I was first introduced to Zen meditation in 1998 while training in Aikido at Tenshinkan Dojo in Chicago, IL. Since then, Zen meditation or Zazen has been a crucial part of my practice and my life.
Zen meditation is hard. It’s actually really hard. You may think that sitting still for thirty minutes is easy, but it’s not. The posture is challenging. Your mind goes nuts. You need to concentrate on your breathing while counting. You start thinking about some bullshit whatever thing is bothering you. Your legs go numb. Your back hurts. It takes years to break through these physical barriers.
Most people think meditation is about relaxing, and emptying your thoughts. Nothing can be further from the truth about Zen meditation. Although, relaxation can sometimes be experienced as a by-product of being free of mundane thoughts, this is something that takes years to achieve. It is commonly believe in Zen that if you sit on the cushion expecting to gain something you will gain nothing.
During Zen meditation you are constantly battling struggles. You are facing your own mind. It’s really scary to be left alone with your thoughts for 30 minutes— that’s why a lot of people quit. The purpose of Zen meditation is to enter a mindful state where you can achieve realization and to awaken to the universal truth. The truth that we are one with everything and that we come from emptiness. This is not something that can be understood intellectually, but something that needs to be experienced and embodied in our lives. This also cannot be achieved strictly through meditation. Other practices are necessary.
Martial training, cooking, and calligraphy are among practices that complement Zen training beautifully. Success in any of these practices requires total commitment, mindfulness, and consistency. They are all lifelong journeys.
Throughout the years I have come to realize that I was getting the same benefit from doing calligraphy practice as I was getting from Zen meditation. After brushing calligraphy I feel centered, free of thoughts, and full of energy. This is because there is so much KI energy flowing in my body.
Here are three ways you can make Shodo practice be a meditative activity and help you reach that mindful state.
1. Set a timer for practice. Set up your brushes, paper, ink. Gather everything you need. Then set a timer. I would say a minimum of 30 minutes. If you feel like you’re doing great stop when the timer goes off. If you don’t feel like practicing, do not stop unless the timer goes off. No matter what. This will help you break through that mental barrier. Finishing the set time will give you a great feeling of accomplishment.
2. Shodo is a combination of art with the meaning of words. You are not only brushing something that looks beautiful, you are brushing characters that mean something. When brushing, not only concentrate on how the characters look, but also what they mean. Channeling your emotions to the meaning of the Kanji will have an impact on how your KI is transferred to the ink. This will also help with keeping your mind busy. Your thoughts won’t be able to wander.
3. Do not worry about mistakes. Do not concentrate on brushing something meaningful. In fact, at the end of the practice session, throw out the papers. Let it all go. Do not worry about not being able to brush something like that again. You will. Having the ability to detach yourself from what you created can be really liberating. Apply this skill to other areas of your life, and let go of things.
At the end of a practice session I am not left with an empty mind, but a full mind. I am also left with a creation, something that was born from my mind and feelings expressed through my brushstrokes. I was left with a calligraphy that was a reflection of my meditative state.
If Zazen is the process of awaking the mind, Shodo is the expression of that awakening.