Ask the Meditation Doctor! - A discussion with Brad Warner

Ask the Meditation Doctor Mike Taylor Brad WarnerIt's meditation month here at Tricycle.com and to celebrate, we're offering a free e-book, Tricycle Teachings: Meditation, to our Supporting and Sustaining Members. But you don't need to be a member in order to sit with us every day in February. That's what we're doing, inspired by Sharon Salzberg's Real Happiness Challenge, and we'll blog our experiences here.

Zen monk Brad Warner, proprieter of the blog Hardcore Zen, author of four books on Zen, and head of the international Dogen Sangha, will also drop by to answer your questions. Are your meditation sessions giving you fits? Does your practice need a shot in the arm? You're in the right place! The doctor will see you now.

Need help getting started? Read Brad's five sure-fire tips from the latest issue of Tricycle to get you on the cushion.

Post your questions to the meditation doctor below, or email them in.

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Brad Warner's picture

Thanks to everyone who participated. This was a lot of fun. I hope my answers helped a little. See ya!

isafakir's picture

dear mr. warner. i hope you don't mind my saying how practical your advice is. i've been moved by the simple answers given to all kinds of difficult questions by all kinds of different people. godspeed.

W.Rubbin's picture

I am finding it difficult to practice mindfulness. When I notice the seed of anger within myself, boredom getting the best of my practice, or any of the kinks in the human condition am I supposed to just notice those thoughts and feelings and let them float by? To me this seems like a recipe for mindful suppression. I feel that if I practice this way for 10 years I'll then be required to spend the next 20 in a psychotherapists chair. From what I thought I understood these problems need to be tackled head on at the moment they arise and dissected until the seed is recognized and the root can then be severed. However, when living in the moment and a feeling arises, dissecting that feeling to understand it takes you far away from the moment and into the dissecting ego. So what's the balance here? Do we dissect when we notice a feeling or do we accept it and let it float by?

Dominic Gomez's picture

Buddhism does not deny or suppress the human condition. It embraces it. That's what a Buddha is: a fully human being. Rather than problems, anger, boredom, etc. can be viewed as opportunities or tools to further develop yourself. Direct anger towards injustice, read a new book when bored.

JOYCIE's picture

What, if any, is the difference with doing Transcendental Meditation (sanskrit mantra) instead of the Buddhist meditations? Just something I've wondered about since I have been doing TM for many years.

mbmamherst's picture

I find being able to use a mantra in meditation has always helped me . Breathing was hard to "follow" and the mantra seems to help " keep the thoughts away" much more than when I used just "the breath".

Brad Warner's picture

TM is quite different from zazen. Although there are some similarities. The pose is nearly identical. It's also silent like zazen.

But it's very different in terms of approach. In TM (as I understand it) you use the mantra to try to bring about a desired state of mind. In zazen you just accept whatever state of mind is there, fully and completely.

osmith888's picture

I have practised meditation for a few years, without formal training. I seek guidance about the breath. I feel that I can breath in three possible ways, my abdomen, my lower chest, my upper chest. Usually, I start with deep breaths and then settle to a very quiet, minimal breath through my upper chest. At times, I find myself gulping air through my nose in voluntarily. I trust this means that I am not getting enough air. Lately I have been practicing breathing through my lower chest. My ribs move out, my belly and my chest remain stable. This keeps my posture and my mind more alert but focusing on it distracts me from the silence of meditation. Can you help me here. I feel that my practice could take a step forward if I could clarify the physical act of breathing in meditation.
Thank you, such a priviledge to get to ask.

Brad Warner's picture

All Dogen said about breathing is "let the in breath be the in breath and let the out breath be the out breath."

My feeling is that it's best to just allow the breathing to proceed as normal. It's not necessary to do any special breathing techniques.

Sometimes you'll feel alert and other times you will feel distracted. Either one is OK. When you notice you're distracted, just come back to the practice. Do this again and again and again, and a new set of habits begins to develop.

Sometimes we envision an idealized state we call "alertness" and make efforts to become that. But I feel like this is usually just a waste of time. Because what we envision as "alertness" is also the product of our confusion. It's better to stay fully with whatever state actually arises than to demand that your state be other than what it really is.

isafakir's picture

i first sat in rochester at a weekend [late 70s] intro sesshin with phillip kapleau roshi, later at dai bosatsu and ny shobo-ji, then at nyzc with roshi glassman... most of my intensive training in stting was at dai bosatsu directly from eido roshi. i had a lot of help from lou nordstrom at NYZC. i have had spinal disease through all this but for at least a decade now spondylosis and stenosis make prolonged sitting physically damaging. [ i have 100% disability with incontinence from the US Dept of Veterans Affairs. ] i lose my ability to walk and incontinence gets more frequent. i have sleep apnea so falling asleep is a life long disability as well. added to that exertional asthma and the stenosis creates muscle spasms in the rib cage.

if i do zazen reclining i just fall asleep.

sometimes almost immediately.

forgive my too much sharing. but the details i hope make my question clearer.

thanks for this caring generous kindhearted giving. godspeed.

Brad Warner's picture

Gosh.That's one of the most incredibly difficult sets of problems doing zazen I've ever encountered. Though I once corresponded with a guy who had MS and couldn't even sit up at all. But he still wanted to do the practice and he found a way.

Without meeting you in person, it's hard to give really good advice. If you can find any way to prop yourself up, that might work. Ideally zazen is a balance pose. One should balance without support. But if you can't do that, I'd suggest trying to find ways to support your body in the position -- or as close an approximation as you can manage.

I feel like if a person has a strong will to do Buddhist practice, he or she can always find some way even if it means modifying the practice extensively.

isafakir's picture

i appreciate the concern and caring. gasho. selams. peace. i have no problem sitting in position. i love sitting in position. i can't sit lotus anymore but sitting on the edge of a chair a cushion or a step outside my front door is as straight backed as it gets. my posture automatically discovers itself. the breath by the count of ten is smooth and regular. the problem arises from sitting itself. sitting given my spine causes pressure on the nerves. the more often i sit the more difficult walking gets. until if i persist in sitting walking becomes impossible.

in dai bosatsu, we walked and chanted hu between zazen during sesshin

my guess is sitting regularly in any form is out of question. physicians said no. don't sit. not for long periods. the pain the next day can be beyond description. :-(

i know nothing at all about walking zazen and i don't have anything like a dai bosatsu or NYZC zendo to walk around and chant hu. my bedroom is a about 4 meters wide. not a hundred :-)

if there were yoga masters or even yoga trained people who didn't charge hundreds of dollars i would ask but everything is behind a money wall here. something i don't feel comfortable with. my other training in yoga or other physical practices all have the same outcomes. after several days, excruciating pain. i can't write my name sometimes.

thank you for your concern. of course, you just keep putting one foot in front of the other until you get there where you are and continue the next morning. that is the best advice. deeply appreciated. how many times did the fox return before his question was answered.

isafakir's picture

i guess i should add that in istanbul where i live in a working class suburb there are no zen teachers or zendo i know of. none listed on spiritual directories anywhere. there is one yoga center but it is commercial, expensive and too far away for me to get to. i live on my disability compensation. on line is my only access now. also no library anywhere i can borrow books from.

tarini's picture

There is a meditationgroup in Istanbul, led by an ordermember of the Triratna Buddhist Community. He already lives in Istanbul for some years and is of Turkish origin. His name is Vajracaksu. If you google his name, you will probably find more about him and his classes.

Derekwat's picture

I'm very new to Meditation and Practices only just starting in the past weeks. I have a question about thoughts and dreams. In shamatha we are told to let our thoughts come and go during practice. Watch them arrive then leave without involving ourselves in their content or narrative. I understand this. What of dreams when we sleep? Since starting shamatha I've noticed an increase in both quantity and frankly the quality of my dreams. Should I pay attention to these dreams after I awake, or, treat them as passing thoughts as during shamatha? Please excuse if this topic has been discussed elsewhere on the site, I've only been a member a few days now.
Thank you.

Brad Warner's picture

Dreams are interesting in many ways. Dogen said something about reality being present as much in the dream state as in the waking state. Dreams are another way of perceiving the same reality that we perceive when we're awake.

But dreams are different. You can wake up from a dream in which you're being eaten by a crocodile to find your body still perfectly intact. Obviously this is not the same as being eaten by a crocodile in the waking state.

For myself, I try to learn what I can from my dreams. Sometimes there's a message you can comprehend. Sometimes there's not. But I try not to get too fixated on dreams. That's just like getting fixated on any aspect of life. It's good to be able to let dreams go like letting anything else go.

chujoe's picture

I'm not a teacher, but I would think that one should treat dreams like any other part of the phenomenal universe -- pay attention to dreams because they are part of the 10,000 things, but don't treat them as something particularly special. Right now I'm watching snow fall into the river outside my window; tonight I'll be having some experience while I sleep: I will try to treat waking & sleeping experience in pretty much the same way.

ajberg32's picture

Does anyone have any thoughts on why we say "receive enlightenment"? I don't think it's just a matter of semantics. I've been thinking about that phrase a lot lately, wondering where it comes from and why it is that we should 'receive' this thing called enlightenment, when it often feels like the process of sitting on that cushion is based on sheer willpower alone. It's easy to feel like one "earns enlightenment," which I've heard before, but more often I hear "received enlightenment." I'm really not trying to just be nit picky. I think that a lot of our misunderstandings in relation to meditation and Buddhism in general find their root in a misunderstanding of the very terms and phrases that we use to describe what is essentially indescribable. Thoughts?

Brad Warner's picture

As you say, all words are misleading. I have never heard the phrase "receive enlightenment" before. But I agree with others who have said it's an improvement over the phrase "attain enlightenment."

Still, enlightenment is not something that's not there one moment and arrives the next. The enlightened state is always present even when we try to deny it. This sounds ridiculous to most people. But I think it's an accurate description.

Brad Warner's picture

Just found this quote by Dogen.

“Without being given, this state is received and without being taken by force this state is acquired.”

Dominic Gomez's picture

It arises from dualism, in that enlightenment is one thing and your daily life another. In such a case enlightenment, nirvana, everlasting life in heaven, etc. are things and places the average joe must receive, attain, arrive at after long and arduous austerities. Buddhism teaches that the two only appear to be separate but are in reality one and the same, like two sides of a coin.

ajberg32's picture

Thanks for response Dominic, and I agree. I guess you've helped me clarify my question. What I'm wondering is whether "receive enlightenment" is a flawed phrase because of the dualism it suggests and has only come about in recent years by non-enlightened beings? Or is it an actual translation of how a Buddha would describe the process. Guessing the former.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Shakyamuni's final words were "Work out your own salvation (enlightenment) with diligence." Other than the sutras, he did not leave something for us to receive. We already have enlightenment (buddha nature). It's up to each one of us to bring it forth from within using any means necessary and merge it with the buddha nature of the universe. Part of the confusion derives from when students of Buddhism post-Shakyamuni mistook the man for some sort of supreme being, elevating him and his realization about life to the status of unattainable/unknowable by common mortals.

chujoe's picture

"Receive" is probably better than "attain," which one also sees from time to time. As the pop phrase has it, "It's not about you." In zazen, according to Dogen, the sitter allows the 10,000 things of the world to manifest their Buddha nature and in so doing discovers that he/she is also one of the 10,000 things. In Genjokoan, Dogan writes: "To carry the self forward and illuminate myriad dharmas is delusion. That myriad dharmas come forth and illuminate the self is enlightenment." This is a translation from Japanese, of course, but not the grammar -- Dogen is being very careful in the way he describes the "who does what to whom" of enlightenment. Which is all a long-winded way of saying that you are absolutely right to think about the details of how we describe the enlightenment experience.

(But then I'm one of those "gradual illumination Soto types, so I'm a little suspicious of most talk about enlightenment.)

TW77's picture

This has been a huge help and I’m starting to see how whatever comes up, comes up – even though there’s that annoying background noise “you’re thinking too much…” I think part of my problem is probably from reading stuff and then looking into it too much. Like your book on Dogen and how he originally meditated for 9 years till he moved on and found Soto and after 2 years with that “experienced the dropping of mind and body”. If Zazan or meditation in general is about whatever comes up why did Dogen not experience that till he found Soto? Maybe that’s why I keep thinking I’m doing it wrong and keep looking for that next book or technique. On one hand I understand that isn’t the case, it’s about this moment, it’s about what comes up, but on the other I still secretly think the answer is out there. And when that part of me reads something like what Dogen did, it latches on and confuses the heck of me. But…I also am starting to understand that I need to sit and clarity will come via sitting, not via intellectualizing. Even as I write this I guess I’m answering my own question, eh? (I’m Canadian ;) )

As a side note…somewhere above about a Tweet that your advice is actually Zen advice…the thing about that is there’s 1000’s of teachers but only a handful that can convey the message in a way that people like me can “get it”. Just like schools…all the same subject, lots of “not so good” teachers.

peterpanski's picture

Hi there,

I recently added Metta Meditation to my Zen practice and feel great benefits through openings in the heart etc. - I would like to know how to best balance between the two practices. At the moment i start with Zen and then after half an hour or so, move into Metta practice. Is that alright, or should i rather practice them seperately?

Thanks

abeles-sharp's picture

Thank you for this excellent service of addressing meditation questions. It is an important area of social need.

I am interested in working through the jhanas. Is this typically done by practitioners without the guidance of a teacher? Would it be possible for you to make suggestions on helpful web-based guidance on entering and working through the jhanas?

My interest is prompted by a shift in meditation experience. For a few months, I have been experience deep, absorptive states. The states sometimes arise during non-meditation time (e.g., viewing a basketball game with family). When the states arise in this way, it feels like a firm demand for meditation, and as if an internal state is “working itself out.” I have been sitting 90 minutes a day or more since Nov. 1.

I want to try using the absorptive states to deepen insight, thus the interest in working through the jhanas. I am new to sutta study, so my knowledge of available options is limited. Perhaps the jhanas are just one option and there are other good approaches to working through periods of deep absorptive states? I would like your impressions on that issue as well. And thank you again.

Brad Warner's picture

Someone on Twitter warned folks that my advice was good, but to remember that "it is ZEN advice."

If you brought this question to a Zen teacher, she or he would most likely respond by being very dismissive, perhaps telling you to ignore these states and they'll go away. When you receive an answer like this — and I have on numerous occasions — it can feel cold and unhelpful. I often felt angry and resentful when hearing answers like this to what seemed to me to be profound and serious questions.

The thing is, though, that when you talk about special states of consciousness and what to do with them, what you're bringing to the teacher is not your state at the present moment. What you're describing is your memory of a past state and your plans for what to do if that state should occur again in the future. And this itself is the root of our real problems, our tendency to regard the past and future as more important than this moment.

You are certainly free to try using the absorptive states to deepen insight. But I feel like you'd be cheating yourself out of the opportunity to use the whole of your life to deepen insight. You'd start to regard these rare and unusual states as more important than the ones that occur most of the time. Then 5% of your day might begin to take over 95% of your life. I'd say that if such states occur, it's OK to enjoy them while they last. But do so very carefully.

Sometimes such states are just another clever trick of the mind to move you away from what's really important. I'm not sure, for example, I'd want to ride in a car being driven by someone in a "deep absorptive state" unless, of course, they were deeply absorbed in the act of driving a car. When viewing a basketball game with your family, perhaps a more important task is to be with your family than to attend to your state of mind.

Dominic Gomez's picture

This is where new ageism, chemically induced states, and other baggage become confused with Buddhism, especially in Western interpretations of the Law.

hollyg's picture

I've been doing sitting meditation for just less than a month. I've done the practice in the past but not consistently. I'm determined to do this in a more consistent manner. However I've been really having a difficult time with the drowsiness that seems to overcome me as I concentrate on the breath and relax. After I do a pass through to attend to different sensations of the body to help me stay with the present, and just stay still to concentrate on my breath, I don't seem to have the problem of just noticing thoughts and eventually letting go. My problem has been with drowsiness. I tried to keep my eyes open to avoid from falling asleep, but i still get swept into that relaxed state. I tried to get enough sleep, not eat before meditation, keep the room a bit cooler, but none of them has really helped. I try to sit for 30 minutes. But sometimes within the first 10 minutes, I start struggling because of drowsiness. Is there anything else you could suggest so I can be aware throughout my meditation? I would very much appreciate it.

Brad Warner's picture

It sounds like you've already tried almost everything I would normally recommend. I think if you just stick with it, this will eventually become less of a problem.

The state in zazen can often be very relaxing. In some ways it's rather close to sleep. For example, most of us tend to direct the mind very strongly except when we want to fall asleep. Those who can't make this shift to not directing the mind often suffer from insomnia. I know I did for a very long time.

Sometimes what happens is that the loosening of the grip on the mind seems like a trigger for sleep. Because that's the only other time most of us habitually do that.

I say just try sitting with your drowsiness for a while. After a while you'll find a spot where you can be relaxed and awake at the same time.

hollyg's picture

Thank you for your feedback. This morning, as I sat in meditation I noticed something different. I got really drowsy again. In the past I haven't had difficulties watching my thoughts without judgment and eventually letting go, as long as drowsiness hasn't set in. But as soon as I relax in that spaciousness, that's when drowsiness walks in. It's like a thief in the night. I've also noticed that peculiar thoughts/stories would start up as drowsiness sets in; almost like a fantasy. This time I was vigilant about catching it quicker than before to bring me back to the present. As I persisted on this, I started feeling agitated, irritable, and a few other sensations started coming up to the surface. I stayed and observed these arising sensations and watched them arise and subside. The drowsiness is my mind's top strategy of distraction to avoid being in the present. The thoughts start pouring out during this half-asleep state so the mind doesn't have to endure the boredom of not thinking!

LaceyR's picture

Mr. Warner,
I live in Arkansas, and there are absolutely no zen teachers here. I sit by myself, and I worry that I may waste time doing it wrong because I have no guidance other than 25 books on Buddhism that each suggest a different way. You posted on your site you were looking for a gig. Arkansas needs a Zen teacher. Should I just continue, and not become attached to the idea that I need a teacher? I practice based on Charlotte Joko Beck's book "Nothing Special." Thank you.

(We apparently had a Zen teacher come once a year, but right after I found out about him he died, right before the tsunami, at, like, 88!)

Lauren T's picture

Depending on where you live in Arkansas, it might be helpful for you to know that there is a sangha practicing in the tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in Little Rock. I don't know if this sangha has a dharma teacher within it, but in this tradition, we learn from Thay's teachings via books and recorded dharma talks, and from each other. Just a thought. I also love Charlotte Joko Beck's writings.
_/\_

LaceyR's picture

That's the place with the no zen teacher. ....... So your not coming? Talking with others is enough, we don't need a teacher?

Brad Warner's picture

LaceyR, it sounds like you're responding to Lauren T's comment as if it came from me. Nothing wrong with the comment itself, though.

Lots of things and lots of people can be your teacher. It's best not to limit yourself too much to only accepting what comes from someone who has a specific title and designation. Dogen said that he would listen to what was truthful even if it was spoken by a six year old child. Sometimes they're very truthful!

As for me coming to Arkansas, once I'm a bazzillionaire I'll be able to just fly out to wherever people ask me to go. At the moment, though, I need to find ways to pay for any trip I take. If you think you have a way, let me know and I'll come out. That won't solve your problem. But it might be a fun time anyway.

LaceyR's picture

Yes, sir, I sure did. I never said I could read. Thank you very much, that was very helpful! apparently I have a lot of work to do with judgments and relearning how to read. Thank you for your time.

LaceyR's picture

That's the place with the no zen teacher. ....... So your not coming? Talking with others is enough, we don't need a teacher?

jackelope65's picture

Reading the above discussion, I am some what surprised to hear a term, such as ' judgement, " about sangha. My sangha, Vajra Vidya Portland Maine, is so very different. Working as a MD I had be very aware of time management to get there. Chanting in Tibetan is sometimes criticized as not relevant in these times, but with practice we are not only able to use Tibetan language but rest the words in English. Chanting this way requires complete concentration and is also very beautiful as well as inspiring. By the time we meditate my mind has calmed and thoughts that occur can be observed and released very readily. Also whatever rational argument may be used against this type of practice, I have found tremendous group energy and harmony. Unspoken bonds have developed and when overt suffering occurs in any member, the sangha has always been supportive of that person, stopping discussion or other planned action to provide that support. Even visiting teachers usually comment on this group dynamic. The very powerful effects of group dynamics is receiving more scientific attention especially relented to the powerful effects of sound also used in Shamanic traditions. Some modern traditions have developed such haste to throw away traditional practices without even trying to understand the effects including with modern scientific rigor.

ajberg32's picture

After spending years reading everything I could get my hands on related to Buddhism but only meditating...well, hardly ever...I am finally on the cushion daily for the past three months. What amazes me is that all the books and reading meant nothing without the sitting and now rather than needing more theory, I need help with just the sitting, posture etc. Half lotus just isn't happening. My knees ache and I'm beginning to wonder if I'm doing damage? Got any suggestions of good reads on how to just sit! I know this is meditation month and all, but I'm not seeing a ton on here about the physical mechanics. Ouch! Help! Thanks for your time and patience with all of us!

chujoe's picture

I'm an old guy and I can't sit in the lotus or half-lotus. I sit seiza, using a bench. While this is not quite as stable as the lotus, it allows me to sit easily for 40 minutes. The fairly traditional zendo where I sit with others has no problem with the bench. Zazen is not a competitive sport -- one should do whatever works.

I love what you said, by the way, about the relationship between intellectual knowledge (the books) and practice. I've been sitting for about three years & I read a lot about Buddhism, but it only makes sense as part of a practice. Keep sitting! Try seiza.

ajberg32's picture

Thanks for both of your responses. Alas, I've tried sitting seiza and do like it, but doesn't ego always intrude? I want to sit like the Buddha sits;-)

chujoe's picture

Alas, Zen can be so macho! When you are sitting, however you are sitting, according to Dogen Zengi, you ARE the Buddha.

Dominic Gomez's picture

That's what attracted me once. We did it in karate training, it was simple enough for samurai soldiers, you only needed to care about yourself.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Depends on which ego you're referring to: the smaller one or the larger one. (They're both you, btw.)

Brad Warner's picture

Yoga classes can be very helpful. It depends a lot on the teacher and the style. If you sign up for one of those "butt toning" yoga classes, it might not be so good. But traditionally, all of the yoga postures were supposed to be preparations for sitting in the full lotus posture. A good yoga teacher can help you a lot by looking at your specific body type and condition and then suggesting what to do to improve it. If you can't find a teacher there are also a load of good yoga books and instruction DVDs out there.

Fpmooney's picture

I am rather new to meditation and I sit for20 minutes each day but everyday I find it so hard to stay concentrated on the breath and my mind seems to wander without me even knowing its happening. Should I try less time?

Brad Warner's picture

20 minutes is actually a pretty good beginner's level sitting time.

Don't worry about judging whether or not you're staying concentrated on the breath. That judging is nothing but your thinking mind trying to keep itself occupied. Just do the practice. It's called "practice" for a reason. Like anything else in life that you practice, it gets better as you do it more.

phdumpling's picture

I have been sitting of over 30yrs. When I initially started I was involved with a Renzai master who encouraged us to use Mu to cut off thinking. I now am doing Soto zen and the focus is on being present and mindful. I use my breath and continue to return to my breath. I just wonder could I be using my breath as a form of cutting off thoughts. My breath is my life line it helps me see that everything is impermenent.

Brad Warner's picture

I don't think you need to cut off thoughts. Just let them go and they'll stop by themselves. Sometimes returning to the breath is a useful way to kind of stay "on task" rather than daydream. Dogen seems to favor a sort of light touch as far as observing the breath goes. He says that he allows the in breath to be the in breath and the out breath to be the out breath.

Thought is something the brain needs to do the way the intestines need to digest food. The brain digests experience. So I try to let the brain do its job without paying it any more attention than I pay attention to the working of any other organ. This is easier said than done, of course.