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What Meditation Won't Do for You

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When stories about meditation make the news, they're often touting the practice's recognized health and wellness benefits. Meditation lowers your blood pressure, primes your parasympathetic nervous system, influences brain waves associated with a relaxed and wakeful state, helps you kick addictions, find inner peace and in general be a better human being. Sounds good, right? But none of these reasons ultimately describe why I practice meditation, or why I've signed up to spend three months in what's called a "practice period" at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, starting at the end of this month.

I'm going to practice -- full stop -- period.

I just wrote a book about a 2008 wildfire at Tassajara, so my decision to go there may look like embedded journalism in reverse. But I've always wanted to do a practice period at Tassajara, sort of like a Zen immersion program, only there's no language you need to learn since much of it is in silence.

Zen, actually Buddhism in general, is sometimes accused of detachment from the goings on of the real world. This notion -- that a monastery in the wilderness is by definition disconnected from the everyday suffering and messiness of human habitation -- is part of why I wanted to write the book about the fire.

Here was a group of people who'd unplugged from the world of cell phones and 24-hour news presumably to live more contemplative, kinder and less chaotic lives than the rest of us. Suddenly, flames ripped down from the mountaintops around them. What did they do?

What the monks practiced when there wasn't fire, I found, wasn't much different from what they practiced with fire. The heat and urgency and danger made for some exciting moments, just as an illness or accident can pierce a long marriage with a wakeful attention, but the practice was the same, flame or no flame: staying present and open, acknowledging and tolerating uncertainty, taking care of the place and each other.

There's a reason Tassajara is situated where it is, at the end of a winding dirt road in the wilderness. There is something supportive about settling in to practice far from ubiquitous distraction. A monastery is deliberately a fishbowl, a place of no exit, where it's possible to be uncomfortable and not be able to get comfortable. A practice period is a chance to go deep, both inside and outside. You walk around in your familiar skin, but also in the skin of the schedule, the demands of being in a community, the natural rhythms of the land.

But you don't do this primarily for your own sake, for self-improvement or direct benefit.

"I don't want my practice to just be in there," said one of the monks who stayed for the fire at Tassajara, gesturing to the zendo, the meditation hall. I knew what he meant. The point of zazen (Zen meditation) is not to get really good at zazen. The point of doing a practice period is not to crystallize some perfect practice -- to leave after three months with low blood pressure and a serene Buddha grin.

The training at Tassajara can be grueling, both physically and mentally. But what reward lies at the end of it is not what motivates me. That would be getting something in exchange for my efforts; and that's not how I understand meditation practice to work. Meditation does not promise a benefit package in exchange for hours clocked. It's more like packing for a long journey, repeatedly asking yourself what you don't need to carry along.

Meditation teaches me to let go. That includes letting go of expectations for my practice. Benefits may flow, but really, the practice itself is beneficial. And it's harder to show what I've let go of than what I've taken on.

Colleen Morton Busch's nonfiction, poetry and fiction have appeared in a wide range of publications, from literary magazines to the San Francisco Chronicle, Tricycle, and Yoga Journal, where she was a senior editor. A Zen student since 2000, she is the author of Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire at the Gates of Tassajara. For more information, visit http://fire-monks.com.