on your cushion every day. That's all; if you want to stop after 3 seconds that's fine." I found this rather odd advice extremely useful and that is the extent of my personal commitment now. There are, in fact, rare occasions when I sit for only a few seconds - for example, if I have overslept and have a train to catch, or when some crisis has just occurred. More often, if I don't feel like sitting, I still force myself onto the cushion, expecting to last only a few minutes, and then somehow, once I'm there, it seems quite pleasant. Five minutes goes by - or even fifteen. Either way I have stuck to my commitment, and have a regular practice that gradually deepens.

I have described some of my own practice here because it may be relevant to understanding the way I asked the questions. It should be clear that I have learned a variety of skills over the years, and that some, though not all, of them are part of traditional Zen training.

"Ten Zen Questions" is about how I have used these techniques to tackle ten difficult questions; you might say, using consciousness to look into itself.

 

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