Footnotes to Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (One: Title and the “Author’s Note”)

Over the course of several readings since 2014, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values by Robert Pirsig has become one of my favorite books. Also the launching-point for several personally-meaningful literary and philosophical inquiries.

Given how frequently the book has been ignored, rejected or scorned by critics of various types and the significant amount of time that has passed since its publication – an admission of affection for the book could be considered a sidelining move. Does anybody take the book seriously? Certainly not in academia. I am aware of only a tiny handful of efforts to address Pirsig’s work. Most of those have addressed the philosophical nature of the book. Interestingly, academic scorn (and, by the way, scorn for academia) are central considerations of Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM), so maybe that’s an entirely appropriate state of affairs.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Book Summary by ...

So what is ZAMM? There are plenty of resources that will provide a brief plot summary or philosophical synopsis of the book. These resources will advise that ZAMM is a semi-fictional narrative about a cross-country motorcycle vacation; that it is a critique of the human condition contemporary to the second half of the twentieth century. Some will suggest that it is a cultural exploration and a work of philosophy. Not many will suggest that it is a book of Zen nor that it is an attempt by a serious intellectual to develop an original metaphysical philosophy. Fewer still will mention that ZAMM is a critique of both Eastern and European Philosophy and Academia. Almost nobody talks about ZAMM as a critique of religion – particularly messianic religion. I haven’t seen anyone call ZAMM an epic monster story or supernatural thriller. It is rarely, if ever, declared a tightly-connected literary work.

Many readers have described their first reading of ZAMM as frustrating, challenging, annoying, offensive and boring among many other descriptions. These views are likely to increase as time passes. Others have found it uniquely compelling. Millions of copies of the book have been sold since it was first published in 1974. Brand new copies may still be purchased at most bookstores on any day you may visit. More than forty -five years later.

Despite anything nay-sayers may argue about ZAMM, it is extraordinarily subtle and integrated from cover to cover. I would argue that it is too subtle to fully catch the first time through. At least, that has been my experience. So let’s set considerations of Pirsig’s biography aside for the moment and start with what you may expect to find when you approach the book’s front cover.

Essential Read: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
One of the classic images of Robert Pirsig, one of the classic ZAMM book covers and his Honda CB77 Super Hawk

The book’s full title is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. Immediately, the juxtaposition of two (or, perhaps, more!?) very different and disconnected themes within the title is established. This approach carries on throughout the book. It is fundamental to the Pirsig’s philosophical and rhetorical approach. For readers who are not familiar- and comfortable-with juggling a variety of conceptual notions while following a story, this is warning that things may be more difficult than they seem.

In 1974, Zen was still a very new and mysterious topic in North America. While it may be more familiar to Western culture in this first quarter of the twenty-first century, mention Zen to most people and several key connotations and mysteries will come up in conversation. Nature and peaceful, relaxed environments, such as Zen gardens. Perhaps minimalist home design, meditation and strangely paradoxical puzzle-stories. Contemplation. Further conversation may yield the question “Is Zen a religion or a practice?” (Yes.) And the Zen enthusiast? Maybe someone wearing pyjamas or a robe sitting in meditation or telling paradox puzzle-stories with gnomish humour. Pristine, clean and sipping green tea.

And then there’s the motorcycle maintenance. Chemicals, wrenches, oil & grease, noisy machines, stinky exhaust. A motorcyclist? OK let’s re-phrase that….a “biker”? Wild. Unpredictable. Violent. The most likely interaction scenario probably involves a fear of physical or verbal assault. Unkempt and barbrian-like, a biker will probably be described as wearing some combination of denim and leather; the biker, so the stereotype will go, guzzles beer (at least).

Two completely different iconic representations.

Pirsig put two concepts together that do not feel that they go together. A contemporary pairing might be “Computer Code and Flower Arrangement” or “Theoretical physics and Cutting Stained Glass ”. Except that putting these two disparate things together is fundamental to Pirsig’s philosophy and the book’s design, To read ZAMM, you must be prepared to attempt to reconcile and synthesize concepts which you may have previously considered mutualy exclusive. The book is anti-dogmatic, in its own way. Already in the title, there is a lesson in its philosophy. The title warns that the reader should be thinking about and through a Zen-like perspective. But also about and through a modern scientific, technological perspective.

Alex Langlands | Patricia Lovett MBE
Alexander Langland’s Craeft: Not the only book to follow ZAMM in investigation of the relationship of the individual to technology in modern society.

At least.

However, even in the simple matter of the book ‘s title Pirsig is not quite done. Right in the middle of the title, Pirsig used the term “art” to foreshadow investigation of concepts from European Philosophy. Particularly Plato and Aristotle. He uses the word “art” as we might currently use the word “craft” (or as Alexander Langlands would have it, “craeft”). Art in this title and book is not a throw-away word. It is a functioning and significant philosophical term. It establishes that the book will consider the matter of craftsmanship and aesthetics in a philosophical Context. Langland’s book is not the only other book to follow ZAMM in examining this topic. Zamm also came decades before And it came decades before RIchard Sennet’s The Craftsman, Matthew Crawford‘s Shop Class as Soul Craft, among many, many others.

We’re not done exploring the layers of the book’s title.

The subtitle is “An Inquiry into Values”. This subtitle’s use of the term “Inquiry” establishes ZAMM as a philosophical exploration while “values” sets the book within a particular area of philosophy dealing with ethics and aesthetics. So what is ZAMM? According to the title, it is a philosophical inquiry into values.

This is an important observation. Pirsig and the publishers did not set the book as a work narrative fiction. Nor as some kind of proto-adventure travel book.

With all of this happening on title page, the first thing one finds inside the book is an Author’s Note:

Author’s Note: What follows is based on actual occurrences. Although much has been changed for rhetorical purposes, it must be regarded in its essence as fact. However, it should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles either.

As with the title page, every sentence and phrase here requires attention. I contend that this author’s note is a kind of Zen koan (those paradoxical puzzles) for the reader.

Process and Reality by Alfred North Whitehead
A.N. Whitehead’s Process and Reality – Arguably, Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism is the setting for Pirsig’s “Metaphysics of Quality”

That this passage is called the “author’s note” hints at one of the challenging features of the book: identity. Over the course of ZAMM, the main character of the book is never explicitly named or referenced as “Robert Pirsig”. In most discussions of ZAMM, there is reference to “the narrator” and to “Pheadrus”. Through the course of the book, Phaedrus is revealed as younger and different version of the narrator. Generally, it is presumed that Robert Pirsig (the author) is both the narrator and Phaedrus. However, with the book’s inherent emphasis of separate identities, it cannot be assumed that the characters in the book are genuine depictions of Robert Pirsig and his friends and family.

The author’s note states that the events of the book are based on actual occurrences. So we can be reasonably confident that Robert Pirsig took a motorcycle trip with his son, Chris and a few friends. Indeed there are readily-available photographs of the trips as well as external interviews of people upon-whom characters in the book are based. Interestingly and tellingly, the term “actual occurrences” is strikingly similar to Alfred North Whitehead’s term“actual entities” from a book that is widely regarded as one of the most difficult and dense books of twentieth-centurty European philosophy, Process and Reality. Whitehead’s “philosophy of organism” (what resulted in at least one known philosophical offshoot called Process Theology) is deeply embedded in Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality. Pirsig mentions Whitehead in ZAMM, though the reference is brief and may not at first be noted as a significant clue to Pirsig’s philosophy.

Today in motorcycle history: Today in motorcycle history ...
Another great classic ZAMM cover, you can almost miss “An Inquiry into Values”.

The author’s note states that the events have been altered for rhetorical purposes, but are basically true. Pirsig spends considerable time defending rhetoric in ZAMM. In reading ZAMM, it isn’t unreasonable to consider it a work of rhetorical argument. That this term is included in the author’s note is another hint of things to expect in the book.

Pirsig then ends by commenting that the book is not to be confused with an explanation of Zen or Motorcycles. Pirsig is playing a bit of a game here. ZAMM does not spend much time in explaining or analyze these things. Instead ZAMM demonstrates them in action. If meditation is Buddhism in practice, Pirsig presents motorcycling as a Zen in practice.

Pirsig positioned ZAMM such that it should not be considered as fiction nor as non-fiction. As occurs frequently in ZAMM, Pirsig demonstrates a rejectiong of dualism in preference to synthesis. He placed the book as a book of philosophy that depicts, rather than explains its philosophy.

At the beginning of this article, I argued that ZAMM is a book “of philosophy” and “of Zen”. I used that phrasing to indicate that the book is a product of these traditions. It is an outcome. It is a rhetorical depiction. It is an effect of those causes.

In many ways, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a better book than many of its critics give it credit for. If you haven’t read it – and if anything in this brief introduction tweaks your interest, maybe you should give it a try.


Footnotes To Buddhism’s Four Seals

This essay was originally drafted as a reaction to Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse’s 2008 book What Makes You Not a Buddhist. I did not enjoy the book the first time I read it. Probably, I wanted the book to be something other than it is. Now, a few years later, I appreciate it significantly more by taking an altered perspective. While I still don’t agree with or support what seem to be Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse’s motives in publishing the book nor some of his insights, the author does a reasonable job of featuring the “four seals” for a non-Buddhist to consider. There may be better and/or more authoritative books on Buddhism, but it is a place to start.

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Khyentse suggests a number of ways that a person may not be a Buddhist but the main theme is that affirmation of the “four seals” is the fundamental and essential gatekeeper. “Four Seals” is another way of saying “four central doctrine” or “four dogmatic beliefs”. So what are they?

  • All compounded things are impermanent.
  • All emotions are pain.
  • All things have not inherent existence.
  • Nirvana is beyond concepts

Khyentse spends 125 pages explaining these doctrines and how they might apply to various aspects of contemporary human experience. As with my inquiry into the Lee Family Philosophy, this is not a book-review and I do not intend to reproduce the book in encapsulated form. This is an inquiry into the “four seals”.

Hermann Hesse - Wikipedia
Herman Hesse

Early in the book Khyentse suggests that these doctrine should be taken in a literal way rather than a metaphorical or mystical way. If one accepts that the authoritative definition of a Buddhist is a person who believes (affirms, acknowledges, or whatever term one might prefer) these four doctrine on a literal level, then I am certainly not a Buddhist. Mind you, there’s no particular reason to expect me to be a Buddhist. I didn’t grow up in a Buddhist culture or home. I’ve had an extremely limited exposure to Buddhist practices (diverse as they certainly are). Even my literary and philosophical investigation of Buddhist-oriented literature is extremely narrow. I don’t even have an active interest to “be” any particular “ist”. But I have an active and respectful interest in Buddhist perspectives that has occupied a fractional part of my attention over several decades. Initially this interest began as a literary interested stimulated by Robert Pirsig’s books (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Lila) on the one hand and Herman Hesse’s books ( Siddharta, Magister Ludi, Der Steppenwolf) on the other. Perhaps it also comes of growing up during the 1970’s.

So the four seals.

What makes me not a Buddhist (per Khyentse) is that I can’t give all four of those doctrine a full and complete literal pass. That is to say, if we are to set metaphorical, mystical, rhetorical and other referential “truths” aside, it becomes extraordinarily difficult to affirm these doctrine. Two of the doctrine don’t provide reliable information while a third requires some grudging qualification of the terminology.

Terminoloy is a significant factor. There’s no certainty that the specific phrasing of the “seals” that Khyentse’s book presents is adequate to whatever may be intended of the concepts. Certainly, one may wonder, as with any text, whether the particular words, as rendered in one’s contemporary language contain the same meanings as in some other language and/or time. What if its just a bad translation? What if Khyentse’s definition of “emotion” or “pain” is different than mine? All philosophy must, tediously, begin with a definition of terms. However, given the assertion that the doctrine be taken literally, it must be assumed that some significant care was taken in word choice when the book was published.

Tentatively, however, moving forward with a generous (and perhaps mistaken) assumption that the language is precise, accurate, authoritative and may be taken literally, let’s have a look.

All Compounded Things Are Impermanent

This doctrine is, in my opinion, the most concrete and supportable of the four truths. The two sides of the equation that one has to deal with are “compounded things” and “impermanent”. It may be a quirk of my own that I find the most certainty in a doctrine which focuses on physics. Here we have space, matter, processes and time.

A. N. Whitehead's Process Philosophy (introductory notes ...
A.N. Whitehead

In Process and Reality, A.N. Whitehead used the term “actual entity” as a rough equivalent to “all compounded things”. Physics, specifically particle physics, shows how our reality of matter, space and process are composed of interactions and combinations of particles. This is “compounding”. Particle and interaction. Matter and process. Two particles combine or repel and there is a result. The result is a compound thing (entity). That compound thing may then further compound to result in an even more compound thing. Particle. Atom. Element. Molecule. Organism. Consciousness. Society.

Whitehead called his philosophy a “Philosophy of Organism”. This seems to be a philosophy of the doctrine that “all compounded things are impermanent” where the term “organism” may be roughly equated to “compounded things.”

The second factor in the term is more easily dealt with. Time. Duration. Buddhism, Whitehead and Physics all seem to be on the same page. Things that exist (compounded things, actual entities) are not timeless. They are not infinite. They have a quality of duration. They are “of time”. I would further suggest that time is equally “of compound things”. They are inseparable and inherent qualities of the same thing.

Score: If the “four seals” are considered each to be of equal value, I would rank my acceptance of “all compounded things are impermanent”, as so far explored, to be a full twenty-five out of twenty-five points.

All Emotions are Pain

This doctrine is, in my opinion, one that is least defensible as a literal statement. The terms “emotion” and “pain”, while occupying adjacent conceptual space to one another, do not necessarily refer to the same things.

Emotions include happiness, sadness, anger and other familiar concepts, but emotion also includes more complicated concepts such as curiosity. It seems simple to reconcile some of the more familiar emotions with pain, but there are a variety of emotional concepts which cannot readily be reduced to “pain”.

So what is “pain”. Physically pain is a kind of negatively experienced sensory input suggesting harm or potential harm to the organism within-which the pain is experienced. It is a neurological warning signal recommending aversive action. There are a variety of ways that the term “pain” is extended from this neurological-based definition to include other negative experiences. Whether it is appropriate and correct to lump all negatively-perceived experiences as pain or not may well be “to the point” of this doctrine. I tend to think this becomes an over-simplification.

For purposes of this doctrine, it also seems to be an over-simplification to suggest that all emotions are a warning of coming “pain”. It is an unreasonable extension. “Sooner or later you’ll suffer” or even the ability to extrapolate future suffering from the limited duration of pleasure is not the same thing.

It would seem to be more precise and accurate to articulate the doctrine as “all emotions eventually result in pain”, “all emotions lead to suffering” or even “ all emotional states should be perceived as a reminder of coming pain and suffering”. But that is not the doctrine, as typically rendered.

Note that I have used the term “suffering” but the doctrine does not. Pain and suffering are adjacent but separate concepts. Suffering is an emotion. To suggest that all emotions lead to the emotion of suffering is not as indefensible as all emotions are pain.

Score: “All emotions are pain” can’t earn a full twenty five points. There’s too much that requires qualification and/or re-definition of the concepts. That being said, some of these qualifications provide a valuable window to view human existence and experience. Provisional as any scoring might be, I’ll give this maxim ten out of twenty-five.

All Things Have No Inherent Existence

This doctrine seems to be a corollary of “All compounded things are impermanent”, or at least dealing with the same physics. The two factors are “things” and “inherent existence”.

Body and Mind - One unit or Two? | The GOODista Blog
Monism: one substance or two?

This statement of reality breaks down, as many things do, at the subatomic level. There is a suggestion here of monism – that everything is really a single substance. It is this single originating substance that has been compounded in different ways to result in the appearance of diverse substances. This hinges on explaining what “things” means.

A.N. Whitehead used the term “entity” and “actual entity”. If “all things” means there is nothing that isn’t compounded, there is the problem of how to categorize the pre-compounded monist substance. If the definition of “thing” excludes this substance, then that is a convenient way to validate this doctrine. Whitehead describes a primordial entity as an allowance.

Similarly, if existence is taken to mean “truly is”, it is paradoxical, at best, to argue for a monism where something both does exist and does not exist. Buddhist philosophy isn’t uncomfortable with paradox.

Score: as with the previous maxim, a problem I have with “All things have no inherent existence” is the absolute scale of the statement. I am able to full-on accept “all compounded things are impermanent” based on the qualification that the statement covers only “compounded things“. Still, this doctrine is largely, if not wholly, a corollary of the first. Fifteen points out of twenty-five.

Nirvana is Beyond Concepts

This is also a difficult doctrine as a statement of reality. “Nirvana” is a concept. It could be argued that “nirvana is a concept of that which is beyond concepts”. Khyentse’s urging that the doctrine be taken literally runs afoul of a doctrine which refutes that it can be taken literally.

Here it is almost impossible not to reference Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Philosophicus argument that “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

Wittgenstein: vida/obra del filósofo que se retó a sí ...
Ludwig Wittgenstein

If one describes “nirvana” as a state of being, it is within conceptualization. And it also becomes fair game to examine. But all of mysticism hinges on some element being placed outside of understanding or comprehension.

Score: Buddhism, Zen and a variety of mystical fields often derive their attraction from their paradoxical-seeming principles. A suggestion that “human language is not adequate” should , in most cases, be modified to say “human language is not yet adequate”. That any given speaker or listener isn’t competent to explain at a certain point in time, does not mean there will never be competent speakers and listeners. Additionally, I don’t think this version of the doctrine is well-phrased by what may be intended by the doctrine. “Nirvana is beyond concepts” ranks lower than other versions of this doctrine that I’ve seen. If the doctrine were “Nirvana needs to be experienced, not explained”, then it would rank much more highly with me. As currently expressed, five out of twenty five.

Provisional Summary

Clearly, I am not an expert in Buddhist philosophy nor of the religions and practices that have been built upon it. I doubt that it is common practice to rank one’s relation to the doctrine as a percentage-score. But I like to quantify things, including the degree to which I am likely to integrate ideas into my thinking. That I agree with about fifty-five percent of these doctrine is interesting information.

It is also interesting to observe that if the “four seals” are taken to be the absolute foundation upon-which all the rest of reality is built, then there remains a great deal to be reconciled in the provided “literal statements”. I do not assert that these doctrine are “wrong” nor that those who may uphold them to be accurate literal statements of fact are in error. However, as statements of literal truth (fact), I find that they do not convince me beyond a generously weighted 55%. As predicted by the book title, I am not a Buddhist.

However, as cultural, metaphorical, rhetorical, mystical or referential statements, these doctrine are interesting and offer a particular kind of window to introspection – not to exclude the fact that some Buddhist practices upon which these doctrine are founded (eg. meditation) are extremely beneficial and worth exploration quite apart from the doctrine.

None of my reluctance to fully affirm the four seals as accurate factual statements takes away from these statements as extremely helpful in an investigation of reality and existence. Quite the opposite – I recommend serious consideration of these assertions as a metaphysical starting point. Regardless of the vantage point that one may fully support, one shouldn’t see and experience reality from that single point.


Version Note: Any and all essays or articles on http://www.ericadriaans.com are provisional and subject to alteration based upon editorial needs, new information, further consideration or altered perspectives as they may arise.

Original Publish Date (V 1.0 – February 4, 2021)


External Reference and Links


Version Note: Any and all essays or articles on http://www.ericadriaans.com are provisional and subject to alteration based upon editorial needs, new information, further consideration or altered perspectives as they may arise.

Original Publish Date (V 1.0 – February 4, 2021)


External Reference and Links

Footnotes to a Process: An Inquiry into Meditation

On February 11, 2021, I decided to explore the practice of meditation. This is what happened and how I proceeded.

For me, 2014 was a year of significant change stimulated by what seemed to be an assaults-from-all-corners 2013. 2014 was a year that I began my response to all of those difficulties. I increased my pursuit of a number of philosophical and practical matters. In February of 2014, I decided that it would be the year I found out what it was like to ride a motorcycle – so I bought a 1980 Yamaha Maxim 550 XJ (as may be seen on the homepage of this website). In March of that year, I also picked up Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to see what it was all about. It seemed to be a suitably hoakie “bike” thing to do. I didn’t expect to discover a book that would help me down several unexpected and delightful conceptual paths – including, eventually, meditation.

While I had some very limited awareness of Zen Buddhism and meditation earlier in my earlier life, I can comfortably trace my current exploration back to reading that particular book in that particular year.

So fast-forward a few years.

Buddhism in the Forests of Sri Lanka - thomas m wilson

Immediately prior to my first genuine attempt to meditate, I had begun a second reading of Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. My first reading of the book was in 2017, when it was first published. I appreciated Wright’s examination of meditation and the (Buddhist) philosophical principles upon-which meditation is based.

Here I will note that I do not consider myself to be Buddhist (see Footnotes to Buddhism’s Four Seals). I did not grow up in a Buddhist household or culture; I don’t participate in any Buddhist organizations; I have a relatively limited knowledge of Buddhist thought, having read only a handful of contemporary books about Buddhism. But none of that suggests to me that meditation isn’t capable of observable impacts. Indeed, Wright lists several practical reasons why meditation may be a beneficial daily practice. I recommend reading Wright’s arguments.

I had also recently read an article where the author attempted to savage both meditation as a practice and contemporary western Buddhism as a religious context. In this article, the author’s primary argument against Buddhism (broadly) and meditation particularly is anecdotal evidence that may be summed up as “all that happened for me is that I fell asleep“. This was augmented by suggesting that other anecdotal evidence amounts to a lot of over-educated Western elites who appreciate the aesthetic experience of a Buddhist lifestyle. A reduction of the argument: it’s all a bunch of pretentious twaddle with no science backing it.

If I’m honest, I found the article easily as pretentious as those it criticized. Reading a small handful of books with practical tips and a serious mind would have prevented both falling asleep and approaching meditation with expectations of major change on a few occasions. Wright’s book also provides a starting point to investigate scientifically-validated evidence that meditation does have an impact-to or alteration-of brain activity.

And a starting point to attempt meditation as a practical experiment.

Anything I experience will necessarily be anecdotal evidence. I don’t have any clear expectations. But here’s the thing. I have decided that I will place my meditation at a strategic position in my day. None of this…let’s try it at bed time stuff(meditation is not sleep preparation) nor any let’s start the day with it (it’s not gonna happen – plus I’ve already attempted to schedule Tai Chi exercises in the morning – see Tai Chi in the Morning) malarkey. No. I am scheduling the meditation exercise at the end of my formal work-day and before the evening’s chores and recreation begins.

Currently, I work in a home office and so stepping away from my desk and toward an appropriate place to meditate will be simpler than the decades of commuting that I used to endure. Then again, maybe all that driving functioned as a form of meditation.

At that time of day, I am usually still alert, though often fatigued and in need of time away from a screen.

Up-front acknowledgement: my early meditation attempts have not been “daily” but have been frequent enough to be a meaningful routine, if not quite a full-on habit.

Meditation One

On my first day of meditation, I approached the activity with as much pragmatism (practicality) as possible. Even though it wasn’t a regular work day for me, at approximately the same time as I would usually finish work, I prepared for the meditation. For me, this meant putting on loose-fitting track pants, a t-shirt and a zip-up hoodie. It’s the same stuff I wear for Tai Chi in the morning.

Next, I chose a quiet room in the house where I could sit reasonably comfortably for the session. I chose to darken the room by closing the curtains. I also chose to forgo any kind of background music or sounds. My plan is to reduce external stimulation to a minimum. I expect this to boost my ability to focus on my breathing. During this session, there was little outside or distracting sound. Essentially all I had was the periodic shuffling of the dog competing with my tinnitus.

With meditation, particularly Zen meditation, the matter of posture seems to be a big thing. As an outsider, it even seems as though it has been ritualized. I’m tempted to consider this an exaggerated issue. Per the previously cited criticism, I’m not looking to replicate an iconic pose nor reproduce an aspirational “lifestyle”. I want to see if meditation seems to have an effect on me.

I found the Zen Mountain Monastery web-page on the subject to be a comforting and valuable resource. Not least because practical and reasonable arguments are included for adopting one of several postures. Foremost of these is that meditation requires a person to be aware, awake and relaxed. The objective is an engaged attempt to observe one’s mind (also noted in Wright’s book). Second, by sitting with a straight back, I may be able to breathe in a different way than when sprawled, reclined or even laying down. Diaphragm expansion. These seem practical reasons.

The Buddha Mudra - The Bray Meditation Space
“Homeless” Kodo Sawaki Roshi

It is difficult to tell whether Kodo Sawaki, pictured here, is in a full lotus or something else. Sawaki, a renowned figure in Japanese Zen Buddhism has been cited as saying zazen is good for nothing. That’s pretty much a Zen puzzle and seems to deal with at least one of Buddhism’s four seals. I’ve also referenced Sawaki in titling these writings as “footnotes” (see On Footnotes). He argued that all of Buddhism is a footnote to zazen (meditation).

But back to posture.

Even in my more-flexible youth, I could never comfortably sit in the full or half Lotus positions for more than a few seconds. Now, at more than fifty years of age, it isn’t going to happen. However, I can achieve something that approximates the recommended Burmese position and that seems to have worked. I manage to remain in essentially the same position for half an hour to forty-five minutes. I was relaxed and awake. Great start.

As for the duration and as already noted. First session: half an hour. I’m not sure whether thirty minutes is a recommended duration for a meditation session. Practically, however, it makes sense. It is long enough to be a meaningful period of time but not so long that it is likely to be interrupted or filled with an is-it-over-yet anxiousness.

Once in the position, There was an adjustment period to let my body relax. Shift the legs a bit. Notice my hunched, tensed shoulders. Deal with the perpetual sinus issues. Distraction by the tinnitus in both ears. Physical discomforts. I usually deal with these kinds of things reasonably well, anyway. As we get older, we settle into our discomforts.

As to thoughts. Again, I am reasonably well-aware of how thoughts and emotions come and go. Even in my teens, I was aware of the volatility of emotions and recognized a personal need to detach and self-dampen the urgency of emotions. I wasn’t surprised or irritated with myself when thoughts came. Nor was I particularly surprised by their contents. It was unbidden material, but mostly predictable stuff from my day-to-day life. But I also didn’t pursue these thoughts for long. Only once during the thirty minutes did I find that one thought had led to another and another before I was aware that it had happened.

In Robert Wright’s book, he referred to thoughts thinking themselves. It’s this observation that your brain is producing thoughts without the active direction of your pre-frontal cortex. Unbidden thoughts.

For many years, I have discarded physical objects which I believe may bring with them unbidden emotion. Relating this to unbidden thoughts, Wright refers to “affective associations”. It is the “baggage” that people will (usually derisively) talk about. I actively eliminate physical objects that may bring unwanted “affective associations”. If meditation allows one to similarly discard unbidden thoughts and emotions (and their affective associations), then that would be a valuable outcome of meditation.

I found myself exploring the different places in my body where breathing occurs. How it feels. Diaphragm. Lungs. Nose. Mouth. This was a kind of thinking as well. Having experienced pneumonia, a pulmonary embolism and a chronic cough, I’m already well-tuned to notice the various physical sensations that accompany my own breathing, Indeed, during my morning Tai Chi, I have incorporated some deep-breathing in an attempt to improve the experience. Noticing isn’t a problem.

I’m not an overly mental-image-driven person. I thoroughly enjoy art, architecture and the collective wonders of light and vision but vivid “movies” of my life or experiences don’t play for me when I close my eyes. I can, with concentration, create images but my thoughts are not driven by visual images.

I ended the session feeling positive, relaxed and aware. Thirty minutes of engaged non-stimulation. A bit refreshing.

February 2021 Meditation Two

On my second day of meditation, I was able to replicate all of the preparatory details and the duration of the meditation period. Indeed, the duration may have been slightly longer.

My second day was a regular work day for me and this may have impacted the experience. I found it more difficult to become physically settled, although the hunched shoulders were no better or worse. My cough was slightly worse, probably a factor of medication timing. Overall, more thoughts distracted me from focusing on and counting breaths. The thoughts continued slightly more frequently, though I don’t think they were any more pressing or urgent. The content of the thoughts was little different, being related to my day-to-day affairs and the relatively small number of people I have personally met and interacted with in recent years.

What was most distracting was thoughts that arose as a kind of answer to the question “what will my brain come up with as I avoid trying to think about anything”. It is a ludicrous proposition. Overall, I focused on my breath less than I did the first time. I easily had a ten-to-one ration of fuss and distraction to concentration. For a period of time I had success studying the grainy blackness that appears when I close my eyes in a darkened room. The tinnitus in my ears was less intrusive. I did not end feeling as refreshed as the previous day, but I felt slightly more relaxed and energized than spending the same number of minutes with a screen of some kind.

February 2021 Meditation Three

For this meditation, I delayed the activity approximately one hour, which time was spent walking the dog plus a brief interval of screen time after the walk. I needed a bit of time to shake off the cold February air before trying to meditate.

Again, things didn’t go as well as my first day, but better than my second. I would rate my fuss and distraction (F&D) to concentration as seven to one. My range of thoughts remained dominantly within my day-to-day but I had a few more distant memories occur and a longer sequence of thoughts that seemed to take over a period of time. I had recalled a car I once owned (automotive pre-occupations are a familiar thing for me) and recalled certain features of the car. The interior, the overall exterior design, the motions of the manual transmission.. Notwithstanding the extended distraction, I would rate my focus as reasonable.

The most interesting barrier to concentration has been the dilemma of anticipating that I am about to experience some unplanned thought and wondering what it might be. This anticipation, although not directed at any particular thing, is interesting because it seems to be counter-productive yet it also seems to be part of the process.

February 2021 Meditation Four

This experience seemed to be slightly more aligned with my first meditation than the intervening two. I was able to remain detached from thinking for longer periods. Within the forty minute period, there was one fifteen minute period when my persistent throat irritation as well as my tinnitus went essentially out of my attention. I began by attempting to observe different part of my body and noticed I was able to isolate and observe various parts of my my body. First the tension around my eyes. Now the position and feel of my shoulders and arms. Then the posture of my abdomen, And so on. This directly led to physical irritations receding in my awareness. Strangely, I had one incredible urge to make a distorted face.There didn’t seem to be a preceding reason or thought to this urge.

Thoughts persisted to arrive with one extended period which challenged me to consider the difference between a dream and a pursues thought. Generally satisfying,

February 2021: Meditations Five To Ten

These sessions have been either a waste of time or have shown no real reason to offer further comment. On one session, I wasn’t ready-to-go and so it was a half-an-hour in a dark room. Another session I completed a 20-minute Tai Chi practice immediately prior to the meditation. I found the time to be more restful on that occasion.

I even tried a routine of lifting weights for twenty-time minutes, practicing Tai Chi for twenty minutes and finishing with a thirty-minute meditation session. This routine seems as though it ought to yield a maximum effect of meditation as the exercise should provide both a clearing of physical tensions as well as a period to let stray mental activity have their play. This is a routine I will attempt to maintain as all three activities: weight-lifting, Tai Chi and meditation are things which I carve time out of my day to execute. This is an important note as I perceive these things as things that are external to my day rather than natural and resident features of my day such as getting dressed or drinking a cup of coffee. None of them are habits.

Periods of Not Meditating

Following an initial enthusiastic plunge into meditation, I encountered a bit of a lull in my daily commitment. This is to be expected as any new routine can take a while to establish itself. In my case, the habit was broken-off as a result of far-more established life patterns asserting dominance over my time.

During this first period of not meditating, did I notice any difference in my thinking, feelings or general sense of health? Not that I could attribute specifically to not meditating. There was some disappointment in myself for letting the practice slide. An ambition not properly pursued. Certainly also that time went to other things, some of which may have been a bigger waste of time and energy. So which is the real affect…the absence of one practice (meditation) or the presence of the substitute (other stuff). That’s a bit of a problem that is difficult to solve when the study population is one.

Well I had a bit of a break. Time to re-assume the position!

Onwards Meditations 11- ?

Interim Summary

I do not have a prescribed end-date for this experiment. I’ll let it go as long as it is interesting. This essay will be updated from time to time as I have more (or different) things to say.


Version Note: Any and all inquiries on http://www.ericadriaans.com are provisional and subject to alteration based upon editorial needs, new information, further consideration or altered perspectives as they may arise.

Original Publish Date v1.0 – February 18, 2021; v1.1 March 26, 2021


External References and Links

  1. Zen Mountain Monastery: https://zmm.org/teachings-and-training/meditation-instructions/