Brad Warner:

Let me see if I can describe what I actually do each day. I’ll be sitting there, trying to do good Shikantaza for quite literally the 723rd time that year alone. And some thought comes along. And I get interested in that thought. What if I wrote a rock musical based on the life of Buddha? Maybe it would be as big as Jesus Christ Superstar! I could get Zero Defex to play it live at the Highland Theater in Akron.

Shit. OK. Shikantaza. Leave that thought. Check the posture. Yup. I’m slumping forward. OK. Shoulders back. Chest open. Spine balanced on hips. Zhweeeeeeeeeee.

No thoughts intrude for a while. Nice. Nice word, that. Nice. So many ways you can say it. Noice! Or maybe Cockney. Naaaaice, guv’na! Or Nice, France. That’s spelled like nice but pronounced Nice. If I wrote that in a blog how would I make it clear…

Shit! OK. Shikantaza. Put away that thought. Check the posture. Yup. I’m slumping to the left. OK. Shoulders back. Chest open. Spine balanced on hips. Zhweeeeeeeeeee.

What’s that smell? Should I tell someone about that smell? How can I tell someone about that smell without making any noise? Noise annoys! I love the Buzzcocks. So sad Pete Shelly died.

And so on.

That’s the way Shikantaza goes for me and I’ve been doing it roughly two times a day since the Autumn of 1983.

In a letter to his lifelong friend Arthur Greeves, C.S. Lewis noticed his own attempts at meditation bedeviled by a more consistent, but still maddening, form of “monkey mind”:

During my afternoon “meditations,” — which I at least attempt quite regularly now — I have found out ludicrous and terrible things about my own character. Sitting by, watching the rising thoughts to break their necks as they pop up, one learns to know the sorts of thoughts that do come. And, will you believe it, one of every three is a thought of self-admiration: when everything else fails, having had its neck broken, up comes the thought “What an admirable fellow I am to have broken their necks!” I catch myself posturing before the mirror, so to speak, all day long. I pretend I am carefully thinking out what to say to the next pupil (for his good, of course) and then suddenly realise I am really thinking how frightfully clever I’m going to be and how he will admire me….And then when you force yourself to stop it, you admire yourself for doing that. It is like fighting the hydra….There seems to be no end to it. Depth under depth of self-love and self-admiration.

Blaise Pascal famously said that “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Like many great aphorisms, this has two sharp edges to it. For many people, this intuitively seems like an endorsement of introversion; quoting it can be a way of feeling superior to the madding crowd’s ignoble strife. I haven’t checked, but I’d be willing to bet that there exists a Caspar David Friedrich image with the Pascal aphorism atop it decorating some disaffected adolescent’s Pinterest page. In context, though, Pascal seems to be describing what Warner, Lewis, and countless other meditators have all discovered — the tragedy of the human condition is present in the microcosm of one person’s mind no less than the grand scheme of world events. There is no escape from it, not even by “thinking the right thoughts.” As Warner says in another post, meditation practice is not trivial. Far from being just another productivity enhancer, stress reliever, or “lifehack” {shudder}, being alone with your thoughts for long enough will bring you face to face with the grinning unknown.