shinzen young

Make a game of active mindfulness meditation

The best advice I’ve gotten for practicing mindfulness meditation while not sitting in meditation – i.e., in active meditation – is to make something of a game of it. When I wash the dishes it’s like, “How deep can I get while I wash these dishes?” Or when talking to another person, you both put down the cellphones and think, “Okay, we’re both here right now, how much can we focus only on each other and be here in this moment while we talk? How deep can we go?”

I was reminded of this when I read this line recently: “Finally, I got it! The menial tasks I had been assigned to around the temple were meant to be an exercise in meditation. Whatever I was doing, my job was to try to stay in samadhi.”

(That quote comes from the book, The Science of Meditation.)

Quotes about work and Zen (practicing Zen at work)

For many years I struggled with how to combine two of my main interests, Zen and work. I have read that the Zen mind is the mind before thinking, so it seems like Zen and work must be totally unrelated. Over time I came to understand phrases like, “When working, just work.”

This article contains a collection of quotes that have been helpful to me in understanding the relationship between Zen and work. Please note that I don’t wrap each quote in double quotes, and I also try to attribute each quote to the correct author/speaker. If you’re interested in how to combine Zen and work, I hope you’ll find them helpful.

Enlightenment is like a free fall

“Enlightenment is like a free fall. It’s like falling off a cliff that never ends, and you’ve acclimatized to it.”

~ Shinzen Young, in this video

Shinzen Young’s story of Shingon/Shinto training

Years before I heard of Shinzen Young, I had always “enjoyed” practicing meditation in the cold. Some part of it probably goes back to childhood, when I had to wait for the schoolbus in the freezing cold of northern Illinois winters. (This was in the time before global warming.) I used to stand there without moving, and mentally I’d concentrate on not being cold, or at least not feeling the cold.

Many years later when I lived in Alaska, I used to enjoy going up into the mountains to basically inflict the same thing on myself. I always thought the “meditate deeply or suffer the consequences” approach forced me to meditate more deeply. This past winter that same “Do or die, there is not try” mentality forced me to maintain my focus and helped to combat my medically-induced lack of energy.

Shinzen Young and meditating in the freezing cold

Introduction: After reading the following text in the book, The Science of Enlightenment, I decided to try meditating outside in sweatpants and a hoodie in the freezing cold in the evenings. It’s now my favorite form of meditation because you either do it right, or suffer the consequences.

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Several months later, as winter approached and it was getting cold and uncomfortable, the Abbot told me that if I wanted to be trained in traditional Shingon practice he would allow it — but I would have to do with the old-fashioned way. I would have to do a solo retreat for one hundred days in winter, most of the time with no source of heat, in complete silence other than occasional instruction from him, and with no meal after noon.

My training began on December 22, the day of the winter solstice. The Abbot had warned me that part of the old-fashioned way involved certain ascetic practices derived not from Buddhism, but from the shamanic tradition of Shinto, Japan’s pre-Buddhist tribal religion. One of the most common methods that tribal cultures use to obtain visions of gods or spirits is through prolonged exposure to extreme hot or cold. In India, Hindus have the five fires practice; in North America, Native Americans have the sweat lodge and the sun dance. These involve heat. The traditional Shinto shamanic practice goes in the other direction. It involves cold — squatting under freezing waterfalls in winter, standing in cold springs, dousing your body with ice water, and so forth.

How wonderful is enlightenment?

“People tend to overestimate or underestimate how wonderful the experience (enlightenment) is. How wonderful is it? Well, I would say that anyone who has entered into the world of no-self, emptiness, and wisdom mind, who abides in that world, if you gave them a choice to live one day knowing what they know, or live an entire lifetime but not be allowed to know that, I think — I can’t speak for everyone — but I would say most people who live in that world would say, ‘I’d rather have one day knowing what I know than a lifetime of not being able to know this.’ So that’s how wonderful it is.”

~ Shinzen Young, in this video

The same cosmic forces that mold galaxies, stars, and atoms ...

“The same cosmic forces that mold galaxies, stars, and atoms also mold each moment of self and world. The inner self and outer self are born in the cleft between expansion and contraction. By giving yourself to those forces, you become those forces, and through that you experience a kind of immortality — you live in the breath and pulse of every animal, in the polarization of electrons and protons, in the interplay of the thermal expansion and self-gravity that molds stars, in the interplay of dark matter that holds galaxies together and dark energy that stretches space apart.”

~ Part of a quote from The Science of Enlightenment, How Meditation Works, by Shinzen Young

The day becomes something that happens within your meditation

“You can meditate while talking to someone, while washing the dishes, while driving. As your experience grows, you eventually come to a point where you are so present that there is a kind of merging of inside and outside. When that happens, ‘focus’ becomes more than an extremely interesting and pleasant experience; it becomes a transformative experience.”

“Eventually a delicious figure-ground reversal takes place. In the beginning, meditation is something that happens within your day. Eventually, the day becomes something that happens within your meditation.”

~ From “The Science of Enlightenment: How Meditation Works