When I started practising Zen meditation with a teacher, I didn’t think it worked too well. Instead of becoming calmer, my mind seemed to get louder and more chaotic, with trains of thought and emotions I could not control.
I came to understand that my mind hadn’t gotten busier. I had just become aware of how frenzied it had always been, churning away just under the surface of my awareness.
I also learned that control is not the point. Nor is becoming calm. You can’t simply wish away uncomfortable thoughts. The idea is to accept yourself completely as you are at any given moment. You follow your breath in and out, and observe the rise and fall of thoughts and emotions with detachment. Of course, your mind has its own agenda, and hijacks your attention again and again during meditation. You are supposed to forgive yourself for these lapses and bring your focus gently back to the breath.
Eventually it becomes a little easier to stay aware of your breath, and keep your mind settled in the moment. You come to regard the feelings of anxiety, regret and anger as friends you recognize but who don’t push your buttons so much anymore.
But any kind of perceived progress in meditation seems to be lost when you relapse into mental chaos, finding yourself back at square one. But that doesn’t matter because you aren’t trying to achieve anything in particular. You get another kick at the can with every new moment. As my meditation teacher once pointed out, a room that has been in darkness for 1,000 years can be lit up in a single moment. As long as you are alive, you have the chance to make this moment, and every moment, count.
A calm awareness that allows you to stay present under trying circumstances is also the foundation of our karate practice. Unless you are some kind of psychopath, you will always get scared if you are faced with a violent confrontation. If you accept your fear and focus on what you need to do to survive, then you have a fighting chance. With a truly calm mind, you can access your training in a way that is not hampered by emotion or thought.
Most of us are lucky because we live in civilized parts of the world where we probably won’t have to put our skills to the test. This means we can use our training to accept the biggest challenge of all—our unruly minds.