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“One Weird Trick” That Improved My Meditation Practice

A new way to meditate influenced by Zen Buddhism and a sad story about cats

Żabka the cat. Photo by Jan Kraus

The Zen monastery was serene that early morning. Only the wind off the surrounding mountains could be heard. Master Quang Tu strolled between the rows of monks sitting in lotus position, absorbed in zazen. His eyes caught young Riki stirring, his stance slackened. The student had lost his concentration. Compassionate action was needed to bring him back to mindfulness.

Gripping his keisaku like a two-handed sword, Master Quang Tu whacked Riki twice on one shoulder, then twice on the other.

With shoulders stinging, Riki put his palms together and bowed his head in gratitude. Then, with renewed vigilance he continued his meditation.


Wouldn’t it be nice if you had a Zen master to keep your meditation practice as correct and beneficial as possible? Someone to give you a “whack” (albeit gently) whenever your thoughts wander, to bring you back into awareness?

There is a way — “one weird trick” to maintain your meditation practice and self-correct when needed. This article is about that way, a way motivated by a sad story about cats…

Downsides to Sitting Meditation

I ’m sure most people at least have an idea of what meditation is. Meditation is the practice of focusing on something (like your breath) to achieve a mentally clear and emotionally calm state. It’s typically done while sitting, although meditation can be done lying down, standing up and even walking.

By engaging with a particular meditation practice, you learn the patterns and habits of your mind. With regular practice (the word practice and meditation will be used interchangeably here) you can improve your concentration, emotional regulation and perceive the true nature of things more clearly.

Meditation has so many reported benefits; it would probably take an encyclopedic sized book to list them all. It’s amazing that the simple practice of calming down and clearing away mental debris can positively influence personality and self-concept, boost your immune system and even increase the size of your brain.

If there’s any downside to traditional meditation, it’s in sitting itself. Studies suggest that too much sitting (and subsequently not enough exercise) can hasten aging and contribute to obesity. It can also make us too comfortable (what John Yates in his groundbreaking book The Mind Illuminated calls dullness).

Standing eliminates these downsides. Not only does standing meditation keep us alert and burn more calories than sitting, our brains function better when we are on our feet. Standing up for meditation also helps develop more control of our stabilizers (postural muscles) which can lead to better posture.

The Cats That Could Not Sleep

So now we get to the “one weird trick” for better meditation. It’s a modified version of standing meditation, but unfortunately inspired by sad story about cats.

Several years ago, I was in the daily habit of sitting on a chair and meditating for two hours. Sometimes I divided my meditation into three 40 minute sessions, other times into two 50 minute sessions and a final 20 minute session, but most days I tried to get it over and done within one long two hour sitting.

Back then, my practice wasn’t purposeful. It started that way but eventually became sloppy. I was committed to doing my daily meditation but wasn’t deriving much benefit from it.

On this particular morning I was dozing off during a two-hour session when I heard a still small voice in my head say:

The cats weren’t allowed to sleep.

I knew what that meant and the thought hit me like a keisaku. The cats being referred to were victims of a cruel science experiment I wrote about previously. Michel Jouvet, the scientist conducting the experiment, used what is called the “upturned flowerpot” technique.

One by one, cats were stranded on a small upturned flowerpot in the middle of a pool of water. They could not sleep, for if they did they would fall into the water and drown.

Eventually all the cats either drowned or died from lack of REM sleep, but struggled for a median of 35 grueling days before succumbing to their watery grave.

I live with five cats who I consider my family,and the thought of this experiment made it impossible for me to be so comfortable in my practice any longer. As a memorial to these cats, I took a sturdy hardcover book from my bookshelf and stood on it for two hours straight. When my legs began to ache, it reminded me of the sleep deprived cats stranded on an upturn flowerpot, unable to leave, unable to sleep, unable to die.

It made my two hours seem short in comparison.

Bookstanding

That’s how this “one weird trick” called bookstanding meditation came to be, although I didn’t call it anything for a long time. I just stepped on that same hardcover book every morning and did my meditation. However, the modification has revitalized my practice and given it a new layer of meaning. I get all the benefits of meditation -standing meditation even — and it enforces constant presence of mind.

Standing still on the small surface area of a book is deceptively challenging. If tests your balance, patience, and your muscle control.

I find that when I lose my concentration, my balance is soon to follow. Gravity and the sudden sensation of falling play the role of Zen Master and keisaku quite nicely.

Increasing the Challenge

It’s been said that Zen meditation is a practice on a knife’s edge. It means that meditation isn’t supposed to be comfortable. It’s supposed to challenge you. With bookstanding meditation, you can increase the challenge of your practice by standing on more books (please be careful), increasing the amount of time you meditate, or both.

If you’re ready to give bookstanding meditation a try, here are a few suggestions on form:

  • Stand tall with both feet firmly planted on the book at all times
  • Keep your arms loose and your hands in mudra (hokkai-join) or down at your sides
  • Avoid crouching, squatting, or leaning against anything for support; maintain your poise at all times
  • Stay present and aware of your inner state, in particular your stabilizers (postural muscles)

Challenge yourself, but step down and sit whenever you get too tired and wobbly. Just remember that the cats in Jouvet’s experiment weren’t allowed to.

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