Although I study and write books on many world wisdom traditions, at heart, I am a committed Buddhist practitioner. This turn away from my childhood faith of Presbyterianism occurred on a narrow trail 500 feet above a terrifying and roaring river in the Himalayas. Walking in the opposite direction, hugging the gorge wall to give me space to pass by, a Buddhist monk said nothing in words, but a conversion took place with what I saw in his smile.
Since that time more than 30 years ago, I pursued the Dhamma, the teachings of the Buddha, spurred on when my toddler, Nate, began asking, “How do you know that life is not a dream, and that your dreams are not reality?” It is no surprise that he now lives as a Thai Forest monk. Because a family system tends towards wobbly balance, my other child, daughter Jamey, righted the family ratio with a trenchant stance that Buddhism was hopelessly, unbearably boring.
Was she right? American culture has thoroughly co-opted the Buddhist meditation term, Zen, into currency denoting noun, verb and adjective. It now brands everything from spas to sparkling beverages to a particular emotionless affect envisaged for oneself, someday, when one is no longer irritated by people and situations. Think of the word Zen, and watch your mind—watch the earthy feelings and complications that the word lifts you over like a noiseless zeppelin.
The word Zen is the Japanese attempt at pronouncing the Chinese word chan, which in turn is the Chinese attempt at pronouncing the Sanskrit word dhyana, which translates as particular meditative state of mind that is, actually, quite absorbing and peaceful. It is a state absent of the many mental afflictions that cause suffering. Yet to study your mind and heart, to practice the Dhamma that the Buddha taught, is to travel a road with increasingly open vistas, but dastardly potholes, few road signs, steeply graveled shoulders on hairpin turns and no certain destination.
When meditators speak about their experiences, yes, there are tranquil states and rapture. We can learn to cultivate these mind states over time, but they come and go and cannot be forced. If you stay receptive, everything in your life will also show up in your meditations—if you don’t push the unwanted away (in which case they’ll be anxiously waiting in your internal instant queue).
I have a friend, a child during the war in Bosnia, who was asked to meditate for five minutes in a religious studies class at nearby Gonzaga University. As he lived with us during college, I knew the intensity of his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder—I’d heard the stories. He said that short meditation was the hardest thing he’d ever experienced in his life. What Flannery O’Connor says about writing applies to meditation: anyone who has survived childhood has a lifetime of material. I promise, even if your life seems utterly boring, you’ll have plenty of material to work with. Indeed, what is boredom could be your first meditative investigation. It’s a rich question for contemplation.
When you meditate at the end of a busy day and emails, phone calls and stress all appear for repeat performances, you may be stunned at the number of them showing up for casting call. Again. However, it may also be the first opportunity of the day, week or even month, to gain some perspective on your life. For once, you don’t have to act on those vexations, but simply listen and reflect.
A common metaphor for meditative settling is to watch a glass of muddy water: if you stop stirring, eventually the water will clear and the muck will drop out. If you’ve got a solid practice and a good teacher, you will indeed find a waning of life’s hubbub. You may find yourself after a good meditative dhyana wandering around not wanting to talk, not wanting to do much but take in life instead of push against it. You may even seem a lot like a bland and boring Buddhist. But impermanence is something you will also have experienced: the boring won’t last long.
Our ideas of what meditation should look and feel like, our ideas of how a good Buddhist should speak and act, are just ideas. Many of those ideas might be labeled emotional repression by a therapist. Even if we falsely circumscribe Buddhist practice to just the time spent on a meditation cushion, if it’s entered with curiosity and gentleness for the whole breadth and depth of human experience, you will encounter, well…the whole breadth and depth of human experience. Not so boring. What makes it especially un-boring is that perhaps, for the first time, you’re not distracting yourself: you’re sitting still.
Conover has been a Buddhist practitioner for nearly three decades. She's ready to answer your questions about the faith. What do you want to ask a Buddhist?