As I stepped into the barn on this cool morning, all three horses were still and silent.  I was among them, welcomed.  They neither turned to greet me nor turned away.  They simply accepted my presence as part of their own.

For most of us, the barriers that we erect to keep our ‘self’ safe preclude this kind of openness. We brace for impact at every turn, living in our endless stream of thought, preempting rather than being. Yet, despite our best efforts, the world has a way of grinding against our sense of safety and seldom operates on our terms. What would happen if we were to open to life exactly as it is? What would happen if we were to open to one another in this way?

Here is a wonderful story about one of the most well-know Zen masters of all time, Hakuin Ekaku, (1686-1768). Hakuin had a reputation for being brash, harsh, and flamboyant. He was a brilliant man, whose energy and excellence has inspired countless students of Zen.

A beautiful girl and her parents who owned a food store, lived near the monk, Hakuin. One day, to their horror, this girl’s parents discovered that she was pregnant. They were furious, and demanded to know who the father was.  For weeks, she steadfastly refused to confess his name. But, after much harassment, at last she pointed the finger at Hakuin. In a rage, the parents went to the master and confronted him, telling him about their daughter’s condition. “Is that so?” was all he would say.

After the child was born, it was brought to Hakuin. By this time he had lost his reputation as a monk. Still, he took very good care of the child. He obtained milk from his neighbors and begged for money for everything else that the child needed. A year later, the girl could stand it no longer. She told her parents the truth – the real father of the child was a young man who worked in the fish market. The mother and father of the girl went at once to Hakuin to ask forgiveness, to apologize at length, and to get the child back. Hakuin willingly yielded the child, saying only: “Is that so?”

Few of us would be able to manage this level of welcoming whatever comes! Even in meditation, we want things to be just so.  We want.  We want peace. We want bliss. We want something nice, something extra, something that will be a beautiful add-on to how we already envision ourselves. This wanting removes us completely from how things are.

The art of meditation is to be a welcoming host to whatever lands on our doorstep – to get our judgemental self completely out of the way, so that how things really are at this moment, can appear fully. Rather than bracing for impact, or struggling to achieve something, the art is to simply welcome.

This isn’t a new experience for any of us. It’s not something alien or a special skill that we have to learn. If you’ve ever had a butterfly land on you, you know the moment of total stillness, of wonder, of incredible gentleness, as you simply let it be a butterfly, just where and as it is.

But life isn’t all butterflies and wonder, and neither is meditation; and meditation isn’t about mentally escaping from difficulties or turning them into butterflies and bliss.  What about when we’re in pain – physical, mental or emotional?  What about anger?  What about that mind that refuses to settle, and races randomly like a freight train?

Welcome this too, with compassion.

These are the experiences of meditation that teach us more than any kind of bliss.  Welcoming our sadness, our discomfort, without buying into a story line and fanning its flames, is a lesson in living.  To simply remain present, with deep compassion for the human-ness of things not being as we would wish, teaches us.

Sit quietly, with dignity and an open heart.  Listen to the sound of the rain outside, or to the hum of the fan. Feel the temperature of the air. Experience the sensation of your own breathing. Welcome each sensation, each thought, each breath, each moment, on its terms. Notice the insubstantial nature of the assessment that the air is too warm or cold, and return to welcoming, gently, moment after moment.

In bliss, boredom, or broken-heartedness, there is no escapism here. Rather, it is the experience of being fully awake and alive, just as you are. It’s not exotic or un-reachable. It’s your birthright.


Photo copyright ZenDoe

59 Comments on “On Meditation

  1. True words. There is so much avoidance of pain and real feelings in our lives now that many do not know how to feel or how to manage feelings. They medicate rather than face and feel the ups and downs of living.

  2. I was reading a Pema Chodron book this morning and had randomly opened a chapter that talked about this very thing. I struggle so much with this in meditation and life- coming up against my own thoughts and wishing for escape. But I keep practicing anyway. What else can you do? Nature, horses, other animals, plants all give spontaneous moments of peace and presence. Human society is harder to navigate!

  3. What you call “wanting” sounds very much like the “hope” I’ve found that takes me away from the way things are right now. Very good essay.

    But I could not have handed the baby back over at the end of a year so calmly. I grow attachments VERY well.

    This is one of my current task. Understanding attachment.

    Thanks for taking my thoughts further.


  4. “I’m begining to learn what it is to roll with it, as opposed to rolling in spite of it.” Such a difference there! Ekaku’s story……

    I so enjoy your entries.

  5. A beautiful and timely post Zen. Opening to what is presenting itself…staying in balanced awareness…feeling without becoming overwhelmed…engagement can be like clouds passing…each one a relative

  6. So beautifully put, as always. Horses it seems are great teachers of mindfulness.
    Being able to sit with our birth right …..wonderful

    • There are wonderful teachers all around us. Learning to see them, to hear their teachings – this is the challenge! As for mindfulness, yep, horses have it down! thanks for the lovely comment, Seonaid. Always glad when you leave a word or two here!

  7. Thank you for this beautifully written post! A gentle reminder.
    It was so fitting today. I am currently struggling with letting go. My husband is in transition. I am sorting out my emotions – the sticky parts that want to keep him, the love that just wants him to be free. Coming back to the moment, one moment at a time, helps me to accept what is.
    Loved reading your words today.

    • I can hear your genuine love for Neil in your words. Yes, moment to moment is the lesson of a lifetime. My love to both of you. Alles Gute, ZD

  8. Zen Doe,
    First of all, the photo is brilliant. Where? When?
    Second, love the story about Hakuin. I love the idea of welcoming. Funny, my mom used to say to me all the time, “is that so?” When I had a son, and she held my son, she would say “is that so?” when my son tried to talk. My mom is no Hakuin, but it might be a common Japanese saying.
    The idea of welcoming also reminds me of entering a Japanese restaurant. The staff says “irasshaimase,” which means welcome but designates the guest as superior to the host. Maybe that is the kind of welcoming we could have in meditation–we being the host and the thought, feeling, emotion being the guest. Maybe that is what you mean by welcoming with deep compassion.
    The best response I have for this wonderful post is “Is that so?” {{{hugs}}} Kozo

    • Kozo, thanks for the interest in the photo. To keep myself anonymous, I won’t be able to say where it was. sigh…

      Thank you for the insights about “host” and “guest” in Japanese culture. And yes, host and guest in meditation.

      Thank you, as always, for your wonderful comment here on my blog. “Irasshaimase!”

      • when host and guest are indistinguishable then we get to what Krishnamurthi calls “the observer being the observed.” Pure acceptance and presence. I’ll meet you there. {{{Hugs}} Kozo

  9. another beautiful reminder to accept and to just “be”.
    i am grateful that you do this…for yourself and for us 🙂
    thank you.

  10. I was going to say you can have no idea how much I needed this, how timely it was for me when I read it this morning and how it spoke to my condition. And then I thought, I’m beginning to see how much we do understand, without knowing it, where and when there is need, and how much the universe connects us in ways we don’t appreciate and have to trust. THANK YOU!

    • Funny! I almost didn’t hit the “publish” button. I kept thinking, “What would anyone need with one more post related to meditation? There are zillions of them already!” But I posted anyway – perhaps for you! 🙂 Thanks for this great comment.

    • Also, a suggestion from me. If possible write on “Zen in Action” 🙂

      • Thank you for reading and for your comments, Anurag. I wish everyone would make requests for topics! That would be awesome! As for “Zen in Action”, that’s really the point of my whole blog. I almost didn’t publish this piece on meditation, because I don’t want the blog to go in that direction – toward formal Zen practice, training, or teaching. Just keeping it simple, day to day human doings. Hands palm to palm, ZD

        • Yes, I understand this very well, Zen. Thanks for the reply 🙂

          Your blogs are anyways “Zen in Action”

    • “no matter how many times we have to remind ourselves this, it still seems insufficient in terms of the wizardry of mind to cringe or cling.” Thinking mind will always push away or cling. Don’t push that away. 😉

  11. You write of your horses, accepting your presence as part of their own, this is simply beautiful in the most profound way. The silence of horses is like a welcome home, and when we are still in our own silence, accepting the presence…. even under adversity, we are at home. Lovely post Zen Doe.

  12. Thanks for this: ‘… to be a welcoming host to whatever lands on our doorstep – to get our judgemental self completely out of the way…’ Witnessing how things really are at this moment, like this, is very much a receptive thing – no resistance, accepting and learning how to understand…

    • Funny how we can be compassionate with everyone and everything around us, but we have to really work at it to be kind to ourselves.

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