I descend the basement steps and cross the wide carpeted floor. On either side lie piles of CDs, power tools, old computer equipment, notebooks: orphans of the organized house above. Toward the far wall sits a pair of mismatched pillow cushions, one atop the other, each too thin to serve its purpose alone.
The cushions are a battleground.
I sit on them cross-legged as I do every day, taking in the wide white expanse of the basement wall, marred only by a few black smudges and the occasional outlet. I take out my cell phone, set an alarm for 15 minutes from now, and lay it on the carpet beside me. Then I take a moment to compose thoughts, to get in the proper frame of mind. Usually I talk to myself:
Although you’ve done this many times, you are not an expert. Zen mind is beginner’s mind. Don’t be proud. Be grateful for your life, for the chance to do this. Relax. This is not about you.
The last statement is a lie, but it’s also true. It’s a lie because Zen meditation is about transforming your mind, achieving enlightenment, releasing yourself from fear and uncertainty and suffering, and what could be more selfish than that? It’s also true, because enlightenment only comes by giving up the sense of self. More precisely, This is about you letting go of you. But precision isn’t useful right now.
I dwell on none of this. Rather I settle myself on the cushion, put one foot over the opposite thigh in a half-lotus position, straighten my back and shoulders, and place my hands together on my lap with thumbs pressed lightly together. The position is less important than the focus of getting and staying in position.
I take a deep breath, look straight forward at the wall, and begin.
The first few minutes are always rocky: fidgeting, scratching an itch, listening to the noise of the radon pump, mind bubbling with miscellany. The two enemies in the beginning are distraction and fatigue, and I know them well. But I must not let my lapses bother me, because that’s distraction, too. Instead I hold fast to my method: eyes open but unfocused, I breathe in, breathe out, shorter at first but longer as I continue.
With each breath I think of the word mu, which is my koan, my Zen riddle with no rational answer. What is mu? Hundreds of koans exist, some simple and relatable, others obscure and strange. Mu is the most common. They are all the same anyway. It is not enough to empty the mind of distraction, nor is it enough to repeat the word mu in your mind like a mantra. The mind must engage with the koan actively, looking into it, pulling it apart, relentlessly trying to understand that which cannot be understood.
The early moments pass, the small ripples of the mind fade, and I enter a place of stillness and silence. It is not perfect: small thoughts still flit across my consciousness here and there, the sound of the radon pump still occasionally intrudes. I am not yet skilled enough to transcend all this completely. But mostly I am in stillness and silence, gazing at but not really seeing a wide white wall, gripping mu as strongly as I can with my mind. Eventually I release even the word and focus only on the wordless, idea-less idea of mu itself. This last step is not sanctioned by the masters in the Zen books I’ve read, but I do it anyway. It feels right, and the scientist in me says I should experiment.
The stillness deepens, the wordless mu settles into all the places in the brain where thoughts raced constantly before. My head feels physically strange: sometimes light, sometimes twisting with other sensations I can’t explain. These feelings are signs that I’m making progress, but they are distractions, too. Focus.
My phone buzzes. Another fifteen minutes have passed without revelation, without enlightenment. But I have traveled again to the place of deep silence, to the high stillness that remains when all else melts away.
Tomorrow I will try again.