Friday, November 26, 2010


When I was a senior in college I took a course in which we read some essays by the experimental composer John Cage. Of course Cage is most famous for 4'33'', in which the musician or musicians on stage sit in silence for four minutes and thirty-three seconds (you can watch a video of it here).

This piece seems like the kind of artistic trickery that people like to complain about in modern art, but I thought that one of the theories behind the piece was fascinating. While the musicians on stage might sit in silence, the “music” of the piece would come from all the incidental noises that are always happening in a concert hall: programs rustling, bodies shifting in seats, people coughing, and so on. One of Cage's interests was the introduction of chance and accident into music, and this piece represents the ultimate example of that idea.

I remember, after reading Cage's theories, that occasionally I would find myself at a college party, stuck in a boring conversation, and my mind would drift upwards until I found myself listening to the noises of the party as a whole—music in the background, people talking, bottles clinking, doors opening and shutting—as if it were some kind of Cage-ian symphony. Occasionally now I will still find myself doing this when I am in the midst of a large crowd.

All of this comes as a prelude to correcting my previous posts on the practice and aims of meditation. Part of that correction came from Melissa Myozen Blacker, one of the leaders of the Boundless Way Zen group; part of it came from a documentary I watched on the life of Buddha, as well as reading Karen Armstrong's biography of him.

I suggested previously that the practice of focusing on the breath, and the goal of meditation as a whole, was to empty the mind. As Melissa pointed out to me in an e-mail, though, emptying the mind really only comes when we are sleeping (and sometimes not even then!) or in a trance state. It suggests that Buddhists seek to escape all thought.

What Buddhists seek instead, as I have come to learn, is “mindfulness.”

As it happens, the talk at this past Monday's Boundless Way Zen session, which was given by David Rynick, helped clarify this for me. David explained that his own Zen teacher had recently told him of a new technique he used in helping people learn about meditation. It was a game called “I notice,” and it simply consisted of noticing and articulating what was happening inside and around you while you were meditating.

So, for example: “I notice that my shoulder is sore . . . I notice that it's warm in this room . . . I notice a car just drove by outside.” As we spend more and more time being mindful of our experiences in the present moment, we should find that the habit of noticing allows us to gain some emotional distance from our thoughts. We think them; but we notice that, like all things in the world, they are transitory. They come and go, and lose some of the power they have to cause us distress or anxiety.

In some ways this habit of noticing may seem the exact opposite of trying to empty one's mind—and perhaps it is. But the result is quite similar: noticing puts your mind in the present, and not in the past or future, which are our main sources of anxiety and worry.

We spend so much of our time fretting about the future, near and distant, or worrying about the effects of our past actions, or the ways in which they will flower into the future. But we live only in the present, and so if we can turn our minds to the present, according to the Buddha, we will find there our best source of happiness and fulfillment. Even when we find suffering and pain in our thoughts, we are better off noticing it, acknowledging it, and then letting it pass on.

Thanks to Melissa and David for clarifying this for me—and I still probably don't have it quite right. Stay tuned for further corrections.

But this has been one of the great pleasures of this book project for me, and has consistently been the greatest source of pleasure in my life—I am always finding something new to learn, or some correction to what I thought I already knew.

Another great source of information on Buddhism was a documentary I watched last night by Werner Herzog called The Wheel of Time. I'm still processing this fantastic film, and will write more about it next week. Until then, at the very least I can highly recommend it!

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