Photo by Ash Edmonds on Unsplash

I Spoke to a Zen Priest About Meditation in the Digitized World

Michael Burkhardt
Nov 18, 2018 · 6 min read

Rev. Takafumi Kawakami is what you could call an innovative Zen priest. He wears a smartwatch and talks about technology, happiness and why meditation is about everything in life.

Takafumi Kawakami is a unique and forward-thinking Zen Priest who teaches meditation at his Shunkoin Temple. He works as a researcher at Keio Graduate School of Media Design and has been interviewed by various media companies, recently by CNN. His very inspirational Ted Talk on Mindfulness reached more than 500k views.

Meditation is not about certain emotions but everything​.​ Be authentic about what you are experiencing and do not pursue happiness by doing a meditation.

I stayed at his temple and was lucky to get the chance for an interview.

When did you personally start to meditate?

I started in​ high school but it was not really official Buddhist practice. I was in the track and field team and it’s really hard for the people in the field event to perform when the track event is​ going on at the same time. So I wanted to develop a good concentration. Then in​ college in the United States, I didn’t do much. I was studying religious studies and afterward, I came back to Japan to become a priest to study​ meditation more officially.

When did you really dive into the concept of meditation?

Probably around 2001​. When I was in college, I was reading articles about how meditation affects the human brain. So I started having an interest in meditation and then little by little I was doing it and in 2004 I went to a monastery.

At this point, I started doing more official practice​ as a​ Zen priest.

​What were the key benefits you experienced through meditation?

It was not really just about concentration but​ it helped me to kind of settle down before events, for example in the track and field case.

But even​ in life,​ I can better prepare mentally before I have to do something, things that normally make me nervous. Through meditation, I feel calmer so I can see what’s going on around me rather than being dominated by my​ nervousness or any other emotion.​

​You are on social media and wear a smartwatch. How do you see the role between technology and meditation?

I am a researcher at the Keio Graduate School of Media Design and I work with people who are developing biofeedback devices. I am advising when they want to​ make a device to measure concentration or calmness or something else. Personally, I am interested in it because you can make something that can help people to meditate more easily.

I am also interested in getting biofeedback and getting my brain scanned.

Another point is that we have way too much free time and that is an issue. We always say we’re so busy but compared to people living​ 80 years ago or even 60 years ago, today many things are automated​.

We have more free time and people complain about it. And yes some people are literally busy but many things are done by technology now. You don’t actually need to spend three hours to do the laundry or anything.

The issue is our cognitive limitation because our full attention is about four hours a day. That means, we have​ limited work we can do while we have more free time. So what we do is we start browsing social media and what’s happening is that you are comparing yourself to other people — social comparison discrepancy — and that impacts us significantly and is making us feel less self-conscious and​ less confident.​

Contrary, meditation helps us to see how we feel, how we experience emotions or the experience here right now, which is what we don’t do that much because everything is online.

Today people have fewer personal experiences rather, they browse on the Internet.

I’m still using​ Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc. but I use it primarily for my temple.

You need to be your own personal experience.

I think that’s a really important part of meditation.​

What is the role of happiness and sadness in meditation?

There are no roles of happiness or sadness. They are actually​ subjects.

During the meditation you experience happiness but how do you experience happiness is the question. And when you experience sadness, how do you experience sadness?

​You observe which part of your body is experiencing some sensations when you’re experiencing happiness, how your chest feels, how your stomach feels, how your face and neck feels. The same applies to sadness.

So it’s not like you’re aiming for happiness or aiming for the sadness.

You are just observing how you experience those emotions. ​

And it is not about certain emotions but everything​.​ Be authentic about what you are experiencing and do not pursue happiness by doing a meditation.

The younger generations have grown up with technology and are constantly online; do you think it becomes more difficult to integrate or get a connection to meditation in their life.

I don’t think​ it’s an issue. The younger generations are more exposed to meditation these days because of mindfulness training. I see more schools incorporate​ mindful meditation into their curriculum.

I am 40 years old this year and for my generation meditation was some sort of special practice for a special group of people.

But right now​ for kids, it is a different story, e.g. my daughter is six and her high school teacher wants to have the kids to meditate as well. Things have become more normal for everybody.

​​What tips would you give to start with meditation for a total beginner?

First of all start with breathing.

At this moment you are breathing, too. So why don’t you just​ take a moment and pay attention to your breathing?​

Anyway, you’re doing it. Take a moment and pay attention to your breathing.

Now you feel kind of lighter and more relaxed​. Now, if you​ like that why don’t you try to do another one and so on.

I think that’s a good way to start rather than say: I want to do 20 minutes of meditation or you know 30 minutes of meditation.

Start slowly. ​

​Imagine you would be 18 years old right now with the experience and knowledge you have in 2018. What would you do? What skills would you acquire?​

​In some way, I want to also study about neuroscience and at the same time, I want to focus more on philosophy. Either way, it’s not just about gaining knowledge but it’s about questioning what is available right now with regards to knowledge.

Learning or​ getting information is not as important as it used to be because you can just check your phone or​ in the future,​ it could be eye devices and you can browse information any time you want.

Information is available everywhere.

I would want to develop skills to analyze and question information. Is that really right or what does this mean to me or what kind of impact would it create for me or in our society.

I would develop a skill to think and analyze that information.

About the author:

Michael Burkhardt is an AI Travelpreneur (40+ countries). He helps AI enthusiasts acquire hands-on skills through Real-World Projects. Apart from AI he blogs about mindset shifts, meditation tips, and body hacks for travelpreneurs.

Connect with Michael on LinkedIn, Medium and Instagram.

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Michael Burkhardt

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Community Builder | Building AI for Good @Omdena | Writing about Meditation and Habits for Self Discovery, Personal Development, and Peak Performance.

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