As you read this article your mind is likely to wander off onto other thoughts; trouble at work, your evening plans, a mounting to-do list… and you might be all the more unhappy in life as a result of such distracted thinking.
According to a recent study in the November issue of Science Magazine, whether and where people’s minds wander is a better predictor of happiness than what they are doing. The study included more than 2,200 people around the world who agreed to use an iphone app called trackyourhappiness.
A team of Harvard psychologists contacted the participants at random intervals to ask how them how they were feeling, what they were doing and what they were thinking. The team received a quarter-million responses. When the replies were analyzed, researchers found that no matter what people were doing, they tended to be happier if they focused on the activity instead of thinking about something else.
Kelly “Doman” Stevens, an American monk who lives and practices at the Hazy Moon Zen Center of South Central Los Angeles, said that this study simply corroborates what Buddhists across the globe have known all along. In fact, the ancient East Asian religion is even one step ahead of the Harvard researchers and their iphones. Monks found Zen Meditation to be a cure for said “monkey mind” (a Buddhist term meaning “unsettled”) centuries ago. And now one group of monks is spreading their knowledge to those in need of a little clarity in the South Central Los Angeles community.
“We’re always in motion like a jar of mud and water. When you sit the jar down, the mud settles and the water becomes crystal clear. The same is true of our minds,” said Stevens, who goes by his Dharma name of Doman.
Zen meditation has historically been religious in nature, but is increasingly a popular secular practice amongst those looking to treat medical ailments or find clarity in their lives. The Hazy Moon Zen Center in South Central Los Angeles now offers local community members a beginner’s Zen meditation class every Saturday, and a more in depth beginner’s retreat called Sesshin, four Sundays a year.
Sesshin which means “to unite the mind and heart,” is meant to be an overnight retreat, consisting of two to ten days of seated meditations and services. But one beginner’s day-long Sesshin is more than enough to learn the basics of Zen meditation.
“It’s our form of outreach,” said 45-year-old Doman who often co-teaches the beginner’s classes. “We’re not proselytizers particularly, but since the Buddhist religion began it was sort of like, if you’re interested, this is our take on what the problem in life is and this is our solution if you’d like to try it for yourself.”
The problem according to Buddhist literature is that our minds are addicted to wandering, judging people and judging ourselves. “Meditation is a gentle process of breaking addiction, said Doman.” “There are a lot of people looking for something different, looking to change their lives.”
The goal of Zen meditation is to achieve a state of non-distracted enlightenment that you can apply to your life and exist in at all times. “It’s being really engaged in your life moment to moment. Crying when it’s appropriate to cry, and then leaving that moment and moving on, the same applies to laughing and working,” Doman added.
This basic concept of achieving a state of non-distracted enlightenment is the central goal of the beginner’s meditation classes and retreats. While the classes usually attract between five and fifteen participants from the area, the November beginner’s Sesshin fell on a gloomy Sunday, and rain kept most of those who were scheduled to come at home.
Nonetheless, Doman was happy to impart his knowledge on the two participants who did show up to the daylong retreat; a young, stay-at-home mom who was suffering from insomnia and hoping to get rid of it through meditation, and a young male special education teacher who felt compelled to try meditation after reading about it in his psychology and quantum physics books.
After taking their shoes off, the two were welcomed into the Hazy Moon Compound, a spiritual oasis in the midst of an urban jungle. Doman then gave the new participants a quick tour as he offered up a wealth of disjointed knowledge about meditation, Buddhism, the center and how he stumbled into the practice at the University of California Irvine in his young twenties.
Barefoot, shaved head and dressed in the traditional long flowing black garb of a monk, Doman is now a living embodiment of the commitment he made to the Dharma when he became an ordained Buddhist priest at the age of 31.
Doman now lives at the Hazy Moon Zen Center with his 60-year-old girlfriend, Sherri MacClelland, who also goes by her Dharma name of “Ento.” The center started in 1997 when a group of Americans who practice Buddhism purchased and moved into the building with their Japanese teacher.
Currently, six people live at the center full time, three of whom are ordained priests. Meanwhile, others come and go, staying in the various bedrooms for extended meditation retreats.
The pair of teachers escorted the two quiet new participants through various communal living spaces in the duplex adorned with East Asian art and artifacts, and up to the meditation room called the “zendo” in the attic. Doman told his pupils that the monks have pleasant relationships with most of their neighbors, but admitted with an understanding laugh that he can’t imagine what they must think when they look in the windows and see a bunch of people in black robes walking around in circles in the attic.
Once in the zendo, the teachers prepared the participants for their first meditation experience.
“I’m just going to throw a lot of stuff at you and don’t worry about memorizing it,” Doman said to the two first time participants. They adjusted themselves on the mats and cushions to find a seated meditation position that they would be able to hold for an extended period. “We want to make you comfortable so you’ll come back and sit with us,” Ento added.
The beginner’s Sesshin consists of 20-minute periods of seated meditation facing a wall, alternating with 10-minute periods of walking meditations, where the group walks one behind the other through the space in a figure-eight pattern. Both are done silently and with eyes open but without eye contact with others, so as to not create “turmoil in the mind”. A gong is rung in between meditation periods to signal when one begins and another ends.
“You’re not trying to develop some odd trance, but to become present and develop an awareness of what’s happening in the moment,” Doman stated. The challenge of keeping a clear mind is a process that some participants often struggle with at first try.
“Spontaneous thoughts occur like bile, it’s a natural part of being an awake person. You don’t have to try to concentrate on suppressing these thoughts, but rather just not attach to them or dwell on them,” Doman explained. “The more frequently one practices meditation, the less likely these spontaneous thoughts are to occur.”
Doman and Ento explained to the class what the researchers at Harvard set out to prove, that our “monkey minds” are always adjusting between thoughts of the past and future, and never settled or at ease in the present moment.
“When you’re driving your car, just drive your car. We’ve got to just live our lives, and when you take care of each moment as they happen, the rest will take care of itself,” said Ento. “It’s amazing how much we cover over and miss our lives because we waste precious moments.”
Ento started Zen meditation in her mid-forties when she felt that her depression following the death of her mother was causing her to waste precious moments of her own life.
“I’ve realized that depression was my own doing and it was my own mind that couldn’t shut up. And by shutting up my mind through meditation, I could change my perspective,” said Ento.
Ento saw improvements in her own outlook on life after her first sitting, and she believes that other wandering minds can start to achieve the same kind of peace after just one beginner’s class at the Hazy Moon Center.
“The key part of the practice is the present moment, and it doesn’t hurt anybody to live in the present moment,” said Ento. “The ultimate goal is to just experience the self without any attachments or entanglements. If you can just come into the moment and take care of you, your life will change.”