Filed in Zen (Chan)

The Myth of the Experienced Meditator

After thirty years of practice, one meditator finds it's gotten him nowhere. That's just fine with him.

Barry Evans

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I tell Kyodo Roshi I want to take my practice to a deeper level. "Deeper level?" He laughs again. "What do you mean, 'deeper'? Zen practice only one level. No deep, understand?"

—Lawrence Shainberg, Ambivalent Zen


I AM, UNFORTUNATELY, an experienced meditator. From the time I stumbled into an introduction to Transcendental Meditation in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, in 1970, through multiple eras (including my present fifteen-year-old Soto Zen practice), I've sat and stared at many walls (and mandalas and candles, and the inside of my eyelids) reveled in sundry bells-and-whistles mental experiences, gotten bored, decided I was going crazy, become enlightened (no, really!), and now I'm ready to share everything I've learned. It won't take long. In fact I can sum it up in one word: nothing.

Not that "nothing" is to be sniffed at. For years—decades!—I thought there was something to learn, and that all those thousands of hours on the mat were cumulative, that the more I sat, the more aware and compassionate and wonderful I would become. In a world where the attainment of goals is seen as a virtue, thirty-eight years of realizing nothing didn't come easily or lightly.

By definition (mine), if I did think I knew something about meditation, that wouldn't be meditation. Sort of like God—if you can describe God to me, that ain't God. If, as I believe, meditation is simply awareness, then any past knowledge I have about it is not only useless, but slops over into my immediate experience. Knowing is antithetical to openness, and it's the adventure of not knowing that's the genius of meditation. Not for nothing (so to speak) are two of the most popular contemporary books on Buddhism called Beginner's Mind (Shunryu Suzuki) and Only Don't Know (Seung Sahn). I have this fantasy that next time I open my copies of these books, I'll find only blank pages.

So what is meditation about? I've heard many claims for the practice over the years, that it's about: gratitude; emptiness; deepened, (or if you prefer) heightened, awareness; compassion; spaciousness; the discovery/realization/dissolving of one's true self (your choice); attaining liberation; self-realization; being present in the moment; opening to the wonder of it all; finding inner peace; encountering one's Buddha nature; becoming one with everything; cutting through delusion; fill in the blank.

It seems to me, though, that meditation isn't about anything: meditation is meditation. Any attempt to define it in terms of something else simply confuses the issue, making it vulnerable to being treated like any other self-improvement system. Lord knows, these days we are offered enough ways to be better people, get closer to God, find ourselves, and enhance our circumstances. We're swamped with therapies, self-help books, and techniques—what musician and activist Bob Geldof called "the thriving economy of psychotherapists, designer religions, and spiritual boutiques"—which treat our lives as projects to be tweaked and fixed. Isn't meditation (if it's anything at all) a relief from all this? Isn't it the opposite of repairing and adjusting and striving and perpetually wanting things to be different?

For me, meditation is a haven away from the ubiquitous world of self-improvement. It's not just that there's no such thing as "bad" meditation, but there's no such thing as "good" meditation either. It is what it is. So when I hear words like "effort" and "discipline" and phrases like "deepening one's practice" and "advancing along the spiritual path" spoken in the same breath as the word "meditation," I wince. Just sitting (shikantaza)—doing and wanting nothing, breath coming and going unbidden, eyes seeing, ears hearing—in this effortless state, thoughts flurry like falling leaves.

So can a so-called experienced meditator offer anything to someone new to the practice? Probably not. If what we're really talking about is awareness, how can we help someone notice what's going on? This is what's going on: no more, no less. Unlike a subject like, say, carpentry, where we learn from the experience of those who have gone before us, meditation is defined by spontaneity, by not knowing. As the Roshi says, "practice only one level." Perhaps the best we can do is to reassure newcomers that each of us starts over with every sitting and every breath.

Trust me. I'm an experienced meditator.


Barry Evans is a member of the Arcata (California) Zen Group and also sits with Akira Kasai, in Guanajuato, Mexico. He isn't quite sure why he meditates, but he does anyway.

Image: © R. Taylor L.M.P.A.

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jackelope65's picture

Ever wake up with no expectations other than work or school? You look out the widow and there it is, a blizzard. No work. No school. Your partner, children and you build snowmen, throw snowballs, warm up with hot cocoa in front of a warm fire. Later you tell them stories and they go to sleep satisfied and tired from the day. Or your mother dies Such as this day holding no great expectation, so is meditation. Maybe you just go to school or work.

James Mullaney's picture

All the circumstances I'm in now are lousy, including 2 disabling, lifelong Axis I mental disorders simultaneously, degenerative arthritis, poverty, never married, 2 suicides in my nuclear family...don't get me started.

But after practicing daily and studying deeply in the dharma for the past 24 years, I'm so happy to be Me; by which I mean, I feel so fortunate, so gifted, to have been given a human life to live on earth, right now, in this time and place. Anytime I feel any kind of mental or emotional unease, I gently turn my attention to the fact that I'm alive, I exist, I'm Me, my Heart is Buddha, my Mind is Buddha, they always have been, they always will be, and NOTHING will ever change THAT; and I'm suffused with gratitude, which is a form of happiness, deep contentment, and peace. If the unease isn't completely quieted it is undeniably put into perspective. Thich Nhat Hanh has said a lot about having a joyful, grateful attitude for no other reason but that we are alive now. (Forgive me if I misspelled his name.)

I can be in samsara and Nirvana at one time, and crossing between them doesn't faze me. I'm always the same on one level but I'm never the same on another level. The river flows endlessly but the riverbed stays put. The sun remains stationary at the center of the solar system while the planets revolve around it; but it's one solar system, not two. Samsara is endless change; Nirvana is beyond all change.

Life is suffering, yes. But much more than that, life is a joyous celebration, a sumptuous banquet. There is Bliss; there is Love, I've attained the Fourth Noble Truth, I guess. There's both feasting and fasting in Life. This is the Tao.

The Quest comes to an End when you find the Grail. You don't seek for all eternity.

Gratitude is the best and simplest meditation. Always be grateful and you're already there, here, in Nirvana - and you'll never go wrong. Peace to You!

lenleyl's picture

Well said!

jboureston's picture

So if Buddhists believe that there is nowhere to go, nothing to achieve, no benefit to be had, then why do it? If we meditate just to meditate, I have to ask, why do we do it? is it just an act we have to do because we want to look and be like the Buddha? Is it dogma? we do it because we are told we must? If we are not benefiting ourselves or anyone else, why do it? if there is no change in who we are and how we can improve our minds, our lives, or those around us, then why do it? What do you think?

jungsoo's picture

people who meditate will have different experiences and different ways that the meditation spills over into their daily lives that benefits them and others. It's difficult to write about what to expect from meditation practice because everyone is different so each person will have different insights and different understandings of how to follow through with these insights in your normal activities to help other people. It's extremely subtle so providing a map is not the territory, you need to explore it on your own. I sense from these questions that you haven't tried meditation on a regular basis (an every day discipline like brushing your teeth) so I suggest giving it a try. Start out small, 10 minutes in the morning every day for a month. see what happens. As for dogma, there isn't a belief system in meditation nor is there a supernatural god that your praying to, it's just discipline, an exercise for your mind. Meditation is simply a oneness of body, breath and mind. The point of the article is no expectations, just experience. I recommend reading today's Tricycle blog post, which seems to be somewhat of a counter essay of choice from this one

Dominic Gomez's picture

"there isn't a belief system in meditation": Although Buddhism itself is a belief system.

jboureston's picture

Thanks so much, both of you. Actually I just wanted to see what kind of answers I'd get from my questions. I was feeling the urge to be like Shariputra and question, question.

I know what meditation is for me and what i get from it. It is a daily and a life-long practice that helps me be my better self, for myself and for others.

I am a dedicated meditator, have been for almost 5 years. I have known the benefit of my meditation: stabilized mind, touching into Buddha nature, having greater insight into my mind and the nature of mind.

I've read many articles, and studied many readings. And yes I love today's article, yesterday's too.

And I appreciate the concept of meditating just to meditate, no expectations or expected outcomes. But in a way it seems like a paradox. I can agree that expecting our meditation to deepen or for us finally get to some level or attain some level of awareness or enlightenment and then to stay there isn't really the reason we do it.. and we will fall into false hope if we do. But I do know (because of my experience) that meditation helps on the mat to stabilize my mind when thoughts arise and off the mat to stabilize it when external (and internal experiences) cause me to spin off. In essence, meditation helps me to maintain an open heart and mind.

And I agree with Barry that each of us starts over with every sitting and every breath. So we can't expect what will help when we sit. We just gotta do it.

It seems that the practice is what it's about.. or as Ani Pema Chodron says, "the path is the goal." If we practice we will know.. if we don't we won't. but there's not where to go.. just be present.



jungsoo's picture

ooh Jack, you're really good at masquerade! I thought for sure you were a beginner from that first comment. I'm in awe of your skillful means!
I was thinking about this topic this afternoon while I was out on the town with my 5 year-old son and realized that meditation has given me the Dharma-mind which encompasses so many positive forces that I was unaware of before my practice began (attentiveness, patience or awareness of impatience, tolerance, skillful means, and most importantly, in terms of dealing with children - controlling emotional responses. Plus, one more thing which is huge - gratitude). thanks again.

Mike Nielsen's picture

It is kind of tough to say what most Buddhists believe but I get the spirit of the question. The historical Buddha had insights about the ephemeral nature of reality and he shared these with others who have tested out this idea and have riffed on it in their own ways. That is the gist of what this brief article is. It's an attempt to liberate meditation practice from the confines of self-improvement. To me, it's good clean fun. Proof that the Zen is mightier than the Ford.

jboureston's picture

I guess I want to ask, in the Buddhist context, what is the purpose of meditating? I mean, for Buddhist's what's the point of doing it?

jungsoo's picture

to grasp my mind before I haul off and punch someone (only partially kidding).
Today's Tricycle blog is less crude in it's description...."Meditation, simply defined, is a way of being aware. It is the happy marriage of doing and being. It lifts the fog of our ordinary lives to reveal what is hidden; it loosens the knot of self-centeredness and opens the heart; it moves us beyond mere concepts to allow for a direct experience of reality. Meditation embodies the way of awakening: both the path and its fruition. From one point of view, it is the means to awakening; from another, it is awakening itself."

Danny's picture

30 minutes well spent:

rockydone's picture

I am not a "Meditater", but if you asked me I would tell you about my walking/eating/dancing/sitting/singing/sailing/lovemaking/pooping meditations....aka my meditative life. But what I want to talk about is "nothing/no-thing...ness or what I call the no-thing between the 'things'. Many decades ago I was attracted to all the accolades attributed to no-thing. It started hearing my Mother constantly asking "is nothing Sacred?". Other accolades are no-thing is forever/Eternal, no-thing works all the when I don't know what to do ..I do nothing, as THAT works all the time. And there is 'no-thing beats a Bud' an my all time fave 'nothing is TOO good for you'. So I dedicated myself to investigating this so called 'no-thing between the 'things' aka the Permanence between/among all the impermanence/ephemeral. The result of this inquiry was that the so-called no-thing was actually Relationship; how do I relate to _________ (fill in the blank- with 'things' or events...and of course thoughts are'things'.

A similar investigation into the nobody/no-body ness led to similar Revelations. statements like 'nobody knows', nobody cares', 'nobody can save us now', 'nobody does it better'....that was the no-body that I wanted to be. So even though I spent a big bunch of 'time' trying to be 'somebody doing something, I found the Secret (for me) was to Be "No-body doing No-thing such that no-thing is left un-done." And did not The Buddha say, "No self-no problem"? EnJoy/InJoy.

jungsoo's picture

Meditation helps me to hear the woodpeckers drumming in the morning.

drgayle's picture

wonderful! Just being is it.

zeynep.aksel's picture

To me this article has been a relief. I have been meditating only for a year. The thing I notice is that concentrating on my breath is difficult but it might get better with regular meditation. So if I can concentrate a bit better on "here and now" I would learn how to stay longer in the present moment, even when I am not meditating. My understanding of meditation is that is a technique which teaches us to stay present. By being present, we become more aware of what is happening to us and to our surroundings, instead of getting lost in thoughts and miss what is there now for us. As most of our thoughts are either toxic, or valueless or not helpful, staying in the present becomes more beneficial and maybe shows us a bit the way to happiness.
So this article tells me that there is nothing in meditation which has not been revealed to me. All is there and nothing is there: just do it.

drleroi's picture

I follow the piano lesson metaphor. It was clear to me that the Tibetan teachers I encountered had (achieved) something I wanted, peace, equinaminty, joyfullness, mindfullness, etc. The teachers and books all seemed to claim that a strong meditation practice was necessary to attain this, and that it is possible for anyone to do this. Certainly, both repeated exposure to an awakened mind and daily practice seem to be part of the process. A very few people can teach themself to play the piano, or "get it" from one transmission from the guru. For the rest of us, it is a gradual process.

jungsoo's picture

just listen to what happens when you press the keys.

Dot Luce's picture

If it's nothing, how can you be "experienced" ? At what? You are experienced at nothing.

jungsoo's picture

exactly the point of the article

D. Anderson's picture

This short article by Barry Evans speaks volumes to me so it is with hesitation that I add my words but here goes: it is through meditation that I have come to see the memory part of my mind as my own private film crew assigned at birth to record every experience of my life. If I don't pay constant attention to what is going on in the present moment these films play back on their own and make me think that I am not the central character of my moment by moment existence.

melcher's picture

Certainly the sheer volume of verbiage that this article evokes testifies to its efficacy as a device for evoking insight. The skill of the writer is to push us toward encountering our own "edge" where concept presses against experience. Here is the true "method" of zen, to let us see and then to let go.

marginal person's picture

Yes, verbiage in the sense of many words, not too much said. No about the insight [in my opinion] if by that you mean penetrating beneath the surface of a thing.
Perhaps we have to ask ourselves is there psychological time? Time in the sense of improvement happening in the future. I want to be "better" if i do certain things i can get to where I want to be. We see this method work in other areas and we try to do the same with psychological issues. Maybe this is where we need to reevaluate.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Be a better Buddhist? A better mother, father, sister, brother, employee, neighbour, tennis player? Of course any sort of improvement takes time and, above all, effort.

marginal person's picture

It"s true the various things you mention may be improved with time and effort .However a more careful reading of my comment would have indicated this was not my point.
I was speaking of "clear seeing" and I question whether time and effort play any roll at all.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Rather a subjective notion, clear seeing. Individuals see things differently. Unless you're referring to seeing (what Buddhism defines as) ultimate reality. In which case individual karma has a role. Some people have the inborn capacity to immediately awaken to the true nature of life. Others over time and with much greater effort.

marginal person's picture

My original point was about time. I speculated on the possibility of their being no inner or mental time in which to "improve". It's a bit obscure. Any thoughts?'s picture

The nature of time...very tricky. See Katagiri's "Each Moment Is The Universe" and see if your mind tries to "grab" it.

celticpassage's picture

I think the point was addressed a long time ago (lol)...the mind of the past, present, and future being ungraspable.'s picture

Been reading the Diamond Sutra, have you?

Dominic Gomez's picture

Buddhism is a lifelong practice, its actual benefits far outweighing a split second of so-called "enlightenment". It seems rather arrogant of some Buddhists to claim some kind of (merely) mental "improvement" unattainable by the average citizen who seeks to improve his or her lot in life.

jackelope65's picture

Sometimes discussions such as this may leave beginners to think:then why do it? However something big is happening in the brain with electrophysiological and structural, based on FMRI, in as little as 2 weeks with continuously greater changes even at levels greater than 10,000 to 50,000 hours of meditation as noted by Richard Davidson and in collaboration with the Dalai Lama. As a physician who has worked almost 40 years with head injured, stroke, MS, Dementia, and many other disorders in patients where even minor changes can dramatically change functional outcome, I think we need to be less blasé about positive neuropsychological changes, such as improved attention and concentration, and positive emotional changes, such as greater joy and compassion, that is seen early and progressively in dedicated meditators. This may tot seem as "cool" as other more ethereal answers but it is "way cool" to me.

celticpassage's picture

A couple of comments.
FMRI doesn't show structural changes.
Arguments from a disease model need not apply to a presumably healthy model.
Even if there are structural changes, this doesn't imply that these are the cause of said 'improvements'

SandySB's picture

As many responses as there are people reading this I think.
I guess that meditation can be what ever it is you want it to be, a way to relax, an aid to stress management a hobby etc.
As far as I can tell from my limited experience most Budhist teachers still chose to meditate even after they have become "enlightened" as did "The Buddha".
The Buddha seems to have taught many different ways to meditate and seems to have given a teaching to everyone at a level that would mean something to that individual.
Meditation is only one part of his path.
I spent a long time trying to find out how to do it and got a bit fed up with all the people (who I decided were experts not them) I asked who seemed to know what they were talking about telling me to follow the breath etc. I wanted results and fast. Several years ago I realised that the results I wanted were what had brought me to meditate - less unhappiness etc etc - what keeps me meditating is meditation itself.
To see the change in my thoughts, habits, behaviours etc and that they appear to me more skilful has been a joy. I remain screwed up but now have some realisation that thatis my problem and so I need to find the solutions and cannot blame the world, my parents, life etc. Indeed I can enjoy being screwed uprather than worry about it.
The journey has become more important than the destination, and I guess that is what meditation means for me.
Experience seems to imply that I should be able to spend more time in blissful states etc, but reality is that I spend longer and longer having what I would originally have called "bad" meditations - fogged up, thought ridden etc but with apparently better results,
Just trust your method and history says that many people will find it works for them whatever thatmeans for them.

Cami's picture

"A true Zen saying: Nothing is what I want." - Frank Zappa

James Mullaney's picture

I think the paradox of meditation is that whenever you set a goal with conscious intention, the conscious intention becomes the obstacle to achieving that goal. And when you finally surrender your will and submit to whatever you are!

fishman.ellen's picture

Dear James,
In my experience GOAL is a problem.
Intention speaks of something else- a direction.
Like when I walk the garden path sometimes I pause, stop and listen even rest, my direction is based upon the moment. Goal blinds me to what is and the energy becomes hard and stiff so I suspend the fluidity of learning.

celticpassage's picture

I would disagree.
We need goals and chosen directions; life would be impossible without them.
It is not goals which are the problem, but rather attachment to their fulfillment.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Bruce Lee said before he knew kung fu a kick was just a kick. While learning kung fu a kick was more than just a kick. Once he mastered kung fu a kick was once again just a kick. But man WHAT a kick! Same thing applies to your life when practicing Buddhism.

Sareen's picture

It seems to me Barry is taking the result of many years of practice, and letting go of everything it took to get him there. Yes, from the beginning awareness is pure and available, AND conditioning binds us. In my practice there is a whole lot going on loosening up this conditioning and very slowly I am experiencing profound change, which in fact does lead me closer to the capacity for wise action.

Zen seems to lean to the emptiness side of awareness. Neat and tidy and clever.

The arisings(aka, life), are messy; plenty of uncertainty and confusion mixed in with periods of clarity and compassion.

Could it be that Barry has evolved in his practice to a state where he is truly free of attachments and this makes it possible for him to say there is no need for improvement?

simmundy's picture

It might be useful to consider differences between "not looking for attainment or results" and "nothing happened, nothing changed".

tara123's picture

I may be way late in the day, but I think this piece was brilliant when written and remains so to this day. Everything changes, including the meaning of meditation - by any name. By no name at all. Every time I look at my mind, it's not a blank page, but some day it will be. It will be a blank slate, and the "I" will be no more as it is now. Read the article again, slowly, if it rubbed you wrong. See if you can see the blessing that is there (at least when some of us read it). I read truth, and am grateful.

celticpassage's picture

I disagree.
Not everything changes. This is an overgeneralization of the dharma truth that everything changes.
For example, my definition of the sun being a medium sized star in the center of our solar system never changes and never will.'s picture

Great Article!

cobham's picture

I thought nimitta answered it all.

Is Barry pointing to the contradiction that in being motivated to alleviate suffering in whatever form it takes, we have to let go of the goal (of even enlightenment) in order to have the attitude that is most helpful in meditation?

Perhaps it is similar to the difference between someone learning a skill in early childhood eg skiing ( where it has become effortless ) and someone learning later as an adult and can still remember all the steps and difficulties. Best not to cling to the steps as Barry mentions: " any past knowledge I have about it is not only useless, but slops over into my immediate experience."

The not-knowing attitude gives space for peace, joy, love and compassion to arise even in the self-help section of the bookstore :) It also allows meditation to reduce our suffering.

celticpassage's picture

"I thought nimitta answered it all."...then why are you adding anything?

"'any past knowledge I have about it is not only useless, but slops over into my immediate experience.'"...a part of the article that really makes no sense.

celticpassage's picture

Buddha's purpose is beside the point....besides he's over-rated.

The issue in the article was to do with meditation and whether you "progress" or get into "deeper states" of Zen.

And the answer is quite simply, no you do not; and Zen, life, meditation, isn't a 'state'.
And if 'nowhere to go' and 'nothing to achieve' are word games for some here, that's fine, but they are not just word games.

I thought at least someone may have met the Buddha on the road and killed him already.

Mike Nielsen's picture

I like the ending bit about all of us facing the same challenge with each new sitting and each new breath. It is a lovely bit of poetry that acknowledges the real situation of meditation and of putting meditation into practice. I think of the phrase from some sutra: "Not twice this day, inch time foot gem." So much potential lies in the immediacy of this moment.

Dominic Gomez's picture

The issue seems to be Buddhism's purpose. If indeed there is none then it is not necessary to meditate.

Hanny2's picture

Deep bow, palm to palm. Loved every word; a thousand thank you's. 'nuff said.