Son Meditation in the Midst of Turmoil

May 08, 2014 | Updated Jul 08, 2014

Hello friends,

On the day that I met my teacher Son Master Songdam for the first time, he said to me, "If you think meditation means going deep into the mountains and sitting in a quiet meditation hall with fresh air all around, then you've come to the wrong place. The Dharma that I teach is washing dishes, sweeping and mopping the floor, doing laundry with your hands, hammering nails, and digging with a shovel. It's not about sitting calmly and peacefully like a mountain spirit."

I have kept this first teaching in my heart over the years, but it's only recently that I came to realize that it might have value for others -- in fact, for anyone interested in meditation. Son Master Songdam's teaching that enlightenment will be found in the midst of daily living rather than on some quiet mountaintop overturns a popular misconception about meditation.

Many folks these days seem to believe that meditation represents a temporary reprieve from the headaches of daily life. The popularized image of meditation is one where you reserve a special time and space, perhaps at home or in a meditation center or on a special retreat in some scenic locale, to sit very still on a silk cushion and allow the accumulated stress and worry to melt away. Sort of like a very quiet vacation.

However, as elegant and "spiritual" as this image may seem -- sitting cross-legged, smiling enigmatically like the Buddha, without a care in the world -- it actually represents an impoverished view of what meditation can offer, especially Son meditation. The hidden implication in this image is that you have to go somewhere peaceful and calm to become peaceful and calm. If that's the case, how are we to find peace and calm in moments of distress and turmoil -- in other words, the times when we need them the most? It's not much of a trick to find peace and calm in a peaceful and quiet place. But how about when life is actually happening the way it does in contemporary society -- at the speed of light and without reprieve? Is there a way to apply meditation and reap its benefits in the actual moment of living and suffering?

Korean Buddhism's answer to that question, of course, is "Yes." In the Son Buddhist tradition, there are two basic modes of meditation. The first is called, "Son meditation in the midst of stillness." This refers to the type of meditation that most people are familiar with, namely, seated meditation in some quiet place. The second kind of Son meditation is called "Son meditation in the midst of disturbance," and this refers to maintaining the state of meditation as you engage the many tasks of living.

What's important to understand here is that these two styles of meditation are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are interdependent and taken together, they represent a way of life.

Wait a second, what does that mean, "a way of life"? That's a phrase we often hear in modern spiritual literature. "Meditation" -- or yoga or tai chi or whatever -- "isn't a simple exercise, it's a way of life." "Meditation is a path of wisdom and compassion." What do phrases like these mean in simple, concrete terms?

In the Son Buddhist context, when we say "life" we're referring to the experience in each moment of being bombarded by external and internal stimuli.

At any given moment or split second, our perceptual faculties are being stimulated by information from the outer world. Our eyes are being struck by light, our ears by air vibrations, our nose and tongue by chemicals. Our skin registers changes in temperature, pressure and texture. Sensor sites in our ears and select parts of our body react to changes in orientation, speed, and direction.

At the same time, there is a never-ending stream of mental events -- thoughts, images, emotions, memories, and so forth -- that we experience as an "internal world" somehow and seemingly distinct from the "outer world." Yet the two worlds, outer and inner, are also connected. Incoming stimuli from the outside world -- sunlight streaming through leafy branches in a forest, the smell of fresh-baked banana bread, or, on a more jarring note, the piercing wail of a car alarm -- trigger an internal and endless chain reaction of mental associations. Memories of childhood, an argument from the other day, something we read somewhere, or the face of an old friend flash through our consciousness and we experience them with all the immediacy that we felt when it actually happened. The classic Son Buddhist image that describes our state of consciousness at any given moment is of a stone being tossed into a still lake. One perceptual stimulus, represented by the stone, gives rise to 10,000 waves of mental associations.

This, according to both modern psychologists and ancient Buddhist masters, is how we experience life. At the bare bones, clinical level, this, in fact, is life: Our consciousness engaging and trying to create a coherent picture and narrative not only of the enormous volume of information given to us from our external environment, but also of our never-ending, poignantly vivid mental responses to those stimuli.

From the Buddhist perspective, to have a functioning mind is to live within a hurricane of sensations. To call meditation a way of life, then, is to say that meditation is a way of regulating all of that information, of finding a still center within the storm of our thoughts and feelings, and, more than that, of learning to guide our thoughts, feelings, speech, and actions in a way that leads toward sanity, clarity of insight, good judgement, and, eventually, wisdom, finally, love.

Son meditation is a concrete technique for dealing with life, not getting away from it. When we get our heads around this concept, then we can see how the two forms of Seon meditation, one in the midst of stillness, the other in the midst of disturbance, can play out in our lives. Let's spell that out.

First, when we engage in "Son meditation in the midst of stillness," that is, seated meditation on a cushion or in a chair, we achieve two goals. Number one, Son meditation releases the habitual tension in our bodies and cleanses away the obsessively recurring thoughts and emotions that occur in our minds in much the same way that our daily showers and tooth brushings scour away the accumulated grime and sweat of the day. In this sense, daily meditation is a preventive strategy. It defuses stress and dismantles absurd thought patterns and their attendant negative emotions before this stuff explodes outward into our facial expressions, body language, speech and action. Seated meditation even penetrates into the deep recesses of our unconscious mind and performs its cleansing function there, a process called "elimination of karma" in classical Buddhist language.

Number two, seated Son meditation is practice and rehearsal for what to do when we experience distress. What does that mean? When someone begins to learn tennis, they don't just go out on the court and start playing. Usually, an instructor teaches them the elements of the various swings and the beginner rehearses these movements, first without a ball and then later with balls lobbed at them from a serve machine. Only after the swings have been mastered does the novice step out onto the court to play with another human being. Similarly, when we sit in meditation, we're practicing and in a sense rehearsing our posture, breathing form, and direction of mental attention so that it becomes second nature. Then, we'll be able to use it in "real life" in front of other human beings.

This brings us to the second form of meditation, "Son meditation in the midst of disturbance," which is actually often considered the more advanced way of meditating. Now that we know how to hold our bodies, breathe, and think in a way that maximizes mental stability, clarity, and calmness, we begin to use these techniques first with minor annoyances and difficulties. Someone gives you a dirty look or you just miss the elevator. Instead of getting peeved, we meditate our way through and we find we're not depleted or discouraged by what's happened. Then, as we gain confidence and proficiency, we use it to deal with more jarring incidents. Someone publicly yells at us in a patently-inappropriate way. But I meditate and somehow I'm okay. I'm not pretending to be okay, I really am okay and it feels like somehow, on some level, I'm gliding through the day. Next, we decide to use meditation in every possible moment, because things just go better when we deal with them meditatively. Finally, meditation becomes the way we engage the most volatile and threatening moments of our lives. This means that when we get the wind knocked out of us by something shocking and painful -- my dear and trusted friend just said something incredibly cruel, I've just been fired, I just discovered my lover or spouse is cheating on me, or I just found out my too-young child is using drugs -- instead of being sucked into the whirlpool of my mental reactions, I do what I've been trained to do right where I am: I align my posture, engage meditative breathing, and direct my attention to meditation. That's how I get through the waves of pain shooting through my body, heart and mind. That's how I stop myself from doing or saying something stupid ahead of time.

As Son meditation becomes our way of living, it begins to transform our experience of the world and of our own existence. It's no longer merely a coping device. It makes of our bodies and minds an instrument of perception for revealing -- and awakening -- depths of ability and possibility within ourselves, within humanity, that we never imagined were there. We are transformed, our lives are transformed, and we begin to have a transformative effect on those around us. As we encounter increasingly profound levels of meditative experience, we are naturally led forward on a path that ultimately leads to spiritual awakening and the full realization of our human potential.

To sum up, then, the more we practice seated meditation in our down time, the more lucid and stable our minds become and the more likely it becomes that we'll use it to engage minor annoyances as they occur in our daily lives. The more we use it to engage our minor difficulties, the more prepared we'll be to use it when something truly awful catches us off-guard. The more we use it to deal with our personal traumas and heartbreaks, the more our most profound suffering becomes a source of wisdom and inspiration to love rather than a sign of personal failure. And this is still just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what meditation can do for us.

At the risk of plugging my own program, I'll suggest that if any of this sounds interesting to you and you want to learn how to perform Son meditation, please watch Chapter 1 and 2 of "Son Meditation in English with Hwansan Sunim," which you can access here at The Huffington Post or on YouTube by searching my name. In the future, I'll begin to give concrete instruction on meditation in this blog. I hope you are well, take care!

Palms together,

Hwansan Sunim