Beyond Mindfulness: The Essence of Zen Practice

NOTE: The below main points and transcript were generated by AI and may contain various errors.

Main Points

1. Purpose of Sesshin: The primary goal of sitting sesshin is to awaken. This is emphasized as a fundamental reason for engaging in such practice.

2. Distinction Between Mindfulness and Zen: Zen is a concentration meditation aimed at emptying the mind and focusing on deep existential questions, unlike mindfulness, which centers on awareness of sensations and emotions.

3. Importance of Dharana: Concentration meditation (Dharana) is crucial in Zen practice, serving as a precursor to Dhyana (meditative absorption) and leading to awakening.

4. Dhyana and Awakening: Awakening is described as a state where the mind experiences silence and direct sensory experience without narrative or thought, marking the transition to Dhyana.

5. Application in Daily Life: Integrating monastic principles into daily life can support the practice. This includes structured living, mindfulness in everyday tasks, and embodying a concentrated state of mind, which facilitates spiritual growth even for householders.


All right.

Good morning, good morning.

What a day.

So, you know, this morning, well, Incention and I had an exchange the other day that I thought was really delightful because she asked me why do we sit session?

And I was like, oh, okay, so why do we sit session?

Well, then it’s like, well, duh, to awaken, right?

Like, if we’re going to boil it down to a simple purpose, the answer is to awaken.

And if we’re not sitting session to awaken, then why on God’s green earth are you spending a couple grand and eight, nine, ten days of vacation to do that?

Like, that is not how I would spend my time on vacation if I didn’t want liberation from suffering or awakening or to become a Bodhisattva or any of that crap.

Well, then the question came, well, what is awakening?

Yeah, this is a, this is a fruitful line of inquiry.

Thank you.

Thank you.

And so I wanted to just talk about awakening a little bit and what we’re really doing in our Zen practice, because I think for lay practitioners, it can be deeply confusing.

Because it’s not what most people use meditation for.

And that’s very different.

And it’s okay.

It’s okay for it to be different.


And it’s also not okay to not know the difference and then be confused in our practice.

So the mindful, the secular mindfulness movement has unlocked the power of meditation for millions and millions of people that have no interest in awakening.

And that’s fine.

That’s beautiful.

Because it does all sorts of things.

It releases stress.

It leads to better therapeutic outcomes.

It allows us to deepen our self-knowledge, to become intimate with parts of us that we would otherwise pretend that don’t exist.

It builds coping mechanisms for anger, stress, depression, right?

So like all of these beautiful psychological outcomes come from mindfulness meditation.

And that’s great.

And it’s not Zen and it’s not awakening.

So what’s the difference?

Well, Zen is not mindfulness meditation.

Zen is a concentration meditation.

It’s an emptying of the mind.

It’s a cutting off of all of the bits that you’re typically mindful of.

So mindfulness is acting, asking you to pay attention to your sensations, your thoughts and your emotions.

Mindfulness is asking you to say, this is what’s going on.

I’m having this sensation and this feeling and this thought and this emotion.

Your mind is full of all the dookie.

And so what happens is we become obsessed with paying attention to our mundane psychological experience.

Again, super helpful.

We need to do that.

However, in a concentration meditation, we are collecting the entirety of our conscious faculty, everything that we have willful control over, and we are turning it towards a spiritual inquiry.

What is this?

What is the ground by which I can know any of these things?

Who am I?

Not what is temporarily feeding through my consciousness that I identify with, but really at the core of it, what is life?

What is this?

Who am I?

What will happen to me when I die?

Zen is turning our entire consciousness into this deep inquiry into the nature of existence.

And so we concentrate and collect the mind and in fact, creating mind emptiness.

This is Dharana.

This is the first stage of practice.

Very different than mindfulness.

And this is why lay practitioners should not practice Shikantaza.

Because when you’re just sitting and you don’t know the difference, you’re going to get lost and wrapped up in all of the contents of consciousness and not pay attention to consciousness itself.

That greatly enhances neuroses.

That’s going to make you more anxious, more depressed, more rigidly identified with your story, because you just basically sit down for a half hour to an hour a day and fixate on it.

Don’t do that, please.

Not if you’re going to do Zen practice.

Okay, so we do concentration meditation, Dharana, bringing our mind to a single point of focus.

Your Dharana practice can really be anything.

Some people have great success, you know, staring at like a mandala or looking out the window and putting their attention on what they see and having that shut down their system.

Some people have great success with listening.

Some people have great success with mantras, where you’re vocalizing and you’re feeling the vibration in your body.

There’s all sorts of different Dharana or Dharani, right?

That’s fine.

Don’t really care which one, right?

But use one to concentrate the mind and basically crowd out everything else.

And here’s the trick.

Awakening is the moment when you have so thoroughly interrupted the mind circuitry that your brain shuts off and you are actually enveloped in a thunderous silence of direct sensory experience, absent of any narrative, story, thought, or movement of mind.

Now you’re in Dhyana.

That’s the awakening experience, okay?

Dhyana itself, the first stage is like a major moment when you actually experience your mind without any chatter.

So session is very valuable for this because it takes us out of our life and it puts us in a container where we don’t have to think.

Just follow the bells, follow the clickers, right?

Unless you’re on staff, then you get a different practice, right?

But that’s a different thing, okay?

So anyway, we come into Dhyana.

Now it’s very important.

Most people have an experience of Dhyana.

They have a temporary fleeting experience of like, whoa, they ain’t lying.

My voice did shut off.


And now they think they’re awake.

They had a half a second of listening without an opinion.

Good f*****g job, right?


Not enough.

If it can’t be done at will, and if it can’t be held for as long as you want it to be held, then your training is incomplete.

Zen is to live as Dhyana.

That’s what Zen training is.

Zen training is holding Dhyana-mind, not Dharana-mind, Dhyana-mind in every moment of your life.

And that’s why most people think you have to be monastic to even have a chance.

And that’s fine.

Again, most of us here, we like a social community.

We like to basically have a substitute for church that’s not quite so crazy.

Although, you know, that only sort of worked out.

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

And all that’s fine.

Some people use it to enhance their mindfulness practice or to enhance therapeutic outcomes, right?



Just know what you’re doing and do what you’re doing on purpose.

Now, why?

Why would we push ourselves so hard to awaken and to deepen into our Dhyana-mind as regular householders?

Why would we do that?

Because it’s really hard.

You have to restructure your whole life to actually be able to do this.

You basically have to form a householder monasticism and that’s very, very challenging.


It’s not going to fade away.

The promise of this practice is persistent joy and a freedom to spontaneously respond to life in a way that serves, right?

In a way that defends and orders a world of love and caring.

That is the promise of this practice.

That samadhi, that persistent absorption in Dhyana-mind allows us to be energetically connected to unity consciousness without losing any of the value of being a unique individual.

And that is beautiful and worth it and a very specific objective.

So that was up for me this morning.

I’m done now.

That gives us about 20 minutes to shoot the breeze together.

Thank you all very much for your attention and your listening.

I look forward to seeing what discussion unfolds this morning.

I just want to jump in.

Thank you.

And so I experienced a little bit of monastic life just because I was a week before Seshin at the monastery.

This is a nice wish that a monastic life will bring you more of silence.

Maybe at another place, but not what I experienced.

There’s someone standing here.


Lay monasticism, householder monasticism is not about increasing silence.

It’s about increasing the capacity of the mind to be in a concentrated state leading up to Dhyana-mind.

So the key part of being in a cloistered community is that you have a ridiculous amount of very specific tasks and responsibilities.

The entire life is ritualized.

There’s a structure, there’s a schedule, there’s a right way to do everything.

And so to actually live that way in a persistent container of concentration allows you to sit from a more concentrated state.

And this then facilitates an awakening experience, which is different than what I believe you just said.

Yeah, in a way, in a way, yes.

And yeah, so especially the ongoing rituals, each day of the week has a specific purpose.

Each hour of the day has a specific purpose.

It’s for sure an interesting practice to visit different monasteries to see how they build this container.

And how is that then to do this as a householder?

What do you mean?

You said something about bringing in this monastic attitude into our day-to-day lives, not in a monastery.

Okay, so it’s like there are certain principles that transfer very, very well.

One of them is that there’s a right way to do everything.

Keeping your house immaculate, leaving no trace in your space, having everything be organized, put away, just so.

Done with attention, care, reverence.

When you move through your life this way, you’re embodying the same quality of mind that is attempting to be fostered in that environment.

And then it doesn’t really matter what you’re doing.

So it’s like when you get the spirit of the form, then you can make the form formless.

And so according to your life circumstances, you can have periods of time where you have a highly structured life.

You can have periods of time where you don’t have any structure at all.

But if you’re bringing that quality of mind to it, it really doesn’t matter.

So it’s like people confuse the form for the intention.

That’s not the point.

The point is to extract the higher order principle, which is a state of earth and fire in perfect harmony.

And once you can embody that energetic, then you can live your life as that energetic.

And that deeply influences or deeply supports the process of awakening as a householder when we come to our cushion.

Because we’re already primed and prepped in this mode, which is very different than getting up and going completely scattered everywhere, and then coming back and trying to recollect ourselves in 30 minutes.

No way.

Not going to happen.

Good question.

I greatly appreciate how clearly you are able to articulate exactly what you’re doing.

Exactly what this is.

Yeah, the last three weeks for me have been pretty wild.

And it’s been because I am now, I’ve been a nomad for a week.

Actually, I’ve been a nomad for three weeks.

Learning how to cultivate that intention.

Cultivate getting, lack of a better term, good at, okay, this is where I am for these three days.

This is how I survive here.


And then changing it and recognizing this will work.

This will not work.

This is a line.

This is how it has to be.

What I’ve been striving for my entire adult life.

I’ve had to break a lot of shit to make it.

It’s very exciting to be able to witness it unfold.

Thank you for sharing.

It’s remarkable how often a profound deepening and practice coincides with incredibly difficult life situations.

There comes something into my mind as a combination of your instruction of the Qigong and what you said about water, earth, fire, air.

When there is a seed and we put this into the earth, we often have to deconstruct the earth first.

And it is in there.

And in the best way, it just is overflowed with water.

And then there comes sun, the heat, and then the air and whatever.

So you might look at any plant and think, hey, that’s just beautiful and wonderful how this grows and how easy that is.

But really from such a seed, putting into the dark earth, and then finding your way from the darkness into the light, going through all those different phases of growth, of changing, of until you are that big, maybe to bear some fruit.

So I just realized now that this is not that easy to be a plant.

And how hard the circumstances have to be in order to grow something.

So the acorn to make an oak tree, it has to destroy itself.

It seems like we’ve got full bellies.

Let’s go ahead and move into our closing check-in and continue on with our practice.

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