People often ask me: “What is Zen?” and “What is the difference between Zen and meditation?”

Have you ever had a really, really tough problem, that you just couldn’t think your way through? Have you ever tried just letting go of the problem for a few days / hours? If you have, you’ve also probably experienced having the answer just come to you, all at once. And not just the answer, but the answer, complete with all the steps on how to get to the answer. All without thinking. It is this ‘background’ mind that Zen helps you tap into.

Meditation is preparation for Zen

The simple answer is that meditation is a preparation for Zen practice. In the same way that Yoga is a preparation for meditation practice. For example, many people think that Yoga is just all about stretching, and maybe a bit about health. If you actually go into some of it’s history, you will find that it is in fact inclusive of meditation, and ultimately Awakening. The physical asana practice that is so popular in the West is merely one stage of ‘Yoga’. I’ll do another full post on that topic later.

Zen builds off of the foundation of meditation. If you haven’t yet read my previous posts on peripheral awareness, and how meditation affects your mind, perhaps take a moment now to go through them. It will only take a couple of minutes, and they set the stage very nicely. One key concept from those two posts is that meditation increases the number of mind moments you have available for processing the stream of thoughts and sensations making their way to your consciousness. Eventually, with a surplus of mind moments, you start to experience stress and emotions differently, in a more relaxed, non-reactive way.

Zen harnesses Meta-Cognition

Zen is a teaching, a transmission, that imparts a state of mind that shows you another way of using this extra space you’ve been developing. It teaches you how to shift your presence into a form of ‘meta-cognition’. It’s kind of like a way of being able to ‘step-back’ from the chaos of your normal thinking, discriminating mind, and watch the big picture in the moment it’s happening.

Here is where it gets interesting. After some time of practicing this stepping back, it becomes almost natural to do so. It’s just like with the practice of meditation, where you can eventually fluidly gain focus, lose focus, and gain it again. Eventually, stepping back or ‘dropping in’ becomes fluid as well. At this point, you’ve probably made a lot of effort to get there. At this point, a teacher will tell you to drop all effort. And it will be difficult, since you’ve been working so hard to practice focus, and dropping in.

Zen shifts your sense of ‘I’

There’s some real magical realization that happens, once you drop all effort. Imagine this: You’re meditating like normal. Gain focus, lose focus, etc. Now you drop in, and take a more relaxed, stepped back view of what is happening. You’re still keeping your focus close, but also allowing the wider, open perspective of meta-cognition to be aware of everything else.

Now, let go. What happens?

If you’ve trained long enough, you sit back in meta-cognition, and watch. You watch as focus is gained, and focus is lost. Then it’s gained again. ALL ON IT’S OWN. Literally, you have to work to not put any effort in at all, otherwise, this realization will not fully take root. Some small part of you may still believe it’s in control of ‘that which is gaining / losing focus’.

If this realization, or insight, does take root, it will literally blow your mind. The realization of ‘The Watcher’ happens, this meta-cognition realizes that it is the ‘I’, and that the process which is gaining and losing focus is just a conditioned process. Conditioned, and still part of the whole. The only change is that the center of gravity of where ‘I’ is identified, shifts from ‘that which thinks’ to ‘that which watches’.

The Watcher informs the Thinker

Another interesting thing to note, is that in this moment, ‘that which thinks’ starts to tell the story about how ‘now I am the watcher, not the thinker’. This is pretty profound, since it means that the thinking mind has become aware, that the watching mind has become aware that it is the ‘I’. This means that there is a feedback mechanism that sends information from the Watcher to the Thinker.

What I find so important about this insight, is inside the fact that the Watcher can inform the Thinker. If you recall the earlier example, where the solution of a problem can just come to you, this is the mechanism I’m referring to. The Watcher, the new ‘I’, informs the Thinker, or the old ‘I’ via ‘Knowing’. The Watcher transmits pure Knowledge to the Thinker, in a way that the Thinker doesn’t need to come up with the knowledge via logical, or mechanical methods. It appears to me that the Watcher has access to a broader perspective, and a wider more divergent, holistic way of dealing with reality, problems, etc.

This type of knowing could be seen as ‘Intuition’ by the Thinker in the early stages. Indeed, people who are intuitive have found a way for their current ‘I’, the Thinker, to quiet down and listen to these Knowing transmissions from the Watcher. I know that as I got deeper and deeper into meditation, that ‘I’ as the Thinker did start noticing more and more Intuition rising in certain situations.

There’s more

It goes without saying, that there is more to Zen, than just what I’ve gone over in this article. Zen is an entire tradition that makes use of meditation as a foundation practice. What I’ve described above is just a glimpse of what is possible when going beyond just meditation. I hope you found this interesting, and informative! If you have any comments or questions, please ask below!