Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Meditation Part 2 - You're Ugly!

Before I start, let me assure you that I’m going to try my very best NOT to use any of the following tired-ass metaphors to describe meditation (or any spiritual/metaphysical practice for that matter):
1.      The subtle knife of wisdom that cuts through the golden turd of ignorance.
2.      Any type of seed that is planted in the ground… including semen. 
3.      A wish-fulfilling jewel. (What even IS that?)
4.      The Four Noble Truths. (Not that it they aren’t valid, but aren’t you kinda sick of hearing about them?)
I don’t know who wrote the book on Buddhist metaphors, but that shit needs to be retired.  No one wants to read another useless, vague book on how meditation will help you attain a tranquil mind.  It’ll put you to sleep!
Chances are, until you are able to establish a regular, disciplined meditation practice for yourself, tranquility will probably be the farthest thing from where your mind is at.  Here are some other words/phrases that might be more accurate:
1.      Exhausted
2.      Bored to death
3.      Horny like you’ve never been before
4.      Depressed to the point of suicide
5.      Anxious about ___________ (fill in the blank)
6.      Worried because you didn’t do ______________ (fill in the blank)
7.      Useless
8.      Pissed
9.      Guilty
10.  Self-Loathing
There are more, but I don’t want to scare you away just yet…
What I will do (and what I think every book/teacher/retreat should do) is give you one big, fat disclaimer:

Meditation is NOT a “one-size-fits-all” kind of activity.  Although there are some techniques available to guide you, they are merely suggestions that worked for OTHER meditators.  Meditation is a practice that must be tailored to the individual.  YOU have to find your own way.  No one can really tell you what to do.  You have to figure it out for yourself.

No matter how many “authentic” teachings you attend, 
No matter how many empowerments you receive,    
No matter how many books you read,   
No matter if you are Asian or not,           
No matter if you’re a Monk, Nun, or Layperson, 
No matter if you have a Geshe for a teacher, a lazy, unemployed bum, or no teacher at all,

You will NEVER understand what meditation is until you practice and develop the skill yourself.  Period. 

And last but not least,
Meditation is really, really, really, fucking hard!

So, still interested?
Take a deep breath.  It’s a long journey.
Some Zen teacher (probably all of them, actually) liken the practice of meditation to using a mirror to examine the mind.  It’s like you get this supreme chance to truly see your mind for what it’s really worth.  Not only that, but once you truly see the mind, you are bowled over by all its magnificent glory.  It makes you feel so good that a sense of peace sets in and you start walking around like you own the fucking place.  It’s a decent comparison.
I have a better one.
Imagine for a second that you are the ugliest person in the world.

I mean UGLY - The UGLIEST. 
Take a second and let that sink in… 

I'm talkin' Uglier than Joan Rivers:

Uglier than Dick Cheney:

Uglier even than that lady from “Throw Mama from the Train”:

Picturing it yet?  

Your face is horrible.  Your skin is more pimple than flesh.  You’re hair sucks - remember the 80’s?  It look like you were in a terrible fire or car accident or something.  Maybe a wild monkey tore off your eyes, nose, and lips  and ate them.  Can you picture it?  I mean UGLY.
As if the situation couldn’t get any worse, the big problem is, you don’t realize how truly ugly you are.  You think you’re the sexiest, hottest person in the world.  You go around the world thinking that you’re god’s gift to humanity.  You never realize how people look at you.  You perceive their repulsion as awe or admiration.
Then one day, the shit really hits the fan.  You’re walking around one day in deluded stupor and you see a flier about some “Zen” meditation group that meets in the local coffee house.  You decide to take a risk and stop by.  Maybe there are some hot girls, you think.
You stroll in there, feeling like a million bucks.  (Everyone else in the room is really trying to act extra Buddhist so that they don’t vomit at the sight of you.)  Then, the Roshi or whoever says that it’s time to meditate and carefully, without really looking at your ugly face, instructs you to sit down on this pillow on the floor.
You close your eyes.
A few minutes pass.  All of a sudden, you get the feeling like someone’s watching you.  You peak and see the Roshi sitting in front of you with this big, dumbass grin on his face.
Then, he reaches out to you, hands you a mirror and says,
           “Hey, man… hold on a second.  Check this out.”
You open your eyes and ….

For the first time in your life, you see that fucking ugly monster face of yours!
It’s just staring back at you, blinking innocently like some kind of a deranged animal!
At first, you can’t believe it.  You ask yourself if you’re dreaming.  You want to slap yourself, but you’re afraid to touch the hunk of raw meat that IS your face.
Then the realization sets in.  That’s your own fucking horrible face you’re looking at.
The shock is too much.  You try to stand up and walk away from that stupid pillow.  You throw the mirror back at the Roshi… But it’s too late.  You’ve seen it.  No turning back.  The image is burned into your mind forever.
Then you pass out.  

That’s kind of like what meditation is.  Or what it’s SUPPOSED to be.  It should knock you on your ass.
That is, if you’re doing it right. 

Next Post: Meditation Part 3 – “I still don’t understand what meditation is.  Can you explain it again?”


  1. I just want to say one thing, before you all think I'm retarded. The formatting tools on Blogspot SUCK. Really Suck. I hate the spacing, text size, color and font. It sucks. Just so you know I'm not a blind moron...

  2. Getting all hung up on self-loathing is as useless as getting all hung up on "I am King Shit" kinds of narcissism. Beautiful or ugly is pretty irrelevant.

    Wasting time in meditation doing self-evaluations like some kind of Cosmo magazine quizzes is just wasting time. When meditation stops being all about "How I feel about myself." is when it gets really interesting.

    "That’s kind of like what meditation is. Or what it’s SUPPOSED to be. It should knock you on your ass.That is, if you’re doing it right. "

    Meditation is rarely like that. This is the same kind of sensationalizing that people so often criticize coming out of Asia in historical texts.

    "You peak and see the Roshi sitting in front of you with this big, dumbass grin on his face.Then, he reaches out to you, hands you a mirror and says,“Hey, man… hold on a second. Check this out.”You open your eyes and ….BAM!"

    A Roshi is not some omniscient being who is going to read your mind and see exactly what's going on and do this for you. That's pretty romanticized. You have to do it for yourself. A Roshi or any kind of teacher may point out if you are going way off the deep end somewhere, that is if they have any insight at all, and lots of teachers don't but they talk a good game.

    We're all tired of the bullshit cliches that come along with Buddhist practice, especially in popular Western culture, but substituting one set for another doesn't help much.

    But, you know, maybe I'm wrong. Sometimes that's even better than being right.

  3. Obviously, the concepts "pretty" and "ugly" are pointless. The problem is that most of us humans are pretty vain and self centered, so quite often our meditation practice begins with self-analysis. I'm just saying to be prepared for a shock when you first start meditating. Some of the experiences can be pretty painful.

    I disagree with you about meditation rarely being able to knock you on your ass... Though I guess I'm a person who's easy to amaze. I think meditation has the potential to be a hugely transformative experience... On all levels, personally and spiritually.

    You're totally right about the Roshi though. He's just a character in the story. Really, I just threw him in there for fun.

  4. PDA... I just fixed it. Thanks!

    Also NellaLou, I do think that stories like this CAN be useful in providing a mental image of a fairly abstract, vague concept such as meditation. The tired old Buddhist metaphors are useless because they're OLD and hard to relate to today, not because all metaphors are useless. Our brains need something to latch onto until we soar past conceptualization!!! Sure, my story is more humor than anything else... but the general idea is to give people an idea of how meditation can completely re-orient your perspective on life...

  5. Maybe now *I'm* skipping to Part 3... but I've seen people that do catch sight of that "ugly face in the mirror" then make their practice one of hiding that face from others. Even the Roshi/Guru/Lama/Guy-on-the-street shout at the person, "The Emperor Has No Clothes!" I've seen that a lot in meditation groups - as one of the first "hurdles" to cross... and hell, I've even tried to hide my ugly face myself!

    This sometimes is the spot where people disappear from practice... or maybe is this just where they use the *image* of doing practice, hoping to hide their "ugly face"? (I bet if you google "buddhist celebrities" you'll get pictures of people showing off their malas, not pictures of the Dalai Lama...).

    I think you are right... meditation can knock you on your ass. But maybe as Martha Stewart would say, "it's a good thing."

  6. I'm glad I didn't scare you off, Yeshe Samten... thanks for you comment!

  7. People are never amazed by what meditation IS, only by what it ISN'T. "You mean I don't close my eyes? I don't focus on an image of the ocean? I won't grow a halo? I won't see God? It won't be blissful? It doesn't solve my problems? Then what the fuck good is it?"

    People ask me what it's like to meditate. I say it's boring. They usually don't ask more questions.

  8. I have always loved master Dogen's approach:

    Zazen is not a meditation technique. It is simply the Dharma gate of joyful ease, it is practicing the realization of the boundless Dharma way. Here, the open mystery manifests, and there are no more traps and snares for you to get caught in.


    Thank you for your efforts, John!

  9. I agree with NellaLou about "getting hung up on..." but it's really important IMHO to remain open to the insights that come from practice. John is right on target here: it is going to be unpretty at the start, and the punch-line of the whole "joke" of practice is that all us monkeys think we are the only ugly one.

    Shorter: if it sucks, you're probably doing it right.

  10. Uglier than Dick Cheney? You mean Richard Nixon ugly? or Agnew ugly? --- ha ha

  11. Thank you for this (so far) great blog. A very necessary blog. I, too, am a "kinda-buddhist" that thinks that the teachings should be distilled where everyday folks have access to clear teachings. I have felt for some time that American Buddhism has been taken over by a faction of society that is more academic and dogmatic than it should be. Your blog is a step in the right direction!

  12. Vote me in as someone of a like-mind who appreciates your style.

    I sort of see where NellaLou is coming from because for the most part I think the biggest struggle I've found with meditation is just how damn boring it is most of the time.

    Can it be amazing? yes. And i agree that we can see less than flattering things about ourselves as a result. I remember my teacher once saying to me, "you're not as ugly as you think you are" and it kind of weirded me out. Like, I don't think I'm ugly, what the f are you talking about dude??

    But he was right...I do sort of think I'm ugly inside. And scary, and maybe even bad at the core. And meditation sometimes brings me right up against that. it can be deeply unpleasant at times for that reason.

  13. Thanks for all your comments, guys. I really feel like we're coming at this from the same place.

  14. After finding my way here through a link on Yoga Dawg's website, I spent half my time laughing my ass off and half my time thinking, "Right on, bro." Great blog!

    Also - regarding your comment on Blogger's awful, awful formatting abilities, I switched to Wordpress in part for the same reason. Wordpress is a bit easier.

  15. I like your aim of giving a glimpse of buddhism without the saturated fat! Some traditions seem to get tied up in a lot of 'stuff', whether that be objects or words, which appear to me to add traps to a path that's supposed to help you avoid getting caught in things like attachment to things and ideas. Then again I think it's also necessary to find an approach to meditation and buddhism that suits *you*.

    The refreshing thing about Buddhism, compared to the revelatory, theistic religions, is that you have to test it out for yourself, not just 'believe' a dogma.
    It's also healthy that Buddhism generally can take these sort of challenging comments without taking offence and declaring holy war on those who make them. So, well-said, JCH.
    BTW, while it rarely does 'knock me on my ass', I meditate sitting down... just in case! :-)

  16. I am Islam anyway don't insult religions bro..

  17. I'm new to all this kinda-buddhist stuff and this is the first blog I've checked out. At first I was a bit put-off (because I'm a reformed Cynic-in-general but am still attracted to this kind of thinking/writing!), but I realize now the need for this (I also didn't realize the extent of all the I'm-a-Better-Buddhist-than-You stuff; very conservative Christian like, no?).

    Anyway, have read everything here and wanted to let you know I appreciate and applaud your efforts. And I'm enjoying the comments of your followers as well. In particular I like the idea of telling people that meditating is boring!

    New-and-Green in Toronto, Canada

  18. your example of what Zen is is very good. it is a perfect example of why i do not like Zen.
    in 1969 i ran into 4 Dharma Bums who took it upon themselves to enlighten me by abusing me with Zen's cruel mind trips. i became so cynical about Buddhism i despised it.. untill i met a Tibetan monk 20 years later at a Chinrezig [Lord of Compassion] Center. during a meditation i began to cry, sob..with heaving regret at the years i lost in Samsara do to the foolish actions of those egotistical and ignorant people.

    the Moral of my story is BE CAREFUL!!. IF YOU WANT TO MEDITATE START WITH VIPASSINA. it will provide the Clarity to help you with your Meditation Journey. check out


    and listen to their Audio section first. Meditation is easy to do, but REALLY hard to start to do. Zen may be what you are looking for after a year of Vipassina, it takes about 3-4 months to really see changes. but others will notice before you do. a year to really become proficient at. actually what you are doing is resetting inapproprately dominate regions of the brain that have been causing you problems.. after that is fixed you can understand the cosmology and why people like i ran into are such fools.

    a really good book on meditation is Diamond Mind by Rob Narin ..cheap at Amazon.com

  19. I like the old metaphors...maybe that's just me? When I read them it gives me an image in my mind I can hold onto and visualize when I need to. I think that the metaphors aren't to old for modern Americans to relate to but I'm the kind of person that likes to read old books even though most other teens seem to dislike them. But I think that what you're doing is good. If something doesn't work for you you need to grapple with it until you do understand or use your imagination to restate it in a less boring, outdated or cliched way. -m.e.

  20. That was great, thanks for sharing. I googled the feeling of passing out/blacking out when meditating and stumbled upon this. I wasn't sure if I'm so tired that I'm actually nodding off or what, but sleep sort of creeps up or I feel myself drifting off, this is like all of sudden I'm feeling like I'm going to pass out or black out. I don't know what it's about, thought I'd do some research on it. Thanks for the smile :)

  21. I've been watching interviews with people who participated in the Finders Course experiment. They claim to be getting awakened/enlightened/nondual in 3 months or less. Has anyone else seen this? They are on youtube if you search for 'finders course'. It seems to be based on a big academic study from the center for the study of nonsymbolic consciousness. They have videos and articles about some of it here: http://nonsymbolic.org/publications

  22. But what if you already see yourself as the ugliest person in the world plagued with shame and regret with daily suicide contemplations, isn't meditation going to put you over the egde ?