Break through Meditation with Shinzen Young

Shinzen Young is an American-born meditation teacher and former professor who reveals himself to be as lucid in explaining classical sitting practices as he is in sharing hidden meditation insights gathered from the fields of physics, mathematics, and comparative religion. Here, Shinzen Young discusses his most recent endeavor: the application of time-honored meditation techniques to the very real issues of physical pain and emotional suffering.

Sounds True: In the meditation method that you teach, you emphasize the opportunity for “breaking through” various blocks or difficulties, such as physical or emotional pain. What is the essence of this practice of “breaking through?”

Shinzen Young: Breaking through something means learning how to experience it completely. Whether an experience is pleasant or unpleasant, intense or subtle, meaningful or confusing, having a complete experience requires two specific skills: mindfulness and equanimity. Mindfulness is continuous clear contact with the sensory components of the experience. Equanimity is radical noninterference with the natural flow of those sensory components.

Now, the interesting aspect of any complete experience is that it is paradoxical: it is both rich and empty at the same time. This is because one is so engaged in the activity of experience that there is little time left to congeal any part of the experience into a rigid, objectified “thing.” Mind and body, creator and creation all unite into a single doing. Within that single doing can be found “the peace which passeth understanding.” Even intense physical and emotional pain cause little suffering when experienced completely.

If we cannot escape from an experience we have two choices: to suffer abjectly or to learn to escape into that experience.

Sounds True: Doesn't it take quite a bit of concentration to practice the break through technique?

Shinzen Young: Yes, it does. But fortunately, concentration can be developed through practice—the same way that physical strength can be developed through exercise. The two are absolutely analogous. Everybody agrees that if you exercise a muscle, it gets strong. In the same way, if you exercise your concentration, it gets strong too. And almost every human being is capable of developing enough concentration to “break through” their problems.

Sounds True: What is the first step in getting started with the “break through” method?

Shinzen Young: First, I recommend that students learn to experience their feelings as tangible body sensations. Take, for example, anger. Like all emotions, anger consists of a tangling of thoughts in the mind and feelings in the body. The mind remembers, judges, and fantasizes about the anger-producing situation. Meanwhile there is a tightening in the jaw, a hot flash in the face, a shaking in the limbs ... and these are literally the tip of the iceberg. Waves of subtle feelings spread deeply and broadly from each of these obvious sensations. The entire volume of the body is filled with feeling.

Thoughts are often difficult to catch. But most people can learn to experience the body as a three-dimensional screen that displays the tiniest fluctuations of emotional life. This is a helpful first step on the long path to becoming a person of complete feeling.

Sounds True: You teach people how to apply the principles of break through meditation to their physical fitness workout. Is it really possible to meditate and work out at the same time?

Shinzen Young: Absolutely. Is it possible to drive your car and listen to the radio at the same time? Perhaps not when you first learn to drive the car. But when the skill of driving becomes internalized, not only can you drive the car, but you can talk to somebody, listen to the radio, and have a snack all at once.

In the same way, you may have to separate your meditation from your workout at first. But with practice, as your meditation skills grow, you can work out and meditate simultaneously. If you want to try this, the trick is to start with a simple workout that you can do without opening your eyes—like the StairMaster™ or a rowing machine.

During physical exertion, subjective sensations become progressively more intense. At some point the suffering they cause becomes so unbearable that no strategy of distraction, imaging, or self-talk does any good. It seems impossible to keep going. At this point, one must learn to break through this sense of suffering. One possibility for doing this is to learn how to have a complete experience of the subjective sensations, such as muscle ache and fatigue. The body then dissolves into a field of vibrating waves. Its matter is experienced as energy. In some ways this is similar to the “buzz” of runner's high, but it is incomparably more intense and all-pervasive.

Of course, this elevated endurance is merely a by-product of meditative workouts. Far more important is the transformation that occurs in one's daily life as the result of this approach to physical fitness. Your workout time is now doing double duty as a quality meditation period.

Shinzen Young

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Shinzen Young became fascinated with Asian culture while a teenager in Los Angeles. Later he enrolled in a PhD program in Buddhist Studies at the University of Wisconsin. Eventually, he went to Asia a...

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