184 - 14 Formas de Avivar tu Zazen - Parte 1
186 - Making Peace with Ghosts: Unresolved Karma and the Sejiki (Segaki) Festival

I share nine more ways to enliven your zazen without employing methods that introduce dualism and struggle into your sitting. See Episode 184 for why this is important, and for my first five approaches.

 

Read/listen to 14 Ways to Enliven Your Zazen Part 1

 

 

Quicklinks to Article Content:
6. Take a Complete Break
7. Put It on the Altar (or Put the Beaver to Sleep)
8. No Control Over the Mind
9. What Remains?
10. Stop Meditating and Just Sit There
11. Who Cares?
12. Invite All Selves to the Seat
13. Allow Yourself to Be Supported
14. What Do I Not Yet See?

 

As I discussed in the last episode, if our zazen (seated meditation) practice is shikantaza, or just sitting, it can be difficult to remain wholehearted and attentive. Our meditative practice (zazen) gives us nothing to concentrate on, nothing to do, so it can be easy to get carried along by habit energy. We get wrapped up in thoughts about the past and future, or we fall asleep, fantasize, ruminate, worry, or brood. How can we enliven our sitting without employing approaches that create dualism and struggle, thereby chasing away the wholehearted presence we long for? In the last episode I described five ways you can do this, and in this episode, I’ll share nine more, for a total of 14. I hope you’ll find these suggestions helpful, and, if not, that you’ll be inspired to create some approaches of you own for enlivening your zazen.

 

6. Take a Complete Break

When you’re all caught up in thinking in zazen, you may conceive of a naughty, unruly mind which you – the “Executive-I” can’t control very well. If you approach the situation more holistically, owning and accepting all the competing desires and inclinations within you, you may notice that the compulsively active mind is just trying to take care of you. Your poor mind labors under the delusion that it needs to manage everything: Ceaselessly anticipating, planning, analyzing, and judging. Even when you have nothing you need to do, your mind goes into “default mode,” churning over self-referential thoughts.

When sitting zazen, invite yourself to take a complete break. There’s absolutely nothing you need to do or take care for the next 20 or 30 minutes, or however long you’ve set aside for sitting. If there is something you need to do, then you ought to be doing that instead of sitting zazen! If you’re sitting, it’s a total delusion that your mind has to be working.

Whatever you find yourself thinking about, gently recognize it and remind yourself that this is your time for a complete and utter break. Remind yourself you can pick that concern up again as soon as your zazen is over and mull over it all day if you want to! If you compassionately invite your mind to take a break, you may be able to perceive the compulsion that lies behind much of your mental activity. It turns out the small self really does appreciate a rest, it just has a hard time believing it’s okay to stop working for a while.

 

7. Put It on the Altar (or Put the Beaver to Sleep)

If your small self resists taking a break while sitting and continues to pursue trains of thought, come up with a creative visualization to help ease its sense of compulsion. For example, when a thought – or train of thoughts – arises in zazen, take a moment to recognize it (“planning grocery list,” or “worrying I will lose my job”), and then imagine placing that concern on your altar, or in some conspicuous place where you will see it later. As you do this, you compassionately acknowledge your small self’s effort at service, and promise it that – at some point after sitting – you will give the concern back to the small self to wrestle with, like giving a toy back to a child after a nap.

sitting

A beaver happily resting

Alternatively, you might imagine your small-self mind as a busy beaver, rushing about here and there, working away. Invite the beaver to take a short nap, and imagine it lying sprawled out on its back quietly snoring (I actually found a picture of a sleeping beaver for the website), ready to leap into action again soon.

 

8. No Control Over the Mind

Pretend you have no control whatsoever over your mind. This is actually much closer to reality than our habitual conception that the part of us who wants to meditate functions as an “Executive-I” who would be able to control every aspect of our behavior and experience if we could only summon enough willpower to do it.

As you sit, observe the comings and goings of your mind just as you might observe the water rushing by in a stream, or the activity of a colony of ants. When you realize you’ve been caught up in thoughts, refrain from taking any responsibility for that situation whatsoever. You were caught up in thoughts, and then your awareness turned back to the present moment. In another minute or so, you’ll probably be caught up in thoughts again. Relate to this phenomena as if you have no control over the mind – and don’t need to control the mind.

While you may still experience much thinking while sitting, this approach helps change your relationship to thinking, reducing your sense of struggle and inadequacy. It sometimes also deprives your thinking of energy. It’s almost like the mind enjoys getting away with something by filling up your zazen with thoughts; if you invite the mind to think, and then settle in non-judgmentally to watch it think, sometimes the mind will suddenly lose all interest in the activity!

 

9. What Remains?

You may be tempted, in zazen, to think, “A moment ago, I was caught up in thinking and wasn’t even present. Now I have come back to the present moment.”

This is nothing other than identification with the skandha of consciousness. There is no denying there’s a difference between our experience when we’re aware of what’s going on around us versus when our awareness is limited to our running mental commentary. However, a central Buddhist teaching is that the self can’t be located in any of the five skandhas, or elements of a human being, which are the body, sensations, feelings, mental formations, and consciousness. None of these are the self, nor can the self be found in any collection of these elements. To identify with any of them causes suffering, because they are subject to constant change and can’t be grasped.

It is a fallacy that “you” were somewhere else when you were caught up in thought. “You” are not synonymous with the conscious realization “I am here now.” When you were caught up in thought, what was your body doing? It was still sitting. It was still fulfilling your spiritual intention to sit. When you were caught up in thought, was there a “you?” Or did “you” disappear entirely, only to zap back into existence when you became mindful of the present moment again? If your self comes and goes, is it a self? Are you the same self after becoming conscious again, or a different self?

A positive way to challenge your dualistic, self-referential conclusions about zazen is to ask yourself, “When I am caught up in thinking, what remains?” The answer to this is experiential, not something we can pin down with language. Your true self-nature is no self-nature. When you are caught up in thinking, no thing remains that can be identified as self, but at the same time everything remains. Nothing whatsoever is removed from the picture when “you” get caught up in thought.

 

10. Stop Meditating and Just Sit There

Even though you’re repeatedly told to “just sit” in zazen, you probably can’t believe that’s really all there is to it. Chances are, at the very least you’re sitting there trying to be in the present moment or trying to let the mind settle or even trying out the various approaches I just shared in order to enliven your zazen! Sometimes it’s helpful to remind yourself to stop meditating and just sit there. Really.

Imagine you’re seeking help for a mental or physical illness and a professional you trust assures you that you’ll find some relief if you go into a particular room and sit there for 20-30 minutes. There is something about this room – the materials with which it’s constructed, some kind of sonic machines in its walls, or its location relative to some energy center in the earth. Any amount of time spent in this room is beneficial, but it the benefit is greatly increased if you sit still, relax as much as you can, and refrain from distracting yourself with reading, watching, or listening to anything. You want the good stuff to be able to do its work on you.

As you sit, there is nothing you have to do. It’s the easiest task in the world. Just chill. Just be human. Just be who you are, where you are. That’s zazen. You might think this approach would result in lots of mind wandering, but if you try it, ask yourself whether your mind wanders any more than it would if you were trying to meditate!

 

11. Who Cares?

If you find yourself at all concerned with how well you are sitting, or if you find yourself bored or disappointed in your experience, try asking yourself, “Who cares?” Ideally this attitude shift will feel like poking yourself in a friendly way to make you laugh and not take yourself so seriously. You may find part of you automatically rising up in response, saying, “I care! This is my life! I don’t want to waste it. I don’t want just sit here and waste my time. I want to experience some of that cool spaciousness people talk about. I want to ‘come home and sit in peace’ like Zen master Keizan described. My life is stressful and I need some peace and quiet.”

Presumably, if you’re sitting zazen, you care at least a little bit about your experience while sitting there. There’s no denying we practice in order relieve suffering and increase happiness, wisdom, and compassion. However, when we strive for these things – or at least, passively hope for these things – in zazen, we are motivated by the small self and are caught up in dualistic thinking. When our “caring” starts to cause dukkha – stress, dis-ease, dissatisfactoriness – we’re missing the mark.

In reality, the peace and stillness we long for is immediately accessible to us, surrounding us like water surrounds a fish. The way to enjoy that peace does not involve the kind of effort we’re used to making in almost all other areas of our lives. Instead, self-transcendence can open us up to it. See if you can imagine yourself into a lighthearted attitude of “who cares:” Who cares about “your” meditation experience? There is no “you” who has good or lame meditative experiences, anyway.

You can also examine the phrase in a different way, with the emphasis on who: “Who is it who cares?” See if you can intuit that there is no who behind the caring, and that the small self is one and the same thing as the self-referential concern – nothing more, nothing less.

 

12. Invite All Selves to the Seat

Modern psychology is beginning to agree with Buddhism in that we can’t really be said to have a self, but instead we have many competing modules within us. Part of us evolved to create connections with others, and part of us evolved to compete with them. Part of us conceives of spiritual practice, another part seeks pleasure.

When you sit zazen, you’re probably primarily identified with the part of you that aspires to spiritual practice. This part – let’s call it your spiritual seeker – has some idea of self-discipline, and regrets the times that you are lazy, pleasure-seeking, angry, judgmental, etc. Your spiritual seeker sets the agenda for zazen and expects the other parts of you to comply. Like an ineffectual teacher in a second-grade classroom, your spiritual seeker repeats its requests over and over, getting more and more frustrated as many other parts of you run roughshod over everything.

Part of you wants to ruminate on past injuries inflicted by other people in order to plot your revenge. Part of you has grand plans for improving your life or making a lot of money. Part of you is utterly simpleminded and amused by almost anything, including goofy animal videos you can replay in your mind. Part of you just wants to chill out and wishes your spiritual seeker would knock it off.

When your zazen seems particularly chaotic or full of opposition, try inviting all of these selves (or parts of your self) to join you on the meditation seat. Don’t insist, invite. Consider what each self wants, and see if you can get it interested in zazen. Accept the part of you that wants to ruminate, and compassionately acknowledge the hurt and fear behind that compulsion. Invite the ambitious self to rest, reminding it that it will be more effective if it does so. Refrain from judging the silly or lazy parts of yourself, instead embracing them affectionately as if they were good-hearted but impractical friends. The wholeheartedness we seek in zazen can only be achieved if we invite all of these “selves” to participate.

 

13. Allow Yourself to Be Supported

Most of the time, we’re caught up in our self-referential concerns and imagine ourselves to be in a struggle with most of what we encounter in our life. There is work to be done, problems to be fixed, relationships to sorted, challenges to be met. Zazen can become another thing we have to do, and we sit there doing as best we can.

Alternatively, try opening up to how you are being supported in an infinite number of ways at this very moment. The idea that you’re going it on your own is a complete delusion. We are supported by gravity, the earth beneath us, and air to breathe. The sun rises and sets, the trees and plants grow, insects pollinate our food crops, and people harvest the crops and food ends up available to you. Your heart keeps beating, your lungs keep absorbing oxygen and emitting carbon dioxide. None of this happens because of the efforts of your small self.

When you open up your perception to how you are being supported, you may find yourself relaxing a little, more able to let go of the compulsion to think. Imagine yourself into an attitude of trust and gratitude, and you’re likely to notice more and more reasons to feel that way. Even the dandelion growing outside your door contributes to the landscape of your one, precious life.

 

14. What Do I Not Yet See?

Finally: As you sit, ask yourself “What do I not yet see?” Or, “What do I not yet perceive?” The answer to this, no matter how smart or spiritual you are, is “pretty much everything.”

Our limited view and experience are not something to be ashamed about or a problem to be solved. Instead, we can acknowledge our view will always be limited, while at the same time cultivating awe and respect for the myriad aspects of reality we haven’t even dreamed of.

Zen master Dogen describes the relationship between our perception and reality in his essay, Genjokoan. He says when we go out in a boat on a body of water, far enough that we lose sight of land, we perceive the water as a circle. Dogen doesn’t mention this, but I imagine being in that boat and thinking, “Wow, look at the ocean.” I think about it primarily as the surface of the water, which extends in a flat disc around me in all directions.

Dogen points out, however, that “the ocean is neither round nor square. It has inexhaustible characteristics. [To a fish] it looks like a palace; [to a heavenly being] a jeweled necklace. [To us] as far as our eyes can see, it looks like a circle.”[i] To the creatures who live in the ocean, it is as vast and multi-dimensional as any landscape on the land. To a being looking down from the heavens, the sparkling body of water is only one of many, spread out like jewels.

Dogen continues, “All the myriad things are like this. Within the dusty world and beyond, there are innumerable aspects and characteristics; we only see or grasp as far as the power of our eye of study and practice can see. When we listen to the reality of myriad things, we must know that there are inexhaustible characteristics in both ocean and mountains, and there are many other worlds in the four directions. This is true not only in the external world, but also right under our feet or within a single drop of water.”

We know this to be true, even at an intellectual level. A drop of pond water can contain dozens of creatures going about their lives. One molecule of water contains a universe of atomic particles. Out in space, there are too many galaxies to count.

As you sit in zazen, invite your mind to open. There is no need to go hunting for new things, just contemplate the vastness of what you don’t know, what you have not yet experienced. With humility and curiosity, just ask, “What?”

 


Endnote

[i] Okumura, Shohaku. Realizing Genjokoan: The Key to Dogen’s Shobogenzo. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2010.

 

184 - 14 Formas de Avivar tu Zazen - Parte 1
186 - Making Peace with Ghosts: Unresolved Karma and the Sejiki (Segaki) Festival
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