Local Meditation Teachers Share the Basic Principes of This Simple but Powerful Practice

Tim Burkett, guiding teacher at the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center.

Meditation is so popular right now it’s hard to imagine it ever being outside the American mainstream. But just a couple of decades earlier, that’s exactly where it was, as it was considered too weird and exotic to ever gain traction outside of a small group of devotees. That’s all changed in the years since, and talk of meditation and mindfulness is now seemingly everywhere. From smartphone apps to weekend-long silent retreats, there are myriad ways to get acquainted with this ancient practice, though perhaps none better than simply taking a class and learning alongside others. Thankfully, there are many local options for beginning and experienced meditators alike.

While the word “meditate” often conjures commands to clear the mind of thought and tune out the exterior world, Steve Matuszak, program coordinator at the Dharma Field Zen Center, says that’s not really what the practice is about. “I know a lot of times it almost seems like the instructions are not to think, but that’s not it—it’s about noticing and being present,” he says.

Matuszak originally came to Dharma Field at the suggestion of his therapist, who thought regular meditation would provide a relief from anxiety. He was surprised, however, to find that in meditation class, the emphasis lay not on the physical and psychological benefits but rather the moment at hand.

“I came here to relax, but I found that the meditation practice wasn’t really that relaxing—but then I learned that it was me doing that,” Matuszak says. “I started to realize that a lot of what I was doing in my daily interactions was the same stuff that I was doing [in the meditation hall]. I’d feel antsy or I’d feel bugged by something, and out there, I could blame someone … but in meditation, it was just me. That’s something you start to see—you start noticing your habits of thought and your emotional and physical responses to things.”
 
He likens the change he’s experienced since meditating to being in a bathtub full of water as the temperature gradually increases—so incrementally, it’s hard to take stock of the change. “It does feel to me like I get less stressed out, although of course I still do from time to time. Meditation doesn’t get rid of anything. It’s not about taking a vacation from reality. It’s about being fully present with life as it’s showing up,” he says.

Tim Burkett, guiding teacher at the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center, echoes that assertion. “We don’t spend much time in our moments. We spend so much brain time before and after, worrying and regretting,” he says. “We worry before the moment and regret after. In meditation, we can learn to just be present with what is, just enjoy what is.”

Burkett says since beginning meditation—now nearly five decades ago—he’s been able to tap into what he calls the deep stillness. “It brings a sense of calmness, an ability to slow down your thinking and notice the space between your thoughts. You can rest on the space that surrounds your thoughts and is between your thoughts so you’re not just obsessing and compulsing, reviewing and rehearsing. All of that thinking gets in the way of our ability just to enjoy,” he says.

Like any newly acquired skill, meditation will take some getting used to. It’s a technique you have to devote time and energy to in order to see tangible progress. Frustration might be inevitable, but both Matuszak and Burkett recommend acknowledging that feeling without indulging it—and remembering it won’t last forever.

“It’s just like the George Harrison album All Things Must Pass—that’s a Hindu teaching, but it’s the same idea. Everything that’s going to rise is also going to fade away,” Matuszak says. “If you’re frustrated, just notice that you’re frustrated and let that show up. You’re going to see that you’re not going to be frustrated for the whole 35 minutes. It’s just not going to happen; most people just don’t have the energy for that.”

“The first thing that people tend to notice in meditation is how out of control their minds are. Usually, we don’t notice that so much because we’re watching television or reading a book or working on a project,” Burkett says. There’s a term for that in Buddhism, too: monkey mind.”

“The monkey is just jumping around from tree to tree, eating a little bit of fruit and tossing away whatever,” Burkett explains. “That can be pretty discouraging at first—like, ‘oh, I’m sitting down to quiet my mind, and my mind is totally out of control.’ But that recognition, that ability to see the mind and see how it moves all over the place without criticizing yourself is the beginning of sinking into a deep stillness.”

Though it’s possible to learn meditation alone, Burkett emphasizes the benefits of doing it alongside others, especially from an experienced teacher. That connects to the core teachings of Buddhism, in which Soto Zen Meditation—the kind practiced both at Minnesota Zen Meditation Center and Dharma Field—is based. Buddhism teaches that there are three treasures: Buddha, dharma and sangha. “Buddha simply means teacher. If you do yoga, you want to learn from someone who really knows their moves, right? It’s good to have a meditation teacher for the same reason,” Burkett says.
 
The second treasure, dharma, means teaching—the instruction from the teacher. “It’s a teaching about how to deal with the mind when it’s anxious,” says Burkett. “About how to just let it be without trying to change it so that you can sink into the fundamental stillness that’s always here with everything.”

Sangha is the third and final treasure. “Sangha is a community. You can do yoga by yourself or tai chi by yourself or meditation by yourself, but it’s good to be with other people who have the same struggles and same issues and who you can bond with,” Burkett says.

There are many opportunities to find a sangha at both Dharma Field and Minnesota Zen Meditation Center. In addition to classes, the centers also host workshops, retreats and public talks. For more information, visit their websites.