Lessons from Zen Master Mark
My first formal meditation training was in Zen Buddhism. Everything that I have built, learned, and experienced in my yoga/meditation life, I owe to this class and this teacher.
My best friend Jen and I decided in our junior year of college to take this Zen Meditation class together. We were two type A, overachieving, get it done perfectly or jump off a building, perfectionist musicians who just needed to calm down and or be tranquilized on a daily basis. Meditation sounded nice, it sounded very anti-type A, relaxing, and frankly easy. And now I'm chuckling to myself as I write the word "easy".
We walked into this big hall at B.U. and met Mark, who Jen and I still to this day affectionately call "Zen Master." At first glance this man seemed like your ordinary, handsome, every day suburban middle age dude. He wore a collar shirt with regular slacks. He smiled kindly with a focused gaze on everyone as they came in. We sat in a circle, on fairly comfortable, and by that I mean totally uncomfortable, meditation cushions and waited for class to begin.
To start class, Mark looked around the room and proclaimed, I still remember the exact words, "I'm glad you're all here. This may be the most important class you take here at school. This class is about looking inside yourself, and most of you haven't done that yet because you're too scared to try".
"Screw you", I thought. "I'm 20 years old. I know myself perfectly fine thank you." Ah the arrogance of youth! But I do remember under that defensive stance was a huge sense of fear and a resonance with truth. He was right. There was so much in me I was terrified to see. There was so much I was terrified for other people to see. And we continued with the class learning to sit, simply sit, with ourselves. It sounded so easy, but my god was it hard. I tried so much to "get" meditation, to crush it, to be the absolute best at it. The harder I tried, the harder it was.
I hated meditation at first. It was so boring. Like I'd rather watch C-SPAN for 24 hours straight boring. But I did it, week after week. Little by little, I began to relax and just enjoy the moment. But I never, ever, felt like I was really meditating. I always felt like a fake, like Holden Caulfield was going to jump out of Catcher in The Rye and call me a phony meditator. To be honest, I still feel like this sometimes, but I have learned that meditation is a process, not an end. And, that when your meditation teacher says, "Simply allow yourself to sit still with what is there" as Mark did, that's what they mean. They don't mean, "Simply sit with perfect peace and harmony." They mean just be with the reality, the honesty of the moment. Mark planted the seed of that understanding, but it took me a good 13 years to actually learn it.
And then there came a class with Mark where he looked at me and asked me a question. His gaze was one of the most remarkable experiences I have ever had. As he looked at me, it felt like he could see straight through me, as if he could see everything I was thinking and feeling. I felt like I wanted to cover up internally and keep him from seeing whatever it was I thought was so terrible. I realize after years of work that he was simply being present with me. He was shining a light of truth on all of my self-deceptions. It was a moment I will never ever forget. In that moment, I really believe that Mark began the process of my own liberation just by being present and awake with me. As much as I wanted to get away from it, I also wanted to let it in, to let myself be free and seen.
Jen and I took this class for two semesters, once in junior year, and once at the end of senior year. Mark came to both of our senior recitals and became a wonderful mentor for both of us. I learned more from him than I can put into words and all that I have today I credit to his teaching. I will distill some of the lessons that I took with me in the list below.
1. Don't be afraid to look at yourself, in the end, no matter how bad or flawed you think you are, there is nothing there that is really bad. Looking at yourself breeds self-awareness, and self-awareness is the path out of suffering.
2. You are always ok, even when you think you're not.
3. You can't "win" meditation. You just do it.
4. Presence is the most healing aspect of awareness. Being present with someone, really seeing them, is the most healing thing you can do.
5. When you are present with someone it often makes them uncomfortable. Being uncomfortable in this situation means that the presence is bringing truth to the surface. It is healing. It's not your job to do the healing, just to be present.
6. Being awake means being aware.
7. We make many assumptions that we call facts. Learn to separate a fact from an assumption.
8. It's ok to be where you are because that's where you are.
9. Focusing in the moment alleviates much suffering.
10. Meditation is sitting openly with what is there.