Meditation is an abstract concept, and you have to experience it to gain real benefits. Meditation means “to engage in mental exercise (such as concentration on one’s breathing or repetition of a mantra) for the purpose of reaching a heightened level of spiritual awareness.” Meditation has still a bad rap because people always associate it with esotericism.
I am going to keep this paragraph short and crisp, but it’s always good to have some background info. Most religions integrate some form of meditation practice; however, my experience is restricted to Zen meditation. The Zen school was founded in China in the late 5th century and eventually spread to Vietnam, to Korea and finally arrived in Japan in the 12th century. Japanese Zen is best known in the western world nowadays. It can be subdivided into three schools, ordered by following: Sōtō (曹洞), Rinzai (臨済), and Ōbaku (黃檗). The Soto school focuses the most on the meditation practice.
Master Taisen Deshimaru
Six years ago someone gifted me “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle. The book is extremely popular and has a cult-like following. Naturally, I hated it immediately and stopped reading after the second chapter or so and I normally force myself to finish books when I started reading them. His core message of being more present in the present moment is powerful, but his writing didn’t resonate with me. It was too watered-down and esoteric for my taste. The review of Andrea Sachs from TIME magazine is on point: “awash in spiritual mumbo jumbo” and “unhelpful for those looking for practical advice.” Yet another reason to not trust the masses. The story does not end here though.
Four years later I attended a seminar about cognitive enhancement in university and I had to write an essay about non-pharmacological cognitive enhancement. Among other things, meditation is an effective form of cognitive enhancement. The research for the topic and the described benefits of meditation sparked my interest and lead me to buy the book “Sit: Zen Teachings of Master Taisen Deshimaru.”
On rare occasions, you read a book, and it changes your life trajectory. I started reading the first chapter and it hit me right away. This was some next level shit right there. The writing was clear, practical and the concepts were explained in a precise manner. At that moment Taisen Deshimaru became my spiritual teacher. I bought all of his other books and read them in a couple of days. Most of his books are translations of his talks and you feel like he is directly talking to you. I have read several Zen books since then and I haven’t found a better introduction to Zen so far. I started meditating on a daily basis and just like that my path towards enlightenment had begun.
Taisen Deshimaru (1914 – 1982) was a Japanese Sōtō Zen Buddhist teacher. Deshimaru received dharma transmission from his influential teacher Kodo Sawaki in 1965 on his deathbed with the mission to travel to Europe and spread the Zen teaching. Deshimaru went to France in 1967 and lived there for the rest of his life. He founded the Association Zen Internationale in 1970 and the associated temple La Gendronnière in 1979. He died in 1982 after he had established the Zen practice in Europe. His former disciples still operate the temple La Gendronnièr.
After a couple of weeks of meditation at home, I craved a deeper understanding of Zen that went beyond reading. Unfortunately, Taisen Deshimaru is dead for decades, but the temple La Gendronnièr still follows his school of thought. I did some research and booked a week-long sesshin for the summer at La Gendronnièr. A sesshin is a period of intensive meditation in a Zen temple. The Association Zen Internationale describes a typical day during a sesshin on their website as follows:
|6:30 am||zazen, ceremony|
|8:30 am||genmai (traditional breakfast)|
|10:00 am - 12:00 pm||samu (work around the temple)|
|2:45 pm - 5:45 pm||samu|
During semester break I took a train to Paris and changed to another train in the direction of Blois. Blois is a small city between Orléans and Tours and near the temple. When I arrived at Blois, three other people were already waiting for our shuttle to the temple.
One of the monks picked us up at the train station, and we arrived at the temple after a 20 minutes ride. We waited at the reception with the other people of the sesshin and it seemed like a lot of the people knew each other from previous sessions. I was by far the youngest there and I stood out like a sore thumb. I think the average age of the participants was around 50 years. Two monks had an impressing calm aura about them, which I had never experienced before. We dined in a big hall and this is the first time that I first doubted to come to the temple. Everything was strictly ritualized regarding how to eat and when to eat. I was expecting some rules, but the sheer number of them annoyed me. The non-dogmatic approach had attracted me to Buddhism in the first place after all. I tried to keep an open mind and waited for the next day when the standard program would start.
The next day the group meditation in the Dojo begun. I didn’t get the memo, that we are supposed to wear a black Kimono (robe). I thought you could rent them or some shit. Therefore, I sported my grey hoodie in combination with grey jogging pants, while everybody else was wearing a black Kimono during the mediation. It was a valuable lesson in the power of conformity; I had never felt that out of place before. I hope they didn’t take my lack of preparation as disrespect. The meditation had a lot of rules as well and we had to change our sitting position during meditation, which rubbed me the wrong way. I was having none of it, it all seemed rather pointless to me. I understand the value of rules, but I like the ability to make my own decisions as well. After some careful consideration, I went to the office, explained my discomfort and asked them to call me a taxi. They were cool about it, and I only had to pay for the two days I stayed there. It wasn’t an easy decision for me, because I don’t consider myself a quitter. Sometimes you have to cut your losses and move on though.
The Taxi brought me straight to the train station in Blois. I had already bought a return ticket to Paris and Cologne for the next week. Now I had two make a decision. I could either stay in Blois, a small and sleepy city situated at river Loire or I could buy another train ticket and head to the metropolis Paris and spend a week there. Paris is a three-hour train ride from Cologne and I figured I could go there anytime, so I choose to explore Blois. I found a decent apartment on Airbnb and used the week for writing on my memoir, reading “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius and listening to Seth Godin’s Startup School, while devouring crunchy croissants and French coffee (café serré). “Meditations” is one of my favorite books and I can not help but wonder about the similarities of our way of seeing the world. It is a life-changing book for me like “Sit: Zen Teachings of Master Taisen Deshimaru.”
On my train ride back to Cologne, I thought about my learnings from this experience. I had learned that I don’t need a formalized Zen practice and that I prefer meditating on my own terms without artificial rituals. Maybe I should have researched more about the temple La Gendronnièr and visited a local Dojo beforehand. Some things you have to experience in order to judge them though (trial and error). The staff of La Gendronnièr were friendly and understanding, and it wasn’t their fault that I had wrong expectations coming in. It just wasn’t my thing.
I needed a few months to find the perfect meditation practice for myself, but now it’s working like a charm. I started off by reading Zen instructions and then I meditated for 10 minutes each morning. I had to overcome three problems:
1. The first problem was my sitting position. I quickly realized that I couldn’t sit comfortably on the floor cross-legged, let alone in the Lotus Position. I fixed this issue by buying a Zafu (meditation pillow) for 30 bucks on Amazon. I recommend an extra high one for beginners. I think kneeling is a more comfortable position for beginners than the Lotus position. Too many people try the Lotus position and then give up on meditation out of frustration.
2. The second problem was my timing. In the beginning, I set a phone timer to 10 minutes, but I would always wait for the alarm to go off, which fucked up my focus. I switched to a stopwatch and this problem was solved as well.
3. The third problem was my irregular meditation schedule. I meditated at different times of the day and often I simply skipped it. I fixed this problem by always meditation first thing in the morning after waking up. I realized that meditation takes a lot of mental effort for me and therefore I have to do it in the morning when my mind is fresh and relaxed.
I prolonged my meditation time after a couple of months and now I am meditating 20 minutes every morning.
Guided meditation apps like Headspace are highly popular, but I have to admit I was skeptical of the whole concept of paying a monthly subscription fee for this kind of service. I thought that meditation has been free for thousands of years and that we don’t have to start paying for it now, which I still think is a fair point. But I came around slowly after watching the founders Ted Talk and reading enthusiastic reviews. The point of meditation is non-judgemental thinking and openness to new concepts after all.
I tried out the free basic sessions and was sold immediately by his calm voice and clarity of thought. Shortly after that I took advantage of a 40% discount offer and bought a yearly subscription for 60 bucks. Headspace offers guided meditation packs with specific themes (Sport, Health, Relationships, Performance, etc.) and a meditation called everyday headspace, where Andy talks about a topic followed by a short meditation. The subscription also includes singles for specific situations like falling back to sleep.
Headspace does an excellent job of cutting out all esoteric bullshit and relating Buddhist concepts to a secular western audience. It gives much-needed context, and I like to apply my new gained insights to my non-guided meditation. Having said that, you should not rely exclusively on guided meditations. It’s mainly a way to get yourself started and familiarize yourself with key Buddhist concepts.
My daily meditation routine consists of three elements. First thing in the morning after waking up I sit down for 20 minutes and meditate. Afterward, I lie down on my bed and listen to the everyday headspace talk. During the day I think about the headspace talk and try to apply it to my life. Before going to bed, I lie down again and listen to one of the ten-minute packs. I noticed the compounding effect of meditation early on. The more consecutive days I meditate the clearer becomes my mind, and after missing days I have to start all over. It’s a lifelong process similar to fitness. Its relatively easy to get fit, but your fitness level drops quickly when you stop exercising. Like always, good old-fashioned consistency is king.
You might be thinking, that’s all nice and well, but how does meditation help me bring home the bacon and that’s a good point. Meditation isn’t meant to be outcome-oriented, but I am not afraid to explore new territory. Meditation helps you to be more balanced and less easily distracted by random thoughts. I recognized that my ability to work concentrated for long periods of time increased due to meditation. Professional athletes in the NBA and other disciplines use meditation for performance enhancement for a long time. As an entrepreneur it’s easy to get caught up in your business and it’s important to keep things in perspective.
The benefits of meditation are enormous and well-documented scientifically. The benefits are massive and it should be a no-brainer for anyone to meditate. It’s in the same league with a healthy diet, regular exercise, adequate sleep and regular outdoor activities. But I think there are two main obstacles, which prevent most people from meditating.
The first obstacle is the esoteric/religious connotation of meditation, which creates an inner resistance in a lot of secular people. Meditation has an image problem. The second obstacle is the starting time. In the beginning, it feels weird to sit down and meditate and you feel like you are not making any progress. It’s similar to running, the first week or two, it feels weird to run because you have no stamina and then eventually you push through and see results. The problem is that most people give up before they reach this turning point.
Now you know everything you need to know about meditation.
The rest is up to you,
Sit: Zen Teachings of Master Taisen Deshimaru Questions to a Zen Master: Practical and Spiritual Answers from the Great Japanese Master The Zen Way to Martial Arts: A Japanese Master Reveals the Secrets of the Samurai
The Mindful Athlete: Secrets to Pure Performance
Zen & Karma: Teachings of Roshi Taisen Deshimaru
The Power of Now