Zen & the Arts - Field Notes

Photo courtesy of Steve Spangler

This is a thread from the PZI Koan Innovation Group, which is mainly composed of people who lead koan groups and teach in some capacity with Pacific Zen Institute. D. Allen, who teaches in Oaxaca, began by raising the question of what we teach when we teach koan meditation.

We decided to print the conversation pretty much as as it came up on our group email list. It shows some ways to teach meditation, and also illustrates how we learn through conversation and exploration. If you are a meditation teacher, it’s an exciting collection.


D Allen (referring to his group in Oaxaca): 

In every new retreat here there are participants, sometimes as many as 25%, who’ve never been even to one of our meditation/salon sessions. A good friend here who organizes these things and knows most of these new people (whereas I usually have never met them) insists that I have to give a lot of meditation instruction and support at least at the beginning of the retreat, and she means more than just some brief comments at the opening session. I usually don’t do that. But this time I’m considering it, making it a ‘teaching and practice’ component of the retreat. Yet I don’t feel quite right about doing it.

I’ve had various minds about this. Sometimes I just draw attention to some sounds that are here. Sometimes I talk about arriving here in your body, the breath, the sensations in your toes, about being here with whatever is here. Sometimes I’ll even do a guided meditation where we start with attention to the breath and move through sounds, sensations, thoughts, awareness itself, etc.

Sometimes I talk about just noticing, letting what’s here come to you. Sometimes, if there’s clearly a lot of fear going on, I’ll talk about being interested in that, maybe going into it with curiosity, an inquiry. Sometimes I say: don’t do anything at all. Sometimes I say nothing at all about it and just put out a koan.

So in the context of a retreat or workshop, what do you do?


David Weinstein:

I have been doing monthly introductions to koan meditation at Rockridge Meditation Community for about 2 1/2 years now and though a number of people have claimed to have never meditated, after a brief inquiry it becomes apparent that they certainly know what a meditative experience is, but don’t label itas meditation, because they’ve “never learned to meditate.”

I believe we all know how to meditate. I believe, along with Bankei, we are born that way and we forget how to, so: we never learn to meditate, we remember how to meditate. It’s like awakening: we all are, but don’t know it. That said, some techniques can help in the remembering, but ultimately all techniques have to be let go. I do the same for a retreat or workshop and trust that questions will come as they do. In that way I hope to encourage people to trust their experience, not some instructions they receive.


Michelle Riddle:

Hey D.,

For a while at PZI sesshin we offered a small introductory group meeting/orientation for new people and anyone else who wanted to attend, especially when there were a number of new people. It was usually on the first morning. (I don’t know if this has happened while you’ve been around.) It was a more informal place for people to ask questions, if they had any. Usually the Head of Practice held this little meeting.

It isn’t always easy to get people to say what’s on their minds, but in a small informal group some people are brave enough, and that can be helpful for everyone. People who weren’t new could also share their thoughts and recount their own experiences in response to questions from new people. It seemed to be a helpful, welcoming thing.

If you’re trying to address people’s discomfort at thinking they should “know” something they do not, or just feeling shy about not knowing the rules of engagement, then maybe your goal is finding a way to make them comfortable enough to share their questions or fears. Then you can respond with any of the things you suggest, and communicate that they don’t need to be a different them or to be in a different state or place, they can just slow down and be interested in the one that thinks things aren’t okay.


John Tarrant:

This is a great question.

The first thing to say is that it’s good to trust your own way.

The second thing: What I do.

I don’t teach meditation, it seems to take people in the wrong direction.

I do say something though, something I’ve noticed recently that I’m interested in and a little story that relates to it. People like to hear something and their unconscious will make use of it.

For example, recently I’m interested in the ways things appear in the mind without me acquiring them or purchasing them. Also I don’t need to curate them and hold on to them. The little pieces of light just appear like this. They arrive if I’m not too much in the way. So I might say something like that. People will make it connect with their lives.

Then I might tell a story of how that connected to me, or something someone told me.

I’ve been using the example of our friend Sacha: “I stopped trying to manage the future and just decided to enjoy my sick grandchild. Then everything I wanted was there.” That sort of thing.

Sometimes I use a story about me, but I’m cautious about that because people want to do their own work in their own way. For me an illustration might be writing and where ideas come from.

That’s probably 10 minutes and that’s all that’s needed. But if it feels alive I might talk for longer or do a little introductory exercise to get them into the room and get them to talk to each other. That’s always a secret form of the koan “What is it like to be me?” Which in turn is a secret form of the koan, “What is it like to be you?”

And then I give a koan and we sit. Somehow the koan will link to what I said.

It’s very cool that you are looking at this.


Jan Brogan:

Thank you, John. This helped me organize myself tonight.


Rachel Boughton:

There are a lot of things that have helped me along the way, when I remember back. Starting with a Hindu breathing practice, which showed me that my mind wasn’t at all what I thought it was. And, like David said, the instructions all tend to fall away, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t appreciated them, and appreciate them still.

Sometimes I see meditation instructions as touching people with a Tinkerbell wand and saying, “You can meditate now.” With just one sitting, all your crimes are wiped away— including the crime of thinking you don’t know how to meditate. In that spirit, one can let people know it’s okay to pay attention to their body, since if you enjoy meditating, you’ll want to make peace with your body when you sit. Sometimes I find certain cues to be wonderful—shocking things like, you don’t have to maintain a self, or keep creating a narrative about your life or other people. Also sometimes it’s useful to counteract what people might already have internalized (it’s incredibly insidious, this idea that you’re supposed to not have thoughts, for instance).

The last retreat I did, I told people, if they had some ways they normally instructed their minds to behave in meditation, to try and let that go, and just listen for the sound of the cuckoo calling them home.

I also like what Michelle says about getting people to talk about their experiences, that’s great to do. People’s minds are so very different and it’s fascinating to discover the diversity there. And as John says, a story about how meditation changes the way you see your life can get people launched.

So I’ve tried it all sorts of ways, and sometimes I say that, too. Someone said, “Meditation teaches meditation.” We’re always trying different things, all our lives, probably. We self-correct and learn not to make ourselves wrong. And eventually we discover the whole enterprise isn’t really about us at all.


Michelle Riddle:

Nice ending, Rachel—“We’re always trying different things, all our lives, probably. We self-correct and learn not to make ourselves wrong. And eventually we discover the whole enterprise isn’t really about us at all.”

What I was trying to say is that sometimes creating a space for introductory, casual conversation can help people feel welcome and at ease as they set out on retreat. I do think that the main thing is to ease the fear of doing it wrong (that people often deal with by wanting more information). You don’t need to offer lots of information, but just being there with the questions for a little bit can help. Sometimes it’s helpful to respond directly to particular things someone is wondering about or wrestling with (like their inability to not have thoughts).


Barth Wright:

I’m fascinated that everyone has a different approach.  Maybe its worth not providing too much at the outset for the “new sitter,” and then ask them how they approached meditation.  That might be a good launching point for further discussion and koans.


Tammy Kaousias:

This is so interesting and helpful to read everyone’s take on this. Thank you.

In our koan group in Knoxville, there is rarely any instruction. I might address it a bit if there are one or two new people. Like only a sentence. Two months ago, we had several new people. I notice D, you say about 25% new people — I think that is about the threshold at which I notice a little more intro at the beginning can be helpful.

In those cases, I say something to the effect that there are many different ways to meditate and many different forms. There is benefit to all of them. Tonight, we are going to sit with a koan. It is impossible to do this wrong. Anyway you interact with the koan is fine. This kind of meditation is not asking you to do anything new or different with the way you ordinarily approach things. That’s about all I say. I used to use “hang out” and “conversation.”  If people ask more questions, that languaging seems very very helpful. But just the framing from the beginning  as a both a form of meditation and a form that is not asking anything of you seems to give just enough support.

Also, I have noticed people really new to “formal” meditation (like actually coming out to a group to sit)  seem to relax when they hear they can move around. This came up with all the new peeps last month & it comes up often … “is it ok if I need to move?” I think long-time sitters forget this aspect. I myself had been trained so much in being physically still that I underestimated the freedom of not messing with it. This is not just true for new people but for anyone who is not accustomed to sitting for long periods with a group (IMO). Seems like people just settle from the get go if they are given this “permission.”

Personally, the thing I absolutely resist doing is giving instruction during the sit. It is a koan-only zone. I am curious as to whether any of you give “instruction” during the actual sit.


Rachel Boughton:

I do meditation instruction during the actual sit, enough so that a newcomer is at ease. Mostly toward the beginning, but sometimes a sentence tossed into the middle, too. People seem to appreciate it, including longtime meditators, and mention it during the conversation. I don’t always say the same thing. Just a new way to frame the experience that comes up, probably flavored by the koan.

I remember when Rebecca del Rio, who used to lead at the zendo sometimes, said, “Nothing has to happen.” I really enjoyed that. Kind of like saying it’s okay to move. It’s okay for nothing to happen, no insight or clarity or anything. Just sitting there is enough. She did this thing that I sometimes do now, of just narrating what she was doing and thinking as she entered the meditation. In the first person. Very understated.

Illana Berger:

I have really enjoyed reading what everybody has posted here. It shows me the incredible richness of our community as well as our diversity. That makes my whole heart happy!

So as I’ve been reading what you’ve all been sharing, I’ve been investigating what it is that I do – I am kind of a hands-off leader. If there are a lot of new people attending who have never meditated before I will sometimes explain very very briefly what a koan is. Then, I will lead them into meditation by just pointing out the obvious, such as noticing the sounds in the environment and allowing these to be a part of their meditation. I will invite them to notice their breath, their body, the places in their body where they feel relaxed, the places where they carry tension, and then just invite them to bring their breath to those parts of their body where relaxation might be helpful or interesting. And then I will tell him that I’m going to share a koan for them to keep company with. I will also share with them that by keeping company with the koan they can notice what resonates, what sticks to them, what they notice their mind wants to do with it, and to just trust whatever shows up and that wherever the mind goes is exactly it. And, like others have said, I let them know there’s no right way or wrong way, there’s their way, and that the koan will always point to something in their own life. I might say, “Maybe something from the koan and your sitting tonight/today will illuminate something in your life that might surprise you. You can trust that too.” However if there are no new people, or just one or two, I might only add the last part about allowing the koan to illuminate their life and that keeping company with a koan during meditation can be fun, interesting, powerful, and even transformative.

I don’t think that I give instruction during the meditation. I intuitively trust the koan to do what it will do, and whatever it does will be interesting and bright.


Daniel Kaplan:

I am deeply grateful for and appreciative of all the responses thus far and there isn’t one that does NOT resonate with me. “What do you mean my tongue is not in the right place?” The freedom we elicit and teach at PZI runs through the approaches described and thus begins Zen practice, with that freedom.

This is one of THE most valuable strings I have read at PZI and I want to thank D. Allen for causing the stir.


Steven Grant:

As soon as the simple act of noticing becomes a “thing” called “meditation” people decide that they can’t do it. Or worse, that they CAN do it. Even “working with koans” can seem like a big deal to some people and they immediately put it outside of their lives as something “difficult.” Then again, if I say there is “no such thing as meditation,” people get suspicious. My most recent approach is to invite people to sit with me a little and I say a little about what I am doing in real time.

Recently I noticed that sometimes when people say they “don’t know how to meditate” what they might be experiencing is that they “don’t know how to be with themselves.” Their own inner dialogue is too painful or disturbing to keep company with.

This topic reminds me of the scene in Tampopo with the “Master” who teaches “how to eat ramen”:

Still from movie Tampopo


Asa Horvitz:

I’ve noticed that it usually works if I just speak aloud the sort of “instructions” I’m giving myself or “what I’m doing” in real time as I’m going.  It seems to keep it embodied and keep people feeling held. This usually (but not always) means a few sentences up front or just as we start, and then a sentence or two throughout the sitting. If I speak directly from my experience and my body people usually calm down and have less theoretical/heady questions afterwards that are sometimes tricky to “answer” without saying things like “meditation doesn’t exist.”

Look at the pork with affection.


Allison Atwill:

Two ways to go at this for me, as a teacher and a student—no fundamental difference, really, in terms of the state of being (meditation) but a clear sense of tending the field of the room as teacher.

As a teacher—slowing down, feeling myself in the room, looking at people and sensing the field of being in the room. Resting in myself and opening—letting what I say come from there (like reaching behind you for a pillow in the night), even if it’s something I had already planned and have written in my teaching notes. In other words, teaching meditation by being meditation; open, undefended, listening, seeing, feeling (this is unbounded and fathomless both inwardly and outwardly).

Something else to look for are disturbances—things that feel like they are opposed to and undermining the meditation, scenarios other than what I feel should be happening. This is really fun, lively, and takes courage—a huge amount of awakening is possible here. Where a teacher might get blocked is when I think the disturbance is personal to me, when I am threatened by it and think it means either I’m a charlatan or they are a terrible student – both of which are likely true and not yet a problem – and we can enjoy this if we don’t make a fixed identity out of it.

It’s really good not to censor this shadowy material. There are gravitational forces and undertows in the room, and they are awakening making itself. By this I mean shards of awakening in their dark form; the benevolent student innocently and smilingly asking the covertly hostile barbed question, a participant casually dropping names of the important teachers they’ve worked with or the number of years they’ve meditated, my own defensiveness, anger, fear.

Photo – Grace June

As for what I say into the silence of meditation, I don’t really think so much about what will be helpful to the students, instead resting inside the silence and describing what is happening to me in real time in the form of meditation instructions, a kind of Zen jazz improvisation; such as, if I find myself trying to grab the koan I might say, “No need to try and get the koan, let it come to you like a cat.” Tethering what I’m saying to what I’m experiencing gives the words depth, weight and warmth.

As a student—When I first came to PZI I knew almost nothing about Zen, I’d never formally meditated (not even once) and I remember the fantastic sense of disorientation. It was thrilling, and reassuring. I was after something outside of what I already knew, beyond the bounds of anything I could learn and own and control, the disorientation was a little taste of relying on ‘nothing to rely on.’

I still recall the koan and the ‘meditation instruction and support’ John gave at my very first one day retreat:

The bell rings, then … timeless silence…

“What does the Bodhisattva of Great Mercy do with all those hands and eyes?”

“It’s like reaching behind you for a pillow in the night.”


“Taste and feel… the whole of your life… as it is… in this moment… in the presence of the koan.”

Soundless tears streamed down my cheeks.

“All through the body are hands and eyes.”


Barth Wright:

For laughs I just googled “meditation definition.”  Doesn’t sound, in every instance, to be anything like what we’re talking about. Ha!

That said, I do find some new folks need something to focus on, say breath, before they broaden their attention and begin letting things approach.  Wanting to stop thought is often a sticking point. I find it valuable to see if they were suffering in some way while sitting. Most find distraction, whether internal or external, to cause the suffering. That’s where something to focus on seems a nice aid. Once the snow globe settles, and they get a bit more affectionate detachment from thoughts and feelings, the “meditation/koan” seems to step in and do the work.


Jon Joseph:

I find it great to hear what others are doing; very helpful. For myself, I suggest they do what I do when I meditate—start by by following my breath in, my breath out, and pick up the koan and kind of soak into it. Sometimes I will say something about “when we quiet the body, we quite naturally quiet the mind.”

There were about four new folks two weeks ago, and given we had just come off the Heart Sutra in retreat, I introduced “Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.” After we read those lines from the sutra book, I looked around and wondered if I had gone in a bit too hard and cold for them. The next week, none of the four returned, but that following week, one of the new people, a Russian woman, with no previous meditation experience, came back. We went around the circle talking and she said, “I just wanted to mention something. Last week I was sleeping and the lines ‘Form is emptiness, emptiness is form’ came to me in a dream, and I understood what they meant! It was like the white space in a painting (she is an artist) and the paint itself. I knew it then, but have kind of lost that feeling now.” I assured her it would probably come back around.

Just to say, to some degree, if students can’t screw it up, then perhaps teachers can’t either. Students have their own karma, which I can never hope to fully guess or know. Also, I have found in teaching that koans have a way of finding a way. All of which gives me great hope and satisfaction.

ciao bellas and bellos.


D. Allen:

Everyone, this has been great. Like a stroll through a subtropical botanical garden. It’s a very cool thing to have a whole community like this to put out questions to and get thoughtful and heartfelt and entertaining responses.

I don’t know what I’ll do about giving meditation instructions at the retreat. Maybe I’ll just meditate. Intimate.


Michael Sierchio:

I  initially learned to meditate from instructions I read in a book. It was actually a collection of different flavors of meditation, with an invitation to try them on and to note the experience of each. I haven’t looked at the book since 1975 or so, and I have no idea whether it’s total asswipe, or possibly useful. I’ve attached a PDF of the book as Exhibit A in Appendix I of my Confessions.

 I don’t teach meditation, it seems to take people in the wrong direction.

– John Tarrant

 I’m convinced that this is the best approach. Why lead people astray when they’re perfectly capable of getting lost on their own? Just offer encouragement that they are not lost, that they rest within the Tao, and that it will bounce if they drop it. Whatever you do when sitting, or walking, or standing is meditation—in the same sense in which, when the directions in a Noh play tell you to dance, whatever you do is dancing.

 When I attended Superbike School (i.e., learning to ride a motorcycle on a closed circuit at insane speeds without hurting yourself or damaging the equipment), the first assignment was riding around the track in 4th gear, with no brakes or clutch allowed. The point of the exercise was to learn that you stabilize the bike in turns by the gradual, smooth, and continuous application of the throttle. You could read that in a book, but the actual experience of it is quite different. I was offered an opportunity to learn what it felt like in an integral way. Now the problem of technique arises, and you might be misled into thinking—”Oh, I just need to learn to ride a motorcycle at ridiculous speed”—yeah, no.

Some technique is probably inevitable, but people tend to get hung up on epiphenomena and try to perfect technique—which is like repeatedly polishing a car you should be driving to the store to get milk. The same applies to any state you might achieve—Samādhi, Bliss, or sore knees and a bad back. No matter how we are taught, we have to invent meditation for ourselves. It is imperative we travel to those dangerous and unexplored regions that cartographers, having no direct knowledge, marked as HIC SUNT DRACONES—HERE BE DRAGONS. The maps, the instruction, only gets you to the borders of those places.

Ancient Scandinavian Map

Well, that’s what it seems like to me, here at 63º N. In the North of Sweden it doesn’t get dark in Summer. There are no stars visible at night. I’m drunk on daylight, and that’s the excuse I offer.

Marion Yakoushkin:

I don’t give meditation instruction—unless someone asks for it. I often start by reading a poem as an example of metaphor and as a way to work with koans. I talk briefly about noticing what comes up, going into what is coming forward—images, memories, feelings—and that there’s no right or wrong. It’s an adventure or a journey. Relaxing into it.


Rachel Boughton:

I think what we’re talking about here is a distinction between rules and instructions. Every koan is a meditation instruction, to start with. It makes my heart sink a bit to think that this conversation could be creating the rule that at PZI we don’t teach meditation. The belief that instruction, tips and tricks, observations about meditation (a process that isn’t commonly understood and is poorly described elsewhere) will lead people in the wrong direction, leads us in the wrong direction.

So yes, I teach meditation. But I don’t teach rules for meditation. Unless a rule is really needed at some point, like the rule that it’s good to actually meditate, on your own, with some diligence. Of course that rule can be derived if you’re paying attention.

 About rules, and trying to save people from making rules, that seems like a doomed project and creates its own rigidity. It’s like trying to keep the toys of the evil corporate patriarchal power structure out of the hands of your children…go ahead and try it, they will just create them out of rocks and mud and pieces of toast. It will be funny to watch. So, people who want rules will either make rules out of anything you give them, or go somewhere else where they will get better ones, or both.

Teaching meditation, passing on the lore or the experience, is one of the things we can actually do that’s important. I do it in a try-and-try-again way, just like meditating. Come to think of it, that was the thing I really appreciated about the PZI version of meditation and John’s instructions early on, that each time you sat down you were starting from zero again. After doing it for about 40 years now, I still don’t know how to meditate.


Amaryllis Fletcher:

I have to concur with Rachel in that, after forty plus years of meditation I really also don’t know how to meditate, though the feeling of that which I call my meditation has changed a lot over the years.  Two things I have heard in the koans come to mind and have influenced my violin teaching, which is the closest I’ve come to “teaching meditation,” and seem to be echoing in this discussion.

Still from “Black Violin A Flat” – a video directed by @WileyAbbas, shot in Brooklyn NYC. @BlackViolin

One is, “It’s not that there’s no Zen. Just that there are no teachers of Zen.”  And also, “What comes in by the front gate is not the treasure of the house.”

So what I would like to do as a violin teacher is to help someone notice, recognize, trust, and enjoy their own experience.  How this is done totally depends on the student. The more I can just listen and be present the better, I think, since often I don’t know, can’t predict what they may be ready to discover next for themselves. But that discovery, whatever it is, becomes part of their treasure. So if I can just enjoy being there with them, myself enjoying the music and the violin playing and the exploration (my own exploration!), the more it seems to bring our adventure to life. Today’s little “group session” with a beginner of less than a year and a seasoned player of several years was such a fun encounter.

First, I had taught the beginner a simple harmony part to a fiddle tune in her past two lessons and quite screwed up in teaching part of her “melody.”  After she and her grandma noticed that I told them contradictory things I checked the score and “Oops!” We laughed a lot and sorted it out with the little girl’s help. This morning I asked if she could play it after all the confusion and she confidently did so (after telling me first all the moves). She also accomplished some tricky bow moves by just watching carefully what she was doing and “steering” the bow. When the “big” girl came to play the fiddle tune we played that piece together and it all worked! Then we played some variations on “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” together, with the older student playing harmony. I noticed that the older one saw the little one’s bowing get tangled up at one point and that she then quickly untangled without losing a beat. The older one smiled knowingly. There are no mistakes. We lose our balance and regain it and the music flows on.

As my own student on the violin I try to feel that uncertainty about what will help the flow of the playing, the ease of the body and clarity of the music, just listening and noticing the feel of the playing. So many things teachers told me that helped/hindered my own discovery. I learned early on not to trust “methods” and formulas, and searched for what was not describable in words.

When I came to PZI about twenty years ago the most precious help for meditation, life and violin playing and teaching too came in support and encouragement to trust myself, my own experience and heart and light. It was and is  beyond “you can’t do it wrong.”


Chris Gaffney:

I just read through this thread and stopped a few times to laugh and cry (yes, no surprise there). In the approximate 20 responses, we seem to have some unity: Trust yourself; don’t forget the one that brought you to the dance (your body); cannot do it wrong since we naturally do it (we even are it); trust the koan (yourself); tips and tricks can be effective ‘devices’; look at the pork with affection.

It is true that in the right frame of mind the phrase ‘meditation instruction’ is very funny —a wonderful manifestation of selling water by the river. But supporting one another in our meditation practice (life) in such devious ways as—“Hey, let’s meditate together”—seems one of the more worthwhile things one can do. Who knows what might show up?

At those times when I’m leading a group in the role of providing ‘the rules of engagement,’ and there is someone who has never worked with koans, I say something about what I think a koan is. This is analogous to giving meditation instruction: it’s a joke, son. My description is mostly what it isn’t, e.g. not a riddle, does not have answer, not for anyone else – via negativa. Usually I cannot resist saying that it really is about you, even muttering words about ‘turning the light inward,’ ‘who is hearing?’

Sometimes I will speak about finding one’s body in the room—this is just after the bell, the sound has recently vanished from the room. Just a sentence, but a reminder of what is going on. Say the koan once or twice during the sit, maybe just a phrase from it.

All of this is just a small subset of what others have described in this golden thread.

Whatever meditation instruction I give is the one I most desire to hear.

As a physics instructor I naturally think about the analogous instruction in physics. Ways in which the instruction is similar, and ways in which it is marvelously different. The primary manner in which meditation instruction resembles physics instruction is its inscrutability, in the words of a hillbilly wag, ‘Ya can’t learn them students nothing!’ Indeed, how any understanding concerning anything blooms in the mind remains rather mysterious – though some pedagogical incantations appear more effective than others when the ‘subject matter’ is conceptual, such as physics.

Still from mommyshorts.com

We know that the best way for most students of physics to learn is experiential—an embodied approach. Perform the messy experiment, try to figure out what is going on—don’t be too entranced by the lovely theoretical structures. Build the student’s confidence in their own reasoning powers to arrive at conclusions, not the words of the masters. (Though the words and ideas of the masters are brilliant and deep.)

One of the big stumbling blocks for improving physics instruction is that those of us who teach do so, in part, because we have been successful with the current ‘physics instruction’ culture. We have trouble recognizing the limits of traditional instruction since it worked for us. Does this have relevance to meditation instructors? One relevance would be to listen to those ‘receiving the instruction.’ Who receives this instruction?

These similarities I really enjoy, but the fact that ‘the fact of the matter’ explored by meditation is not conceptual, is not like physics, is what has real depth for me. Ultimately, as many have said, all structures must be let go. Am I going to trust what is appearing? Trust the dark the swirl of my life? If I listen to that instruction, then I find my others will be okay.

Good friends, Look on the pork with affection.


John Tarrant:

I too am moved by the beauty of the simple question as well as by the thoughtfulness, openness and intelligence in this thread. I think we have the beginning of a manual for leaders teaching meditation as a creative act.


Illana Berger:

I sent this to Allison and she suggested I share it with everyone as it was relevant to our discussion—so here it is:

Allison: I am so moved by your post. There is something in your response to D’s question that really touched me and woke something up. This deep paying attention in the moment to the disturbances seems like a duh—but in fact it was just outside my consciousness to deeply investigate the moment, the thoughts and feelings of myself and allowing that to guide me and inspire me and most importantly, inform me. Thank you. It really had never occurred to me to speak, as instruction, what I am actually doing—such as busy mind, planning, ruminating, restlessness, listening, etc., and allowing that to not only be a source of instruction but also finding it as the koan revealing herself. I believe this is a deeper layer of how I try to get it right even when I am not trying to get it right. I was once told by a colleague that I seem to miss things that are obvious and right in front of me. I couldn’t see what he was saying (hahahaha) and here it is again.


Amy Elizabeth Robinson:

I really like Rachel’s response that it’s okay to teach meditation.

When I lead meditation in the zendo, I just really feel inside to find the words to say. They show up like a poem—it’s my favorite thing about leading, I think—the stillness, the groping around, the relaxing, the words coming out. I try to trust that if I am antsy there is something antsy in the room, if I am feeling spacious there is a spacious feeling in the room, and let my words respond to that.

When I teach the monthly intro class, that feels different. I am pretty prepared ahead of time. I say straight out that I have heard so many people say they “aren’t good at meditation,” or “can’t stop thinking,” and that these statements seem to come out of an idea that meditation should or should not be something, some particular kind of experience. So instead I frame the class around what meditation is allowed to be, what students are allowed to do in meditation. This is what I say:

You are allowed to:

• sleep
• be comfortable
• think
• get it wrong
• get it right
• doubt
• make the practice work for you
• be yourself—exactly your own self

And I usually tell a little story about my own practice for each one of those.

Maybe that list in itself is kind of list-y, but I have noticed that it makes people smile, sometimes even give out little gasps of pleasure or surprise. I like that.


D Allen:

I stumbled onto this story today, by John Tarrant…not sure where it’s from. Maybe a handout from an Open Mind retreat several years ago. It seems relevant. About meditation. Fill a sieve with water.

The Sieve

A group of people invited a meditation teacher to come and instruct them. He gave them beginning teachings—telling them that they could have a regular meditation practice, become free from their strong reactions to events and cultivate a feeling of tender reverence for every part of life. He explained meditation in this way: Realize the single light that runs through all things. Realize this wherever you are and whatever you are doing so that meditation becomes seamless. It’s not hard. “Fill a sieve with water.” Then he left.

The people in the group meditated with the image of the sieve filling with water. Their lives changed and they were happier and less troubled by their thoughts. Gradually they lost interest in the sieve. But there was one woman who kept with the image, it wouldn’t leave her. She was stuck but her whole being felt charged and alive.

She traveled to see the teacher and told him that she was stuck. Let’s go for a walk, he said. They passed through the kitchen and picked up a sieve. They went down to the beach; the waves ran up on the shore and ran back. She took the sieve and knelt down and scooped water in with her hand. The bottom of the sieve glistened, but she couldn’t understand.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

He took the sieve and threw it out into the sea. At that moment her doubts were resolved.

– John Tarrant


Corey Hitchcock:

D, thanks so much for including this story in this wonderful thread on meditation. I have always loved it—it’s a nod to different learning styles. And my own unusual learning curve with each koan. The woman here always triggers in me a memory of working with young kids who were kinetic, in-the-body learners. They needed to be touched, or held, to focus and see what was being worked on. Here the woman is tenaciously, doggedly, exploring the words and teaching, even after her group has transformed and moved on— ultimately it is the teachers’s active demonstration that shifts her.

I am laissez faire in terms of adding any kind of teaching along with meditation. I want to leave the whole meditation to the individual for exploration. Especially if I don’t know the group that well. But that said, I have felt the benefits of a few anchoring phrases.

Often I will create a prop for myself (a sieve! or whatever appears) while I explore a koan. Sometimes I bring these along and introduce them as part of a koan report to a group—but these are offered only after the meditation experience and talk. These odd visual ‘cues’ seem helpful to other visual learners—they offer another kind of possibility, or frame for an opening. I know that I am always changing and expanding my mode of operation with a koan, just as it is with me. It is an exchange, and creating something tangible, a marker along the way is the equivalent of salting the tail of the bird before it goes back into the ether. Another way of seeing—and throwing the sieve.


Chris Gaffney:

What you describe is great, Corey. The notion of a prop to provide another possibility, or frame, for an opening is enticing. It’s like you create an escape hatch to allow something in. When I read this I began to think of myself as ‘prop’—a frame for an opening. You need the bucket to provide the bottom that breaks open. The magic is the water rushing through the sieve.

These sweeps of light undo me.
Look, look, the ditch is running white!
I’ve more veins than a tree!
Kiss me, ashes, I’m falling through a dark swirl.

– Theodore Roethke

Aerial image Veidivotn, Iceland

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