The Science of Zen Training

A bibliography of research in psychology, neuroscience and leadership

This is a scan of my brain taken at Stanford in 2015, when I took a graduate level course called Introduction to Techniques in Neuroscience. It was one of my favorite courses while in business school.

By hitting publish on this post, I have started compiling and sharing a bibliography of the scientific research backing up Chozen-ji's approach to Zen training and why it works—and I am of two minds about it.

On the one hand, it is quite practical to show that there is evidence to support why we train the way we do here. There is a method to what seems to some on the outside like madness. And I would like for people to know about it because I think it would do many people much good to take it up.

Indeed, my confidence in Chozen-ji's approach to forging excellent people has been buoyed the past few months. I believe that we do, indeed, have an impressive secret sauce to making people stronger, more sensitive and fearless.

However, to share this recipe and the evidence behind it approaches trying to "sell" Zen training. Many in mindfulness, secular Buddhism, yoga, etc are doing an excellent job of selling—in a former colleague's words, "doing a head fake" with new meditators and spiritual practitioners. Sold on the idea of increasing their productivity and bettering their sex lives, decreasing stress and improving their health, people have taken up meditation, yoga and mindfulness in the hundreds of millions. 

But those people selling meditation know that the lures of superficial, incremental improvement are only to get folks in the door. They believe there is a teleology of meditation: that once you start, you cannot but ask the bigger questions. You just can't lead with that because the true benefit or goal—enlightenment, maybe?—is too difficult to put into an advertisement or spec sheet. Thus the head fake.

Paradoxically, the mystery behind Zen training—that which cannot be put into a quantifiable value proposition—may actually be the most important driver for someone to start and stick with it. Indeed, the people who stick it out at Chozen-ji are usually the ones who arrive on their worst day or with a big, existential question—including how they can level up to truly be the leader their community and the world needs. Other than that, the roshis often say that finding Chozen-ji is karmic. There's no way you'd go through training that’s this tough otherwise. 

Asking yourself if this is really what you should be doing—for your screaming knees, for your sense of self and for what you could be doing in the world—is a necessary part of Zen training. The promise of better productivity—even better sleep and sex!—are insufficient to get you through those moments. If a relaxing time is what you're after, better to have a beer or go to the beach.

With that preamble, here are some of the aspects of Zen training at Chozen-ji that I find particularly effective—and what science I have found that backs up their efficacy. I would love to add to this list! If you know of any studies or findings that belong here, please email them to me using this form on my website


Breath

In zazen (seated meditation), the martial and fine arts and beyond, Chozen-ji training focuses on making the breath long, and low in the belly. The chest does not rise and fall with the breath. Instead, the abdomen below the belly button is conscientiously expanded and contracted.

Psychology Today, May 9, 2019—Slow breathing and long exhales stimulate your vagus nerve, combat the fight/flight response and regulate Heart Rate Variability

Biofeedback, Winter 2015—Long term dysfunctional non-abdominal breathing contributes to risk for illness and anxiety


Posture

Posture creates a frame for the breath. Slump over, and the breath is stifled, unable to get long and low. In sitting and standing straight, one's ki (vital energy) can flow throughout the body, you can breath deeply, and you can have the feeling of being big—moving through the world like a giant boulder.

Peper Perspective, July 3, 2018—Correct posture decreased anxiety and improved performance among math test takers.


Feel your feet on the ground

Whether it's your feet on the ground or your rear sitting down, the point is to move the strength of your awareness down from your head and below your belly button.


See 180 degrees

When the amygdala hijacks the brain, the fight or flight mechanism kicks in and one's peripheral vision narrows. At Chozen-ji we are constantly invoked to see 180 degrees, or 360 degrees. It's about vision, but it's also about fine-tuned and ever-present awareness.


Pain & Physical discomfort 

When we do zazen, we don't move. Pain during zazen is therefore inevitable, but it's not inevitable or inescapable that our minds have to stop, getting stuck on the pain. I sometimes say we are manufacturing the conditions that would usually prompt a fight or flight response—but, alongside experiencing the pain, we still breathe low and slow, feel our connection to the ground and see 180 degrees. This, I tell beginners, is how we build strength. It's also how we start to dis-identify ourselves with pain, so it may cease to be identified as "me", "my pain" or even "pain".

The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Pain, 2017—By one definition of the central nervous system, what we know as pain is actually the product of two parallel systems in the brain or neuromatrices. The first processes potentially harmful stimuli, called noxious sensation. But it's only the second that then codes this perceived sensation as "pain". So pain can be understood as a subjective experience.

Psychology Today, April 19, 2012—Emotional and physical pain are experienced in similar regions of the brain. I'm waiting for a study testing whether a kind of exposure therapy with physical pain can be effective in addressing our responses to emotional pain and mental distress.

Journal of Neuroscience, 2019—Sleep loss heightens one's awareness of noxious sensation—what we usually identify as pain—and lowers the threshold for pain.


Anti-Individualism

It is a fact that everyone is different. We just don't need to indulge in being different or fetishize what makes us different. The forms of Zen training—uniform clothing, rules, forms of developing technique in the martial and fine arts, ceremonies and the choreography of daily life while training intensely—push you to throw yourself and what you want to do away, again and again. Stripped of that, then you can really ask yourself, "Who am I?" And you can also begin to explore what it means to be in accord with the Tao, or the rhythm of the universe.

Harvard Business Review, August 6, 2018—It may be that the most effective leaders are not the ones who seek to individuate themselves, seeing themselves as natural leaders and standing apart from their group. Instead, believing oneself to be a good follower and endeavoring to be a good member of a group may be the best marker for an effective leader. "People will be more effective leaders when their behaviors indicate that they are one of us, because they share our values, concerns and experiences, and are doing it for us, by looking to advance the interests of the group rather than own personal interests."


Taking care of others before yourself*

Zen is in the Mahayana sect of Buddhism, focused on collective rather than individual enlightenment. The greatest goal is to be a bodhisattva—someone who puts off their own liberation to bring as many other beings along with them as they can. Chozen-ji's belief that you can approach Zen through the body translates this conceptual understanding into practical, physical actions that take care of others before one takes care of oneself. It creates social glue, but it also has some sort of impact on the individual. Somehow, as you take care of others before yourself and others do the same, you are better taken care of and you get better at taking care of yourself—without guilt, without embellishment and without hesitation.

Emotion, 2016—Focusing on yourself and typical "self care" behaviors—even enjoying a personal hobby or a favorite meal—don't make you happier. What does, though, is "prosocial behavior" or any act that focuses on benefiting another person. Doing these result in greater and lasting feelings of joy, contentment and love, and fewer negative emotions. In contrast, self-focused behavior shows no impact on either positive or negative emotions.

*For more on my personal crusade against ‘self care’, see my 3-part series entitled “Beyond Self Care”.


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"Don't move!"

Advice for beginners on Zen training in community

This weekend, a student in my beginning zazen (seated meditation) class asked me about whether it's more effective to train in Zen with others than alone. He seemed to be referring mostly to zazen—even though it's only a small, if foundational, part of the totality of Zen training at Chozen-ji—so I gave him a zazen-specific answer:

"For one," I said, "you can sit a lot longer and it's easier not to move when you're sitting with other people."

The popularity of Theravadan Buddhism and its derivatives, like mindfulness, have encouraged many in the West to develop certain solitary and individualistic habits when it comes to spiritual practice—beginning with an exclusive focus on meditation and meditating with the eyes closed. Meditation apps, meditation as self care, and the intrusion of monetization and profit into this space have only made this more so.

So I'm always glad to have the chance to tell students here that we do not charge money for any of our classes. And I also deeply appreciate being able to ask so much more of our students precisely because we don't put a price on the training. At Chozen-ji, we expect that every student train to live selflessly, putting others before themselves and taking responsibility for their community. But rather than ask students to take a Bodhisattva vow or otherwise stay only conceptual in this endeavor, we get delightfully gritty and practical: Serve others food before yourself. Do the dishes. Wipe the bathroom counter even if you're not the one who got it wet. If you see a weed, pull it.

Buddhism has always held Sangha, or spiritual community, as highly as the Buddha (as an example that enlightenment is possible) and the Dharma (the method shared by the Buddha for achieving enlightenment). But there are some particularly powerful ways that Chozen-ji training elevates sangha from ephemeral spiritual friendship to more of a "ride or die" samurai fealty.

In my experience, it starts with the intensity of the training and the forms, which are distinct yet inseparable. Continuing with the student on Saturday morning, I addressed the fact that, when we sit zazen at Chozen-ji, we're not allowed to talk or move. We also all have our eyes open, though downcast, and are facing the center of the room. Every time someone even twitches their nose, someone else sees it. If someone starts to untuck a foot? They're liable to get yelled at, "Don't move!"

So what happens if suddenly, you realize the person sitting opposite you or next to you is crying? Like seriously, painfully ugly crying. You can't reach over to hug them or offer comforting words. At moments like these, the constraints of the forms employed in zazen—no talking, no moving, no looking around—force us to be more creative, transcending our usual tools.

Instead of speech, gesture and touch, what we do have at our disposal are our posture, breath and ki-ai (energy). So we may find ourselves sitting even straighter and more still so that our companion feels supported by the strength of our posture. Maybe we put everything we have into breathing long and low into our bellies, and into feeling even and calm. Maybe our desire to show them kindness burns so strong that they actually do feel it—a sudden pulse of relief or comfort they cannot trace.

But most of all, continuing to sit without moving—not even shifting a foot or lifting our eyes—builds the strength others need in us when they are in pain or crisis. Sit there, with your heart breaking for them. But sit tall, see and hear everything, breathe low and slow, and feel big. When you're in the room with someone else's suffering, these are things you cannot fake. And they work most palpably when they emerge intuitively and spontaneously in the moment, rather than being put on with conscious and deliberate effort. 

The intensity of this training, the forms and sharing our training with one another make it hard for this to be just about getting something out of it for ourselves. At the end of the day, it's only up to us to do the training. But by doing so, we realize that zazen, like every other single activity, is most effective when it is done for others—and even just for zazen itself.


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My op-ed on Enlightened AI in Lion's Roar Magazine

With all the coverage of a new, $1 million robot preacher at the Kodaiji Zen temple in Kyoto, I thought it would be cool to share some thoughts on how AI can help us progress on our spiritual paths. This op-ed I wrote for Lion’s Roar magazine gave me a good opportunity to think about whether androids and AI-driven robots could replace the enlightened Buddhist teacher. It was a fun time.

Writing this also gave me a chance to offer an oblique critique of the West’s very conceptual approach to Buddhism. :-)

Since arriving at Chozen-ji, where we approach Zen through the body, I’ve been surprised by how literally the body telegraphs our mental habits and emotions. I’ve been enthralled, as well, by how moving through the world with the right posture, breathing low and slow, and seeing 180 degrees can significantly impact how we feel—and how we make others feel.

There’s something about meditating with your eyes closed in order to understand the workings of the mind (as in Insight meditation) that can start to cut off our connection to our bodies and our environments. Zen master Suzuki Shosan critiqued it strongly, saying that it would erode one’s vitality. I did it for 12 years and derived a lot of benefit from it, so I’m not knocking it completely. But I’m now starting to wonder if there aren’t some unintended consequences of widespread adoption of Mindfulness and other Theravadan and Theravadan-derived kinds of meditation.

This emphasis on understanding the mind through Buddhism dovetails with Western Buddhism’s emphasis on concepts, ideas and words. The words, as my Twitter friend and AI ethicist John C. Havens recently pointed out, are only supposed to be the medium. But they’ve taken on more importance than that. And then, at the same time, the physical aspects of training are misunderstood as ritual when they’re, in fact, wholly functional means to train the body and the mind together.

These are thoughts for another time and a future article sparked by Mindar, Kodaiji’s robot preacher. I’d love to hear what thoughts my writing sparks for you!

Beyond Self Care, Part 2: The solution is community

A 3-part series on the problems with self care—and what going beyond self care looks like.

In Part 1 of this three-part series, I put it out there that self care is fundamentally misguided — and maybe even bad for us.

I made three points:

  1. Putting the ‘self’ at the center of health and well-being is limiting and shortsighted; and as a result

  2. Self care ends up looking like self-isolation; and

  3. The oh-so-Instagrammable self care we know and love/hate doesn’t work.

So what’s the solution to self care? The short answer is: community.

But that answer is, actually, too short. Here, I am using ‘community’ as a kind of shorthand for what it takes to find actual, powerful and lasting well-being. Geographic proximity alone does not lead to this. Neither do shared interests. It takes not just being a collection of selves, but working in concert to transcend ourselves altogether. This means throwing ourselves away, over and over again, in small ways as well as large — but most fundamentally, by taking care of others before ourselves.

I first started to learn this when I moved into a Zen temple in Hawaii called Chozen-ji. For more than a decade prior, I had been meditating seriously, including in annual two-week silent retreats, and exploring different kinds of intentional community, while also managing a career in tech and social change. I arrived in Hawaii still looking for what I sought through meditation, yoga, social movements and even business school at Stanford, but hadn’t yet found.

At Chozen-ji, I found a deep and natural sense of belonging, empowerment, safety and purpose — everything, it turned out, that I had been looking for. This precipitated a remarkable, positive transformation in my physical and psychological health and well-being. No crystals, self care affirmations or digital detox required.

At the same time as I was getting to know Chozen-ji, I was introduced to another community that has been transformative for residents’ well-being. Puʻuhonua O Waʻianae is a houseless encampment of 300 people, almost all Native Hawaiians, on the west side of Oʻahu. When people arrive at Puʻuhonua O Waʻianae, it’s often on the worst day of their lives. Whether they’re just losing the roof over their heads or have been on the streets for decades, it is hard to imagine all the things that have gone wrong in a person’s life to lead them to move their family into a tent city with no electricity, no running water and even no permanent structures.

A group of people pose for a selfie around a table, throwing shakas.

But Twinkle Borge, the woman who runs Puʻuhonua O Waʻianae and to whom these 300 people look for love and leadership, knows that caring for others is how someone can best build themselves up from that demoralizing first day. It’s this approach that has allowed her to build Puʻuhonua O Waʻianae up from just herself and seven or eight other residents to a vibrant and inspiring village that resembles the 21st century version of kauhale, a traditional Native Hawaiian way of collective living.

Over the 13 years of running Puʻuhonua O Waʻianae, Twinkle has found that many things heal people. It can be cooking food for other village residents, watching kids, or raising plants or chickens. Twinkle’s super power is identifying what kind of responsibility for others is going to, as she puts it, wake up someone’s mana.

Something happens as new residents go deeper and deeper into their new responsibilities, caring for others. They also absorb something from how others are caring for them. Their growing sense of kuleana, or sacred responsibility, to care for the village residents who become family helps rebuild their ability to trust, feel safe and thrive. Their capacity to both give and receive unconditional aloha and care grow and feed each other in a virtuous cycle.

Zen means to transcend all duality — of life and death, self and other. Aloha, while it’s undefinable, can begin to be understood similarly:

“To gain the kingdom of heaven,” said Hawaii’s Queen Liliʻuokalani, “is to hear what is not said, to see what cannot be seen, and to know the unknowable — that is Aloha. All things in this world are two; in heaven there is but one.”

Zen and aloha, respectively, are at the core of both Chozen-ji and Puʻuhonua O Waʻianae. They are not just concepts or frameworks. They are, in fact, methods for how to live lives full of vitality, meaning, power and freedom — lives that are fully incorporated in and consistent with the natural laws that undergird Buddhism and Taoism, which are the foundations of Zen, and traditional Native Hawaiian spirituality and culture. They are vital ingredients in the sense of caring and well-being here that far transcends the limited and self-centered practice of self care.

Zen and aloha are not the only ways to achieve this. Any method of living that unlocks the ability to care for others before ourselves can result in each of us being taken care of in the ways that self care is supposed to, but fails to do. What is critical in order for a method to result in caring for others before themselves, is that it must develop two traits in people: strength and sensitivity.

It’s easy for most people to understand how sensitivity, which is the ability to pay attention at a refined level and heightening of the senses, can be cultivated by both Zen and aloha. In fact, many assume it’s the entire and only outcome of training in Zen or living with aloha — being in tune with yourself and with nature. But strength has to be developed alongside sensitivity. Without it, you don’t get resilience, only fragility.

The people of Chozen-ji and Puʻuhonua O Waʻianae have developed strength through different means. Chozen-ji, founded by two martial arts masters who came to Zen later in life, takes the idea of a mind-body connection literally. Alongside the hours of meditation students do inside the dojo, we also train our bodies through ferocious martial arts, repetitive fine arts and manual labor. Even the meditation is physically taxing and sometimes painful, in part because you’re not allowed to move.

For the people of Puʻuhonua O Waʻianae, life is their dojo. Much more so than at Chozen-ji, they don’t have a lot of privacy or physical amenities. When it rains heavily, they must stay up all night pushing out the pockets of water that collect and threaten to collapse their tents. For the most part, they lack electricity. Running water is gotten from the public bathrooms and the boat harbor nearby. They take bucket showers and the heat in Waʻianae can be stifling. But their physical circumstances foster a profound mind-body connection, too.

On the other side from what’s challenging about their day-to-day, bodily experience, they rejoice in sharing food, and Twinkle is an exceptional cook. Swimming in the ocean, village volleyball and kickball games, and hula make their bodies strong and centered. And in both Chozen-ji and Puʻuhonua O Waʻianae, clear hierarchy, verbal scoldings and physical leadership — including straightforward, simple alpha dominance — are used to mould how people interact with their environments and each other, less through language and ideas, more with their bodies.

This is how strength as perseverance, resilience and power are cultivated at both Chozen-ji and Puʻuhonua O Waʻianae. Students’ and residents’ bodies become familiar with discomfort. Though uncomfortable or in pain, they can stay better connected to the bigger picture. At Chozen-ji, the shorthand for this is being able to feel your feet on the ground, breathe low and slow, and see 180 degrees. At Puʻuhonua O Waʻianae, it’s about trust in the love of God and being grounded and in relationship to the aina, or islands of Hawaii. In both cases, it’s about getting out of your own experience to do what needs to be done for others, no matter how you feel.

Spending time with Twinkle and Puʻuhonua O Waʻianae’s other leaders, and living and training at Chozen-ji, I’ve been pushed again and again to care for others before myself. It can be as simple as making sure everyone else has been served a meal before I dig in myself, or pausing fully to say hello to someone with a honi, a traditional Hawaiian greeting in which you touch foreheads, share breath and embrace. Caring for others before myself can be much more of a stretch too, like training to telegraph comfort, grace and attentiveness even when I’m exhausted or in pain. And not just in sporadic moments, but as part of the regular rhythm of temple life.

At first, I put up familiar boundaries and retreated when it felt like the demands of Zen training were too much. Because of my chronic fatigue and autoimmune issues, I would bow out of a martial arts class when I was worried it would tax my body too much. I was vocal about my discomforts and ailments, and tracked my hours of sleep. I drew a bath in the shared soaking tubs for myself, first, then anyone else who wanted to use them could. I carried myself in the way that felt right for me and acted in ways that got me what I needed.

One particularly hard day when I’d only slept for three hours for the second or third day in a row, I slumped down for a formal Zen lunch feeling defeated. Though I was already in more of a leadership role than many of the others at lunch that day, I felt so tired and so small.

After lunch, the head priest pulled me aside. “I know you’re tired, but so is everyone else here. When you’re looking down like that and look so miserable, it only makes it harder for everyone else. They see you and they feel that much more exhausted and beat down.”

Among the other students doing this week-long, intensive training called sesshin, there were people in their 60s and 70s. Others had come from the continental US, where they rarely, if ever sat on the floor. Sitting on the floor to meditate for 8 or more hours a day, and even kneeling for a short time, made their bodies quake with pain.

I was struggling, but knew others were having a harder time than I was. I resolved to try harder, to lift my chin up, and to pay attention to those around me rather than be blinded by my own, personal rain cloud. When it came time for me to lead some warm up exercises for the group, I put everything I had into counting the exercises with a bright and energizing voice. Other students perked up and then said I was giving them life. They marveled at how full of energy I appeared — and to my surprise, I actually was.

What had started out as an act of sheer will quickly became a natural, new habit. It was like there was a fifth gear I had never known was there and suddenly now had access to. I just had to stop wasting so much energy telling myself, “I’m so tired” and “I can’t do this”, and focusing on what I wanted.

Other similar moments have followed, but that was the first time I really remember throwing myself away. I had cut through how I usually dwelled on myself. I wasn’t at the point yet of caring for others, but I was at least learning to pay attention to them.

Since that time, I have noticed that there are five things that happen when people put caring for others ahead of caring for themselves.

The first is that these people become really observant. They can take one look at your face and know if you’re exhausted or excited. They take note of which foods bring you to life and remember what doesn’t sit so well. They notice you slowing down and mellowing out as the years go on.

Second, they become less attached to what they want for themselves. They become less set on their way of doing things, especially if their way makes someone else uncomfortable. They need less and less credit for the ways they care for others. They know the difference between needs and wants, and more easily let go of the latter.

This leads to the third thing that happens to people when they care for others before themselves: they find a new source of energy to keep caring and doing when, objectively, they should be at empty. It could be mystical or divine. Or it could just be that the rest of us are wasting more energy than we can imagine ruminating on the past, caught up in ourselves, and scheming how to get what we want in the future.

Fourth, people who care for others first are more willing to jump in, respond and take responsibility when it’s needed. They are also able to let go of what’s beyond their control. As my teacher, Sayama Daian Roshi says, they start to see ‘responsibility’ as ‘response-ability’ or the ability to respond. They become more masterful in more circumstances, agentic and empowered. At the same time, they recognize the importance of following through and are less likely to commit to things flippantly or flake out. They do so without drama. They don’t martyr themselves or make it an issue for others. As the old Japanese saying goes, if they see a weed, they pull it.

Finally, they find it easier to take care of themselves when they need to. They don’t get weighed down by anxiety, guilt or self-doubt when they need to step away to sleep, exercise or be with their loved ones. Like brushing their teeth, it becomes something they do without contrivance and without performance. Someone says to them, “whoah, you look like crap. I got this. Go sleep.” And instead of saying “no, no I can power through” or saying OK but being unable to rest because they feel guilty, they just sleep. They don’t waste precious sleeping time to post a photo of themselves in bed with a witty caption justifying their rest, hashtagged #selfcare. They. Just. Sleep.

Beyond the shortcomings of self care, there is community. When you live in community through a method like Zen or aloha that builds sensitivity and strength, you can start to move your self away from the center of all experience by caring for others before yourself. Stress and discomfort stop being things to run away from or wall off. Instead, you run straight into them and cut through. On the other side are the most important measures of health and well-being: happiness and freedom.

In the final and third part of this series, I’ll share the simple things you can start to do now to move beyond self care.


Next time: Why how you leave your shoes matters — and what it says about your well-being and happiness.

Not for the sake of the beholder

In the deep mountains the cherry blooms / Out of the sincerity of its heart

Tuesday and Friday nights are Kendo nights. In a warmly lit dojo at Chozen-ji, I do zazen (meditation) with a small class of Kendo students and teachers for 90 minutes. Then I lead our Kendo class warmups. Master swordsman, Zen master and Chozen-ji founder Omori Sogen once said if you do these vigorous stretches and exercises daily, you'll live to be 100. One of them involves flopping on the floor like a fish.

We practice the Hojo, a 500-year-old Japanese sword form—one student the shin or mind, the other the kage, shadow. In a choreographed kata, we advance, yell and swing our swords through all four seasons of the year. In spring, the sword rises over our heads like the first grass breaking through the snow. The burning wind of summer gives way to falling leaves that slice back and forth through the autumn air. Winter is not so much about how one swings a sword in the cold of winter, but—as with all the seasons in the kata—the swordsman becoming winter, the season itself.

Then, we do Kendo. Apparently, the average spectator thinks that all 125 pounds and 5'4" of me is formidable and intimidating when I do Kendo. The Roshi and Senseis think, even in my most ferocious-feeling of moments, that I am at least sincere.

Sincerity is an important trait in Japan and at Chozen-ji. It doesn't just mean seriousness, or approaching something with courtesy or respect. In Japan, sincerity has value in itself, even if the object of one's sincerity—the idea one is sincere in espousing, for example—does not. It is something one knows when they see it. But it can be hard to describe exactly.

Kendo class in the dojo ends at 9pm, but then class continues—a kind of verbal or social Kendo—in the tea house built for Omori Sogen when he would visit from Japan. It was in the last post-Kendo class that Teshima Sensei—our 7th Dan kendo master descended from samurai—offered a different understanding of the Japanese word that is often translated as 'sincerity', shin ken.

The direct translation of shin ken, he said, is "live blade". Live as in sharp enough to kill. It is a vivid image—to approach whatever you're doing as if you're doing it with a live blade in your hands. 

It fits with how we approach Zen training at Chozen-ji. The 24-hours-a-day-7-days-a-week approach here, we often say, makes it feel as though there is always a sword at your throat, and nowhere to relax and hide.

Shin ken as sincerity reduces the chance you'll misinterpret "sword at your throat" as martial arts machismo, hazing or just raw aggression. You can participate in a tea ceremony that is so refined and sincere that you feel invisibly embraced to the point of tears. Wielding a calligraphy brush over a wooden board, knowing that you have but one chance to get it right, can feel like swordwork with a deadly, live blade. And that sincerest of feelings can come through the calligraphy to the viewer, years after the person who held the brush is gone.

I'm not sure how well people in the West know sincerity. Some mistakenly call it authenticity. The fact that I learned strategies to seem more authentic in business school already pushes authenticity down way below sincerity in my book. 

Sincerity can only come from the heart. It's like vulnerability, but without the emphasis on weakness and without the performance of vulnerability for another. It involves a little ego death, but still shimmers with liveliness. It is hard to define, but—like seeing Chozen-ji for the first time as you drive down our long jungle road—you'll know it when you see it.


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