Four-Dimensional Practice

Updated: Apr 6

Warning! Herein are thoughts that, for some readers, might be too esoteric and inadequately formed. I hope writing will bring some of the ideas down to earth and tighten their structure.

Indeed, the term "structure" is my subject or, to use an old idiom, "the weft and warp" of a reliable and expansive contemplative practice.

Contemplative or meditative practice (here, we don't quibble about the words' nuances) occurs in dual realities, conventional and ultimate. Structure, integrity, weakness, strength, length, breadth, and depth are physical and spatial terms. Conventionally, we are physical beings inhabiting a three-dimensional spatial reality along a temporal line. As such, it's reasonably easy for us to understand those terms and apply them to practice.

Right now, I'm developing some instruction for meditation. I wish others to begin to practice as quickly and efficiently as I did but expand their practical knowledge and abilities exponentially and progress far more rapidly than I did. Note the word "practical."

I began pre-machine-algorithm. Seeking instruction, information, and knowledge was a far slower linear physical step-by-step process. Today, a few clicks unleash a tidal wave of much unvetted uncurated stuff. Inquiring online, on subjects I know less about, I often feel awash in dubious relevance. Linear, step-by-step, vetted and curated, is a better way to pursue a contemplative practice.

Organizing ideas, I became conscious of a structural notion of meditative practice deep in me. I don't recall any book, article, or teacher expressing it in quite this way, nor as completely. Yet, the structure was there when I embarked on my training more than forty years ago. I'm convinced that had I consciously--at the outset, or at least earlier in practice--understood the structure, the knowledge would have significantly aided my focus, consistency, understanding, and progress. Remember, we're speaking conventionally.

My primary instructional text offers students 112 ways to meditate. [1] That's pretty daunting. Within those 112 are practices utilized by many formal religious traditions and traditional aboriginal or native people, past and present. The meditations are thought to be 3-4,000 years old in their written form, transcribed from earlier written and oral sources. How does one manage such numbers?

Some commentators have divided the techniques into multiple categories. The first commentary on the text I encountered 40 years ago placed them into 11. Others have ordered them differently. [2] I recall initially feeling overwhelmed by the quantity and diversity of the material. I laid the 112 aside and sought meditation training elsewhere.

Like so many, the guidance and the method came within a religious form. For me, it was the Soto stream of Zen Buddhism. While not easy, the Soto way is simple, at least it seemed so then. One practice, silent sitting, was all there was to it. Again, it seemed so then.

After 10 or more Soto practice years, I coincidentally and quite unintentionally reconnected with the ancient text in the translation and commentary I had abandoned many years before. I added a couple more recent translations to my library. Suddenly, something really WAS simple. The structure of my practice, there from the beginning, pre-Zen, revealed itself. After years of training, I became conscious of how my "simple" method had lengthened, broadened, and deepened over time. There's our structure: Length. Breadth. Depth. Temporality.

Length: Imagine a linear relationship between types of practices: Body awareness. Mind awareness. All 112 methods fall into one of just two categories. Indeed, one can subdivide such quantity into any number of subcategories, as has been mentioned. My simple Soto mind prefers two.

In Soto Zen, many beginners are initially taught breath awareness to calm an active mind. It's often recommended to count one to ten on the out-breath. Those with more unruly minds might tick off the in and the out-breath, thereby narrowing the opportunities for interrupting thought.

As a "het up" young child, too excited or agitated, I recall my father urging me to stop and take a deep breath and then another. The act calmed—breath awareness reveals one relationship between body and mind. Eventually, the counting drops away spontaneously. One moves naturally to mind awareness, called "Serene Reflection," or "Silent Illumination" in my sect. Simply sitting, observing thoughts and sensations without engaging them. My preferred description of the method came from Zen teacher Sokei-an Sasaki: "Those who come are received. Those who go are not pursued." "Those" are thoughts. "Those" are mind ripples.

Picture a line of some length between body awareness and mind awareness. The 112 methods are arranged on this line. As a meditator, you can travel it in either direction, passing through this technique or that. And, yes, you can use more than one. Among the 112, you'll likely settle into a few that work for you. How you discern what works, I'll discuss in other articles.

My personal example, I sit, but for whatever reason, I don't settle quickly. So, I might count breaths--the out-breath, in and out-breath, 1 to 10, 10 to 1, it's of no matter. Shortly, most of the time, counting stops naturally, and I settle into whatever mind awareness method seems useful.

Instead of counting breaths, I might chant vocally or silently. I once partnered with a Buddhist educator whose sect chanted as its primary practice. We combined our two approaches. Chanting, like breath, would fall away into silent reflection.

Consider chanting. On the one hand, it's a form of breath counting. On the other, it's mind-calming (significant benefits to singing powerfully in church).

Instead of focusing on the mind, I might focus on an object, examine it deeply, as thoroughly as I can. Do I study it, or myself considering it? I've come to know that as a variation of "serene reflection."

What if I'm distracted, pulled back out? Think of how dramatically an itch at the tip of your nose can divert a halfway decent silent sitting session. I might shift to an examination of the irritation. Or, I might scratch it and examine the scratching and the resulting disappearance of the sensation (one hopes). Is this body awareness or mind awareness?

A heavy truck rolls by and disturbs with a loud bang! Explore the physical reaction or the mental disturbance? Hold these questions for later. These few approaches and more than 100 others rest on the length of that line. Are they all meditation? Yes.

These so far are considered stillness practices. What about active practices? That is another polarity, the axis of breadth.

Breadth: In my youth, I was a wilderness runner. My races were commonly 20 to 50 miles over rugged terrain. Routinely, I trained more than a hundred miles a week. Breathing, heart rate, physical sensations (hydrated enough, or not?), joint and muscular flexibility, focus, concentration; all were crucial gauges to monitor.

Martial arts, hatha yoga, labyrinth walking; these activities have known association with spirituality. Within our 112 meditations, one learns that any human act, regardless of how mundane, performed at a high level of body and mind awareness, can be spiritual.

As for breadth, high-level athletes and spiritual masters, even meditative toilet scrubbers (I was one), understand it. Symbolically, it is the infinitely calibrated polarity axis, between consideration and application, training and execution, stillness and activity. Just as we can move up and down the line through different methods, we can move our selected method back and forth on this one.

Depth: Symbolically, I denote three levels of depth.

At the surface is the superficial, a good enough word in its original sense. We'll dispense with it because, in everyday use, the term now unfairly carries the taint of unseriousness, shallowness. Perhaps we'll label it mechanistic or technical, for those who desire simple brief instruction and yearn to just do it--simply to act--hardly unserious or shallow. Indeed, mechanistic-technical types get right to the point and stick to it. Our 112 techniques are not an intellectual philosophy, but a how-to-manual--a few brief instructions, then just do it.

The second level, I envision as social. The practitioner is serious about practice and wishes to know a bit more to deepen their understanding and sharpen their conversation. They want to communicate, to interact with others. What are others' challenges, their successes, their revelations? How does spiritual practice fit into others' lives? These folks wish to know what they can do, if anything, to be of help. These folks are the heart, bones, and soul of a stable spiritual group or organization.

Our final level is the domain of the "egghead." I tattoo myself with that moniker. Here at shallower depths are folks who desire a fair bit more intellectual, linguistic, historical grounding to their practice. These are folks who will read the footnotes, analyze the diagrams, sample some bibliographic references. They form well-phrased challenging questions and pose them goodnaturedly. Then they go off to explore the answers and devise more questions. Such, each is an instructor's delight.

At the darkest depth of this most profound level is a rogue's gallery. Here is the besotted religious studies student (I'm a recovering one), the profoundly intellectual, the would-be saint, the budding monastic, or the nascent insane. This is the depth of footnotes, bibliographic references, which descends like Dante's circles of hell to more footnotes and bibliographic references, ad aeternum if one permits. It's a bottomless submersion from which myriad results may come.

We suffer them, but we need these rogues to do the heavy work. Often, I've found they don't need us very much. At the extreme, such folks can be persnickety, twisted a bit tight—head in the clouds, morose and impatient. To paraphrase G.B. Shaw, we're separated from them by a common language. [3] Yet, they risk their sanity to dive quite deep and bring up the pearls for the rest of us.

While the types are real, my descriptions are offered in jest. For I've been all of these folks along the length, breadth, depth, and duration of my practice. And you may be too.

At the outset, I was mechanistic and technical. It was a personal crisis. Some might call it a nervous breakdown. Whatever it was had me vibrating uncontrollably on the floor of my tiny one-room apartment. I was unemployed, broke, with no prospects--no future. I could barely interact with other humans. I definitely was not receptive to lengthy instruction.

My first practice was candle meditation, using very brief instructions from a slim paperback on hatha yoga. Stare unblinking at the flame of the candle for as long as one can manage. Close one's eyes and retain the flame's image between the eyebrows for as long as one can manage. Rinse and repeat, ad infinitum. And, boy, did I! Guess what? That simple practice is one of the 112.

Later, I apprenticed as a teacher. I had to be "social." The mechanistic/technical, "cut to the chase" guy had to relate to a small congregation of lovely people. I had to deepen my knowledge and sharpen my conversation. I had to concern myself with others' challenges, successes, and revelations. Help them fit their practices into busy lives.

Ah, the deep dive; been there, done that. I considered the bowl and the robe--monasticism as a discalced forest monk or cloistered. Thankfully, I was middle-aged when I entered graduate school and entertained this notion. Mercifully, I sensed the stink of hubristic holiness, concluded I was entirely unsuited for monasticism, and quickly extinguished the aspiration. I chose the secular world as my temple. I am my (own) spiritual teacher. Everything else is a tool; everyone else is an aide. That's what I instruct my students. Within this instruction, others may make different choices. Over the years, I've interacted with a fair number of monastics in various religious traditions. Bless them all for their deep diving.

The 112 methods were designed to appeal to different personalities and temperaments, other times, and cultures. I've come to recognize that we can be different personalities and different temperaments day by day, minute by minute.

At 6AM this morning, I could sit serenely, noble and silent. Mind awareness works. This afternoon, I've things on my mind. Breath counting, intoning, tai chi, or scrubbing the bathtub might center me. Body awareness works. I wish I had grasped this understanding much earlier.

Temporality: I'll hit this from a few angles. How long do we meditate? Most of us begin with a stillness practice. My first attempts at candle meditation were uncomfortably brief. Later, they comfortably lengthened.

My early attempts at Zen sitting were uncomfortable—20 minutes or so of inertness eternally tortuous. I was awful at it, fidgety, itchy, scratchy, achy back, arthritic knees. My physical agitation sometimes disturbed those sitting next to me. Over time, sitting became an oasis, a refreshing break from the world, a cleansing dip into silence.

At my age, I seldom sit cross-legged anymore. I found I could sit just as well on a chair, a park bench, under a tree, on a bus, and enjoy the oasis as well. I settle for as long as I need to. Sometimes short, sometimes quite long, quite satisfactorily.

Meditation has also become portable, like a carry-out meal. I'll take it with me as I'm walking, working, or performing a task. This past Christmas season, I was a temporary worker for the U.S. Postal Service. I stuffed seemingly endless amounts of mail into a couple of hundred post office boxes. I physically schlepped and sorted seemingly infinite numbers of packages, weighing from a few ounces up to 70lbs. Tedious? Yes. Challenging? Hell, I'm fit, but I'm an old man! Oh, but great meditation.

As when I was an athlete, I focused on training and execution--technique and performance. I concentrated on instantly adjusting to the item's weight and bulk and strove to schlep, tote, or throw the object at the highest level of fluidity, strength, and efficacy. It was actually mostly fun. And like my running days, now and again, body and mind fell away. Time no longer mattered.

Conclusion: Japanese Zen Buddhist Master Dogen (1200-1253) is the founder and first patriarch of my Soto Zen sect. He was a spiritual athlete. In his Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen [Sitting Meditation], Dogen wrote: "Body and mind of themselves will drop away, and your original face will manifest." [4] The assertion was Dogen's code for the practice of Zen meditation. Curiously, he used the same phrase for attaining "complete unsurpassed perfect enlightenment." [5]

I prefer the verb to awaken over the noun enlightenment. Dogen said, "to meditate is to awaken." Think of "is" as a linguistic equal sign; therefore, to awaken is to meditate. Both sides are active verbs.

Over our life and beyond, our line will lengthen. Somewhere along it, body and mind will drop off. We will simply be.

Our practice will continue to broaden as well. We'll put more and more of our still reflection into action until the distinction drops away. We simply are.

At CloudMeditation, we adhere to a foundational principle that contemplative practice is A-religious; having or not having religious belief or affiliation is irrelevant. Spirituality is innate in humans.

Since the advent of language, human history offers myriad examples of individuals we're reasonably sure experienced the Ultimate, whatever one might call it. Over that long time, countless spiritual philosophies, formal and informal, have arisen and died away. Indeed, we can be reasonably sure that some individuals have experienced the Ultimate with no spiritual system, hence had no vocabulary to express it.

A spiritual vocabulary is a significant utility of religion. In classic religious studies jargon, religion is a human-created system of symbols--something concrete to represent the abstract--to understand and communicate existence and non-existence within the overwhelming magnitude of creation.

Ultimately, we are limitless and eternal. Physicality, spatiality, temporality . . . well, the terms don't apply. Opposites fall away. Trinities fall away. Manyfold gods fall away. What remains is ineffable--too extraordinary or extreme to be expressed or described in words.

This is where those who genuinely experience the slightest taste of ultimate reality, whether God, the Godhead, the Mysterium Tremendum, Supreme Transcendence, or their original face, et cetera, seek specialized vocabulary--inevitably some measure inadequate--with which to express that savor. Most often, it's religious--the older the tradition, the longer in development and more intricately assembled. Without it, the awakened one may remain silent altogether.

To Readers: Shortly, I will begin offering on a regular schedule instruction on the 112 techniques. Each installment will offer one or more technique variations, brief instruction on how to do it, some commentary for a bit of depth, and, of course, plenty of footnotes, bibliographic references, links, etc., to satisfy the deep divers.

The first round of participants will be my "beta testers" at no charge. I will simply rely on strangers' kindness to offer donations in any amount they can or wish to contribute.

If you know someone with interest or who may benefit, encourage them to submit their email. More information forthcoming. Questions:


[1] Vigyan Bhairava Tantra: Quite unscholarly, I would translate it as "a how-to manual to experience the Mysterium Tremendum, the tremendous mystery.

[2] Sanskrit scholar Dr. Mark S. G. Dyczkowski, a scholar of Shaivism, arranges them into 22 categories and provides the verse numbers. I thank him for that useful resource and his body of work over the years. You can find many videos of him teaching on YouTube. He's a deep dive, but a delightful one. Try: The Discovery of Shakti: Mark Dyczkowski

[3] This notion has been attributed to many people. It appears its first sourceable iteration is The Canterville Ghost (1887), by Oscar Wilde: "We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language." However, the Treasury of Humorous Quotations (Esar & Bentley, 1951) quotes George Bernard Shaw: "England and America are two countries separated by the same language." They don't source it. Possibly, Shaw echoed Wilde.

[4] Lion's Roar. Dogen’s Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen. Translated by the Soto Zen Text Project

[5] Sanskrit: annuttara samyak sambodhi

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