Zen Meditation: Experience of a Behavioral Scientist

Image by Hong Zhang from Pixabay

Todd A Ward, PhD, BCBA-D, LBA

bSci21Media, LLC

“Staring at a wall for 75 minutes is good for your wellbeing.”

That was from a recent Facebook post of mine the other day, after I left my local Zen Center.

Many types of meditation exist in the world, from many different traditions.  I am specifically describing my experience going deeper into Zen meditation – known as zazen.

When practicing zazen you are practicing non-attachment to thoughts and sensations.  You don’t “serve them tea” as Suzuki Roshi once said.  You just let them come and go.  As an anchor to keep you present, you can focus on the movement of your lower abdomen as you breathe naturally.

Though I have practiced zazen off and on informally for years, I’ve recently formalized it moreso by going to a local Zen Center.

Here are my observations thus far, through a behavioral science lens:

  1. Zazen targets your deictic frames.  Deictic frames are a type of relational framing involving “I” and “You”.  Zazen starts to weaken these relations.  The distinction between “I” and everything else starts to break down gradually.
  2. Zazen as a response class begins to generalize to other life situations.  After a little bit of practice, you start behaving as if you were practicing zazen in other parts of your life.  Common situations include driving (e.g., sitting at a red light, being stuck in traffic, etc…), standing in line at the grocery store, or cooking.
  3. Zazen transforms the stimulus functions of daily events.  Your interpersonal relationships might improve.  You might start taking things less personally.  You may have less blowups at your partner.  You may take feedback more constructively at work.  You may start to see other peoples’ perspective more, and so on.  This is related to the non-attachment practice – things, especially anxiety-provoking or anger-inducing things, just don’t “grab” you as much as they did before.  I think this is related to deictics, as mentioned above.  The less “self” you have as distinct from the “other” the less of a target there is for a personal attack.
  4. Zazen in a group amplifies the response functions in your repertoire.  I have found that immediately after I started formally practicing at a Zen Center, my experience significantly deepened.  This is due to two things.  First, Zazen is physically demanding.  Formal zazen is three 25-minute sitting sessions, with two walking meditation sessions in between, totaling approx. 90 minutes.  During that time, no talking is allowed and no music is played.  You just sit still and stare at a wall.  Secondly, the shared experience of a group livens up the practice.  Compared to sitting at home alone, the experience in a group brings with it a certain camaraderie before and after, and conversation, that amplifies and enriches everything.
  5. Zazen illuminates the distinction between events and constructs.  For you Interbehaviorists reading this, you are likely familiar with J.R. Kantor’s distinction between events and constructs.  Events, from this perspective, refer to the totality of stimulating and responding in the ever-evolving present moment.  It is an irreducible whole.  But as soon as we talk about it, it becomes a construct.  The behavioral contingency itself is a construct from this perspective, though it happens to be pretty useful for practical applications (see “Reinforcement Isn’t Real“).  Zazen starts to amplify this distinction.  You come to see your thoughts more for what they are – behavior in context rather than “truth.”

For a great video that ties together many of these concepts, particularly the notion of “I” or “me”, see this video from Zen master Hon Gak Sunim:

Have you practiced zazen or another form of meditation?  Tell us about it in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D, LBA is a science writer, social philosopher, behavioral systems analyst, and the President and Founder of bSci21Media, LLC, which aims to connect behavioral science to the world in an engaging, non-academic way.  Dr. Ward received his PhD in behavior analysis from the University of Nevada, Reno under Dr. Ramona Houmanfar.  He has served as a Guest Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, and as an Editorial Board member of Behavior and Social Issues.  His publications follow a theme of behavioral systems analysis, organizational performance, theory & philosophy, and language & cognition.  He has also provided ABA services to children and adults with various developmental disabilities in day centers, in-home, residential, and school settings, and previously served as Faculty Director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Dr. Ward can be reached at [email protected]

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  1. Just wanted to say thank you for writing this and I’d love to hear more about Zen through a behavior lens. It perfectly captures my own experience and I have been looking for someone who can describe what’s really going on for years.
    Your point #3 I think is what people are looking for when they think of Zen, but I’ve found your first point to be the most transformative.
    The only way I made it through my first ACT book (the classic “blue book”) is because of my background in behavior and Buddhism.
    Thank you so very much for this!

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