I recently visited White Sands National Monument, in New Mexico. Or as I like to call it, the world’s largest Zen garden.
Within Zen Buddhism there are two main traditions, Rinzai and Soto. They’re kind of rivals.
Rinzai Zen is a little strange, due to its recondite nature. It advocates achieving enlightenment through meditating on koans, and supposedly solving them. Koans are mystical riddles such as, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”
“Who the hell cares?” is my mystical answer.
Soto Zen is odd due to its simplicity. Soto Zenners think they can get enlightened just by sitting cross-legged on a zafu, letting go of their thoughts, and following their breath. For them it’s a gradual journey to enlightenment. It takes a long time, and can’t be stumbled upon suddenly by solving some occult riddle.
I prefer Soto Zen and kind of practice it, though I threw out my zafu years ago. And I wouldn’t dare sit cross-legged ever again. It’s bad for the knees. And it’s very hard to
nap meditate when your knees are throbbing.
I like Soto Zen for its simplicity, just as I like White Sands National Monument for its plain whiteness. The simplicity appeals to my laziness.
But for me, meditating successfully is difficult. Because I cheat a lot at it. I lay supine. I snooze. I scratch my nose. I shift my restless legs. I close my eyes. I open my eyes. I don’t always follow my breath, but instead follow more interesting things. Sometimes I try to solve problems instead of letting them go. And on and on I go, breaking one rule after another.
This gigantic Zen garden in southern New Mexico reminds me of all the tricks my mind plays upon me while meditating Soto style, both when I follow the rules and when I cheat.
There was a time when I followed the rules rigorously. Back in my less lazy days I could create stretches of sterile wordless peace within my meditative mind, just like the dry lake beds that break up the dunes of White Sands. But those lake beds are what actually produce the dunes. And so my mind would rebound, producing a gigantic array of words, just like the billions of gypsum crystals within a sand dune.
These days, when I cheat, thoughts, strong emotions, and belly-burning motivations steal upon my mind like the white dunes that swallow up cottonwood groves. I forget that I’m meditating, and become lost in various fantasies. And then I remember that I’m supposed to be meditating and let go again. And the thoughts recede like so much swirling sand.
Or maybe I’m bragging. In fact, my mind is often like one of those unfortunate cottonwood trees at White Sands, that’s completely buried in the dunes. My mind is so distracted by all the cares and delights of the world, that attempting to meditate is futile. Just the same, I attempt anyway. Why? I attempt in order to attempt. Besides, cheating makes attempting easy.
Other times a little mindfulness keeps me barely aware of my swirling thoughts. This is when my mind is like those cottonwood treetops of White Sands that poke out just above the drifting sand.
And believe it or not, there are times when my meditative metacognition is stronger. And then my mind is like one of those White Sands’ cottonwoods that are half above the sand and half below. At these times I well know that I’m daydreaming even while I continue to daydream. My meditation is both lucid and lapsing. Disciplined and wild. Aloof and befouled.
And there are those rare times when I fool the gods and get away entirely with cheating. My mind is completely free, with all wandering thoughts swept away by the wind of my breath. Just like a fully freed cottonwood in all its verdant glory, shimmering in the breeze, having conquered the dunes of White Sands. At least for a little while.
A day will come when I’m no longer hagridden by the cares and delights of this world. Perhaps I’ll stop cheating and slip into an honest meditation as I float away. And all that I let go of will never return.
Perhaps then my mind will be like the cottonwood that stands free and clear from dunes of sand, but has lost its last leaf.
Its only remaining cotton being a few ethereal white clouds, caught in its branches, only to slip free to dissipate in the sky.