Meditation Mindfulness Zen

Zen and the art of Demon Slayer

Image credit: Koyoharu Gotouge (ufotable/Aniplex)

This post was originally published as an opinion piece in our College’s student newspaper, The Bachelor.

Why should you meditate? You may know that meditating regularly can help us manage stress, be more productive, and support our health. There is good evidence for each of these benefits, but are these good reasons to meditate?

Personally, I do meditate regularly, but not because I want to avoid stress or be more productive. My own meditation practice started back in the late 1990s, when I was a high school student. A friend loaned me a copy of the book, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, which included a number of stories about Zen teachers and students which fascinated me. Like the story of Ryokan, a penniless monk who gave a would-be thief the clothes off his own back as a gift. Or the story of Hakuin, accused of fathering a child, whose only reply was “Is that so?” but who took the infant into his care.

As a self-conscious teen, uncertain of my role in the world and the purpose of my life, I was drawn to these stories. And to the idea that meditation practice could give a person greater stability in life. So, I came to meditation because I wanted to live a different way, and to be a better person.

And looking back, the reason that these Zen stories caught my attention had something to do with the time and place of my childhood, growing up with the original Star Wars movies, and science fiction books such as Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. If I were in high school today, it might be a very different story that would have prepared me to be inspired by Zen. Perhaps one like Demon Slayer (and here I am thinking of the anime version – I have not read the original manga). If you are not familiar with it, Demon Slayer is a beautiful (though often bloody and violent) story.

And if you are familiar with Demon Slayer, consider the hero, young Tanjiro. A boy with a kind and pure soul who loses almost all of his family in a violent attack by a demon. To save his younger sister, Tanjiro commits himself to joining the “demon slayers,” a group that trains in an esoteric style of (magical) sword fighting to kill demons and protect the public. And through it all, Tanjiro dedicates his life to cultivating strength without sacrificing his humanity.

As a Zen practitioner, Tanjiro and his journey resonates deeply with me. The demon slayers develop powerful sword fighting skills through training that is rooted in a set of breathing techniques and physical conditioning. They train and struggle intensely, but often progress comes as they become more aware and attuned to their senses and bodies, letting them see their experience in new and unexpected ways.

This reminds me precisely of meditation practice in Zen and mindfulness. The specific techniques vary across meditation traditions, but focus on bringing greater awareness to the full range of our experience. We just sit with our minds, but it can be a challenging experience. It is often said that meditation practice is simple, but not easy, and that has been true for me. Meditation can often be challenging, uncomfortable, and frustrating if we struggle with uncomfortable sensations, feelings, and thoughts.

But even so, if we continue to sit with our own minds, carefully and intentionally bringing awareness to our experience without judgment, we may feel our experience shifting. Over time, we may see our experience in new ways, giving us a better understanding of our lives. With some patience, we might be able to find more space in our lives, to live in a different and more settled way.

So why should you meditate? Perhaps you find the potential for self-transformation to be inspiring. Or perhaps not. Maybe managing stress or being more productive is a stronger draw for you. That is fine: any of these would be wonderful reasons to start your meditation practice. But if you stick with meditation, don’t be surprised to find your motivation changing as your practice deepens. I never did manage to turn myself into a different person, but I am more comfortable living as myself. 

If you do decide to take the first step, I’d recommend reading about meditation and joining a meditation group. It is very helpful to sit with others, and it is easier than ever to connect with groups through Zoom. And, we have a campus meditation group meets each week, usually over the lunch hour on Mondays. You can find us on Engage, or just email me to join our mailing list. For those new to meditation, one book that I would recommend is Gunaratana’s Mindfulness in Plain English.  And, while my own background is mainly in Zen Buddhism and mindfulness, you can find excellent meditation guides in many spiritual traditions.

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We cannot “like” our way to wisdom

Can we “like” our way to greater wisdom and peace?  Or even to just to some deeper measure of happiness? These questions came to me as I was scrolling through Instagram posts the other day. On my Neural Buddhist account, I mainly follow people who focus on Zen and meditation, and science-related accounts that I find interesting from a Buddhist perspective. On any given day, I come across many meaningful, heartfelt posts by teachers and by other practitioners who I respect.

Image credit: Rawpixel Ltd.

For example, the short poem below, by punkrocksadhana, struck me as a beautiful image of the very concrete ways that all things in this world are deeply interconnected:

In my own posts on Instagram and Facebook, I have tried to share teachings that I have found personally meaningful, and which I think might be helpful to others. And, I’ve also shared posts that distill some of my essays on my own Zen practice (like the post below). I am left wondering, though, what the benefit of this kind of engagement on social media is for our practice, much less for our mental health in general.

Over the past few months, my interactions with others on Instagram and Facebook have mainly been “liking” or “loving” posts, or sharing a post as a story. In total, these interactions have been fleeting, delicate moments. Like a bubble hanging in the air, they may be beautiful, but most disappeared without leaving a lasting trace.

I wrote recently about the connections between rituals and habits, and the importance of engaging fully in our daily habitual behaviors, rather than falling into autopilot. But, when I turned my attention back to my own use of social media, I found that I was often not acting mindfully, but had fallen more into a mindless habit. And, I was not really surprised at this fact – like many, I usually expect that high levels of use of social media could be unhealthy (or at least, is not likely to make people happier, on average!). So, how then should we approach social media? And, is social media fundamentally unwholesome (in the sense of supporting our practice)?

It does seem that the core mechanics that draw us in to engage with social media are not ones that naturally support our practice. As we look around Facebook, Instagram and similar platforms, we are most likely to find those voices that appeal broadly, and that appeal to those who we already agree with. And, our attention, and our very sense of value, can be drawn in toward posts that receive a strong response. This can certainly be unhealthy, as it can skew our sense of what messages are meaningful, or one may become distraught to find that their own heartfelt expressions receive little or no response. And, as I found in my own life, the type of engagement we see may also be superficial, fleeting.

What then are our options?  We could certainly pull back from these social spaces, and work to invest our energy into healthier, more humane forms of interaction. That may be the right answer for many people, but I have remained on Facebook and Instagram simply because they are places where many people spend some of their time. But, if we stay in these spaces, how can we become habitually mindful of the ways that we can be trapped by social media, and work to promote more wholesome engagement?

In my own practice, I have made a few changes to how I use social media (and, I am focusing here especially on my neuralbuddhist accounts – for my personal accounts, I appreciate this advice from a post on Tiny Buddha).

First, in all of my accounts, I have hidden the number of “likes” that posts receive (if you are interested, here are some tips for how to turn off likes for Instagram and Facebook posts). These options are not perfect, but it can be very helpful to not immediately see the number of people who have “liked” a post.

Second, when I scroll through social media, I try to hold the intention to engage deeply with at least one post. I may “like” several posts on Instagram, but I also to make a comment that responds to one post that resonates with me. And, I consider how I can take that teaching with me into the rest of my day. Instead of repeating the habit of superficial engagement, I am working to build a new habit of seeing these posts as a call to mindfulness. This helps connect my time on social media to the whole of my practice.

Third, for the posts I make on social media, I am working to focus my attention to my goals. Instead of focusing on the reactions (the number of likes and such) on Facebook or Instagram, I am focusing on the number of people who engage more deeply – commenting (thoughtfully!) and those who actually engage further. It doesn’t matter, really, how many people reacted to a post.

The key question for me is how many people interacted more deeply – commenting on the post, and finding the longer essays (such as this one) that the post attempts to summarize. That proportion, the number who engage more deeply, will always be much smaller than the number who like a post, but it is the most important point for me.

All-in-all, the total number of people who read an of my essays may be small, but I am always encouraged to find that a few people found my essays (like this one). And, I hope that even one person may take what I wrote to heart, and that it might encourage them in their own practice, in the same way that I have been encouraged by others.  If so, then social media can be of some benefit, within the larger context of the whole of our practice.