183 - Koans Naturales: Utilizando Nuestras Limitaciones Como Puertas del Dharma
184 - 14 Formas de Avivar tu Zazen - Parte 1

When we sit zazen, it can be difficult to remain wholehearted and attentive. Because of the momentum of habit energy, we get wrapped up in thoughts about the past and future, or we fall asleep, fantasize, or brood in worry or negative judgements. Our meditative practice (zazen) gives us nothing to concentrate on, nothing to do, so how can we enliven our zazen? In this episode I’ll discuss how to avoid duality and struggle in our zazen, and why we want to do so. Then I’ll share five ways to enliven your zazen. In the next episode I’ll describe nine more approaches, so you’ll have a nice repertoire of methods and may end up with some ideas of your own.

 

 

Quicklinks to Article Content:
The Lively Attitude of Zazen
Non-Dual Approaches to Enlivening Our Zazen
14 Ways to Enliven Your Zazen (Part 1)
1. Sit Perfectly Still
2. Be the Body
3. Nothing but the Breath
4. See What Happens
5. One Day Left to Live

 

The Lively Attitude of Zazen

Our practice of zazen, alternately called shikantaza or “just sitting,” presents us with quite a conundrum. All the instructions we get are to sit physically still and upright, and then let go of willful thinking. We’re not given any object or subject on which to concentrate – no alternative activity for the mind so we can redirect it when it wanders. Concentration and redirection are what I call “directed effort” approaches to meditation, while zazen is a “letting go” practice.

That’s all well and good, and it may sound pleasantly simple to have such a simple meditation practice. However, the vast majority of people who try it find their minds wander relentlessly while sitting. When they as a meditation teacher about this, the teacher will usually give them some kind of directed effort practice – such as following the breath, or listening to sounds, or body scanning – to get their mind a little bit under control. Such practices are fine, but if you’re really trying to explore shikantaza, you’re reminded that zazen is not about being free from thoughts, or about any particular mind state or experience. It’s about just being with whatever is happening. So if your mind is wandering, your mind is wandering. That’s what is. Simple shine the light of awareness on that.

There is validity to this “shine the light of awareness on whatever is happening” approach, but it can be very dissatisfying. Too much of that approach can also lead to complacency in sitting.

The irony is that we are looking for something in our zazen, but it’s tricky because it’s not a particular experience, mind state, skill, or ability. It’s more of an attitude we hold with our whole being – body, mind, and heart together. The attitude of zazen – physically, mentally, and emotionally – is stable without being rigid. It’s receptive, attentive, and permeable. It’s relaxed and undefended. It’s lively and energetic without having to take action. It’s appreciative and intimate without grasping or self-referential thinking.

When I say the attitude of zazen is all kind of wonderful things like relaxed and appreciative, you may immediately think this is a special state you achieve through good zazen. But an attitude is something you can choose at any given moment, and a lively, stable, attentive attitude not only leads to good zazen, it is good zazen. Your attitude and your zazen are one and the same thing. This is why Dogen says “zazen is not meditation practice.” How you do zazen is how you do everything… so the challenge of being wholehearted and present in our zazen is the challenge of being wholehearted and present in our life.

 

Non-Dual Approaches to Enlivening Our Zazen

If we want to enliven our zazen – and therefore our life – we need to take a non-dualistic, holistic approach. As Zen master Keizan says, our practice of zazen is “without struggle at all.”[i] We’re aiming for an attitude that’s incompatible with struggle and dualistic effort. Any method we employ to enliven our zazen needs to avoid discrimination between good and bad, like and dislike. We need to avoid forming ideas about some meditative state we want, and then judging each moment as to whether it meets the right criteria for good zazen. We need to refrain from approaches that are based on a belief that “I” am an “Executive-I” who can control my unruly “mind,” thereby splitting myself into parts and creating a struggle. Even if I’m successful at controlling my mind, I will be left with the sense of Executive-I on which the whole approach is premised.

Given all the dualistic approaches we need to avoid in zazen, what are we left with? Does this mean we’re doomed to be carried along by habit energy, wiling away our zazen time daydreaming, planning, worrying, and fantasizing? Do we have to passively accept our dull, sluggish, agitated, distracted, half-hearted zazen? Fortunately, the answer to these last two questions is, “No, there is a great deal we can do to enliven our zazen.”

Essentially, we need to work on our attitude toward, or “in,” zazen. This means finding ways to cultivate our willingness to sit and do absolutely nothing, while remain lively and alert. These are the two sides of a lively zazen attitude, and they are equally important. Our “small self” – a convenient label for our personal bundle of habit energy and desire – isn’t interested in zazen at all. It prefers to pursue our habitual trains of thought, whether that means we’re pondering the philosophy of life, worrying about bill we have to pay, or reviewing the plot of a TV show. If we manage to hold our mind still instead, the small self checks out because there’s nothing interesting going on while we sit. We fall asleep or drift into a low-energy, unfocused and scattered state.

When we notice the small self resisting zazen, we usually feel a temptation to call it to task – to judge ourselves, and then apply some kind of correction. Unfortunately, that just compromises our lively zazen attitude. Getting in a fight with ourselves is doomed to fail and poisons our zazen. Instead, we need to find skillful, gentle, compassionate ways to encourage ourselves to sit wholeheartedly – to relinquish habitual thoughts, and stay alert and engaged even though we have relinquished those thoughts and nothing exciting is happening (at least by the small self’s standards). Another way to say all of this is that we have to choose zazen, and there are many ways we can strengthen our desire and willingness to sit.

Before I get to my suggestions for how to enliven your zazen, note that I have deliberately avoided saying we want to “improve” our zazen. The word “improve” sets up dualistic standards and encourages striving and judgement, while “enliven” sounds more like something we’re naturally drawn to do, and which has no externally determined goal. Besides, as I have discussed before, zazen is the profound practice of utter uselessness, and it really doesn’t make any sense to talk about “improving” your ability to be useless. “Enlivening” your uselessness, though, that sounds cool.

 

14 Ways to Enliven Your Zazen (Part 1)

The approaches I describe here are just some of the ways I have enlivened my zazen over the years. The fact that I’ve come up with so many ways should make it obvious my zazen has needed lots of enlivening! I encourage you to create approaches of your own, and to switch them up whenever it’s useful. Pay attention to the results of particular method; if it stresses you out or depresses you, drop it and try a different one. You’ll know a method is useful to you if it brings about a positive shift in your attitude toward, and in, zazen – if it inspires you to surrender your habitual thinking for a while, and at the same time encourages you to stay engaged with what’s happening.

Just try to avoid employing these enlivening approaches as corrections, meaning part of you judges your zazen is lacking and then wrestles the rest of you into engaging in one of these supposedly non-dualistic approaches in order to improve your zazen. Ideally, when you notice you’ve been caught up in habit energy, pause, accept the situation, and try to tap into your sincere and authentic desire to sit. Sometimes it won’t “work” – but then you need to let go of your agenda to achieve a certain kind of experience in your zazen. We aim to walk a dynamic middle path between the extremes of striving and passivity, and we’ll often err on one side or the other. That’s just the nature of the practice.

I’ll start out with some physical approaches to enlivening your zazen, and then move on to methods that require some imagination.

 

1. Sit Perfectly Still

One way to get the small self to participate in zazen is to give it something to “do” that won’t create duality or indulge habit energy. Challenge yourself to sit perfectly still. Obviously, you’ll still need to breathe and blink and swallow, but those are automatic movements. Try to sit without moving a muscle, so that those natural movements are the only thing going on. You may end up feeling like your cells are full of energy, almost trembling as they refrain from any activity.

Encouraging the small self to sit perfectly still is like tricking kids into doing what you want them to do by making a game out of it. There’s something satisfying about having some simple task to perform, and this task is completely compatible with the non-effort of zazen because it’s about doing nothing! Additionally, because the body and mind are not separate, the stillness of the body brings greater stillness in the mind.

 

2. Be the Body

Almost all human beings (perhaps all of them) are extremely identified with our minds, including our thoughts, intentions, feelings, and judgments. We rarely identify primarily or solely with our body, unless we’re engaged in a demanding physical task that requires our full attention.

You can make zazen into a physical task like this, even though it doesn’t demand movement or skill. As you sit, settle your awareness into your fleshly presence, into your body as a whole. Think of yourself as big hunk of meat perched on your meditation seat, and much as possible be the body. Ground yourself in your awareness of the body as a whole, including its overall position in space, the position of your body parts relative to one another (proprioception), and your body’s relationship to your meditation seat. This isn’t about using awareness of physical sensations as a meditative object, it’s about inhabiting the body. As we do this, we end up identifying a little bit less with the mind – with all of its concerns and activities – and more with the body, which is much simpler and grounded in the present.

 

3. Nothing but the Breath

Nothing But the Breath does not mean counting the breath, following the breath or using the breath as a meditative object. Instead, let the breath be the most interesting thing going on in your zazen – not because it’s so fascinating in and of itself (although it can be), but because everything has receded from your sphere of concern.

The mind wants something to latch on to; when you manage, even for a moment, to release a train of thought, the mind may panic and search around desperately for some thought to fill the space. The habit energy of grasping thoughts can be offset gently by noticing there is something that’s always going on in the spaciousness of zazen, and that’s your breathing. Play a game of sorts with yourself, lowering your standards for what you consider interesting, and let there be nothing but the breath. Just as you might appreciate a cool breeze in a moment of simple, quiet relaxion, enjoy the fact that your zazen can be so relaxed there is nothing but the breath.

 

4. See What Happens

As you sit, invite yourself to “see what happens.” If you are planning to sit for 20 minutes, open yourself up to those 20 minutes – time in your short life you will never get back, never experience again. Gently arouse a sincere intention to be attentive to your life, to be as present as you can be for this short period of time.

Ordinarily, we can’t be bothered to pay much attention to what’s going on in our lives – that is, outside of our never-ending mental commentary – unless we think a situation is threatening, or presents an opportunity for pleasure or gaining an advantage. Unless what’s unfolding seems to be of particular importance to the small self, we check out, thinking, “Ah, I’ve experienced this before.” Instead of being mindful as we brush our teeth, drink our coffee, drive to work, do our grocery shopping, or sit zazen, we categorize the activity and figure we can safely navigate on autopilot while most of our awareness remains on our mental commentary – commentary that rarely has anything to do with what we’re experiencing in the moment.

Instead of writing off your 20 minutes of zazen, sit and “see what happens.” This attitude is compatible with the non-effort of zazen while also inviting a sense of curiosity and engagement. In Zen, we often call this attitude “don’t-know mind.” In reality, you have not experienced this zazen period before. In reality, you don’t know what will happen. Sure, it’s unlikely anything objectively surprising or exciting is going to happen while you’re sitting there, at least according to the typical standards we use in daily life to judge such things. However, as you sit and see what happens, you may recognize there is an infinite number of things happening, and something objectively mundane – such as the tightness in your jaw slowly relaxing, or the sound of a nearby garbage truck picking up a load – can be perceived as fascinating and precious.

 

5. One Day Left to Live

Another way to inspire yourself to pay more attention to what happens during zazen is to imagine you have only one day left to live. As vividly as possible, imagine you know your life will be ending in about 24 hours, or less, and there is nothing you can do about it. Don’t bother imagining the details of your death or what brought the situation about; imagine you feel acceptance of what’s happening and are free from fear.

Given your limited time, how do you relate to this moment? This might be the last time you ever sit zazen. Chances are, whatever you choose to do with your last 24 hours will end up seeming compelling and worth cherishing – even experiences that would previously have been annoying, like a moment of tension with a significant other, or getting caught at a red light. As you sit zazen, ask yourself what more you have yet to experience with zazen. Have you hoped to deepen your meditation? Have you longed to taste the stillness and perfection described by the buddha ancestors? This is your last chance to do so. There is no better way to fully appreciate and savor the moments you have left than to sit in zazen.

I’ll be back soon with the next episode, where I’ll share nine more approaches you can try to enliven your zazen without introducing duality or struggle into your sitting!

 


Endnote

[i] Zazen-Yojinki, by Keizan Jokin

183 - Koans Naturales: Utilizando Nuestras Limitaciones Como Puertas del Dharma
184 - 14 Formas de Avivar tu Zazen - Parte 1
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