The 18th century Zen adept Ryokan has some wonderful poetic expressions, which have inspired practitioners over the years. One of these is “just naturally find joy in the ever-changing flow.” To find this joy, it’s important to become adept at two types of meditation. The first type is focused meditation (the last step on the Eightfold Path), where we limit our field of awareness, using our breath, a word, or phrase that we repeat over and over, or something similar to this. The second type is bare awareness meditation (the 7th step on the Eightfold Path) in which we broaden our field of attention to include any and all sensations and feelings we are experiencing in this moment without judgment or commentary.
Focused meditation is necessary so we can cut through our obsessive monkey mind activity and tap into the quietness of the space between our thoughts. Many years ago when I was sitting in a long retreat with Suzuki Roshi, he made the following comment as we were sitting facing the wall with a fast flowing creek just outside the meditation hall. “It only takes one rock to disturb the natural flow of the creek. All you need to do in your zazen is remove that one rock.”
As we become proficient in our focused meditation, we learn to dislodge one rock and then another one, whether it is an obsession, worry, fantasy, or something else.
As Ryokan points out in another poem, we can overdo our focused meditation, however, trying too hard to achieve some quiet state:
“The water of the valley stream never shouts at the tainted world, ‘purify yourself.’”
In bare awareness meditation, instead of trying to remove the rock, we can quite naturally open our ears and hearts to the singing of the water as it moves around the rocks without trying to altar the flow at all. I spent my first couple of years as a meditator sitting in at rush hour in a building by a very busy street in San Francisco. For the first several months I struggled to block out the sounds of the cars rushing by. One morning this struggling faded away and I found myself enjoying the noises. I learned that if I welcomed the river of noise, I could enjoy floating on it and naturally let go of my thoughts and concerns.
Once we have learned to practice with bare awareness of our senses, we may be ready to open our screen of awareness to whatever thoughts and feeling are circling through our minds as we meditate without judging or analyzing them.
Focused meditation and bare awareness meditation can complement each other. Early in my career as a meditator I experimented with doing the two different forms. I found that bare awareness worked in some contexts, but any time I was obsessing about something, I needed to do focused meditation to calm myself down before attempting bare awareness. I still find that is the case.
These days I support many of my students in doing one particular kind of focused meditation: loving kindness toward themselves. Each of us has to learn to love ourselves if we are going to be there for others in the deepest sense. And, of course, in the deepest sense, self is other and other is self.
Sometimes when practitioners have extreme difficulty sending loving vibes to themselves, I encourage them to think of someone they have real affection for and invite them to sit close to them in their imagination as they are meditating. Then I encourage them to invite them to sit in their laps, continuing to send their loved one affectionate vibes. Once they have done that for a while they are often ready to show affection for themselves, and if they keep doing this practice daily they may find themselves dropping into a space of deep and powerful inner quietness. The inner critic/tyrant leaves the scene and other mental baggage falls away as well. Here’s a final poem from Ryokan, illustrating what happens when our meditation practice develops this depth:
Like the little stream
making its way thru the mossy crevices,
I too, quietly turn clear and transparent.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher