Category Archive: Meditation

How to Get In The Zone

Great performers of all sorts, from athletes to musicians, have experienced being in the zone. It is the optimal state for performance, where the performer and performance are one, unobstructed by conscious thought.

Many performers assume this state of mind is a random byproduct of the act of performing, not realizing it is simply a state of mind that with practice can be readily accessible.

This state of being in the zone is the same state that meditators work to discover, maintain, observe, and gain insight from – a state of core consciousness and awareness, unobstructed by thoughts and conceptions.

The name Buddha means “one who is awake”, and refers to this ideal. For meditators, life is the performance, and the goal is to wake up and maintain the experience throughout life.

Why Should You Care?

The ability to “wake up” or be in the zone at will is more valuable than anything else you can achieve. It is the doorway not only to optimal performance, but much more importantly, to a deep sense of happiness and satisfaction in life where stress, sadness, anger, and pain cannot touch you – liberation and freedom. There is nothing better.

I’ve tried to write about this a number of times over the years without sounding either crazy, unintelligible, or pointless. Today I think I may have found the words to make intellectual sense.

What Is Waking Up?

To be awake is to be fully aware in the present flow. We do not exist in the past. We do not exist in the future. We only exist in the present flow. There is only the present flow. It is the only place where we actually exist.

To be fully aware in the present flow cannot happen on the level of your thinking mind. It can only happen on the level of your core consciousness.

From your core consciousness you will perceive the arising of thoughts. On this level the perception of a thought arising will be no different to you from the perception of the sound of a bird chirping. The perception of a thought arising, no matter the contents of the thought, will not affect or change your core consciousness.

Thus, your core consciousness, perceptions, feelings, and emotions are not affected or influenced by your thoughts or ideas.

In our normal consciousness we feel that we are identical to our thoughts. Our perceptions, feelings, and emotions are dictated by our thoughts, and we ride them like a boat on rough water or dust blown around in the wind. There is a fundamental lack of freedom in this, not to mention emotional instability.

Being fully aware in the present flow, aware from the level of your core consciousness, there is a profound freedom – freedom from the past, the future, the limits of your thoughts and ideas – and a profound perception of perfection and satisfaction. The experience is literally like waking up from a dream. Perception becomes faster. Every sight, sound, and sensation becomes clearer. Any form of stress or negativity disappears. Performance is optimized. On observation and reflection, deep and numerous insights can be realized.

How Long Does It Last?

How long this state lasts and how frequently you access it largely determines how much it changes your life. The longer and more frequently you wake up, the more it rewires your brain, the more insights you can realize, leading to deeper places, and the more quickly and easily you can do it at will.

The ultimate goal for some meditators is to wake up permanently, the mind state of what is perhaps only a mythical Buddha. I am open to the possibility, but I have serious doubts as to if waking up permanently is achievable. If it is, to rewire your brain so completely it would likely require living isolated and meditating constantly for the majority of your life. But there is a spectrum, from a single unrealized experience of being in the zone that does nothing to change your life, to a fully enlightened Buddha.

Establishing a Practice

By establishing a practice of meditation, you can learn to free your mind or wake up every day. The more you do it, the longer it will last, and the closer your everyday mind will be to it. You will be able to notice when a negative or unproductive thought arises, quickly go to your core level of consciousness, and clear your mind of the negativity. Even if not a fully enlightened “Buddha”, you will realize a liberating freedom, deep satisfaction, and a way to nullify stress, anger, sadness, and any other negative feeling or emotion.

This waking up practice gives you the ability to be alive and happy on a level that most people, sleepwalking through life or riding on the waves of their unconscious thoughts, can hardly imagine. Again, it is literally like waking up from a dream.

How Do You Practice?

My current sitting meditation practice is fairly simple, but it does take time and effort – time and effort very well spent. I’m not a meditation teacher, but I can tell you what works well for me.

1. Sit in a comfortable position with your back straight, so your posture is maintained more by your skeletal structure than by muscular tension. My preference is to use a zafu cushion and sit on the floor, cross-legged. You can close your eyes or leave them open. Many people prefer to close their eyes. I prefer to keep mine open and fixed on a point in front of me.  Take a couple of breaths to relax, and then simply observe your breathing. Observe the inhalation, and observe the exhalation. Thoughts will disrupt your observation. When you realize you have become lost in thought, return your observation to the present flow of your breathing. Do this for a while.

2. Expand your awareness/observation to your entire body. Your breath is part of your body awareness, and you can use it to help keep you in the flow of the present. Do this for a while.

These two steps alone will do a great deal to stop your thought patterns, reduce stress, and increase your physical health.

3. Here is the somewhat tricky/subtle part – Turn your attention inward and look for what it is that is observing your body, breath, and everything externally. In this looking, you will find nothing there but your core consciousness in the present flow.

This is the goal.  You may be able to skip steps 1 and 2 and go straight to this step.  In my own practice, I begin here now.  If this doesn’t make sense to you, after practicing steps 1 and 2 for a while, it should begin to make sense.

Hold on to this core conscious awareness. Here you will see the arising of thoughts but be unaffected by them. Every sensation, what you see, hear, feel, and any thoughts that arise, will be one in the same – consciousness or energy in the present flow. You will be in the zone, awake. Hold on to this for a while. Try to maintain it even as you get up from your meditation spot. Try to maintain it longer and longer, and more often.

Disclaimer

I have practiced different forms of meditation since 1992, but I’m really not a meditation teacher.  I did teach a basic form of meditation that I learned from my first instructor to many of my students, for 10 years or so, aimed at developing concentration for martial arts/self defense practice, and although that practice had a deep and profound impact on me, I do not have the experience of efficiently guiding practitioners there.

My current practice, listed above, has been the most effective and enduring. The steps that I have described were positively influenced by a Sam Harris podcast with Joseph Goldstein, and Harris’ book, Waking Up. The idea that had the biggest impact on both my practice and my ability to describe it was stated by Sam Harris as an idea from Dzogchen: “The goal is the path.”

This idea is that there is not a path where the goal is only found at the end of the path. The goal itself, to wake up, is available to us all right now. It simply involves looking in the right place in the right way. The path to the final goal, a full and permanent awakening, or at least an extension of the time that we are awake, is to simply hold on to the experience of waking up. The goal is the path.

If you take the time and effort to do this, you can maximize your performance in everything that you do. You can realize a liberating freedom, unchained from your past and from the limits of thinking and conceptions. You can dramatically increase your well-being and minimize negativity in your life. You can literally wake up from the dream-like state that the vast majority of people live in. I highly recommend it.

Gyokusui Shakuhachi

Gyokusui III 2.4 Shakuhachi

Gyokusui III 2.4 Shakuhachi

My wife and I recently returned from another terrific vacation in Japan, where thanks to our friends Jerry and Hiromi Schmick, we had the great fortune to meet Gyokusui III, the third generation shakuhachi maker of the Gyokusui family, and to buy an incredible shakuhachi from him.

I’ve written about the shakuhachi, a Japanese flute created by ex-samurai monks as a meditation device and musical instrument that could double as a weapon, at least twice previously.  And as I’ve also written before, the more I practice it the more I realize how great it is as a compliment to self defense/martial arts training.  Not only is it a great counter balance to hard and violent physical practice, a doorway into the optimal mental state for action, and a tool for both self expression and clearing the mind, but the traditional one-piece shakuhachi, as it was originally made, is also an amazing weapon that can be carried anywhere.

Although the shakuhachi was a one-piece instrument for centuries, the modern version being made by most Japanese makers today is made in two sections, with a joint in the middle of the flute.  This makes it much smaller for transport but nearly useless as a weapon.  Of course, the vast majority of shakuhachi players today don’t look at the flute as a weapon.  Last year I visited Kitahara, a famous shakuhachi maker in Kyoto, and bought a modern two-piece flute from him.  But as a self defense practitioner and teacher, the traditional one-piece version is much more appealing to me.

Fortunately, in addition to being a famous and highly respected maker, Gyokusui III makes shakuhachi both in the traditional and modern styles.  The most common shakuhachi size is a 1.8, which is 54.5 cm/21.5 inches, but I was looking for a longer flute with deeper tones.  So I went to Gyokusui’s place looking for a traditional one-piece in a 2.4 size, which is 75 cm / 29.5 inches.  Here is my 2.4 next to a kali stick:

Gyokusui 2.4 & Kali Stick

Gyokusui 2.4 & Kali Stick

The shakuhachi I chose is thicker and heavier than the kali sticks I typically use (which are thicker and heavier than most kali sticks).

For traveling with a flute, Jerry recommended Japanese sword and shinai bags, which I found to be perfect, and you can get them with or without a shoulder strap.  Here are two that I’m using for my 2.4:

Shakuhachi Bags

Shakuhachi Carry Bags

Gyokusui was a fantastic host, and Jerry and his wife Hiromi were great guides and translators.  We spent more than 2 hours trying numerous flutes, all incredibly beautiful instruments in both sound and appearance.

Myself and Gyokusui III

Myself and Gyokusui III

Gyokusui's House

At Gyokusui’s Place

Gyokusui Shakuhachi

A Few Gyokusui Shakuhachi

Our friend Jerry is a practicing Komuso monk, living with his wife Hiromi in Nara, and is sponsored by Gyokusui, who lives and works in Osaka.  If you’re visiting Japan and interested in an incredible shakuhachi, in either the traditional or modern style, I highly recommend Gyokusui’s instruments.

As for the sound, I’ll end this post with a recording of myself playing one of my favorite honkyoku (Zen meditation compositions), the Jin Nyodo version of Kyorei, which I played on my new shakuhachi:

STOP: Become Aware, More Skilled, and Happier by Reducing Distractions

Texting While Eating

Unaware & Distracted

Now more than ever, we are bombarded with disruptions that keep us unaware.  If continuous mental chatter isn’t enough, we’ve got tweets, text messages, emails, phone calls, and urges to check this or that on our internet-connected devices.  The pace for many people is fast and continuous.

Humans are wired to pay attention to disruptions.  For most of our existence as a species, these disruptions were extremely important.  They were usually created by something living, and very often potentially one of two things: food or danger.  It makes sense that we paid attention to them.  But today, more often than not these disruptions are addictive, trivial, and rob us of awareness, skill, and maximum enjoyment.

One At A Time

Thinking is linear, and we can’t think about more than one thing in any given moment.  Although many people think they can multi-task well, they cannot.  In study after study, attempts at completing A, B, and C are degraded by mixing them…in everyone.  Both the time it takes to complete the tasks and the quality of the work is decreased when the tasks are mixed.  The best way to complete A, B, and C, is to do them one after another, with no disruptions.

In addition to humans being unable to do two things at once, at least things that require concentration or focus, it also takes our brains time to switch to being fully involved in one task to being fully involved in another.  Even if you only stop what you’re doing to glance at a tweet, text message, or email, you’ve just degraded your concentration.

How To Cultivate Awareness

Real awareness requires effort.  Try for just a moment to focus only on your breath.  Right now:  Breath in, and feel it without thought.  Breath out, and feel it without thought.  Do that 4 or 5 times in a row.  If you’re aware of what’s going on inside your head, you’ll quickly realize how difficult it is to silence your thoughts.  Your mind will continuously bombard you with this and that, often unnecessarily.

The next time you’re eating, don’t watch TV, read the paper, work on a computer, talk on the phone, send text messages, or surf the web on your smart phone.  Just eat.  Empty your mind, and really taste the food you’re eating.  If you’re eating good food, you’ll enjoy it many times more.  If you’re eating bad food, you’ll realize it.  Without being mindful and aware of what you’re doing in any given moment, you’ll miss out on the good and be unaware of the bad.

These days, it’s common for people in the middle of a real conversation to pull out their phone to read and send text messages or answer a call.  It distracts both participants of the conversation, and degrades our ability to be fully considerate, active, and present.

Whatever you’re doing, be mindful of it.  Eliminate disruptions.  You’ll notice how much richer your experiences become, and those you live and interact with will also benefit.

In the Zone: Active Non-focused Awareness

Eliminating technological disruptions, by giving yourself time to specifically return your messages for example (but not while you’re doing anything else!), would be easy if we weren’t addicted to these disruptions.  But many of us are.  However, eliminating them is worth the effort.  You’ll find yourself able to better focus on whatever you’re doing…to be present in the moment and maximize your experiences.

Eliminating mental disruptions, your own thoughts, is a lot harder.  It takes practice.  Find a quiet place to sit comfortably, feel your breathing, and quiet your mind.  Sit in awareness of the present, with nothing else.  With practice, you’ll be able to do it.  And you’ll start to notice things.  You’ll notice sounds and smells you didn’t notice before.  You’ll see things in a new light.  Quieting your mind is the key to being fully present.

The longer you practice this active, non-focused awareness, the more it will spill out into your everyday life.  Instead of walking to your car while checking your text messages, unaware of what’s around you, you’ll notice both the good and the bad (if it’s present).  The world will open up to you.

I used the phrase “non-focused awareness”.  It takes focus to achieve it, and that’s what initially makes it hard for everyone.  First, you’ll have to focus on quieting your mind, and you’ll have to maintain that focus to keep it quiet.  With that focus in place, you’ll have achieved a non-focused awareness.  It may be more accurate to call it a “focused, non-focus”, or a focused non-attachment.

Becoming More Skilled

Highly skilled practitioners, of anything, are fully aware and hard to distract.  Cultivating an active, non-focused awareness is the key to noticing what’s going on within and around you, and acting/responding efficiently and effectively.  With awareness, you’ll be better able to notice and correct your own mistakes, and to counter your opponents actions.  It’s no surprise that many martial arts place emphasis on meditation, and most high level athletes have some form of mental training, even if that’s done through the practice of their sport.

Start Today

Stop.  Regularly take time to sit in the present.  Eliminate distractions both internal and external.  You’ll become more aware, better at everything you do, and more skilled in your art.  You’ll also be able to fully enjoy the good in your life, and see and eliminate the bad.