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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TW77's picture

Man, these analogies really help me. It's funny how it's so simple when you read it but the minute you go back to doing your day-to-day stuff you forget this and it becomes so complicated. Brad, this section from what I think is an excert of your book Sit down Shut up (which i picked up last night) really helped me. *** "See, you might say that there are two basic kinds of thought. There are thoughts that pop up unannounced and uninvited in our brains for no reason we’re able to discern. These are just the results of previous thoughts and experiences that have left their traces in the neural pathways of our brains. You can’t do much to stop these, nor should you try. The other kind of thought is when we grab on to one of these streams of energy and start playing with it the way your mom always told you not to do with your wee-wee in front of the neighbors. We dig deep into these thoughts and roll around in them like a pig rolling in its own doo-doo, feeling all that delicious coolness and drinking deep of their lovely stink." *** Since i read that...it works each time and i'm very easily able to differentiate between the 2. And it also explains why i felt like a sort of inner conflict trying to fend off all thoughts. Some just come, and you let them, the second wave of thinking is the one you can control. Not sure how that clicks for others but it was gold for me. Maybe this isn't the spot, but at some point, maybe on your blog, i'd love to hear your thoughts on Shambhala, the Sakyong and his father...just because it's my (short) background and it works for me. The days it doesn't work for me, these Zen concepts work. I was worried i'd get confussed but so far i'm not. For me it's a set of tools for whatever i'm served that day.

Anyway, thanks again!

Delma's picture

A common theme that I hear over and over again by people who desire to meditate, try it once or twice, then give up, saying, "I couldn't concentrate", "I couldn't turn off my brain" Suggestions about helpful replies to these beliefs?

Brad Warner's picture

My article in the latest issue of Tricycle addresses that very subject.

Basically it doesn't matter if your meditation feels the way you think it ought to feel. Whether you can concentrate or not isn't important. And you emphatically should not turn off your brain. You'd die if you did that!

Nothing worth doing is easy. Just keep doing it and it will get better gradually.

jay.roche's picture

Hi Brad - My practise over the past few years has been based around vipassana with a strong focus on the anapanasati technique. I find this approach has served me well however I worry sometimes that I'm missing out on a looser approach - that I'm a bit 'hung up' on technique. Have you found this with zazen in relation to other techniques or do you feel that zazen has more room for manoeuvre so to speak. Have you tried other meditation practices - for example the Brahma Viharas or even some of the more esoteric pracises? I think one of the reasons I have stuck in particular with anapanasati is the Buddhas' revealing that this was his chosen technique during the rainy season retreats...maybe I'm too impressed by this!

Brad Warner's picture

First I have to own up to the fact that I've never really tried any meditative practices other than Zen for long enough to say that I really understood them thoroughly. I've been to guided meditation things in the Tibetan and Vipassana tradition, but only a handful of times. I attempted pranayama for about a month, though I learned the technique from a book and was probably doing it wrong. And that's about it. So it's difficult for me to make comparisons.

But I do feel that zazen in the Soto style is completely open. It's as open as you can possibly get. It resists any attempt to box it in. It really isn't focused on any goal at all.

The problem with any sort of technique or focus is that it's always based upon some kind of supposition. So the mind that wants to free itself creates an image of what being free is like and then makes efforts to realize that image. But the image it has created is the product of the delusion it seeks to transcend.

The esoteric stuff seems to me to be a way of seeking new kinds of delusions that are more exciting than the usual ones we're used to.

Having said all this, it's not my goal to try and convert anyone to the style of practice I do. I just feel like it may be useful to explain why I feel the way I do about it.

jay.roche's picture

Thanks for that Brad - actually what I find really helpful in what you say is the idea of a supposition, I think this is where I have found problems in vipassana i.e. I am supposed to be feeling metta now or I am supposed to be more focused now. I know this is not what vipassana or samadhi practise is about but it is easy to fall into that trap. Anyhow I am about to take part in a zen retreat in a few weeks and it will be interesting to see how it goes...thanks for your generous input here...

Brad Warner's picture

Hope that was of some use. Carry on!

Dharma255's picture

In Joseph Goldstein's piece in this month's magazine, he suggests three three-minute sessions a day to try to better understand (experience) karma and anatta (no-self). That "no-self" piece always gets me. I do know what he's talking about. The direct experience of sitting shows you all these "experiences", these "events" this "flowing" that's going on, coming and going, largely independently of anything "you" may wish or direct. You can see it happening right before "you". But the question of whether there is "anyone there" doing all this is an odd one, even though I do understand it's importance. The question is--just exactly who or what would this "anyone" be? A little guy in a loin cloth seated somewhere making "you" happen? When the Buddha looked for this self and didn't find it, what the heck was he looking for exactly? I do think the experience of seeing a thought arise out of "nothing" and disappear into "nothing" like a whale breaching and falling back in the ocean (except the thought is ten zillion times less substantial than a whale) is a shocker. Is that what they are pointing to?

Brad Warner's picture

The cliche answer to this would be, "Who's asking?"

Which is, I think, the ultimate question. But the answer is that no matter how many ways you try to frame it, you're never going to come up with an frame that fits. But you keep on trying to frame it anyhow. It's just something the brain likes to do.

Three 3-minute sessions a day is an odd idea to me. It's certainly better than not doing it at all. And the idea of trying to experience something is... Maybe I just don't get it.

If you can sit still for 10 or 20 or 30 or 40 minutes, that's zazen at it's most basic. The rest is decoration. You can add to that some attempt at experiencing a certain thing that you've read about or you can use that time to try to create a conceptual framework for what you think you are. But there's not much point to doing so, as far as I can see.

James Shaheen's picture

Just a minor point: Joseph Goldstein doesn't think 3 minutes is enough, either:

"It’s important to add, though, that nine minutes a day by itself won’t be enough. It needs to be built into the foundation of a daily meditation practice, together with the cultivation of the first strand of right understanding mentioned earlier: the awareness that our actions have consequences. If this nine-minute-a-day program is combined with other aspects of a daily practice, then I believe it can really enliven our understanding of how to apply the teachings in the midst of a very busy life. "

As for his suggestion that meditation leads to a certain kind of experience (anatta, or anicca, say), that's really a matter of a difference in traditions.

Great discussion and thanks for doing this, Brad.

Dharma255's picture

The recurring theme of your answers seems to be--"let the sitting do it's job and just don't worry about trying to get anywhere." I think that's a good suggestion.

There was a period where I really "got somewhere" from my practice, but where I got was not entirely what I expected--it was a LOT better. When I stopped sitting, it all faded away eventually.

I'm restarting (I've restarted a couple of times but I'm just not going to give up). Would your advice be to just, once again, let the sitting do its job and look for nothing--especially not look for what I "got" before?

TW77's picture

A quote from this site I got in my email this morning: "It is important to sit with the clear intention to be present. At the same time, we need to let go of expectations. In a very real sense, what happens when we sit is none of our business. The practice is to accept whatever arises instead of trying to control our experience. What we can control is our wise effort to be present with what is." helped me articulate what my struggle is. I'm still new to it, a little over a year, but "what happens is none of our business..." for me what happens is thinking. Not a big revalation but I don't really struggle or experience too much but thining. The moods and emotions i can handle, the daily practise, etc. but i find it hard to concentrate beyond a few mins at a time. If i try harder it becomes too tight, so i loosen it which opens the gates to thinking. Hard to find a balance...after 40 mins it gets worse. I'd like to have better concentration. I don't want years to go by and realize I'm doing something wrong. I'm at that point where I may need to re-evaluate in order to move forward or maybe i need to chill out and be patient. Both are fine, just as long as i'm not just sitting there, relaxing, thinking and nothing else ;)

Brad Warner's picture

You're not doing anything wrong. What comes up is just the content of your practice. That's all. Kobun Chino Roshi said it was "the content of your enlightenment."

I like all of that quote you cited except for the part about having a clear intention to be present. To me, it's more important just to sit. That's all. Intention is just another thing your brain is playing with. It doesn't matter very much. Just stay still for the time you've allotted yourself.

If you're not concentrated, then you're not concentrated. There's a story about a Zen monk who says, "If a clear mind comes, let it come. If a cloudy mind comes, let it come."

TW77's picture

I read your blog and was just watching some of your Youtube vids so it's strange to have you answering my questions...like Wayne's World "we're not worthy" haha much appreicated and your Zen quote for me will be a keeper.

I really enjoy your contributions to Tricycle's mag too and hope you'll be featured more often. The part in this months about not eating breakfast till you meditate...this morning was morning #1 using that idea. It seems to click with me. Evenings are less of a problem.

This is really cool...and I feel very fortunate to have access to all this stuff for $30/year.

TW77's picture

reading your book, Chapt 5...my Wayne's World thing above sounds like someone "looking for an authority figure to take on responsability for your life" but...i was just trying to be funny...i think :)

fairway Linda's picture

I feel there's a lot of judgment involved in sangha-sitting, which is why for beginners it may be better to sit alone. But think of going to the gym, if you don't have other people around, your determination might falter. I guess I would ask Warner Sensei if he thinks sitting in a group is better if you're a beginner looking to develop into a regular sitter, or if the being on your own means you develop the willpower. I read his blog and I think it's funny!

Brad Warner's picture

I've done most of my sitting alone. In some ways it's tougher because, as you say, you have to provide your own motivation. I like to sit with a group at least once a week because it's a different atmosphere. I don't like to talk all New Age-y about "energy" and all that. But I do feel a kind of group energy when sitting with others.

When it comes to longer meditation things, like retreats, I find I need a group. It's very hard to sit a retreat by yourself. Though I know some people who have done it. If you're with a group you're less likely to run screaming out of the room on day four.

Most beginners seem to start with groups. But it's not absolutely necessary. If you can do it on your own, then do it.

As far as judgment is concerned... yeah, a lot of people feel like they're being judged by the others sitting with them. And maybe they are. But it doesn't matter. Everybody else is in exactly the same position as you. If some people are sitting around forming opinions about other people's practice, that's a distraction they need to address for themselves. It's not really your problem.

isafakir's picture

to me at dai bosatsu and at nyzc sitting with others was profoundly strengthening and motivating and settling, that is greatly reduced distraction. just an observation.

nlamont's picture

Totally agree.

Guitar teacher Robert Fripp always says at the beginning of his retreats ' You'll find that some people here irritate you. Don't worry, no problem - you'll also be irritating them! '

Brad Warner's picture

I love Robert Fripp!