When The Zen Hits The Fan



I hope this finds you well, relatively cool, and relaxed. In spite of my name, I find the summer to be the most challenging of seasons. It’s the heat, you see. It makes sleep problematic. It’s hard not to sweat profusely, all the time. It’s hard to stay cool-headed. Or as a modern idiom might phrase it: it’s hard to keep your zen.

From the perspective of mindfulness, there’s a lot to explore as the external thermostat gets reset. But it’s the theme of anger or emotionally-charged storms that I wanted to explore this week.

In various workshops over the last several months, different versions of this question have come up: “If I practice mindfulness everyday, will the sound of someone’s chewing stop annoying me?”, “If I practice for a few years, will I stop fighting with my sister?”, “I’m meditating, just like you said, but I am still super irritated by discourteous jerks on the subway.” etc. etc.

And behind these questions lies the common assumption that meditation or yoga will somehow inoculate us to unpleasant reactions. At large, this is often a popular barometer for ‘progress’ on the path. The absence of anger, of petty jealousy, of irritation, of annoyance… this absence signifies spiritual growth, or so it’s thought. And on some level, it might be true. I won’t deny that. It might. But there might also be a different way of framing it.

What seems more plausible and altogether more likely is that these difficult mind-states keep on happening, they keep on rankling… but with practice, we are – surprise, surprise – better able to ‘see them as they are': simply momentary mind phenomena. But without recognizing these mind-states for what they are, there is a strong tendency to act upon them with compulsivity. As Google’s meditation guru, Chade-Meng Tan, nicely phrases it, with practice, we move ‘from compulsion to choice.’

In Buddhism, these difficult mind-states are personified in the figure of Mara (the Buddhist devil). Stephen Bachelor’s writing in Confession of a Buddhist Atheist offers a compelling glimpse of the ongoing relationship with these mind-states:

“On attaining awakening in Uruvela, Siddhattha Gotama did not ‘conquer’ Mara in the sense of literally destroying him. For Mara is a figure that continues to present himself to Gotama evenafter the awakening. He keeps reappearing under different guises until shortly before the Buddha’s death in Kusinara. This implies that craving and the other ‘armies of Mara’ have not been literally deleted from Gotama’s being. Rather, he has found a way of living with Mara that deprives the devil of his power. To be no longer manipulated by Mara is equivalent to being free from him. The Buddha’s freedom is found not in destroying greed and hatred, but in comprehending them as transient, impersonal emotions that will pass away of their own accord as long as you do not cling to and identify with them.” (pg. 228)

So if the heat, or anything else causes you to lose your Zen, and you start doubting the benefit of your sitting or yoga practice, please consider that this is not a problem or an indicator of futility. Rather, this is simply the way it is, like this.


Originally published on June 27, 2012