Monthly Archives: April 2014

… after the fire a still small voice*


I’m somewhat amazed at the millions — maybe billions — of words written about Zen meditation. I’ve read a fraction of them and listened to some of the practice’s leading minds (Zoketsu Norman Fischer, for example, who is exceptional, and Dr. Dan Siegel’s more secular work on mindsight).

It’s somewhat ironic, because there seems to be this endless human need to use words to relate aspects of a non-linguistic experience that is best experienced much more simply by doing — which is precisely what many of the best texts recommend. I guess it’s much like the field of writing, and the amount of writing on how to do writing, when it’s best to sit down at the keyboard and just write.

With that caveat in mind, I’m going to add my own small contribution to the literature — small, certainly, but, I feel, important (… and aren’t they all? other writers might grumble).

I believe the following illustrates what’s meant by trying to achieve a state of “not thinking” during zazen.** Rather than this being the simple notion of having a completely inert, blank mind, it is uncovering a state where one’s mind is in motion, i.e., thinking, but is not inducing thought.

This is where the individual allows his or her thoughts to arise naturally, but doesn’t provoke thinking intentionally.

Putting it conversationally, don’t actively try to think. If it just happens, that’s OK, but don’t work at thinking. Thoughts may come of their own volition. Just let them.

I believe this is what Zen teachers mean when they talk about sitting without “expectation.” Expecting something helps drive thinking; it’s an active process, a wanting process, a doing process. In the odd realm of mind, expecting something to happen — thought, feeling, imagining — makes it happen.

Think of the process of thought like combustion in an engine (the mind). Active thinking is pushing the mind’s accelerator — it’s an intentional action. The engine should be left idling in neutral during meditation.

Unbidden thoughts are allowed. Not bidden thoughts.



* You’ll forgive me for using this title, because I think it’s cool even while it mischaracterizes slightly what I’m trying to communicate here. “Voice” invokes thoughts of some kind of language communication, and thus the intentional act of thinking that language requires, whereas the experience of zazen should be the reverse. However, in my interpretation, the “voice” is more a state of passive, non-judgmental awareness, or a communing with the true, Buddha self. I know, I know. I’m stretching the analogy to justify using this title. Bah.

** Central to Zen Buddhism is the practice of zazen, or sitting meditation. This is not about achieving some otherworldly trance state, or contemplation, but an attitude of wakeful awareness in which one observes in a detached fashion the workings of one’s mind. It’s not as easy as it sounds.

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In the land of the one-eyed men …


The Washington Post has a rather fascinating article on our growing inability to focus on long pieces of text. I know I’m heaping on the irony here, but here’s the nutgraf:

To cognitive neuroscientists, Handscombe’s experience is the subject of great fascination and growing alarm. Humans, they warn, seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online. This alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia.

This is something I’m particularly subject to — I find myself skimming quite a lot in my day-to-day job as I look for topics on which to editorialize and supporting information to help make my arguments. The rise of the Internet, then mobile devices, has only contributed to our inability to concentrate. And if we can’t read well, that is, take in long chunks of text information and retain key elements about what we’ve just read, what’s happening to our writing ability, which takes, I believe, considerably more concentration and cognition than reading?

[Maryanne] Wolf [a Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist and the author of “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain”], one of the world’s foremost experts on the study of reading, was startled last year to discover her brain was apparently adapting, too. After a day of scrolling through the Web and hundreds of e-mails, she sat down one evening to read Hermann Hesse’s “The Glass Bead Game.”

“I’m not kidding: I couldn’t do it,” she said. “It was torture getting through the first page. I couldn’t force myself to slow down so that I wasn’t skimming, picking out key words, organizing my eye movements to generate the most information at the highest speed. I was so disgusted with myself.”

Food for thought, because if we’ve experienced this amazing cognitive adaptation in such a short period of time — just a couple of decades — to the point where it’s over-writing even the decades of pre-Web experience in deep and prolonged reading such that the researchers of the phenomena are noticing it in themselves, imagine what life will be like for our children. Wolf had to retrain herself to read, or, as she termed it, become “bi-literate,” able to both skim and scan, but also retain enough focus to read at length. The process took about two weeks, according to The Post.

“We can’t turn back,” Wolf said. “We should be simultaneously reading to children from books, giving them print, helping them learn this slower mode, and at the same time steadily increasing their immersion into the technological, digital age. It’s both. We have to ask the question: What do we want to preserve?”

That’s a fascinating question. Not only is being able to concentrate and focus invaluable for reading and processing information, it’s indispensable to a meaningful life. Hence the title — those who manage to retain their ability to focus and, by extension, think and remember more powerfully, will truly be the kings and queens in a technologically blind age of short-term memory and constant interruption.