Read/listen to Zazen Part 1

In this episode, I cover how to deal with stimulus-independent thinking during meditation, how to stay engaged and energetic while doing a practice that’s essentially doing nothing, and how to maintain a zazen practice over time.


Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
Dealing with Thinking during Zazen
Keeping Yourself Fully Engaged in Just Sitting
“Just Sitting” with Great Determination and Energy
Having Something to Do in Zazen
Returning to Our Natural State
Maintaining a Zazen Practice over Time

Dealing with Thinking during Zazen

If you’ve tried zazen (or any other kind of meditation), you’ll know that even if you really want to meditate, and you fully intend to be present without agenda for the whole period of meditation, you’re still liable to get caught up in thinking – usually many, many times over the course of a meditation period. What can you do about it?

In zazen, when we realize we’ve been caught up in thinking, we try not to react at all. We just return to wholeheartedly sitting. A classic analogy for this is trying to hold a bowl of water very still. If you shake, or the wind blows, the water will be disturbed, but there’s nothing you can actively do to make the water calm again. Any motion you make, like patting the surface of the water, will only make things worse; the only thing you can do is hold still. Stimulus-independent thinking is like the turbulence in the water, and absorbing yourself in just sitting is like holding the bowl still. Patting the surface of the water is analogous to evaluating your meditation and mulling over how to improve it, feeling frustrated with your mind or with yourself, judging thinking as being bad, or even trying to hold your mind on something in rigid way in order to brace yourself against stimulus-independent thinking.

Another analogy – one that works better for some people – is sitting on the shore of a river with the intention of simply relaxing enjoying the scenery. As you sit, boats pass by on the river. You enjoy just watching, but every once in a while you get excited, jump on one of the boats, and ride away on it. In this analogy, simply sitting and experiencing is zazen, the boats are your thoughts, and jumping on a boat is getting “carried away” by your thoughts. Even if there are lots of boats going by on the river (thoughts passing through your mind), that doesn’t have to disrupt your intention. And when you find that you’ve ridden a boat for a while, you just get out and return to your spot by the river.

The second you realize you’ve been caught up in thinking, that’s great – you’re no longer caught up! You’ve woken up to what’s happening in the present! Even if you had totally forgotten you were even meditating, even if you spent 15 minutes planning an elaborate meal you want to cook next week, simply be grateful that you remembered your intention to meditate and let go of past as quickly as possible. Forget about your previous mind-wandering as if it doesn’t matter at all, and throw your energy into just sitting. It may seem like it will help to strain harder, feel regret, or try to figure out what’s wrong with your zazen, but those things just make it worse.

This “forget about it and keep sitting” approach may seem foolhardy – as if you’re working on a practice but forbidden how to learn how to get better at it. But zazen isn’t ordinary effort; it’s more about not doing than doing. When you realize you’ve been doing (thinking, striving) all you can do is not do. More doing (such as thinking about how to meditate better) isn’t going to help at all.

It’s often observed in Zen that our brain keeps generating thoughts like a gland produces hormones. Fortunately, this doesn’t have to be a problem for our zazen. It can be frustrating, but in practice, the moment of letting go – of realizing you were off in la-la land, letting go of worrying about that, and just returning to the simple act of wholeheartedly sitting – is quite relaxing and profound. If you can do this just a few times over the course of a meditation period, it is very beneficial.

Keeping Yourself Fully Engaged in Just Sitting

Part of the reason your mind wanders during zazen is because your mental habit of engaging in stimulus-independent thinking is very strong. I described stimulus-independent thinking in the last episode; basically, it’s thinking unrelated to what you’re experiencing at a given moment, and you’re liable to engage in stimulus-independent thinking whenever you’re not actively engaged in a task or being entertained.

As we sit zazen, we’re very inclined to think, “Eh, nothing is happening,” or “I know what’s going to happen next, I’ve experienced this a million times,” or “I don’t really need my mind for a task this simple.” Then we check out and think about other things.

How can you keep yourself mentally engaged in just sitting? To some extent, you need to answer this question for yourself, through the process of trial and error. What motivates me to pay attention may be something different than what motivates you. But think about it – there are certain times and tasks where you don’t have any trouble at all paying attention. When you find something interesting, exciting, unexpected, pleasurable, challenging, or useful, you naturally concentrate on it.

The traditional Buddhist way of motivating yourself to pay attention to the present moment is to contemplate impermanence. You’re aware, intellectually, that your life may end at any time and everything you love is slowly but surely (or not so slowly) changing. If you allow yourself to contemplate this reality deeply (without getting morbid or depressing yourself), this very moment ends up seeming much more interesting and valuable than it usually does. Imagine the attention and appreciation you would give to your direct experience if you knew this was your last day on earth! Even things you usually think are boring or even annoying would be strangely precious.

It may also be helpful to think of your act of paying attention to your present experience in zazen as an act of devotion. We usually filter all of our experiences through our self-concern. We think, “Is what’s going on relevant to me? Is it pleasurable, or is there some advantage I can gain by paying attention?” We tend to tune things out or anticipate things based on our self-interest, and neglect working on our ability to be aware and present with whatever life is bringing us at this moment. Your life is sacred – in the sense that it’s worthy of great respect and reverence – just as it is. Each moment of it has value in and of itself, regardless of how it contributes to your overall goals and desires. Spending time in zazen is an acknowledgment of that fact.

“Just Sitting” with Great Determination and Energy

Unfortunately, when doing shikantaza, it’s easy to fall into the trap of complacency or dullness. If we’re really just sitting – not even hoping to feel calm, happy, thought-free, or whatever – we’re inclined to check out. Rather than being taut with energy and interest, living this moment as if our life may end tomorrow, we go slack. Our bodies remain propped up in the seated posture but we daydream or tune out.

The good thing is, just physically sitting there still has benefits! I fell asleep every time I sat zazen for the first several years I practiced it. Let me assure you, I was not doing anything the least bit useful on the meditation cushion! Strangely, the practice of zazen still made a big difference in my life. Go figure! This leads me to believe that regardless of how focused our meditation is, it’s deeply transformative to take some time every day – or every few days – to literally put everything else aside and, at least technically, just sit.

That said, deepening your zazen can make it more enjoyable, and it can also help you gain insight into your life. In an essay on zazen, twelfth-century Japanese Zen master Eihei Dogen wrote, “Mindful of the passing of time, engage yourself in zazen as though saving your head from fire.” That is, sit as if your hair is on fire and wholehearted zazen is the only way to put it out. (Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo, translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi) How you do “nothing but sit” with that kind of energy and determination?

In order to deepen your zazen, you have to find a way to grasp your will without bringing an agenda into your sitting. It’s very tricky, but you need to make great effort without ruining your zazen by trying to make something happen or trying to get something out of it.

Having Something to Do in Zazen

It helps us as human beings to have something to do – some place to put our effort and energy, or some direction to aim. In shikantaza we are trying to do nothing, so in a sense we can put great effort into trying to do less and less and less. Our “just sitting” can get more and more refined as we recognize all the subtle ways we’re still separating ourselves from our direct experience, or still clinging to agendas and concepts, and let them go.

However, it’s usually not very motivating to tell yourself to “do less.” That might work for you – go ahead and try it! For me, the invitation to “do less” invites me to let up on my effort and go slack.

Here’s another, somewhat more positive or proactive way to channel your effort: Can you sink below the level of thinking and become aware of your direct experience of each and every moment, without wavering? So you don’t miss a thing? Not one sound, or sensation, or passing thought?

Sinking below the level of thinking is not dullness, where your awareness is dispersed or sleepy and you don’t really even notice what you’re doing. Rather, to sink below thinking is to pay attention to your somatic experience of sitting there, using your faculty of awareness. Your ability to be aware in this way doesn’t depend on thinking at all. The great thing is, as long as you’re aware in this way and not caught up in thinking, you don’t care about agendas or the passage of time. If you can settle into that way of being, you don’t need to motivate yourself to pay attention. You just are, in a very vital, calm, present, appreciative way.

In Zen practice, we aim to become more and more familiar with this aware-but-not-thinking way of being, which is zazen itself. We aim to be able and willing to rest here for longer and longer periods of time. And yet – and this is tough! – we aim without creating an agenda, without conceiving of a goal (such as, “I want to spend x amount of time in this state each meditation period,” or even, “I want to spend more and more time in this state”). When we create an agenda or conceive of a goal – as much sense as that seems to make, as tempting as it might be – we just create obstacles to zazen.

I know, it’s crazy. To deepen our zazen we have to try really hard (as if our hair is on fire!), aim to sink below the level of thinking, and then stay there, aware of our direct experience without missing a moment – but we can’t care how well we’re doing at this task!

Returning to Our Natural State

Zazen is difficult, but not for the reasons we think. We think it’s difficult because we’re not trying hard enough, or we’re haven’t figured out the right way to do it yet. But it’s difficult precisely because in zazen we’re aiming to return to a natural state of simple, open awareness.

Issho Fujita sensei (see the show notes for a link to his writings on zazen) offers this analogy: Imagine you’re holding a bamboo stick by the ends and then applying pressure so the stick bends. If you want to allow the stick to return to its natural state, all you have to do is release the pressure you’re applying. This bent state is our ordinary way of operating; we think it’s the way we have to be, the way things need to be, but it isn’t true. Our conscious efforts, self-interest, and discriminative thinking are extra things we add to our experience, like bending the bamboo stick. In order to allow our minds to return to a natural state of awareness, all we need to do is relax the extra effort we’re making.

But we all know it’s not so easy to “relax” or “be natural!” Habits are strong. For example, what happens when someone tells you to breathe naturally? It becomes more difficult to breathe naturally! So relaxing into our natural state of open awareness is not so easy for us. This is why zazen is difficult and requires almost Herculean effort – but not our usual kind of effort. If we strive harder, if we try to make something happen (or not happen), we are just applying more pressure to the bamboo stick. A significant part of our Herculean effort is becoming more and more subtly attuned to our experience so we can begin to recognize the extra things we are adding to our experience, and learn to let them go.

Maintaining a Zazen Practice over Time

First, where and when should you do zazen, and for how long? Generally speaking, it’s best to do it in a quiet, private space that’s not too warm or too cold. Your surroundings definitely don’t have to be silent, but it can be difficult to do zazen, especially if you’re a beginner, if you can overhear music, television, or conversations. In terms of timing, ideally you can find a time of day when you’re not too tired, and you won’t be interrupted. If you’re busy you may not have a lot of choice about when you do zazen, so just do your best. A daily meditation period of 30-40 minutes – or even longer – is ideal, but this is like exercise: Better to do a little of it than not to do it at all because you think you don’t have the time! Even 5-10 minutes a few times a week is good.

Second, don’t worry too much about whether you’re doing zazen “right.” An incredibly important part of the process of zazen is getting to know your own, unique mind and how you can manage to get yourself to settle below the level of thinking for a while. We keep learning about, developing, and strengthening our zazen over a lifetime. In this sense, zazen is like a martial art or some other kind of discipline – there are many levels of mastery, but the practice of the art is valuable all the way along. If you do your best and engage it with energy and curiosity, there’s no way to do it “wrong.”

Third, consider sitting zazen with others, if you live anywhere near a meditation group. Just as a gym membership or regular yoga class can keep you exercising, participation in a group can help motivate you and keep you practicing. Also, most groups have a teacher you can ask about your zazen; most of us who practice it regularly need some personal guidance. If you don’t live anywhere near a teacher, feel free to send your questions to me through Zen Studies Podcast website!

Finally, your conscious evaluation of your meditation – whether you’re good at it, or whether it makes you feel calm, or whether you like it – doesn’t matter all that much. Zazen affects you at many different levels, including physical and subconscious. The best thing is to make a regular practice of it and see what difference it makes in your life.



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