WARNING: In stereotypical Zen fashion, the following contains a DANGEROUS AMOUNT of figurative language.
Nerves of Glass
Things are a little intense right now.
Another way to say this is that we live in what is probably objectively the craziest time to be alive in all of human history.
Yet another way to say this is that to maintain even the barest glimmer of sociopolitical awareness, to have even a mild aspiration toward woke-ness, is to stoke a never-ending migraine of anxiety and worry.
The mere fact that I’m continually redefining my sense of bewilderment and terror in this way is, sadly, something that a lot of people can probably relate to right now. “No, this is how scary everything is and how each day my compulsive news-checking brings a new rush of shock and bottomless dismay! No, this is…” Wash, rinse, repeat.
My Twitter feed is firmly stocked with a lovely menagerie of pop culture and comedy. But in the last year it’s become chock-full of political commentary, both because I’ve been following more journalists and political figures, and because constant political awareness is a necessity today, even among those who are nice enough to repeatedly microblog free comedy and insight for my consumption.
I check Twitter because I’m worried, and I’m worried because I check Twitter.
And yes, we need to be aware. We need to be active. And I’ve written about that. But we also need to take care of ourselves.
Which is why I’m calling for everyone, and I mean everyone to become an Everyday Zen Buddhist.
A Totally Unqualified Intro to Zen Buddhism
Zen is a Japanese sect of Mahayana Buddhism built around trying to find inspiration, enlightenment, and catharsis through meditative practices.
Cool definition! Now, if this were The Matrix, I’d just plug that heebie-jeebies inducing cable thingy into my brain-stem and download that definition, becoming a super well-balanced Zen master.
Unfortunately, this isn’t The Matrix, or I’d also be a kung-fu monster and speak every language. And I’d probably have seen The Wire by now.
Here’s the part where I’m really and truly going to use a quote from www.zen-buddhism.net, which I discovered in my research for this piece, and is actually a pretty wonderful resource. On learning Zen from reading about it in, say, articles like this one, they say,
“Trying to explain or define Zen Buddhism, by reducing it to a book, to a few definitions, or to a website is impossible. Instead, it freezes Zen in time and space, thereby weakening its meaning…Defining Zen (禅) is like trying to describe the taste of honey to someone who has never tasted it before. You can try to explain the texture and scent of honey, or you can try to compare and correlate it with similar foods. However, honey is honey! As long as you have not tasted it, you are in the illusion of what honey is.”
I accept that I’ll probably never be an expert. I accept that ~65% is the closest I’m likely to achieve, especially given my zany grab bag of psychological problems and personality deficits, but I’m okay with that. I’m a Millennial, and we’re the inventors of YouTube University, which makes me an eternal Jack of all trades and master of none, so I can deal with that.
Doesn’t mean I can’t try.
So, what is Zen, other than an ever-flowing evanescent ideal that can never be quantified nor written down?
The best I can come up with, from what I’ve read, is this:
Zen is the state of being actively okay.
I spend a lot of time focused on my ups and downs. As Master Hendrix said, manic depression is a frustrating mess. I, like a dog, am a creature of total emotional absorption — when I’m happy, I feel like everything will be coming up Milhouse forever: “This is it! I’ve now reached maximum happiness. From here on out, everything will be the best.” And when something goes wrong, I feel like a character on The Walking Dead, miserable because the writers literally just don’t know how else to write stories, and that’s how it will always be.
If the human emotional experience is put on an axis, the ideal isn’t maximally happy. In fact, it’s a mistake to put it on an axis at all. The human emotional experience is an average, and I think the most realistic goal for that average is, just for synchronicity’s sake, ~65%. Most will suffer a few profound tragedies, a handful of ecstatic moments of universal alignment, and a whole band in the middle of daily malaise, small triumphs, and all the rest of the grains of sediment that make up our mountains.
The key is to maintain a moderate speed to maintain that average, lest the curve be blown by a series of unmanageable outliers (ahem, my whole life experience). To throw in yet another metaphor, life is, unless you’re terribly unlucky, a marathon, not a sprint, and running it like a sprint will leave you frustrated and exhausted, completely unable to maintain any sort of pace. (Again, ahem, my whole life experience.)
This pacing of oneself is what I’ve decided to call “actively okay”. Being Okay, right on the border of Pretty Damn Good is a laudable goal, because it gives you a net positive baseline from which to handle the crazy extremes life so enjoys hurling. (Oh, here’s something now! Is it a kind word from a loved one? Or is it a hand grenade? And is the pin pulled out or not? You don’t know, because it knocked you unconscious!) Be your own fuel gauge — recognize that there is enough fuel accessible to blow you and a chunk of the freeway to smithereens, but allow a steady stream to flow.
Being actively okay is the act of managing your emotions and thought processes so that if you take a span of days at random, and average them together, you’ll end up with a ~65% net positive.
Homemade Bread, Epiphany
Now for the essence of Zen. Meditation. And for the “Everyday” part of the title.
Meditation is the deceptively rigorous practice of broad contemplation and mindfulness. It is often practiced through deep, steadily monitored breathing, and sometimes with the aid of all manner of calming things, including but not limited to incense, essential oils, steam, or a Tibetan singing bowl. The first three are meant to create a calming ambiance, and while a singing bowl does make a number of calming ambient sounds, it also serves what I think is one of the most important meditation roles.
It gives you something to do.
I am an overthinker. If you couldn’t tell from the ridiculously self-reflective nature of this piece, I spend much of my time chasing my own tail so quickly that I create a vortex down which I endlessly fall. Because of this, meditation can be very difficult for me. My mind erupts into a hive of millions of bees, all with their own thoughts, swarming around each other without pattern, buzzing their asinine ponderings into the void, and I end up feeling more ill at ease than before.
A lot of people can relate to that.
Focusing on a singing bowl, steady breathing, a repetitive precision action like bonsai cultivation or gardening, or using a guided meditation program like the wonderful Stop, Breath & Think all help you gain the skills to let all the bees float away, and enjoy the honey zen-buddhism.net referred to.
But, like working out, it’s not really hard to have the time to do that, but it is hard to muster the discipline to make it a regular practice.
Enter breadmaking, and an epiphany.
I grew up baking with my grandmother, and have always had a tender spot in my heart for that most homey act of chemistry. In the last few months, I started baking all of our bread. One of my toddler’s favorite foods is his pan, and we keep our cupboards well-stocked with it, even when the wife and I are being good and laying off the carbs. We used to buy the good stuff. The one with simple ingredients and tons of fiber- and protein-packed little seeds over the top. It’s pricey, but it’s good for the kid.
One day I realized that if I bought ingredients in bulk, I could make bread that’s even healthier at a fraction of the cost per loaf. I augmented a very simple farm-style bread recipe with a partial flour-replacement of five grain oat mixture and ground flax, and came up with the best bread I’ve ever made, and my wife’s favorite bread she’s ever eaten. Better yet, the kid LOVES it.
Fast-forward to a few nights ago. I was making bread, with a particularly large anarchist commune of bees thrumming in my skull. My primary preoccupation was with the staggering amount of time we spend on things like preparing food, going to the bathroom, sitting in traffic, changing diapers, brushing teeth, sleeping, showering, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. If we could only take back that third or more of our lives, how much could we do? It’s a bitter, unproductive path of thought, and I’ve followed it many times, but for some reason, that day, it shifted in an atypical direction.
As I stood there, listening to my son chase the dog, kneading the bread for the required eight to ten minutes, I found myself slipping into a bit of a trance, and realized I was meditating.
These repetitive, mindless actions that I often try to fill up with podcasts and audiobooks are perfect times to practice mindfulness meditation. Most of the tasks we use to get ourselves into a meditative state are repetitive actions — driving, showering, brushing our teeth, any of these things can be used as meditation.
A mistake a lot of us make is in thinking that meditation requires its own scheduled time, which is problematic, because it makes it separate from the self. You have a Work You, a Family You, a Friends You, and on and on. If your time for meditation and calm is its own time, it becomes another you, separate from You. If we work meditation into every aspect of our daily lives, and recognize the calming, geometric patterning of daily activity, you begin to notice the change almost immediately. You sleep better, you react to negative stimuli more reasonably, you like people more, and while the news of any given day is undeniably terrifying, it feels a bit more manageable.
Plus, you get rockin’ posture from practicing meditative breathing all the time.
So, try it. Don’t go into a trance while driving and blast off an overpass. Be reasonable. But try, if only for a day, to allow your conscious mind to ease into the flow of the everyday.
And learn to enjoy the taste of honey.