Zen and the Ego
I was fortunate enough to attend a meditation workshop at the weekend conducted by Buddhist monk Seikan Cech. Born in Prague and raised in Germany and France, Seikan found his way to the Gawler Foundation in Melbourne after studying Zen in Japan. His focus is on simple meditation (just sitting) and he is particularly interested in supporting people to discover their inherent wellness
whatever the circumstances.
Seikan was very interesting to listen to and his talks reinforced a lot of my own study and thoughts on zen and meditation. It is always fascinating to watch Buddhist monks as they are very calm and serene, every movement they make has a purpose as they don’t fall prey to the constant restlessness and fidgeting that seems to be ever present in our lives. They are also very interested to talk to other people and excited by new ideas and discussion, there is an openness to thoughts and information that isn’t clouded by pre-conceived notions or beliefs, every idea is valid and worth considering. Imagine how peaceful the world could be if we all took the time to listen and consider each others opinions rather than fixing into one single belief system and denying anything outside of it.
A lot of these ideas are very fundamental to Buddhist teachings. Siddhartha Gautama (the original Buddha) taught people to be open minded, he told them not to believe his teachings, but simply to take the time to listen and try them out for yourself. He also told people to “go against the stream” – to not accept the status quo and follow the pack, to find your own truth and your own awareness and not to inherit other peoples reality. In a way he was the original rebel!
I consider Buddhism, the Zen school in particular, to be a mental science and not a religion. I have written a little about this before but I feel it is an important concept to talk about. Zen is not really concerned with Gods and Monsters and a lot of the things that we in the western world believe about Buddhism seems to be garnered from movies and bad TV shows. Subjects like reincarnation and karma have been nicely packaged by the media and misrepresented.
I should probably take a quick moment just to say that this article is of course just my opinion and is based on my own study and ideas, whenever you write about subjects like this someone inevitably gets offended but all I ask is that if you read these words, dwell on them for a moment without judgment and consider them.
Something else that may be worth mentioning at this point since I have raised the “Gods and Monsters” subject is separating things that are literal and real from story telling. When the ancients wrote about spiritual matters they used things like demons and gods as story telling narratives – allegory’s and metaphors to describe emotional states and events, this was simply how it was done back then. If you wanted to describe a sunny day you described a fire god flying across the heavens, if you were battling a dark emotional state you were battling demons or the devil. Somewhere along the way sections of humanity started to take these things literally (possibly because of waring governments trying to control their citizens) rather than trying to work out what the author was describing through story telling. But enough about that, back to Zen.
Zen is a very practical “here and now” style of practice and is about working out your own mind. It is about your awareness of this exact moment. It is as complex as it is simple which is one of the great paradoxes of Zen. Zen meditation or “Zazen” is simply about “just sitting” and cultivating awareness, and that’s really it. There are no goals with Zazen, in fact having meditation goals or intentions is the complete opposite of just sitting in Zazen (although valid in some other styles of meditation).
One of the problems with our busy brains dealing with Zazen is that we typically believe that everything has to have a goal, if we are not going to get something tangible out of it then why do it? why just sit when you could be watching TV or surfing the net? The idea of the instant fix pervades every aspect of our modern lives, we want fast food, fast health, fast results, we have to achieve as much as we can in as short a time with as little effort as possible. With Zazen you can set the length of time that you sit for, there is no golden rule. You can start with as little as 10 minutes and build up to 1-2 hours a day as you become more experienced, but it is a practice that you need to commit to, I am really guilty of this myself – I have a tendency to get into a good habit then life seems to take over and all my time (and Zazen) disappears.
I guess my point is that it is going to take time, don’t go into it with any expectations but commit to sitting daily. Seikan said that someone can meditate for years and say that they don’t really notice any changes in their life because of it, but when you speak to the people around them they will tell you how much happier and relaxed the person has become. Although things like relaxation are not the intent of Zazen (remember, there is no actual intent) they come as a side effect. As you become more aware, relaxation will follow. When I was meditating daily I certainly noticed that I felt more relaxed and even creativity seemed to flow a little easier but this was after consistent practice over time.
There is no real “enlightenment” to be gained from meditation, not in the way that most of us would expect at least. Again, this is an idea that television and media seems to have attached to, that big “light switch” moment when someone see’s the light and all understanding is attained making them some god-like intelligence above all others, this is a really ego driven concept and it is the ego that we really need to deal with, this is something I will get into shortly.
Over time one may get a sense of what Seikan described as “oneness” – this is an idea I have been interested in for some time and wrote an article about it not to long ago. Basically it is a sense of boundary dissolution or “a lack of acknowledgment of the separateness between the self and other”. The line where you finish and the next person begins ceases to exist and you become connected to all things simultaneously. Again this is a side effect of what I imagine would be years and years of Zazen, so don’t expect to get there after a few weeks!
Interestingly, this “lack of separateness” is how we perceive the world when we are born, a baby does not know that it is separate from it’s parents, separation is something that is learned over time.
In my own experience I felt something similar when I was playing with a band. I’m a drummer and have been in and out of bands for years. One day in the middle of a song I stopped thinking about what I was playing and just let the rhythm flow not trying to focus on what I was doing, this is something that happens quite often when you really “get into the zone” during a song. For a brief moment it felt like I didn’t particularly exist anymore as “Me” and there was a definite sensation of expanding back or some kind of big space all around me (or where “me” should have been), this is probably a bad description but it is something that is hard to put into language. If you ask a surfer about it the odds are high they will have had a similar experience, it is something that seems to happen during accelerated activities.
As amazing and life changing as that sensation can be it is very elusive and even harder to explain. For now we’ll turn back to awareness and start to look at the ego.
Through just being aware of the moment we can learn a lot about ourselves and how our minds function. When you take the time to step back and observe your thoughts without attaching to any of them you start to get the sense that you are not your thoughts, they will shoot around in your head and carry on whether you participate in them or not. To me this was a very interesting discovery. I think we all have a tendency to be very reactive and emotional, if someone pisses you off that moment stays with you and it can make your entire week miserable, even though it only happened in the span of a few minutes. You may even recall that bad moment months down the track and it provokes the same emotional response in you as it did when it occurred, adding more pointless stress to your life.
So how is this possible? We have to be our thoughts right? After all we create our thoughts? I contemplated all this stuff for some time but I never really understood the mechanisms that created thoughts and our fixation on them, until a few months ago when I stumbled across some information about “the ego”. Now this is where it starts to get a bit complicated and you are going to have to use some of that “open mindedness” that we talked about.
Ego is the deeply ingrained, compulsive need to remain separate and superior at all times, in all places, under all circumstances. The ego is experienced as an emotional quagmire of fear and attachment. It is the part of you that has no interest whatsoever in freedom, feels victimized by life, avoids anything that contradicts its self-image, is thoroughly invested in its personal fears and desires, and lives only for itself. Ego is an anti-evolutionary force of powerful inertia in human nature-attached to the past, terrified of change, and seeking only to preserve the status quo.
The most common ego identifications have to do with possessions, the work you do, social status and recognition, knowledge and education, physical appearance, special abilities, relationships, person and family history, belief systems, and often also political, nationalistic, racial, religious, and other collective identifications. None of these is you.
These ego identifiers show the many ways in which it influences our daily lives and can lock us into beliefs and ideologies that can be harmful. To make it even more difficult for us to break out of this system we are constantly bombarded by the media about how we should look and how we should act, advertising is everywhere and fuels the ego making us more controlled by consumerism and self-importance.
A great example of the ego at work is when you meet someone for the first time, you immediately start judging them and trying to match them to a stereotype, you make assumptions based on the way they dress and the way they talk, you create a false perception of them based on your own misconceptions and that becomes your final assessment of that person and is unlikely to change. Worse still, if this persons beliefs or fundamental ideals don’t match yours they can be perceived as an enemy, this is the kind of scenario that can cause religious wars and hate crimes, because when someone is perceived as an enemy they no longer share the same level of humanity as you so physical harm becomes justified.
The ego is a fascinating subject and I would recommend that everyone explore it further. I stumbled upon this video recently and think it’s a great starting point for your own investigation. Once you become aware of the ego and how it works you can begin to overcome it, and that’s where Zazen comes in.
Zazen helps us to go beyond the ego, beyond the internal dialogue. It helps us let go of the need to control, the need to be approved and the need to judge. Once we know that we are not our thoughts the ego loses it’s control and we begin to experience unobstructed awareness, an awareness that has clarity and is not polluted with misconceptions, compulsions and fear.
And all of that is merely a side effect of the simple act of “just sitting”.
If you become interested in Zazen I think researching the ego has a great deal of value and it is probably something I will contemplate again in a future article. There are some great resources online for Zazen meditation instructions including the Hardcore Zen Guide and some videos over at The Stupid Way.
I’ll wrap up this article with some wise words from our original rebel Siddhartha, this is called the “Kalama Sutta” also known as “Buddha’s charter of free inquiry.”
Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it.
Do not believe in traditions simply because they have been handed down for many generations.
Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many.
Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books.
Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.
But when, after observation and analysis, you find anything that agrees with reason, and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.