I propose there are two paths to meditative concentration: directed effort (what the Buddha taught) and letting go (something we do in Soto Zen). One path or the other may work better for some people. In this second episode of two I describe the “letting go” path in some detail: What it involves, how it (ironically) requires great “effort,” and why it works.
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Quicklinks to Content:
Shikantaza: A Meditative Practice of Letting Go
Zazen as a Somatic Practice
We’ve Got to Put a lot of Effort into Letting Go
Working on Your Willingness
Inhabiting Your Physical Experience More and More Completely
How Letting Go Works Its Magic
Which Path to Take? A Note for Students and Teachers
This is the second episode of two on what I’m calling “Two Paths to Meditative Concentration: Directed Effort Versus Letting Go.” In the first episode I briefly discussed meditative concentration, or samadhi – what it is, what it feels like, and why it’s important in Buddhism. I talked about the “directed effort method” of developing meditative concentration – the method taught by the Buddha himself – and how that practice is supposed to work.
Then I confessed how my own success using the directed effort method over the last 20-plus years of Zen practice has been extremely limited, and introduced a different method of developing the concentration necessary for insight and transformation – the “letting go” method. The letting go method has plenty of support from Buddhist masters of the past and present, particularly in Chan or Zen. However, I believe the “letting go” approach is underemphasized in the west, even in a tradition like Soto Zen where it’s supposedly the essence of our practice, so in the last episode I discussed a little about why I think that is (namely, western teachers tend to believe you have to discipline the mind – at least somewhat – before letting go, plus we have a strong cultural bias against a practice that might sound aimless and lazy).
In this episode I go into more detail about “letting go” as a path to meditative concentration. If you’re someone who has largely employed the directed effort approach because it works for you, I hope you’ll gain some respect for the letting go method. If you’re someone for whom directed effort doesn’t work, I hope you’ll be inspired to dive deeply into letting go – because, far from being aimless and lazy, letting go is a profound, holistic, and effective practice. If you’re a meditation teacher, I hope you’ll consider letting your students know there are two paths to samadhi.
Note: I’ll be talking about the practice of letting go mostly in terms of meditation – specifically, zazen – and how it gradually leads to settling the mind. However, in this approach our meditation is a microcosm of our whole practice and life, so the same principles apply – and are very effective – in terms of practice off the meditation seat.
I could fill this episode with references from Chan and Zen teachers – past and present – who recommend the “letting go” approach to meditation and practice. In last episode I mentioned the Thai monk Buddhadhasa, the Chan master Sheng Yen, and Soto Zen master Dogen. Off the top of my head, I can add to that list 14th century Soto Zen master Keizan, 17th-century Japanese Zen master Bankei, 20th-century Zen master Kodo Sawaki Roshi and the subsequent teachers in his lineage including Uchiyama Roshi, contemporary Zen teacher Issho Fujita. I’m sure there are many more Chan and Zen sources than that, not to mention support for “letting go” approaches found in other forms of Buddhism, including Jodo Shin Shu, or Pure Land Buddhism.
I’ll cite the words of other Buddhist teachers periodically, but for the most part I want to give you a sense of how “letting go” is actually practiced as a deadly-serious part of a diligent effort to develop samadhi, open to insight, and lead a life marked by greater wisdom and compassion.
Shikantaza: A Meditative Practice of Letting Go
First, let me describe zazen – specifically shikantaza, or “just sitting” – as a meditative practice of letting go. As I mentioned in the last episode, when people are taught this form of meditation in the west, they’re usually told to do breath-following-or-counting first, in order to calm the mind. The idea is that the average person’s mind is so busy and undisciplined, they can’t meditate properly (or in a way that will benefit them much) unless they first learn to concentrate – at least a little. I’m not so sure that’s true, although I don’t yet have the hard evidence to prove it.
From my own experience and after teaching Zen for about ten years, I’m inclined to agree with Issho Fujita sensei that zazen as a letting go practice can stand by itself, at least for some of us. In fact, Fujita argues that Zen master Dogen and other respected Soto Zen ancestors never intended directed effort methods to be applied to zazen. In his essay, “Fukanzazengi,” Dogen states, “zazen is not meditation practice.” Fujita explains (in his book Polishing a Tile[i]) that, in this case, “meditation practice” is a translation of the Japanese word “shuzen.” “Shu” means “train,” and “zen” means Dhyana, or meditation. Dogen says specifically, “zazen is not shuzen” – or, in other words, sitting the way Dogen recommends is not the same thing as training the mind in meditation. Fujita writes:
“I realized that when people tried to do zazen based on the shuzen-like assumption they first physically sat down with a certain posture and then applied some mental technique (with emphasis on the mental technique). They thought they had to do some psychological work in addition to physically sitting. But zazen should be practiced within a totally different framework.”
What is the totally different framework for practicing zazen as letting go? The answer to that is delightfully but also frustratingly simple: When we call our method “shikantaza,” or “just sitting,” we mean it. We just physically sit there, and let go of worrying about anything else, including the content of our minds or the quality of our meditation practice. This sounds like it wouldn’t be practice at all – that we’d just end up sitting there, indulging our mental habit patterns and daydreaming. However, if we really abandon ourselves to the practice of just sitting, the whole process takes care of itself.
Zazen as a Somatic Practice
I imagine there are other “letting go” practices out there, Buddhist and non-Buddhist, and I’m not sure what makes them effective, but the key to shikantaza is the fact it’s a somatic practice. That means it’s a physical practice, but not in the sense that it excludes the mind. We’re embodied beings, and ultimately there’s no separation between mind and body, anyway. So, the most important aspect of shikantaza is, literally, just sitting there. Of course, we’re deliberately just sitting; zazen doesn’t magically arise every time our butt hits a chair or cushion. We deliberately sit by holding an upright posture and holding as still as we can. We’ve made a conscious choice to dedicate a certain amount of time to just sitting, and somehow that’s enough to make our experience – at least potentially – very different than it is when we’re buzzing about our daily lives, mostly on autopilot.
When we recognize our mind has just been wandering, we don’t do anything whatsoever about it – not even “return our awareness to the present” (we’ve already become aware of the present anyway). We don’t even “let go of the thought.” In fact, our inclination to do something to affect our experience is very strong, so if we’re not careful, we’ll find subtler and subtler ways to try and make it calm and peaceful, different than our usual chaotic stream of consciousness. In order to avoid even the slightest attempt to manipulate your experience, it can help to imagine the exact opposite – gently embracing your current reality, even if you were just daydreaming, fantasizing, analyzing, sleeping, or whatever. The transition between one state and the next, ideally, does nothing to excite our will.
Then what? What do you do while you’re sitting there? Surely, you’ve got to do something, right? It would be mind-numbingly boring to sit there without any meditative technique to apply yourself to! Actually, zazen can be deeply relaxing and pleasant. Because the only thing you need to do is hold still and sit upright, your brain’s higher functions really aren’t needed. If you observe carefully, you’ll notice that when you get lost in thought it’s because you’re still trying to figure stuff out, plan, entertain yourself, or avoid your current reality. In other words, your will is engaged in habitual mental activity. You don’t need to stop that mental activity directly or indirectly. All you need to do is remember your only task at the moment is to chill out and sit there, like you knew how to do when you were a little kid, sitting somewhere in the sunshine on a beautiful day, letting time pass. This can be difficult, ironically, because, as adults, we rarely operate this way, but in another sense zazen couldn’t be easier.
You don’t need to do anything to interrupt the flow of thoughts if you sit wholeheartedly, because the very act of sitting itself states your intention. No mental gymnastics required. Our body is always firmly rooted in reality, and in zazen we learn to rely on it. Because many of us are so focused on, and identified with, our mental experience, it can be helpful to think of zazen as just physical. What if someone taught you meditation and assured you it was a very beneficial practice, and that you’d reap all the benefits by simply physical sitting upright and keeping still – what if they didn’t teach you any mental techniques whatsoever? What if they implied the mind wasn’t involved at all? When I sit and imagine this, it makes my mental experience seem much, much less important – and, consequently, my mind settles down because it’s no longer the center of attention, or tasked with doing anything.
It’s essential, in letting go practice, to recognize meditation as a somatic practice is not practicing mindfulness of the body with directed effort. Chan master Sheng Yen explains the difference in the book The Method of No-Method: The Chan Practice of Silent Illumination:
“…In just sitting, you keep your awareness in the total sensation of your body sitting there. Stay with totality of that awareness; do not become caught up in any particulars. Being aware of the particulars of the body is practicing mindfulness, but we are not practicing mindfulness; we are practicing Silent Illumination. Remember also that you are not practicing mindfulness of breath. Breath is certainly a sensation, but it is merely a part of your total body sensation.”[ii]
And you’re not even “concentrating” on your “total body sensation” in a directed effort way. As Fujita sensei explains:
“Another helpful hint for me in clarifying the difference between zazen and shuzen is Uchiyama Roshi’s definition of zazen. He says it is ‘an effort to continuously aim at a correct sitting posture with flesh and bones and to totally leave everything to that.’ In his definition there is no shuzen element which assumes the central role of mind in shuzen practice. In opposition, the somatic element of zazen is strongly emphasized… In this kind of practice, to do zazen means just to sit solely aiming at a correct posture. There is no other need to reach a certain state of mind as a goal or to attain a special experience. Therefore we are freed from anxiety and frustration which comes from seeking for a special state of mind and experience which we have not yet attained and are able to peacefully rest in the here-and-now as it is, nothing special.”
And yet, although in letting go practice we “peacefully rest in the here-and-now as it is, nothing special,” this practice does lead to something precious beyond description. When we stop seeking anything special whatsoever and settle into here-and-now as it is, we experience the rather inexplicable benefits of meditation (the description that seems to resonate with most people is it just makes us saner), plus we make an inviting lap for the samadhi cat, as I described in the last episode.
We’ve Got to Put a lot of Effort into Letting Go
The danger in using the letting go approach to practice is complacency and dullness, of course. This happens when – consciously or not – we peacefully rest in our idea of the here-and-now instead of in the actual here-and-now. As I said in the last episode, according to Buddhism you need to settle way down compared to your usual way of operating in order to at least temporarily drop the thick, almost opaque filter of preconceived ideas usually standing between you and everything you perceive. This is what allows you to see reality more clearly and directly, opening the door to liberating insight.
As human beings, we have to have some purpose, some reason for staying awake, let alone paying close attention or staying with a challenging activity. In the directed effort method of practice, you fight complacency and dullness by devoting yourself to some goal in terms of practice, or diligently sticking to a meditation technique.
What on earth can you do to enliven letting go practice? Fortunately, this is not at all the problem it appears to be, although it can be tricky to learn to put a lot of effort into letting go. One of the keys, as I see it, is to devote yourself to effort that unifies instead of divides. In other words, you diligently explore ways to just sit or just be more and more completely, sincerely, and wholeheartedly, rather than pitting one part of yourself (your sense of “Executive I,” or will) against other parts (your unruly mind, your achy body, etc.). I’m sure the ways you can learn to just sit more completely are infinite, but there are two basic ways I’ve found which actually open up into rich fields of practice in and of themselves: 1) Working on your willingness, and 2) inhabiting your physical experience more and more completely.
Working on Your Willingness
Letting go practice invites us to practically and directly give up our attachment to our conscious sense-of-self. In our deceptively simple attempt to give up any conscious control over our experience whatsoever (apart from the very simple act of sitting still and upright), we’re depriving our conscious sense-of-self of any significant role. It might provide some commentary on what’s going on (which is possibly the primary evolutionary purpose of our self-consciousness, according to Robert Wright in Why Buddhism Is True[iii]), but that commentary is so irrelevant and unimportant we don’t even try to get rid of it. It’s when we’re operating free of attachment to our conscious sense-of-self that we experience directly how our sense-of-self is empty of inherent existence, and how the unfolding of our lives is utterly unlike what we usually think it is, paving the way for samadhi and insight.
However, it’s not so easy to let go of your attachment to your conscious sense-of-self! The process of letting go runs counter to your self-preservation instincts and therefore the practice of it arouses great resistance. Zazen and the practice of letting go forces us to face what we perceive as an existential threat: We’re convinced our conscious sense-of-self is us, so we hold on to it as if to life itself. Our conscious sense-of-self looks out for us – figuring out how to make unpleasant things go away and make pleasant things stay, planning how to take care of our well-being and that of our loved ones, making sense of what’s happening, the list goes on. Our very survival seems dependent on the activity of our conscious sense-of-self, let alone our happiness! In fact, at a deep level our very existence – alive or dead, happy or unhappy – seems intimately tied to our sense of self, and we desperately want it to remain alive and well. We desperately hope – despite lots of evidence to the contrary – that’s it’s in charge of our life.
In our discomfort with letting go, we spend our time on the meditation seat (or off of it) doing just about anything else. We compulsively plan and analyze. We imagine future scenarios, or evaluate our meditation, practice, and lives. We struggle to understand. Or, if it’s not our will that’s activated, we daydream about random things or fall asleep because we’re bored. Boredom is a very fascinating phenomenon that simply means we’ve tolerated a neutral experience longer than we want to, and are craving something that will give us more pleasure or excitement. When we’re really settled into the somatic practice of zazen, there is no boredom at all.
So, all the things we experience on the meditation seat other than letting go are simply our resistance to the practice, based on attachment, fear, and delusion. The pivotal piece of this way of looking at practice is this: It’s all us. It’s not that you really want to meditate or concentrate, and you have the difficult task of trying to discipline your unruly mind. You don’t calm your mind by concentrating on “the body.” Instead, in reality, your will to meditate is part of you, your mental tendencies and experience are part of you, your boredom is part of you, your body is part of you, your conscious sense-of-self is part of you – and no one part is complete control. Consequently, we can’t will ourselves into letting go; sadly, the “Executive I” is an illusion.
In letting go practice, instead of dividing ourselves into parts and identifying with one of them, we take responsibility for the whole shebang. Instead of willing ourselves to let go, we have to work patiently and gradually on our willingness. If your mind wanders a lot on the mediation seat, it’s because you – or at least part of you – wants to think. If you fall asleep, it’s probably because you’re bored (unless, of course, you’re sleep-deprived, which is entirely possible in modern life). If you come close to meditative stillness but then recoil with an inexplicable sense of anxiety, it’s probably because you’re still attached to your conscious sense-of-self and fear oblivion.
Taking responsibility for what happens in your meditation – as well as in your life – doesn’t mean you get into a negative habit of self-blame. If someone tells you you’re daydreaming in zazen because you want to, it can sound like blame. However, this should be rephrased as “you’re daydreaming in zazen because at least part of you wants to,” because no part of you is fully in charge.
What do you do when at least a part of you resists letting go? We have to make peace with that part. It begins by accepting it, taking responsibility for it, and recognizing it as part of the family. Then we have to get to know the part of us that’s resisting. How does it feel? When does it arise? What is it afraid of? This isn’t an intellectual process of inquiry, but a natural process of increasing intimacy when we make an effort to unify ourselves instead of dividing ourselves into opposing parts.
Our obstacles in meditation and practice reveal to us our karmic entanglements and delusions. Therefore, the process of deepening our meditative stillness isn’t just about navigating and overcoming an inability to concentrate in meditation. Instead, our daily life of practice, study, ethical conduct, service, etc. helps us to see through and gain increasing freedom from our karmic entanglements and delusions, and consequently removes obstacles in our meditation. It’s a natural and fluid feedback loop. For example, I long resisted the cool equanimity of samadhi because I was afraid it would deaden my compassion and make me passive in the face of the world’s suffering. Of course, I didn’t immediately realize this was what the obstacle was, but when I did, I was able to explore my assumption and test it out. Maybe the results of taking refuge in samadhi would be different than I thought? Sure enough, I was able to settle more deeply in my meditation and experienced how equanimity gives you the strength to be more compassionate and active.
Willingness to let go can also be cultivated. Top of my list of ways to do this is listening to or reading the teachings of people who have done this work, in order to get guidance and encouragement. Another way is to form a clear intention to practice letting go and remind yourself of that aspiration regularly. Finally, there’s nothing like practicing letting go to inspire you to explore it more deeply, especially in the context of meditation retreats, where you have few practical responsibilities and have the opportunity to devote a lot of time to stillness.
Inhabiting Your Physical Experience More and More Completely
That brings me to the second way we can diligently work on letting go without arousing a willful effort: Inhabiting your physical experience more and more completely. I would say “somatic” or “embodied” experience, and you’re welcome to use those words instead, but I emphasize the physical because most of us are so fixated on the mental (even the word “somatic” just makes us think about our mental experience of having physical sensations). In any case, inhabiting our physical experience allows us aim our effort at something which 1) requires no higher mental functions or any interference from our conscious sense-of-self, and 2) isn’t actually doing anything (seeing as we’re already embodied); it’s just letting go of doing anything (that is, abstracting ourselves away from our present experience out of self-interest, the way we usually do).
To let go of our conscious sense-of-self ultimately requires faith we’ll be okay when we do so. We can build this faith gradually by letting go a little bit at a time. It’s a little like learning to be confident in the water; at first, we dip our toe in, then gradually submerge our whole body. Still we cling to some support. Eventually we venture away from support, nervously swim or float for a moment or two, and rush back to support. Over time we gain confidence we won’t drown, and are able spend longer amounts of time letting the water support us. Finally, we’re even able to relax and feel completely comfortable. Just as water supports our body, the reality of the universe supports our life even without our conscious sense-of-self, or any other part of us for that matter. This is why Zen master Dogen calls zazen, “the Dharma gate of joyful ease.”[iv]
We let go by relaxing more and more into our physical experience, or inhabit it, not because the body is somehow magical or superior to our mind. It’s just that, for the most part, our body’s not the problem. It’s usually more in tune with our present reality than our mind, which is why a teacher at a retreat I attended recently recommended we let our minds follow our bodies instead of the other way around, which is what we usually do. If you’ve experienced trauma or suffer from something like anxiety, of course, your body may not always be in tune with your present reality. In this case your mind can assist by reassuring yourself everything is okay at the moment, so you can safely let go. It’s not easy, and you’ll have to work on willingness, but you’re just dealing with physical karma instead of, or in addition to, mental karma.
How Letting Go Works Its Magic
Of course, it’s a legitimate question what letting go leads to other than realizing we won’t drown without our conscious sense-of-self, or sitting placidly in a sense of joyful ease. Does it help us be better people? Does it increase our compassion? Does it help us see through the delusions that cause us to act harmfully or unskillfully? The short answers to these questions is, “Yes.” Just like directed effort, letting go eventually leads to settling way down compared to our usual way of operating. As I said earlier, this allows us to at least temporarily drop the thick, almost opaque filter of preconceived ideas usually standing between us and everything we perceive – and therefore lets us see reality more clearly and directly, opening the door to liberating insight.
However, even when our minds are clear and still and we experience some insight, in the letting go method we don’t think of this as concentrating the mind and then turning it toward subjects to be investigated in a willful way. Even in the midst of deep stillness, it’s still just you. Actually, there’s no real separation between you and everything else, inside or outside, so it’s really just Reality experienced as intimately and personally as your own breath. And, without your usual opaque filter of preconceived ideas in the way, you see stuff. I think this is what Hongzhi, a 12th century Chan teacher of Silent Illumination, was describing when he said:
“Silent and serene, forgetting words, bright clarity appears before you. When you reﬂect it you become vast, where you embody it you are spiritually uplifted. Spiritually solitary and shining, inner illumination restores wonder.”[v]
And just to be clear, letting go isn’t just about achieving meditative concentration and then getting some transformative insights. It’s about learning to become who we really are, or manifesting our Buddha nature. We worry about what will happen if we relax the will, stop listening to the inner critic, or let go of our constant efforts to look out for ourselves. In other words, we’re afraid of what will happen if we give up attachment to our conscious sense-of-self. Will we even be able to operate? Will we take care of our lives? Will we continue refraining from our bad habits and addictions? Of course. Letting go is unifying ourselves and taking responsibility for our experience as a whole. It’s settling into our embodied life. Whatever aspiration or goodness we’ve developed will remain, and maybe even have room to grow. Whatever is negative or harmful we’ll recognize and take responsibility for. Ultimately, the main thing we’re letting go of is a related pair of delusions: 1) Our conscious sense-of-self is in control, and 2) it needs to be. What Issho Fujita says about zazen I believe applies to practice as a whole:
“Zazen should not be something forcefully built up by imposing a ready-made mold onto our body-mind from outside. It should be what is naturally and freely generated from inside as a result of non-fabrication.”[vi]
Which Path to Take? A Note for Students and Teachers
In closing, I’ll just speak briefly to the question of directed effort versus letting go as practice paths: How do you know which path is for you? My recommendation is simply to try both. Chances are good you’ll get benefit from both of them, and there are probably many people who find both directed effort and letting go useful paths. However, if you really want to go deeply in meditation and practice, I suspect it’s best to commit fully to one path or the other. It can be confusing and distracting to be in the midst of sweat-inducing effort at concentration or meditative investigation and hear, “Ah, just let go. There’s no one in charge in there, anyway.” And the faith required for the letting go path can be easily undermined by exhortations to discipline the mind, or else risk wandering in the path of delusion and dullness forever.
As a teacher of Zen, I continue to wrestle with the question of what practice, or practices, I should recommend for my students. My way is letting go, and as far as I can tell, classic Soto Zen is a path of letting go. However, what if some of my students actually can’t find their way by letting go, but would find directed effort a more natural and fruitful path? Should I just tell them, “Tough luck, sit shikantaza?” I’m not inclined to do this, because I imagine how lost I would have been if the tables were turned and I had been presented with directed effort as the only option.
Recently I heard a Zen teacher observe that, as teachers, we teach what we know. We teach our own way. If it’s worth telling students there are two paths to samadhi, what do we do if they want to take a path that’s not our own? Send them to another teacher? And how do we know when a student should change course – that is, try the other way – versus when they just need to stick with a particular approach longer, through the difficulties and boredom that will inevitably arise at some point?
Although these questions remain unresolved for me, as I imagine they might be for most meditation teachers, that doesn’t seem to be a reason not to let people know there might be two paths to samadhi. I can speak from personal experience that doing so may mean the difference between someone finding their way to a rewarding practice, and them leaving the Dharma behind entirely out of frustration.
[i] Fujita, Issho. Polishing a Tile. Available as a pdf: https://terebess.hu/zen/mesterek/Fujita-Issho-Polishing-a-Tile.pdf
[ii] Sheng Yen, The Method of No-Method: The Chan Practice of Silent Illumination. Shambhala, 2008
[iii] Wright, Robert. Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2017.
[iv] “Fukanzazengi.” Soto School Scriptures for Daily Services and Practice: https://web.stanford.edu/group/scbs/sztp3/translations/gongyo_seiten/translations/part_3/fukan_zazengi.html
[v] Leighton, Taigen Dan (translator). Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi. Boston, MA: Tuttle Publishing, 2000
[vi] Fujita, Issho. Polishing a Tile. Available as a pdf: https://terebess.hu/zen/mesterek/Fujita-Issho-Polishing-a-Tile.pdf