zen | Steve's Quest: The Animated Musical Web Series

The Benefits of Blankness

If you spent a moment without thinking, would you cease to exist?

As I mentioned earlier, when I give talks about using mindfulness practices to focus on your work, at least one person usually tells me they “can’t meditate” because they can’t seem to force their mind to quiet.

But often, if I get the chance to dig deeper into what’s going on for that person, what I discover is that they don’t really want their mind to be silent.  They’re afraid that, if they stopped thinking for a moment, they wouldn’t be able to start again.  And if that happened, they’d become stupid or comatose, or perhaps even disappear.

Their solution, then, is to keep up a constant stream of thought.  One problem with this approach is that the clutter in their mind creates distraction — particularly when they’re trying to do a task at work.  Also, as I’ll bet you know from experience, much of the thinking we do is repetitive and unpleasant.

Relaxed Body, Relaxed Mind

Many people think emptying the mind takes hard work, which is why I get questions about how to “force my mind to empty.”  But over time, what I’ve discovered in meditation is that it’s more a matter of, if you will, taking a break.  In fact, thinking is what takes work — mental blankness simply happens when we relax.

To experience what I’m talking about, next time your mind feels cluttered, take a moment and notice whether some part of your body is tight.  For example, one thing I usually observe when my mind is teeming with thoughts is that my jaw is tense.  When you notice where you’re holding onto tension, see if you can relax that area.

What I’ve noticed in myself, and in others I’ve worked with, is that relaxing those tight muscles actually helps relax the mind.  It’s as if we need to tense up to produce a constant stream of thought, and letting go of that tension helps us drop the compulsive thinking.

I think this is one reason why yoga, bodywork, and other methods that help loosen up those tight spots can bring such peace.  When constricted places in the body open up, it’s as if the mental storm abates and the sun peeks through the clouds.  I had a striking experience like this last weekend (in a workshop by Robert Masters, whom I highly recommend), when tight spots I wasn’t even aware of in my jaw and throat unraveled, and my mind became blissfully clear.

Thinking Versus Insight

But if we let our minds empty, how do we come up with the ideas we need to do our projects?  This is where, for me, the difference between thinking and insight comes into play.

Thinking, as I said, seems to require effort to produce.  Insight, on the other hand, seems to arise without effort — in those moments where “inspiration strikes” without warning.

My sense is that, when our minds are clear, there’s more space for insight to enter.  But when they’re clogged with ceaseless thinking, there’s no room for inspiration.  It’s no surprise to me, then, that my most powerful ideas have spontaneously come up during meditation.

I think this is one meaning of the story you may know about the professor who visited a Zen monk.  The monk served the professor tea, but he kept pouring even after the cup was overflowing.

“You are like this cup,” said the monk.  “I cannot show you Zen until you are empty.”

Guest Post at The Change Blog: 3 Ways Your Breathing Can Improve Your Productivity

I’ve just published a guest post at The Change Blog called “3 Ways Your Breathing Can Improve Your Productivity,” which is about using conscious breathing techniques to get focused and motivated while you work.  I hope you enjoy it.

How Meditation Increases Productivity

When I tell people I write about the connection between productivity and spiritual practices like meditation and yoga, some are skeptical or confused.  “I thought meditation was about relaxing, not getting things done,” some say.  Others assume the practices I’m talking about have to do with becoming enlightened or seeking ultimate truth, and don’t have practical, down-to-earth benefits.

In fact, there’s plenty of research suggesting that meditation benefits our ability to pay attention and our motivation, which of course are key to doing our work efficiently.  It also helps prevent stress and resulting health problems that sidetrack us in our work.

As one goal of my work is to raise consciousness about how spiritual practices can help us find career satisfaction, I’ll talk about some of this research here.

Attention. A Massachusetts General Hospital study reported that meditation thickens parts of the brain’s cerebral cortex responsible for decisionmaking, attention and memory.

Motivation. A study at the University of Wisconsin showed that regular meditation leads to significantly increased levels of activity in the left prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is associated with “positive emotions and goal-seeking behaviors.”

Efficiency. Three years after it implemented a meditation program for its employees, a Detroit chemical plant reported that productivity at the facility had increased by 120%, and absenteeism had decreased by 80%.

Freedom From Distractions. An Emory University study reported that meditation enhances the brain’s capacity to limit the influence of distracting thoughts.

Stress Reduction. A Cedars-Sinai Medical Center study suggested that meditation reduces blood pressure levels, thus reducing worker absenteeism due to stress-related medical problems.

Pain Tolerance. According to a University of Montreal study, meditation reduces sensitivity to pain, and thus helps people focus on the task in front of them even in the face of physical discomfort.

Some people tell me they’d like to take up meditation, but they don’t have time given all their other responsibilities.  However, there’s lots of evidence suggesting that, when we regularly meditate, we develop a sense of inner peace and focus that actually helps us get more done in a shorter period and thus save time.

In other words, if you meditate, you may end up less overwhelmed by all the stuff you have to do.

Who Were You Before Your Identity?

Many of us have developed ideas about ourselves—what we might call identities—that artificially limit what we can accomplish in life.  For instance, some of us have come to think of ourselves as shy or meek, and thus we avoid conflict and let others take advantage of us.  Some of us identify ourselves as unmotivated, and thus we hold back from pursuing the education or careers we want for fear of failure.  Still others see themselves as unsociable or unattractive, and have decided it’s hopeless to try to meet someone they’re attracted to.

We often forget what prompted us to buy into these identities, and even that we existed before we had these beliefs at all.  When asked how they decided that all of these hurtful notions about themselves are true, many people will simply respond “I just know” or “it’s always been that way.”  But there must have been some moment when we decided, or some period of time in which we gradually concluded, that certain beliefs about ourselves are true.  At the very least, when we were embryos in our mothers’ wombs, it’s unlikely we were suffering from self-esteem problems.

I used to have many painful ideas about myself—most notably, that I was too shy or strange to deal with people, and that people generally just wanted me to leave them alone.  Although I was attached to these harmful identities, on some level I knew I couldn’t have believed in them all my life.  There must have been some point in time when I decided they were true.  What was life like before I started thinking these terrible thoughts? I wondered.  But each time I’d try to remember my experience of the world before these beliefs, my mind would simply draw a blank.

A while back, I happened to read about a Zen koan, or saying, that goes “show me your original face before you were born.”  Not surprisingly, my initial reaction to this was “that makes no sense—I didn’t exist before I was born.”  But I also noticed that, when I seriously pondered what I was like “before I was born,” I experienced a peaceful emptiness in my mind.  Most importantly, all the negative thinking I usually did about myself, in that moment, disappeared as if it had never been there.  For a few seconds, I was free of my limiting identities.

I was fascinated by the peace the koan brought me, and for a few months I regularly thought about it, hoping for a deeper understanding of its meaning.  One sleepless morning at about four a.m., I finally came to a realization.  In the words “before you were born,” “you” means your identity—the beliefs you’ve formed about yourself and who you are in the world.  You “gave birth” to your identity when you made decisions about who and what you were.  The purpose (or, at least, one purpose) of the koan is to show us we existed—we had an “original face”—before we adopted any beliefs about ourselves.  We are not our beliefs, in other words—we are their creator and believer.

When we contemplate the koan, we get a firsthand experience of what life was like before we developed all these harmful ideas about ourselves.  As I discovered for myself, that identityless state gifts us with a peace and freedom we rarely experience in our lives.  At first, when we try to remember what we were like before we adopted our identities, we feel like we’re “drawing a blank,” not coming up with anything.  However, we only see it that way because we’re so accustomed to having all these thoughts about ourselves, and in the identityless state those thoughts don’t arise.  In fact, that calm blankness is who we were before we decided we were this or that.

I also recognized that, whenever I wanted, I could return to the peace of my “original face.”  Whenever I started running myself down, replaying memories of difficult interactions with others, or generally thinking negatively, all I had to do was remember how I experienced life before I adopted the harmful beliefs.  This memory gave me more than pleasant nostalgia—it actually put me back into the tranquil emotional state of my very early life.

In that state, life took on a joyful and effortless quality.  Without all my ideas about my limitations as a person, the anxieties about relating with people that used to trouble me simply faded away.  Spiritual teacher Osho‘s description of this state in Courage: The Joy of Living Dangerously captures its essence well:  “Just be what you are and don’t care a bit about the world.  Then you will feel a tremendous relaxation and a deep peace within your heart.  This is what Zen people call your ‘original face’—relaxed, without tensions, without pretensions, without hypocrisies, without the so-called disciplines of how you should behave.”

As always, I’ll offer an exercise to help others experience the peace this practice has brought me.  If negative beliefs about yourself have been limiting you, try the following.  When some harmful idea about yourself arises—for instance, “I’m too scared to do this,” “I’m not an interesting person,” “people are going to mock me if I try this,” and so on, pause what you’re doing for a moment.  Ask yourself when you decided that this was true.  Then, see if you can recall how you felt before you developed this hurtful notion.

You may, like many people, experience the feeling that your idea has “always been true”—that you’ve “always” been inadequate, unattractive, not smart enough, or something else.  If this happens, ask yourself how you felt when you were an infant, before you were born, or—if those two questions yield the same answer—before you existed.  As you inquire into how you thought about yourself further and further back in time, you’ll eventually come to a point where your mind becomes blank—where you can’t come up with anything you believed or felt about yourself.

Don’t give up here simply because you don’t think you can remember anything—allow the blank sensation to persist, and hold your attention on it.  As you simply give the emptiness permission to be, you may find a sense of calm and focus pervading you.  This is the experience of your “original face”—your natural state before you learned to label yourself in limiting ways.  You can return to it any time you feel restricted by your thinking.

How To Stop Work From Feeling Like Work

I had an interesting conversation the other night with a man I met at an event.  We were talking about an uncomfortable truth—the fact that, no matter how inspired and motivated you may feel about what you do for a living, after a while it tends to start feeling like, well, work.  That is, you start subtly resenting and resisting the tasks your career requires, as if someone else were forcing you to do them, and start getting distracted by fantasies about what you’d rather be doing.

The man I was talking to was having this experience in his career.  For several years, he worked at a large, prestigious investment bank.  Eventually, however, he started feeling burned out and uninspired, and quit to start his own company.  The firm he started did “environmental investing,” investing in businesses involved in energy-saving technology.  But after a few years, he said, his job started to feel like “work” again, and he’s now pondering possible exit strategies.

A certain amount of this kind of feeling is probably inevitable.  Every career involves some mundane tasks, like paying bills, making phone calls, and buying furniture, that it’s hard to feel thrilled about doing.  However, I’ve found that, if we have the right mindset, even these responsibilities don’t need to feel as burdensome as they often do.

I’ve come to recognize that our work starts to feel stifling and oppressive when we become too identified with the role we play in it.  When we start feeling as if our careers are part of who we are, we become consumed by constant fear of performing badly in what we do—as if we could lose part of ourselves by making a mistake.  Ironically, taking our work this seriously has us lose our drive and productivity.  I came to this realization when I saw the difference between my experience of activities I considered “work” and those I thought of as “play.”

For example, I’ve written a number of published nonfiction pieces, but I’ve yet to publish any fiction I’ve done.  I love writing fiction just for my own and my friends’ amusement.  However, in years past, whenever I’ve tried to get my fiction work in shape for publication, I’ve suddenly become hypercritical of my writing.  “How could I think people would want to read this?” I’d think as I pored over a passage I’d initially adored.

I recently recognized that, when I start thinking about publishing my fiction, a subtle shift actually takes place in the way I think about myself.  I start seeing myself not simply as a guy who has fun writing fiction, but as a fiction writer.  When I become identified with being a fiction writer, I get overly concerned about the quality of my writing and how it will be perceived.  In other words, I start needing to “live up” to the role of fiction writer, and holding my work to an accordingly exacting standard.  Not surprisingly, in these moments, “writer’s block” sets in, and I find myself agonizing over every word choice and making little progress.

By contrast, when I choose to sit down and write “just for fun,” I’m amazed by how productive and inspired I am.  When I’m not concerned with how well I’m playing some important role, and I’m content to be “just a guy who likes writing fiction,” I unquestionably do my best work.

Spiritual teachers have long recognized the danger of becoming identified with a career or other function we perform in life.  As Osho writes in Zen: The Path of Paradox, taking the roles we play in life too seriously can strip the joy from what we do:

When you are in the office be a clerk, be a commissioner, be a governor—that’s perfectly okay—but the moment you get out of the office, don’t be a governor . . . . That governorship will be heavy on your head—it won’t allow you to enjoy. The birds will be singing in the trees, but how can a governor participate? How can a governor dance with the birds? And the rains have come and a peacock may be dancing—how can a governor stand there in a crowd and watch? Impossible, a governor has to remain a governor.

How do we prevent ourselves from identifying with what we do, and retain the joy and creative power that come with freedom from our roles?  One practice I regularly use is to keep most of my body in motion as I’m going through my daily activities.  My movements may be slight—for example, I may be gently rocking my hips in time with the music I’m listening to.  Or, if I’m feeling a bit more energetic, I’ll stomp my feet and occasionally take a break from typing to clap my hands.

This practice keeps me conscious of my humanity and the simple joys of living, and prevents me from becoming too absorbed in any particular role or task.  No matter where I succeed or fail in my activities, I’ll always have access to the pleasures that come from moving my body in playful ways.  When I remain aware that this source of joy will always be available, regardless of what happens, the things I do in life no longer feel so risky and significant.  When my body is joyfully dancing, even with very minimal movement, work no longer feels like work.  By staying connected with my body, I can turn any activity, no matter how routine, into “play.”

Osho, again, offers a compelling explanation of this phenomenon.  When we’re aware of and using our bodies, he says, we feel “rooted in the earth,” and thus whole and empowered.  However, he writes, “[i]f we are not in contact with our bodies we are not in contact with the earth. . . . Because we are not rooted we are always afraid; because of that fear we become possessive; because of that fear we cannot trust anybody and so jealousy comes.”  The fear created by this lack of rootedness has us second-guess ourselves in what we do, and make working a stressful and difficult endeavor.

If your career has started to feel burdensome and anxiety-laden, see if this exercise helps you.  While you’re at work, regardless of what you’re doing, experiment with keeping your body moving.  If you’re sitting at a desk, try slightly rocking your hips or tapping your feet.  Or, if you’re feeling more inspired, you can try rhythmically swaying your entire body from side to side as you work.  Try on various forms of movement until you arrive at something that gets you feeling energized and focused.

When you stay connected with your body in this way, you’ll likely start to feel your identification with your role, and the accompanying anxiety, fading away.  Paradoxically, when you find ways to take what you do less seriously, and to treat it as “play,” you’ll find your passion and drive for what you do returning.

(This article appeared in the Carnival of Improving Life, located at http://www.improvedlife.ca/content/fourth-edition-carnival-improving-life.)