Anyone can do two weeks of isolation, but two months?
With an extension of the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) looking more and more likely, cabin fever is really beginning to set in.
Almost from the start, everyone, from clinical psychologist Honey Carandang to Readers Digest, recommended some kind of mindfulness practice to ease the stress of being cooped up at home. Scores of online resources have sprouted devoted to some type of guided meditation.
Zen is one of the more established disciplines centering on the practice of mindfulness. It is usually associated with Buddhism, but part of its idiosyncratic history in the Philippines is that it was introduced here in 1976 by Sr. Elaine MacInnes, a Catholic missionary nun from Canada. MacInnes had studied with the renowned Zen master
Yamada Koun Roshi at the San-un Zendo in Kamakura, Japan, and resumed her mission after receiving his blessing to teach Zen.
It was no accident that her first students were prisoners, first at New Bilibid and later at Bago Bantay, where martial law political detainees were being held.
Sister Elaine believed strongly that zazen—sitting meditation practice—could offer prisoners a way to experience a kind of freedom of the mind amid physical confinement. Zen teaches that we are all prisoners in a way, of our prejudices, delusions, psychological conditioning. Zazen offers a way to see through all this, and in doing so break free. (After establishing the Zen Center Philippines, Sister Elaine returned to Canada where she continues to direct a prison ministry.)
“One of the most basic questions is how one should practice, regardless of whether one is quarantined or not and regardless of whether a contagion or an earthquake or any other extinction-like event is about to happen,” says Rollie del Rosario, a student of Sister Elaine and one of the teachers at Zen Center Philippines.
“The short answer is that one should practise as hard and as earnestly as one can. Sr. Elaine MacInnes, our first teacher, used to say, ‘Practise at the forward edge of your endurance.’ This does not mean that we should torture ourselves. Zen is certainly not a form of masochism. Discovering and realizing our True Nature is not a walk in the park, but it also empowers us to respect our present circumstances.”
Zen is best practised within the sangha, a community which encourages and supports the rigorous practice of meditation. For the socially distanced, however, Del Rosario offers a crash course in zazen:
“First, find a quiet, clean corner of your house where no one can disturb you for between 30 minutes to an hour. The physical aspect of zazen is sitting in the right posture.
There are basically six postures that can be used for zazen, including sitting in a chair. These postures are explained in our YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/channel/UCvCUvgz3_eYQrzbjlbmIK5A).
“It helps to physically and mentally compose yourself into a quiet mood before you sit. Therefore, try to avoid loud music or boisterous conversation before sitting.
“We sit with our eyes half open. Just let your gaze fall on a spot about a meter ahead. Do not focus on the spot, just maintain a soft gaze. There is a practical side to this: Having even faint light entering our eyes will keep us from falling asleep. On another level, keeping our eyes open will help remind us to stay in the here and now, sharing all the joys, grief and heartaches of humanity.
“We do not use any background music while sitting in zazen. Music often evokes feelings, moods and memories with deep emotional coloring. These are also distractions that can derail one’s focus while doing zazen.
“Settle into your posture of choice, make sure your back is erect, take a couple of deep breaths and start your concentration. We are now moving to the mental part of zazen.
“For beginners, we use the concentration method of counting the breath: When you inhale, put all your awareness into the inhalation and silently count ONE. Keeping your attention on the physical process of exhalation, count TWO. For the next inhalation, count THREE, and for the exhalation, count FOUR. Do this until you reach 10.
“After reaching 10, and still retaining your attention on the physical process of breathing, go back to inhale, count ONE, exhale count TWO, and so on until you again reach 10. Do this until the time you set aside for sitting is up. If for any reason you lose count (let’s say distracting thoughts have hijacked your attention), just go back to inhale ONE, exhale TWO and so on until you reach the end of your desired sitting period. This is the way we relax and silence the mind.
“Do not despair if you find yourself constantly having to go back to ONE. The mind has been programmed to analyze and figure out reality just like a computer, and it is very good at this task. If there is no sensory input, the mind will create its own script and this is when distracting thoughts come.
“It is very difficult to stop the mind from analyzing and creating its own drama, hence the term ‘monkey mind.’ We cannot command the monkey mind to stop; it’s just doing its job. But we can trick it to quiet down, to go to sleep mode. The way to do this is to count the breath. This is an utter no-brainer activity that the monkey mind hates so after a while, the monkey loses interest and goes to sleep. It’s not easy but if one perseveres, the mind will settle down and one’s awareness will sharpen.
“If you are bombarded by a barrage of thoughts that seems to have no end, do not panic and say to yourself, ‘This is no good. I’m not cut out to meditate.’ Do not shortchange yourself. Zazen is not about being able to count 30 perfect sets of one to 10. Zazen is about developing a deep sense of awareness.
“The fact that one realizes that he should go back to ONE every time he loses count shows that he is aware of the distraction and the need to go back to ONE. Neither should one consciously fight the thoughts. This is an exercise in futility. Once one starts to fight the thoughts, his concentration has effectively been diverted from the practice, which is to simply count the breath.
5 minutes a day
“Initially, beginners can try sitting five minutes a day for a week. If one is able to sit in this way every day during the week, he can try sitting 10 minutes a day for the next week, and if that is successful, another five minutes can be added to the sitting time each week until one can sit 25 minutes a day.
“However, even a five-minute sit can do wonders to relax one and restore a sense of equanimity. It is relatively easy to sit alone for five minutes, even in an office. Just find an empty room or an unused corner. If one is really harassed, even a five-minute sit in the comfort room could do wonders.
“It helps to sit at the same hour and at the same place every day. The purpose of regularity and constancy is to make zazen an integral part of one’s daily schedule. Ultimately, it is best to follow one’s own personal rhythm.” INQ
Find more detailed instructions on YouTube (www.youtube.com/watch?v=YsgeL3NoWKE, www.youtube.com/watch?v=jKULPZxntjY). Visit www.zenphilippines.org.ph