One hat I wear–well, actually one robe I wear–is that of senior dharma teacher in the Kwan Um School of Zen. I have always loved the Zen approach to Buddhism because, like the gnostic and mystical paths of all the great religions, it is not about studying the words of a teacher but about finding out for yourself. What am I? What is my place in the world?
One thing we do at Kwan Um is answer questions online from meditation practitioners who have no access to a community or teacher. This post is my answer to someone who asked a question. She mentioned that she was having an experience of peaceful emptiness when she meditated. She wanted to know how should she react to that feeling.
But Zen meditation is not about achieving any particular state of mind or even how to react to any particular state of mind. It is about inquiring into the truth of who and what we are, regardless of the states of mind that come and go. When we understand ourselves, we also can understand the direction of our lives and how we can help the world. This was my answer to the questioner…
How are you? Thank you for your question about Zen practice which you submitted to the Kwan Um Zen website. It was forwarded to me to answer. My name is Colin Beavan and I am a senior dharma teacher in our school.
You mentioned that you have a strong feeling of emptiness inside that is like you got rid of a heavy weight. You mention that your thoughts seem far away and that negative emotions are gone quickly.
You say that you don’t know what to do with that experience. Should you just enjoy it and let it go?
All of us have many experiences every day. Sometimes we feel deeply confused and sometimes we feel peaceful. Sometimes we have these experiences for moments and sometimes an experience seems to stick around for weeks.
But what is the nature of these experiences?
If you pay close attention, you will see they come and go. They don’t have a permanent form. In my own practice, I have found that times of my feelings “disappearing quickly” often end abruptly and I fall back to strong feelings again and then that passes too! I may not have to figure out what to do with the experience because the experience doesn’t last!!
But there is something that does not come and go. What is it? Maybe the real question is, what is it that is having this experience? When you are peaceful, what experiences peace? When you are conflicted, what experiences conflict? Holding a deep curiosity about that fundamental nature is the root of our practice.
If you are honest, when you ask “What is experiencing this? What doesn’t know what to do with this experience?” you will come to a place of not knowing–a place before thinking. We call this “Don’t know mind.” This is the point that neither experiences nor doesn’t experience, neither thinks nor doesn’t think. It is the place of not knowing and not judging. Everything here is “just like this.”
So when you are peaceful, where is that thought of peace coming from? When you are not peaceful, where is that thought of not peace coming from? Let either of these questions take you back to not knowing, which is your fundamental nature, before your thinking starts making this and that.
If you return to don’t know over and over again, you will come to understand yourself and when you understand yourself you will understand your true job in this world–the direction of your life no matter what kind of experience you are having in the moment. When you understand your true job and direction, you will best be able to help yourself and all beings (but don’t wait till then to help all beings–start now!!). This is one of the promises of consistent meditation practice.
I hope this helps. Meanwhile, practicing every day is very helpful, even if you can only do 10 or 20 minutes at first. It will grow. Just tend the seed every day. Be consistent. Another thing that is helpful is to find a community of people who are also practicing. Then you can support your practice and they can support yours. Also, you may find a teacher who can help you. You can find Kwan Um Zen Centers here. Or use the Internet to find another Zen center near you.
I hope you find out the truth of your existence which only you can know, fall into harmony with everything and then use that truth and harmony to help yourself, the people around you and the whole world.
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