Notes and comments on selected topics.
By Harold J. Stanton, Family Lawyer
Is Zen a Philosophy or a Religion?
“It is both. The difference between a philosophy and a religion is that a philosophy starts with the known and goes to the unknown, a religion starts with the unknown and goes to the known.”
– Inoue Enryo, Founder of Toyo University (1858-1919)
Zen meditation is globally recognized as a method of calming the mind, reaching a state of equanimity, and being better able to perceive and respond to reality. The Zen techniques to which I will refer are based on Zen meditation practice, which is used within many different religions, as well as secularly.
Zen is the short form of Zazen, which literally means seated meditation. It is rooted in the Buddha’s experience of enlightenment. In the 6th Century, the Buddhist Monk, Bodhidharma, traveled from India to China and established the first school of Zen Buddhism at the Shaolin Temple. He is also credited with creating Kung Fu and Tai Chi Chuan while at the Shaolin, martial arts that incorporate Zen techniques in their training and practice. Zen later spread to Japan and throughout Asia. In the 1950’s, Zen Masters from Japan began to open Zen Centers in the United States, and interest in Zen meditation flourished. In the early 1970’s, the television series “Kung Fu,” starring David Carradine as a Shaolin Monk in the Old West, was the most popular television show for each of the three years it was broadcast. “Zen and the Art of …” (just about anything from “Archery” to “Motorcycle Maintenance”), and more recently “mindfulness”, have become part of the American lexicon.
Zen is inexplicable. Despite efforts to define or explain what Zen is, it must be personally experienced in order to be really understood. In Enter the Dragon, while instructing a novice in Zen techniques used in martial arts, Bruce Lee admonished “It is like a finger pointing a way to the Moon. Do not concentrate on the finger, or you will miss all that heavenly glory!”
Think of Zen as meaning to personally experience being fully present in the moment, seeing reality as it truly is, and not as filtered through our thoughts, and instinctively knowing how to respond, if at all.
The following comments about meditation techniques and their application is like a finger pointing a way to the moon. You must personally experience Zen to appreciate it’s significance and benefits.
To practice Zen is to know the self.
To know the self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things.
– Shobogenzo, by 13th century Zen Master Dogen
In Zen Meditation, the object is to calm the mind in order to become intimately aware of who you really are. Once that occurs, it becomes easier to simply disregard your self and pay attention to and see what is outside of your mind. As in Existential Psychology, the object is to get out of your own mind and accurately see what really is going on externally in the moment. In Zen that goal is called “no mind.”
Meditation is a way to get past the constant chatter in your mind by allowing your truly authentic and natural self to see and deal directly with reality. Easily said, but motivation and perseverance are needed to accomplish that objective.
Skilful Means (Upaya)
The following are some of the basic techniques you will learn in traditional Zen meditation instruction:
Posture. The specific way to properly align and stack the vertebrae when seated on a meditation cushion (Zafu). The way to position your head, to hold your hands, and to cross your legs (Lotus and half-lotus among others). Meditation can also be done while seated in a chair or while lying down.
Hand position. You will be instructed on how to place your hands in your lap, left hand in right hand, with the thumbs lightly touching. If you lose concentration, or start to fall asleep, the thumbs separate and signal that you need to refocus on your meditation. In yoga the hand positions are called mudras and there are over one hundred different mudras used for various purposes, including enhancing meditation.
Breath. Breathing techniques start with paying attention to your own breathing by counting your breaths. You will learn to relax your lower abdomen to allow it to expand when you breath in, and to leave it expanded as you breath out. This results in providing the brain with more oxygen that helps in focusing attention on maintaining the posture and breath counting.
There are breathing techniques in Yoga that are useful for improving both your mental and physical well-being. Yogic breathing techniques which include the expansion of the lower belly, expanding the rib cage and widening the shoulders to maximize the volume of air you breath in through your nose, and to expel the maximum amount of air through your mouth when you exhale (well beyond when you think you have reached that point). There are many different breathing patterns used to accomplish different objectives.
My yoga instructor, Surreina Sandra Gallegos, reminds us at each class: “The mind controls the body, but the breath controls the mind.”
Tongue. You will be instructed to press the forward part of your tongue to the roof of your mouth and leave it there. One explanation is that it reduces the production of saliva so that swallowing is less frequent which facilitates the meditation. In Tai Chi and Qi Gong, the explanation is that the two primary meridians of the body that circulate Chi (Chinese for life energy) each start in the lower body and end in the facial area, one above and one below the lips. Pressing the tongue to the roof of the mouth completes the circuit for each of them and results in a dual circular energy flow in opposite directions though the body].
Vision. Initially, you will be instructed to lower your eyelids and gaze at a point on the floor about 3 feet in front of you if you are on a cushion, 6 feet if you are in a chair. If you are lying down you can similarly gaze downward. Relaxing the eyes facilitates reaching a meditative state. Focusing the eyes as we do when we read or drive is called central focusing. When we gaze it is called soft focusing. As you become more proficient in meditation, you will be able to soft focus with your eyes fully open while doing ordinary activities. By gazing you are able to simultaneously observe the full 180 degrees of your visual field. Your perception will be enhanced and you will feel more relaxed.
Soft Focusing. A study was conducted in a psychiatric hospital with patients suffering from severe paranoia. They had a compulsive need to maintain a sharp central focus in anticipation that something terrible was going to happen. Their furtive surveillance reinforced their paranoia.
The patients were taught how to relax their eye muscles and to use soft focus. What the researchers discovered was that as a patient became more proficient at soft focusing, the level of paranoia markedly decreased.
In meditation when you learn to soft focus by gazing, it enhances your ability to relax and increases your perception of the visual field. In art work depicting Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen, his eyes frequently appear to be looking in two different directions! In Japan, where he is known as Daruma, the eyes of ivory carvings (netsuke) of him, often have eyes that literally project out of their sockets when the carving is tilted forward. The art symbolism of his eyes relates to the soft focusing that is an important aspect of meditation.
Although not really physically possible to look in two completely different directions at the same time (unless you have an eye muscle defect known as exotropia), it may be helpful in learning to soft focus to imagine that your left eye is looking up to the left, while your right eye is looking down to the right, keeping your gaze on your entire 180 degree field of vision.
In Japan there is a custom of using a paper mache Daruma painted with blank white eyes. When you undertake an important project or make a commitment to accomplish a specific task, you paint in the pupil in one of Daruma’s blank eyes, and when you have accomplished your goal, you paint in a pupil in the other eye. The Zen significance of this is that it takes great determination to reach the goal of enlightenment, and to never give up! Politicians at the beginning of a campaign for office will have a public demonstration of this custom, frequently covered by the press and on television.
In the book “Zen Driving,” by K.T. Berger, the authors describe the process by which you learn to conscientiously relax and observe your surroundings in order to access your intuitive capacity before starting the car. You learn to maintain that state of mind as you enjoy driving the car while being present in the moment.
Based on my own experience following a prolonged period of meditation, I discovered that by soft focusing on a number of different visual planes, I could perceive all of them simultaneously.
You can practice soft focusing in the following way. While seated in your parked car (not driving!), gaze ahead through the windshield and also be aware of the images reflected in the rear view mirror, the left side mirror and the right side mirror. Do not central focus on any one of them, just see how many of those elements you can observe in soft focus at the same time.
You can gauge the level of your relaxed concentration on a scale of 1 to 4.
When stressed, you will only be able to accurately see the view through one of them. As you relax and quiet the mind, in soft focus you can see two or perhaps three. When you can simultaneously see what is happening in all 4 visual planes you will have reached the fully relaxed concentration of Zen!
Zen Meditation and Brain Waves
There are four general brain wave patterns that are displayed on the screen of an electroencephalogram that are relevant to Zen meditation. The following is a simplified explanation of those four brain waves ranked in decreasing order of the intensity of the brain waves per second (hertz):
Beta Waves oscillate between 14 and 30 hertz and are predominant when you are engaged in an intellectual task, such as evaluating an issue or deciding on a course of action. They increase when you are agitated, stressed or angry.
Alpha Waves oscillate between 9 and 13 hertz and are predominant when you are relaxed, especially during meditation. The intuitive process of the mind becomes more prominent and the alpha waves increase as you enter a state of relaxed concentration.
Theta Waves oscillate between 4 and 8 hertz and are predominate when you enter a state of deep meditation. They are associated with being truly present in the moment, fully engaged in what you are doing, without the interference of the monkey mind. The theta wave state of mind is associated with creativity, insight and a feeling of equanimity and unity with all things.
Delta Waves oscillate between 1 and 3 hertz and are predominant when you are in a deep, dreamless sleep. They are in fact different from the brain waves produced during meditation, which indicates that meditation and sleep are completely different states of mind.
Sequence of Brain Waves During Meditation. Scientists have conducted studies using the electroencephalogram to display the brain waves of persons during the meditation process. What those studies reveal is that persons accomplished in meditation are able to consistently transition from predominantly Beta waves to Alpha waves as they relax into the meditation. As they continue to meditate, they transition to predominantly theta waves. Those persons uniformly report that in the predominantly Theta wave state they experience the full benefits of meditation, and find that they are better equipped to function in their daily lives.
Brain waves from the left and right side of the brain usually reach peaks independently. During meditation the left and right brain waves happen together. This synchronization is believed to be the source of the sense of reality, unity and happiness associated with meditation.
Popular culture reflected in advertising associates the left brain with the intellect (beta waves) and the right brain with intuition (alpha waves). When those waves are fully synchronized the transcendental experience is reflected in increased theta waves produced in the center of the brain. Brain wave mapping technology has been used to study Tibetan monks during meditation and have produced similar results. This phenomenon may well be related to Eastern Religions, such as Buddhism and Taoism, emphasis on the importance of maintaining the “middle path” (the Tao), and avoiding extremes.
How Long Should You Meditate?
“If you are too busy to find time to meditate 15 minutes per day, then you should meditate 30 minutes per day.”
– Gerry Wick, Roshi, Great Mountain Zen Center
While learning to meditate, daily 15 minute sessions are suggested. You need to be in a quiet place where you will not be interrupted. As you become comfortable with meditation, you may extend the sessions and/or add an additional session, with one in the morning and one in the evening.
Zen and the Internet
You will be amazed at the vast information on line about Zen Meditation. Enter in your search engine the key words for any Zen topic, and you will find beginning group meditation instruction in your area (most Zen Centers offer free Sunday morning classes).
There are electronic devices designed to enhance meditation with recordings of music you listen to with ear phones. Behind the music are inaudible sound waves that oscillate at different frequencies for each ear. The frequency differential being in the range of the hertz of Alpha and/or Theta brain waves. Like a tuning fork placed next to a similar tuning fork that is vibrating, and it also begins to vibrate, your ability to duplicate those brain wave states while listening to those recordings is enhanced.
There are Zen supplies available, such as meditation cushions, stools, clothing, clocks that can be set to chime at the end of the meditation session, books, recordings, clothes and all manner of other paraphernalia from incense to icons.
Appreciation and Acknowledgement
The people who have helped me along the way with my interest in Bodhidharma and Zen Meditation are far too numerous to list. However, the following people deserve special mention. My wonderful, long time law partner and wife, Marian, without whose encouragement and advice I would not have undertaken this project, let alone still be practicing family law! My friend, Peter Walzer, Esq., who suggested I do a program on Zen and family law for the ABA. My dedicated long time assistant, Pat Vejar, simply the best editor with whom I have ever worked. My very long time Zen friend, Gerry Wick, Roshi, Great Mountain Zen Center; and, my most recent Zen friend, William M. Bodiford, Professor of Buddhist Studies and Japanese Religions at UCLA, for their review of this article and their suggestions.
Harold J. Stanton has served as a Deputy Attorney General in the California Department of Justice. Hal has been a member of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers since 1979, served as President of the Southern California chapter and Dean of its 2005 Trial Advocacy Institute. He is currently on the AAML National Board of Governors. He and his wife and law partner, Marian L. Stanton, practice Family Law in Encino, California.www.stantonlawcorp.com