MF 25 – Charlie Ambler from The Daily Zen Talks about his Meditation Journey
Note: This is a summary (not a full transcript) of the interview.
What brought you to a meditation practice?
Charlie describes himself growing up as a rather impulsive and anxious. His grandmother (a music historian) interviewed John Cage, the composer at one point. He gave her a copy of a book on Zen Buddhism. Charlie ran into the book, as a 13 year old kid, and was curious about it.
He got more and more interested in Buddhism, and started reading more about it online as well. He then started practicing it in his room, the various breathing meditation exercises. He settled on simple and direct method of Zazen Meditation breathing. He’s 22 at the time of this interview, so it’s been about 9 years since he first got interested in Buddhism and meditation.
Charlie finds that if he doesn’t meditate regularly, then he’s more prone to anxiety, destructive ways of thinking and harmful habits. He then feels generally less centered, and less creative.
And what specific practice are you using at this time?
Now he’s doing zazen meditation, or breath counting.
He remembers the old saying,
“Let your thoughts come and go,
but you don’t serve them tea.”
Have you noticed changes in your day to day life?
When he was younger, it was easier to meditate, there was less, a smaller bank of sensory information. Meditation was easier, despite the fact that he was a hyperactive kid. But now with all the reading he’s doing, and responsibilities and things and thoughts that come with adulthood, and the busy life in the big city (New York) he finds it more difficult to practice. But for that reason it is more challenging and rewarding as well. All the more reason why it is so important for him to do it each day.
He practices detaching himself from wanting to get anything out of it. Meditation becomes very difficult when you want to get something out of it.
You get into a chasing mind, which makes it all the harder.
Yeah you get into thinking about thinking, a circular cycle. Once you allow yourself to step back from your own thoughts, and get less stressed out. It helps, gives your problems less importance, let them come to pass.
Has your practice changed your outlook on life, you post on your web site how your thinking has changed?
When Charlie started he was reading about meditation he ran into more of a new age corporate way of viewing meditation practice. Like how a meditation practice would allow you to accomplish your goals, do your job really well, etc. But then as he dug deeper into the eastern writing behind meditation, he realized that the Zen school was more talking about divorcing yourself from attachment to expectations and outcomes.
He realized that this was part of this larger concept, well illustrated in Taoist writings, where you step back from something, you have this strange side-effect where you end up achieving it, by stepping back. He then quotes:
By letting it go it all gets done. The world is won by those who let it go. But when you try and try. The world is beyond the winning.
Charlie finds that when you practice meditation for a while, you don’t find yourself planning ahead 10 years ahead. He finds himself less trying to achieve things, instead to just do things. The funny contradiction in that is that when you stop caring so much about the results of what you’re doing, you end up doing a ton more.
Ever since Charlie has really implemented that philosophy, he finds himself far less anxious about starting things. Just throw yourself into things, just do them. The key is to just do things, not care about the results. Learn from them yes. Sometimes the results is just garbage, and sometimes it works out.
There is also a part of understanding how who you are changes, the attachment and creations of personas changes too..
Definitely, Charlie found himself confronting himself with the Zen idea of true self, and how you find your true self by looking inward.
There’s the true self, a healthy ego, who you really are, and the false self ego, which is a combination of the various personas, cultural and social influences.
Yes, the meditation practice has helped me at least partially shed ideas of who he thinks he’s supposed to be. Make him less prone to idolizing and trying to be like other people. To learn from people, but not to emulate them. Or imitate them. Take only what feels true to himself. That questioning yourself and your beliefs seems to come naturally to Charlie when he meditates. Try to do something that is more in alignment with who he really is. Move away from things that are not in alignment with his real self.
Would you say your project with the daily Zen is more in alignment with who you really are?
Yes, it is now. The greatest gift I got from working on this site, is figuring out who I am. It’s reflected his own internal struggles with writing. Like periods with lots of sappy quotes, that don’t really have much meaning. Or the derivative articles like, “10 things to help you do your job better” listicles, that I thought I was supposed to write about. He then decided recently, like a year ago, that he wants to do this for a while. He wants to do it in a way that reflects himself, and feels true to himself.
So he removed all ads, and simply do writing and pretty art like images. This writing blog practice helped him do something that gives him fulfillment. Even if no one read it, Charlie would feel grateful.
Yes, the Daily Zen now really expresses who I’m actually am. Charlie finally feels that it is real to him, because it expresses who he actually is. This makes the writing so much easier, because he’s writing from his own point of view, about concepts he encounters while he meditates. Instead of trying to emulate Thích Nhất Hạnh, or Allan Watts.
If he gets lazy, and stops meditating, the process becomes much more difficult. It encourages him to continue his practice. And the practice itself provides him with most of the content.
Do you practice with others?
No it’s always been a solitary pursuit. He’s gone through a few sessions, but trying to get to a point where he can lead meditation sessions.
So the Daily Zen website is one way that encourages you to continue to practice..
Definitely, the following has grown significantly, and that provides a social element that keeps me practicing. Everyday that gives a level of encouragement.
For the folks that don’t know about your web site, is it just the site, or also the Twitter and Facebook account.
It started exclusively as a twitter account. when Twitter was very young. That is where he feels the biggest sense of community with it. Most of the discussion is on Facebook and Twitter, but most of the social interaction is on Twitter. And it is fun, and zen in a way, because twitter’s 140 character limit. They have to be brief! Good forum for quotes and aphorisms.
What have you found that resonates the most with people on Twitter?
Short statements by himself or found in other places like quotes from books, that elucidates a certain idea about compassion, or meditation, or mindfulness. Sort of brief aphoristic statements do very well, sometimes way better than I anticipated. I share long posts, but most favorite and successful are quotes.
That resonate with you as well?
Yes, my own favorites, like little zen proverbs.
“After enlightenment, the laundry”.
“Let go or be dragged!”
Quotes by Tolle, Osho, Thay, Alan Watts, spiritual teachers, etc.
Others are little bits of wisdom that reveal ideas that is like zen in nature. Even Nietsche who hated Buddhism, who has similar ideas nevertheless.
“When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you.” Where your world is made up your thoughts. And what comprises your thoughts ends up coloring the way that you experience the world. That really ties close into what my experience of meditation is.
You mention on one of your posts,
“The world becomes amazing when we acknowledge mere existence as a miracle in and of itself, and when we appreciate what is and has always been, rather than what could be.”
How did that understanding occur to you at some point?
Yes, that is something a way of thinking that occurs during meditation at some point. Appreciating everything equally. Where there is no judging things as good or bad, just letting them wash over you. It comes for Charlie as a comedown from good things in relationships and things like achievements that happen. There is a return to reality once the euphoria washes away.
That state is pretty arbitrary, that sense of contentment, and that state of euphoria is available at any time… We’re taught that it needs a stimulus (like a great job, or getting some other reward) before you can feel this excitement about life. If you learn to discipline your mind , you can experience it just by looking at for example an animal, or the sky, doing anything, etc. That is the biggest take away from that type of non-judgement that occurs during meditation.
I think there is also an element of slowing down that helps with this appreciation of the miracle of life. You mention about humans fabricating needs, and things that keep us from experiencing the miracle that is life right in front of our noses. Quote from Charlie’s web site:
“A false sense of necessity is the mother of invention, and humans will never rid themselves of this need to fabricate new needs. We can learn from cats and other animals to relax, to love in a simple way, to eat when we’re eating and sit when we’re sitting. Humans always seem to be existing for something else, but animals exist for the here-and-now.”
It’s a weird thing and weird political idea. There is this, “the cult of progress”. Constantly building new things, going to the next level. That to him represents the the kind of societal craving that individuals have that makes them unhappy. He wonders if that is contributing to a mass unhappiness. People so obsessed with the future, because of technology and all these other things. And as a result forget the past and neglect the present.
Yeah, that’s where I’m at, its the kind of practice that makes it OK to change your mind. Change is OK, 6 months I might feel differently.
Any example of where you bring your meditation practice with you?
It is easy trap when you live in a major metropolitan area to be totally inundated by the chaos, sensory information overload in modern cities are really insane places. Sometimes it still jars me. Like when I go into an area, like times square, or Manhattan, with a lot of skyscrapers, it used to paralyze me, how artificial is, it used to give me anxiety.
But now I see myself as part of the whole thing, I’m a functioning part of this thing. Just like Alan Watts says you’re a functioning part of the universe. He has a great speech about New York City, where he teaches his audience to view the city, as akin to a human body, with all the organs, where it functions autonomously, thanks to all the individual cells. And the cells end up being individual people, animals, and machines.
Living in the city forces you to see yourself as not apart from the city, but as very much part of the fabric. That translates for me into everything. You’re part of everything, and someday you die, you don’t disappear, you just transform into a different thing. Its this concept of universality, recognizing that you are part of everything. It didn’t cause me anxiety or an inflated sense of ego. When you understand it in some way, it’s a humbling experience.
You don’t really feel forced to assert yourself.
But at the same time it doesn’t make you so small that you become non-existent, there is something that also comes forth that brings forth your unique individual contribution…
Yes, there is this Jiddish concept that my mother really likes, called the jadsahara. This idea that you are both a speck of dust, as well the universe. So folks either feel either on top of the world, or feel insignificant. The key, I think is instead you want to go beyond one side or the other, transcending both, realize that you are both. Both insignificant, and very significant. If you’re alive, you’re always going to exist in some form or another.
So does this also change your choices, and intentions, as a result of how they live on in some way or another..
Yes, that is how I view karma, the ripple effect of your actions.