Zen and the Art of Being Chris Braak

Posted: June 24, 2009 in Braak, poetics

I am, and have often been, fascinated by the idea of self-improvement.  I know what you’re thinking, obviously.  You’re thinking, “Chris, that’s nonsense!  How could you possibly need to improve yourself?”

And you’re right, of course.  But that doesn’t stop me from thinking about the idea of self-improvement in a sort of abstract way, the way I might think about what it would be like to have my own spaceship, or to be a velociraptor (answers:  more trouble than it’s worth; awesome).

In the intersests of mild intellectual curiosity, I discovered Zen, and became intrigued.  At first, quite naturally, I thought it was stupid:  reincarnation, satisfaction, non-desire–all of these seemed like the kinds of things a religious elite would use to prevent peasant uprisings.  But I read some books and, after having decided I knew everything worth knowing about the subject, I concluded that Zen wasn’t so bad, after all.

On Sunday I went to my first zazen session.  See, the way that Zen works is that there’s no real orthodoxy:  no precise system of things that you’re supposed to think in order to be a Zen Buddhist.  It is, rather, a system of orthopraxis:  a precise thing that you are supposed to do in order to be a Zen Buddhist.  In that respect, it’s really impossible to be a non-practicing Zen Buddhist–if you don’t do it, you aren’t it.

But I digress.  Zazen is the practice that Zen Buddhists engage in.  It consists of three parts:  sit on a cushion.  Stare at the wall.  Don’t think.

It’s harder than it sounds.

What I began to notice, while I was sitting, that whenever my mind wandered off into thinking territory, it always went in the same direction:  me, considering how I was going to explain the experience to someone else.  I think this is natural; I’ve kind of set myself up as a writer, and a writer’s job is, basically, to mediate experience with language.  But the principle of Zen is that talking about Zen is like fishing in a dry riverbed, or peeing into the wind, or other important metaphors.  Basically:  when you’re thinking about Zen, you’re not doing Zen.

Language is pretty vitally important.  I’ve long believed that civilization is built on a foundation of language, and no one has yet proved me wrong.  So, how could I want to engage in practice that eschews langauge?  Moreover, how can I succeed at a practice that runs antithetical to the very way my mind works (i.e.:  languagey)?

Setting aside the obvious question of how anything could be worthwhile if I wasn’t already good at it (it can’t), I think there’s a fair distinction to be made between “vitally important” and “universally important.”  That is, civilization would fall apart without language, but that doesn’t mean that language is the only thing that matters to the individual.  And because language is so important, and (for many of us) so easy, it’s particularly dangerous that we might slip into a private world insulated from reality by this inestimable medium.

As to how I could excel at it–well, there are basically two kinds of Zazen.  One is “concentration practice,” in which you purposefully attempt to screen out external and internal stimuli, and one is “awareness practice” in which you permit, but do not dwell on, those stimuli.  Language is useful in both cases.

Concentration pratice bears an awful lot of similarity to the esoteric meditation that uses mantras for its practice.  You chant the mantra over and over and over, and because you can basically only think one thing at a time, your head never fills up with new thoughts, because the mantra keeps them out.  The mantra itself rapidly becomes nonsense which, according to some people (see Grant Morrison; Aleister Crowley) is the point:  the meaning of the mantra was irrelevant in the first place.  All that matters is its function as a sort of “thought-shield.”  Some people (see Austin Osman Spare, all those crazy Hindu guys) believe that the meaning of the mantra is absorbed at a subconscious level, and so mantras can be used to give you psychological powers–or, at the very least, that you should pick mantras whose meanings you agree with.

But this particular zazen practice was awareness practice, which uses language in a whole different way.  Here, the idea is to let thoughts and feelings and things bubble up internally, name them, and just let the go on their way.  It’s like wrapping up your thoughts in a little language balloon and letting them float off.  This can be difficult, because langauge tends to propagate language, and so the urge to overindulge must be avoided.  However, with continued practice, the need to name things diminishes, because the number of things that need to be named diminishes.

You could call this state any one of a number of things:  a harmony of the mind’s inner life with the outer world, a harmony between conscious and unconscious minds.  Whatever.  The point is that it’s a desirable condition.

I think it’s desirable for both a basic quality-of-life reason, and for a practical self-improvement reason.

In the first place, taking care with the smallest things is essential in order to achieve larger things.  As internet prophet Jeffrey Rowland once said:  if you leave the house and your shoes don’t fit, or you think you look dorky in that poncho, you’re never going to have a good day.

In the second place, there are basically two barriers to being good at something:  one is pointlessness (when the language instinct hops in and says, “What the hell am I doing this for?”), and one is boredom.  Therefore, if you can do the most boring and pointless thing in the world (sitting and staring at a wall) for as long as you want, you can be good at anything.  No matter how boring guitar practice gets, it will never be as boring as SITTING AND STARING AT A WALL.

Now, I’m going to continue this–not because I feel like I need to improve myself spiritually, or anything, but because of the fact that I am deeply curious by nature.  At some point, I will probably give up on it, because I have nothing that even resembles self-discipline.  Fortunately, I don’t need self-discipline, because that’s only useful for people who aren’t already great.

  1. I couldn’t hear you over the clapping sound from this one hand of mine.

  2. katastic says:

    I had no idea you WEREN’T a velociraptor.

  3. Moff says:

    I kind of hope the zazen ends up having an enormously potent effect on you and you become some kind of evangelistic guru. Because, you know, IRONY.

  4. Amanda says:

    Don’t scoff – not EVERYTHING that I think is dumb – but you should try Hatha Yoga; firstly because I think you’d be good at the physical part of it, and secondly because (at least in the classes I take) the zazen frame of mind is a large part of it. And perhaps, shockingly, you may be able to accomplish the same thing as this blog describes, but without doing something as boring as “sitting and staring at a wall.”

  5. braak says:

    @Amanda: First of all, I already practice a form of yoga. Second of all, the zazen frame of mind should be sought after in all practice. Thirdly, the point of zazen is that it’s the most boring thing in the world. If you can’t be happy doing nothing, how are you ever going to be happy doing something?

  6. braak says:

    Also, just to be clear: AMANDA. I don’t think you’re DUMB, I just think you’re WRONG.

    There is a huge distinction, and there is no god-damn shame in being wrong about something. For god’s sake, I’m wrong about at least nine things before breakfast (among them, inevitably, is the question: what shall I have for breakfast?). If I was a ashamed about being wrong about things, the horrible weight of disgrace would cause me to EXPLODE.

  7. Moff says:


    Chris told me once that he did in fact think you were dumb, and that if you ever called him on it, he would deny it and say something self-deprecating, and you would fall for it because you are dumb. (His words, not mine.)

    That guy needs some help. MAYBE TRY YOGA BRAAK.

  8. Amanda says:

    What is this? Attack Amanda day? :-p

    And in true Chris Braak fashion I want to say that it actually appears that I was right after all: yoga is something that Chris Braak would/should do. Seeing as how you already practice some form of yoga, Chris, that would imply that my thoughts on the matter were correct.

  9. Moff says:

    I don’t think it should be Attack Amanda Day. In fact, I suggested to Chris that he write a long post praising you today. I guess sitting and staring at a wall are just more important to him.

    Someone must have really screwed that guy up when he was a kid.

  10. braak says:

    @Amanda: You were right that Yoga is rad–you were wrong that it could replace zazen.

    As is the nature of all statements made by humans, who are necessarily fallible, your statement was as true as it was false.

    @Moff: You’re right, you did say that, and I’m sorry for not advocating for you sooner. I attribute it to poor parenting–when I was a child, every time I sat and stared at the wall for no reason, my father would whip me with an extension cord.

  11. V.I.P. Referee says:

    This reminds me of being a kid and trying to imagine death; nomatter how still you sit and how you try to ignore your humanity, you still “are” and that awareness always peeks through. It’s hard to pretend to stop being. But useful, if you’re trying to ignore pain and distract from physical suffering…

  12. Hsiang says:

    So you are improving your flexibility and staring at walls for no reason. This is not helping you become a better person, you are turning into a cat.

  13. braak says:

    Of course, since I’ve already hit the pinnacle of human achievement, I figured to myself, “What’s next?” I figured I’d be a better cat, and put Jeanine’s stupid cat to shame.

  14. sfauthor says:

    Nice posting. Do you know about these yoga books?


  15. V.I.P. Referee says:

    How do you know that the cat is stupid? What is a cat, really–how would you define “cat”? What if cat intelligence is measured as superior to human intelligence, from the perspective of a ferret?

  16. Amanda says:

    I am writing this comment on this thread (even though it’s OT) simply because all involved parties have commented on this blog. But I just wanted to give and example of what a small world it is:
    This morning my co-worker emailed me a link to a review of T: RoTF from a web site called io9. Well it was a fabulous review and I went to comment on it and then wanted to read some of the 200+ comments. Well I did sort of a chance spin-of-the-wheel thing and clicked on the scroll bar to stop at some random spot to start reading (since I obviously couldn’t read ALL of the comments) and who’s name do you think should appear but Braak. Now I don’t think anyone else could possibly have such a unique name 🙂 So I expanded to read all of the replies to his comment and who else should appear but you, Moff. And then of course I was certain that the commenters could be none other than the Threat Quality Press gang.

    Now what are the odds that I would have randomly scrolled to your specific comments? I tell you, it’s fate. We are probably all connected by the great zazen spirit. 😉

  17. Moff says:


  18. braak says:

    @Amanda: Suppose you’re thinking about a plate of shrimp. Suddenly someone’ll say, like, plate, or shrimp, or plate of shrimp out of the blue, no explanation. No point in looking for one, either. It’s all part of a cosmic unconciousness.

    Actually, TQP and io9 have a long history of good relations. Not only did they link to some of my early columns, but both Moff and Hsiang here are regular or irregular freelance columnists for it.

  19. Amanda says:

    Well it seems like a good site. I just thought it was funny how I happened to find YOUR posts out of the 200+…And I found them by randomly scrolling too. Ha….

  20. V.I.P. Referee says:

    Don’t let Braak Philoso-bully you, Amanda! He’s trying to lull us into his command with a weapon-laden, smoke-and-mirrors show, while he wrangles (like a cyber-cowboy) the awesome power of the ‘net into obeying his every frivolous whim. He once posted a blog about how the internet has evolved into a living, thinking thing that builds a primer based on our interactions with it. Then he caught himself before saying anything more about it. He was afraid we’d know too much…

    Moff – You wear pants while typing blog entries? What’s the point?

  21. Amanda says:

    Thank you V.I.P. Referee, whoever you are…

  22. braak says:

    This is the truth: there are no states of being, only habitual action. There is no virtuousness, only virtuous action. There is no health, only healthy action. There is no wisdom, only wise action. There is no sadness, only the practice of sadness. There is no joy, only the practice of joy.

    The purpose of meditation is to return the movements of the soul to the actions of the mind, so that sad actions can be discontinued, and joyful action can be practiced.

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