Meditation Is Not Enough? …Living Mindfully in the Real World


As the year 2014 approached, I thought what am I going to do now?

The previous year, 2013, I focused on deepening my meditation practice and contentment. I tempered my ambitious career goals, did not look to date anyone, traveled very little, and lived a boring, routine lifestyle.

The mystic Osho once said,

…to be real is always difficult. To live with a wife and to be happy is really difficult; to live with children and to be blissful is really difficult. To work in a shop, in an office, in a factory and to be ecstatic is the real difficulty. To leave everything and just sit under a tree and feel happy is not difficult — anybody will feel that way. Nothing to do, you can be detached; everything to do, you become attached. But when you do everything AND remain unattached, when you move with the crowd, in the world and yet alone, then something real is happening.

The true challenge is not going off to a retreat center to gain some insight. Doing so can be a valid path, but it would be escapist for me right now. The challenge is living a full, mindful life. Last year, I drastically simplified my life to see if I could be mindful and content again. For the most part, I succeeded. Now, I want to address those big challenges again of livelihood, relationships, and health.

I’m uncertain how or if it is possible to be both ambitious and content? Will I fall back into cynicism, hopelessness, and judgment? Every time I’ve returned from a retreat, my old habits always crept back in and overpowered me in the most important emotional moments.

Is it just a matter of patience and more practice? Or something else? Over the months, I’ve been mulling over this question and asking others.


Zen Story

In December, I did a weekend retreat at the Cambridge Zen Center with Master Bon Shim. During our private interview period, I posed a question:

Me: You said before that even enlightened individuals still have conditioning, a conditioned ego?

Master Bon Shim: That’s correct. Even after realization, there is karma. Enlightened does not mean perfection. Masters still make mistakes, still get things wrong.

Me: So, is meditation enough then? Can meditation, by itself, unravel or undo or burn through all karma, all conditioning?

Master Bon Shim: Well, there is the example of Siddhartha, the Buddha, who reached complete nirvana, complete awakening….

In general though, too many students have this “checking mind”, of constantly evaluating their teacher. This is not so good. Clearly, there are some bad teachers, and you should be careful of abuses. But, this “checking mind” that’s looking to find a perfect teacher or faulting good teachers for not being perfect is not good.

(paraphrased from memory, my apologies to Master Bon Shim if any of this is incorrect)

Although I gained a lot from our interviews together and that weekend in general, I felt dissatisfied with the answer.

A Heart Blown Open Book

I keep thinking back to a book where American teachers question the Dalai Lama on explaining how it is possible senior teachers make such grievous mistakes:

        A dozen Western Buddhist masters, from many different backgrounds, were brought to India to participate in the conference. They sat in an audience, with His Holiness on stage taking their questions. Kelly was near the front, and he listened as one of the American teachers brought up a troubling question: A high ranking Tibetan teacher had gotten into trouble for sleeping with some of his female students, and had been sued and forced into a kind of hiding from the uproar he had caused.
        "How do you explain his behavior, your Holiness," the questioner asked, perhaps hoping for a psychological explanation. The Dalai Lama, smiling, leaned forward.
        "The problem," he said, gently, "is that their insight is not deep enough. When the insight of your true nature is deep enough, it transforms all parts of us, so that Basic Goodness and compassion naturally and effortlessly arise. This prevents the kind of deluded behavior we see with him." He sat back.

        Kelly, incredulous, waited for someone to challenge the statement. He raised his own hand and the Dalai Lama pointed to him.

        "Your Holiness," Kelly offered, "may I use a word here?"
        "Please," came the answer.
        "Bullshit," Kelly dropped, and a collective gasp went up from the audience…
        The Dalai Lama chuckled.
        "I know this man we’re speaking of," Kelly continued. "He took three three-year cave retreats where he saw only his master and lived in the wilderness with no power, no heat, no bed. That’s nine years of the most intensive monastic training. He trained with you, your Holiness, for a decade. And he spent another decade training in the States. This man trained for thirty years, and you’re telling me his insight isn’t deep enough? I’ve met him, I’ve talked to him. I’ve practiced with him, and I’m telling you, that explanation is, with all due respect, bullshit, your Holiness."
        Kelly sat back, smiling. The Dalai Lama nodded his had and chuckled again, his eyes shimmering behind the thick lenses of his glasses.
        "That is because your insight isn’t deep enough," he said with a kind-hearted smile.
        Kelly’s mouth popped open. As the Dalai Lama waited patiently for Kelly to respond, he couldn’t think of a single thing to say. (p275-6)

Reading this passage was really exciting to me. Here was a teacher that asked the scary questions. If dedicated meditation for decades was not enough then what’s the point?

It would be easy to say the Tibetan teacher who took advantage of his students was a fraud,. The scarier truth is that maybe he was truly awakened AND still wrongly took advantage of his own students. That even the highest among meditation masters are capable of human faults and mistakes. As Zen Master Bon Shim said, even enlightened people still have their habitual conditioning remaining.

Therefore, is a high level of insight, of seeing into the fabric of reality is not enough, not sufficient to living a good householder life, to transforming one’s ego and habits?

To some degree, I worry I am doing what Zen Master Bon Shim said. “Checking mind” and wanting perfection from my teachers and myself. Yet, there is this doubt that perhaps my practice could be improved, that there was something I was missing.

Junpo also shares similar doubts. Despite his practice and experience, despite having received transmission from his teacher, Junpo says:

    The years of meditation had created a stillness in his mind that made seeing what arose there easier. In the quiet he could sit with his arising impulses, emotions, and thoughts. For most of us, we react to life — someone cuts us off in traffic, and we get angry right away…Our reactions are conditioned, meaning that for most of us we don’t notice that the energy of the emotion must first arise, and then we have to react to it. That we could, in fact, choose a different reaction if we could slow the whole process down.

    Kelly, because of his insights and quietness of mind, had greater freedom to choose his reactions, but he had little understanding why those particular impulses arose within him in the first place. Perhaps, the difference was cultural or perhaps it was indeed because his insight wasn’t deep enough, but Kelly did not agree with Dalai Lama. His Holiness, after all, ha had lived in the rigid container of a monastery for his entire life, and was a man who had taken a monk’s vows of celibacy. In Kelly’s experience, it was intimate relationships that were the most likely to activate one’s old conditioned patterns and allow for the emergence of emotional energy that one would never encounter in a monastery. (277)

My frustration and seeking stemmed from this tension of insight and ego. I could go off to a retreat and experience absolutely beautiful moments of truth and reality. I would experience the joy of simply being alive where the sound of my breathe is music, and the work of ants is a symphony. And after all that, I return home to find my old habits and emotional triggers return. My relative, ego life remained buried in my subconscious.

The book continues

…he saw that the path to true freedom had to hold both truths as real. There was a small, conditioned ego that could impede every part of your life, especially your spiritual insight. Worse, it could deeply distort spiritual insight with its neurosis and pathology. But there was also the Absolute, the ground of being where Kelly had taken his seat. They were both true, in every person – a relative, temporal, and finite ego that would blink out of existence a few decades after it became self-aware, and an immortal, timeless, an utterly imperturbable deeper self that did not come and go….both of them needed to be integrated for true insight, true wisdom, true freedom….

…And spiritual teachers, likewise, were often some of the most neurotic people out there. Many…wanted to simply get away from their small, broken selves, as if becoming Enlightened or Awake or one with Christos or God would somehow magically fix all the broken parts of their smaller self. As if one ever transcended the ego. One did not – insight came through an ego, always, never around one. (280-1)

Here was the crux of the problem. I had often focused only on the spiritual insight path OR on the self-improvement ego path; switching between the two but never integrating them together. My meditation practice and my regular life felt like opposites to me.

It was only after I started doing therapy that I realized the bridge between these two worlds was my emotions. I realized just how much of my own emotions I was avoiding. How judgmental and hopeless I often felt about myself. Somewhere in my early meditation practice (and really just my early adult life), I got the mistaken belief that emotions are not a valid object of meditation but a distraction.

So much of beginning meditation is focused on setting up pristine, peaceful environments to practice because it can be so difficult to even be mindful with positive feelings and places.

However, reality is not so kind. It provides whatever arises whether that’s joy or pain. The mistake is judging a painful moment to be not suitable for meditation and that one should solely focus on the breathe. Or, judging one’s self for feeling pain or suffering and thinking meditation should “fix” this illusory pain. Expecting to stay with the breathe in all those charged moments though is ridiculous. Instead, staying present with those emotions, with those situations and seeing them as they are is the true challenge. Getting to the core of experience and emotion to see the world and one’s self without filter. Going through the emotion is the meeting point between meditation and daily life.

Likewise Junpo writes:

Doshin nodded. “Not much point to spiritual insight if you don’t understand your emotions at a core level.”

Kelly nodded. “How many times have awakened teachers screwed up because of something emotional? An affair? A flash of rage? Addiction?

Doshin nodded again.

"We need to create koans centered around emotions, koans that train us to transform negative emotions within our awakened minds. Therapy and shadow work ain’t enough. Meditation isn’t enough. The stronger the emotion — depression, anger, anxiety, lust, jealousy — the more fuel there is to drive us to our true nature, to wake the fuck up."  (304)

Often, meditation is presented as a way to feel less stress and be more productive. Yet, there seems to be so much chaos in one’s mind when meditating. In reality, those feelings and thoughts have always been there, but our lives move so quickly we don’t even pay attention.

In fact, I dare say we subconsciously want to both be distracted and be present. There is a part of us that fears the doubt, pain, and chaos within ourselves and thereby wants our smart phones, our social media, everything to keep us distracted. On the other hand, there is the genuine side of us that regrets the lack of connection, the lack of presence in our lives..

I’ve meditated for several years. Despite knowing better, I thought I could meditate my way out of feeling negative things. I could somehow be aloft, above and beyond such small, relative ego problems. The truth is that you can never go around problems, you can only go through them.

It is very difficult to just be with difficult emotions, people, and situations. The natural instinct is to fight, flee, or fix. One lesson that has helped me tremendously though is that by being present with a difficult experience, I can unpack what is going on. I can see that underneath the anger is fear. Underneath the fear is a great caring. While it is easy to get judgmental about myself being angry, once I can see its source is a great caring then I can be compassionate to myself, I can see things as they are. Likewise, I can be very judgmental about others based on their surface actions and speech, but can be compassionate once I feel the source of those actions in their actual core emotions, their core needs

One of the things Mondo Zen seems to be doing is intentionally triggering those intensive emotions to have a safe place to mindfully look into those charged emotions.

Dharma House

As a next step, I’m also looking to start a Dharma House. At its core, the house is a place where we live together in supporting each other’s practice. In terms of everyday life though, it’s an intentional, safe home where our egos come into contact, and we willingly stay present in that charged situation so that we may learn to communicate in a mindful way. It’s a practice I’m not sure many of us ever get to consistently try except with our spouses and maybe business partners.

Finally, I’ll end with what Junpo has to say about the Dalai Lama’s insight is not enough response:

"I’m curious what you think now about what the Dalai Lama said to you a decade ago. How it relates to this."
    "That my realization wasn’t deep enough?" Kelly asked, laughing. "He was right."
"But I’m curious what you think about the idea of what he said. That if one’s realization is deep enough, it transforms all of his being, and there is no need for psychological shadow work."
    Kelly considered. His lips drew in and his eyes momentarily turned inward. "He was right," he said at last. "If you realization is deep enough, it transforms the entirety of the human being."
    "But there are only a handful of people on the planet who wake up that completely. For the rest of us, it’s a process that our shadows interfere with. But completely Awake, Doshin, is completely awake."  (305)

Is meditation enough? Yes. But, only if I can apply mindfulness in all situations including those I most want to avoid and run from. The traditional meditation center and teachings don’t have all the answers, it’s up to us to find our ways to train mindfulness into our everyday life.

One day I hope we can all completely wake up.  In the meantime, I continue seeking ways to deepen my practice on and off the cushion, inside and outside the meditation center.



A Heart Blown Open: The Life and Practice of Zen Master Jun Po Dennis Kelly Roshi by Keith Martin-Smith is an amazing book and highly recommended even if you’re not into meditation. Kelly lived a most extraordinary life having experienced the wholeness of life from drugs, sex, and wealth to abusive father, cancer, and prison. I’ve read the book two or three times now.

I did not include more information on his emotional koan process as this post was already too long. I also have no personal experience with the koans, but I’m hoping to do a Mondo Zen retreat later in the year.

This post was exceedingly difficult to write. I have several drafts approaching it from many different angles, but all of them addressing how to integrate mindfulness and daily life better. Part of me feels like this is a “no-duh”, that’s so obvious life insight, but I don’t know, it means a lot to me.

Photo is from a mountain hiking trip I did last month, beautiful weather and scenery