INSIGHTS: Can You Just Meditate Already? (Advice from a Zen Priest)
Christine Chen
June 29, 2021
Dan Zigmond leading a session from the San Francisco Zen Center for the Asian Art Museum in February 2021

It’s easier to meditate when it’s quiet. Or is it? Dan Zigmond is a Zen priest, writer, and data scientist. His short answer is: yes, and that is where you begin. 

“I think of practicing meditation at a retreat at Esalen as a bit like practicing driving in an empty parking lot as a teenager,” said Zigmond. “When you're starting out, it's good to try to make things as simple as possible.” From there, you can focus on the practice with fewer distractions and obstacles before taking this skill to a more hectic, challenging place — aka, real life. 

And then, another challenge: the ego. The point, Zigmond says, is not to “get good,” but to get out on the road and bring the practice to life. He’ll be your guide in the quiet of Esalen during an upcoming weekend workshop, Meditation and Modern Life, July 23–25, 2021.

Zigmond took a moment to chat with us about his approach to meditating in real life, using smartphone apps, and finding your own time to practice. 

Christine Chen: Historically, what is mindfulness?

Dan Zigmond: I think of mindfulness as the practice of paying attention. If you go all the way back to the Buddha's time, which is about 2500 years ago, the word he actually used for "mindfulness" is the same word used to mean "remembering."

So, one way of thinking about mindfulness historically is that it sort of means "remembering the present," rather than only remembering the past. We're remembering to pay attention to what's happening right here, right now.

CC: Today, do you think mindfulness is a path to better mental health? Why or why not? 

DZ: It's very hard to make good choices when we're not paying attention, and this is true for choices about your mental and physical health. Practicing mindfulness helps us notice the things that make us happy and fulfilled as well as the things that leave us unhappy and unsatisfied.

In many cases, we already know the difference, but allow ourselves to fall into bad habits because we’re going through life on autopilot, not paying attention to the choices we're making. Practicing mindfulness helps us make more deliberate, thoughtful decisions.

CC: What are your thoughts about meditating with a smartphone app?

DZ: Lots of people like these apps, and my feeling is that anything that gets more people meditating is good. But there is something very special about practicing with a group and learning from a teacher. 

There's an old saying in Zen Buddhism that the teachings are passed "from warm hand to warm hand." There is something magical about meditating together, which is why I love being able to lead face-to-face retreats again.

CC: You often hear, “I don’t have time to…” What is your response to that? 

DZ: I always recommend that people start with very short meditations. Five minutes is good. I think the average American takes an eight-minute shower every day, so pretty much everyone can squeeze five minutes into their day. If you can work your way up to ten minutes, that's even better. I think ten minutes of meditation can be very powerful, and I really think almost everyone can make time for that. The most important thing to me is that everyone works a little bit of meditation into their day.

CC: What does it mean to notice? When do we notice that we’re noticing? Is that a thing?

DZ: To me these are all ways of talking about paying attention. When we really start paying attention, we notice all kinds of things! And when we stop paying attention, it's very easy to get lost. But the good news is, no matter how lost we get, there's always a way out. We just have to start paying attention again.

CC: Do we ever really get good at being mindful — or is that not the point? 

DZ: In my experience, everything gets easier with practice. Mindfulness is no exception. I still remember my very first meditation retreat and being told to pay attention to my breathing. And I honestly had no idea how to do that! Yet, at some point that week, I realized I was doing it.

The key is just sticking with it. With practice, we can get good at anything.

Learn more about Dan Zigmond and register for his workshop, Meditation and Modern Life, July 23–25, 2021.


Christine Chen

Christine Chen is the host of Esalen Live! and Senior Content Producer. Christine is a two-time Emmy winning journalist, a best-selling author, California native, and yoga teacher's teacher (ERYT500, ERYT300, YACEP) on Esalen Faculty.