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What Is Zazen?
The term zazen comes from Japanese. It’s usually translated as “seated meditation;” “za” means seated (or sitting), and “zen” means meditation. Zazen is the central practice of the Zen school of Buddhism, which originated in China in the 4th and 5th centuries (where it was called Ch’an; for more, refer to my first episode, “How Zen Fits into the Context of Buddhism as a Whole”). Buddhism began with the practice of meditation – Shakyamuni Buddha achieved his enlightenment through meditation over 2,500 years ago, and the practice of it was central to his teachings – but over the millennia, certain Buddhist schools have emphasized other kinds of practices, such as textual study, devotion, or ritual.
The Ch’an, or Zen, school is a type of Buddhism that very deliberately takes meditation as its central practice. There are two different kinds of zazen. The one I will be discussing here is called shikantaza, or “just sitting.” The other kind of zazen is “koan introspection,” where you focus your meditation on a traditional teaching story, or koan. If you’re interested in koan introspection, a practice typically associated with the Rinzai school of Zen, I recommend the book Sitting with Koans: Essential Writings on Zen Koan Introspection, edited by John Daido Loori. (Ultimately, I don’t think there’s as much difference between koan introspection and shikantaza as it might first appear, but I won’t go into that more here because it’s a big topic.)
Back to shikantaza: A Concise Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen offers this translation of the term: “nothing but (shikan) precisely (ta) sitting (za).” Nothing but precisely sitting. When we’re doing shikantaza perfectly, we’re just sitting there. Really. If you’re anything like me, even when someone tells you this, you’ll still think in the back of your mind that there must be something else – something special – going on in Zen meditation. But no, it really is just sitting. But what does this mean? If you’ve tried any meditation, you know that “doing nothing but precisely sitting” is not as simple as it sounds. (Note: From here on out, I’ll simply refer to shikantaza as “zazen.”)
When the Body Sits but the Mind Wanders
Usually our minds are wandering. While trying to do zazen, our bodies may be “just sitting” there, but our minds are on just about anything except sitting. In modern psychological research, this mind-wandering is called “stimulus-independent thinking” – thinking that has little or nothing to do with any stimulus you are receiving from your environment in the moment. You make plans, mull over memories, imagine future scenarios, and analyze – it’s really quite remarkable the kinds of complicated, abstract things the human mind can contemplate. For example, you can imagine what might have gone on in the mind of your friend if you had responded differently to her last week. You can design and execute a whole project in your head!
Research has shown that when you’re not engaged in an absorbing activity or being actively entertained, your mind uses what you see as “spare time” to engage in stimulus-independent thinking. We spend so much time doing this, psychologists have dubbed this our “default mode.” Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with stimulus-independent thinking. However, sometimes our habits of thought become so strong that we can’t disengage from them even when they’re dysfunctional, repetitive, or stressful. For example, has anyone ever told you something like, “It isn’t worth worrying about?” but you can’t stop worrying anyway? In addition, when your mind is wandering, you miss what’s going on around you. It’s difficult to fully appreciate your everyday life when you’re always thinking about something else.
The Practice of Being Present
In his famous book The Miracle of Mindfulness, Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh writes:
“If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future -and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.” Thich Nhat Hanh. The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation
In a way, we practice zazen in order to gain some freedom from the habit of stimulus-independent thinking we’ve developed and strengthened over a lifetime – that is, thinking about the past, future, abstractions, or somewhere else instead of directly experiencing our lives right here, right now. For the period of time that we’ve devoted to our zazen, however long it is, we aspire to sit in appreciative simplicity. This actually ends up being a very challenging practice.
Ironically, we naturally knew how to do this when we were kids! At some point, we were young and simple enough to sit in some sunny spot somewhere, with no agenda at all, just enjoying our direct experience. We weren’t planning what to do next, analyzing what happened last week, evaluating how likeable or successful we were as people, or imagining exciting alternative scenarios. We were hardly aware of the passage of time, and we certainly weren’t congratulating ourselves on how well we were “just being present in the moment.” Significantly, Shakyamuni Buddha is said to have chosen the style of meditation he would use to attain enlightenment when he recalled a natural meditative state he spontaneously entered into when – you got it! – he was a child, sitting under a tree, waiting for his father to finish working (Maha-Saccaka Sutta). He had learned and practiced many styles of meditation, but in the end, he decided to return to the simple, profound method he naturally experienced when he was a kid. So, how do you do zazen?
Physical Posture: Why It’s So Important
Zazen instructions usually start with physical posture. This isn’t because we’re picky about exactly how you look when you’re meditating, or because there’s something magical about a particular posture (although it does matter). We emphasize physical posture for two reasons: 1) we want you to be comfortable and not hate meditation; 2) zazen is a somatic practice.
I use the term “somatic” in the sense it is used in the field of somatics, which includes various kinds of what is sometimes called “body work,” including yoga and Alexander Technique. In the field of somatics, the word “soma” refers to the body as experienced from within, as contrasted with the concept of the “body” as a physical object that can be observed from the outside, or directed to move by a separate entity called the “mind.” “Somatic” in this context means focused on your experience of soma, or tuned into your experience as an embodied being. For more on zazen as a somatic practice, see the writings of Rev. Issho Fujita, a Japanese Zen priest and teacher who first inspired me to think about zazen this way.
To translate this in terms of zazen: When we practice shikantaza, or just precisely sitting, we are wholly engaged in the activity of sitting, including all of our imagined “parts:” body, mind, heart, volition, etc. Body and mind are not actually separate; in zazen we don’t settle our body into a physical posture like a lump of clay and then leave it there while we engage in some meditative technique with our minds. Sitting is our meditation, so when we describe zazen posture, we regard each aspect of it as very central to the practice.
Physical Posture: Spinal Position Is the Most Important Thing
When you sit, the most important thing is not – as many people believe – getting down on the floor. By far the most important thing is to sit with the correct spinal position, even if it means you need to sit on a meditation bench or chair.
The correct spinal position is one where your spine and neck are straight and erect. Imagine the top of your skull is suspended from the ceiling by a string, and then let your vertebrae hang naturally in a row, so you end up with a sense of your spine being elongated but not stiff. There will usually be a slight concave curve in your lower back, and your chin will be slightly tucked instead of jutting out. Your ears will be lined up with your shoulders.
You can discover the right spinal position for you by playing around with the position of your pelvis. Keep the bottom of your pelvis (your “sit bones”) on the seat of your cushion or chair, and tilt your pelvis backwards. If you tilt far enough back, you’ll notice you slouch, your neck bends, and your chin juts out. Now tilt your pelvis way forward. You’ll notice you back gets over-extended and stiff, your chest sticks out, and your neck stiffens backwards. The right position for you is perfectly in between these two extremes; you can rock your pelvis forward and back using smaller and smaller motions until you find it; it shouldn’t take much muscular effort to remain there.
Achieving the correct spinal position is much easier if you are sitting with your knees at least a little bit lower than your hips. This tilts your pelvis forward just a little, and makes it much less likely that you’ll slouch. Classic meditation postures on a cushion on the floor involve a fair amount of flexibility; your sit bones end up on the raised cushion, but your knees ideally reach the floor. If you sit down on a cushion and your knees stick up in the air, I strongly encourage you to sit in a chair instead! Your spinal position is much more important than sitting on the floor.
When people do meditate on the floor, they typically use firm, round cushions to sit on. In Zen these are called zafus (z-a-f-u) and you can buy them online (they work much better than a pillow or couch cushion because they are round and very firm). You sit on the very front edge of the cushion so it doesn’t press against the back of your legs and restrict blood flow or pinch nerves. All the cushion does is elevate your pelvis above your knees, tilting you forward just bit so it’s easier to sit up straight.
Then cross your legs in front of you, but not in the way people usually do, with both feet tucked underneath (See illustrations). If you sit like that, one of your legs is pressing down hard on the other and the bottom leg will usually go to sleep if you sit for longer than a few minutes. Instead, place one of your feet either on the calf (quarter lotus position) or the thigh of the opposite leg (half lotus position); this creates a space for your second foot to be tucked underneath without getting smushed. You can also simply place one leg in front of the other, so your calves are parallel and neither leg is on top of the other (Burmese position).
You can also sit on a kneeling meditation bench, or seiza bench. They’re 6-10 inches high, and you use one by kneeling with your knees close together, placing the bench over your ankles like a little bridge, and then sitting down on it. They are very popular with meditators – they don’t require as much flexibility as sitting on cushion does, and they make sure your knees are lower than your pelvis and that you’re sitting nice and straight.
Don’t hesitate to sit in a chair if you don’t feel comfortable on a cushion or a bench. When you sit in a chair, you would ideally not lean against the back of the chair, and would place something on the chair, if necessary, so your pelvis still ends up slightly higher than your knees. This is because the same guidelines about the spine apply when you’re sitting in a chair. If you need the support of the back of the chair, make sure you’re still sitting upright. Many chairs cause you to lean slightly backwards; if this is the case with your chair, put a cushion behind your back.
Whatever you’re sitting on, make sure you’re not leaning over to one side; it can help to rock back and forth in smaller and smaller motions until you’re centered and balanced. Then take a full breath of air and feel your spine, back, and chest expand. Let out the air, but don’t allow your body to shrink down; keep that expansive, energized feeling.
Physical Posture: Position of the Arms, Hands, Eyes, and Mouth
Hold your arms loosely at your sides, without slouching or squeezing the shoulder blades together too much. Rest your hands together in your lap; place your dominant hand on the bottom, palm facing up and fingers pointing toward the opposite side of the body; place your other hand in the palm of the first hand, using the same position – palm facing up and fingers pointing toward the opposite hand. Touch the thumbs of each hand to each other, touching lightly, so the hands form a little oval shape (see pictures).
Traditionally, we keep the eyes open in zazen and face something that’s not too distracting, like a wall or an open area of floor. This helps you stay alert and present. Some people are surprised by this and say that closing their eyes helps them concentrate, but in zazen we’re simply trying to be fully present in our act of sitting, not enter into some kind of altered state. As long as you’re not facing anything too distracting (like a bunch of books, or a mess, or a scene with lots of activity), it’s good to try to keep your eyes open in zazen, at least most of the time. You can allow your eyelids to gently lower about 1/3 of the way so your eyes don’t water too much, and keep your gaze angled down at about a 45-degree angle. As much as possible, keep the eyes fixed on one spot instead of letting them move around (although allow your gaze to be soft and unfocused, so you don’t wear your eyes out staring at one spot).
If you can breathe through your nose, that’s best; then you don’t have to worry about salivating and swallowing. If you need to keep your mouth open a little, though, that’s fine. Allow yourself to breathe naturally; in zazen we do not try to change our breathing pattern.
In zazen, you want to stay as still as possible. Mind and body are not really two separate things, and when you physically fidget, which means reacting in some muted way to restlessness or discomfort – your mind will fidget too! Rather than staying absorbed in the activity of just sitting, your mind jump into stimulus-independent thinking. On the other hand, if you can sit still through minor physical discomfort, you also strengthen your ability to remain calm through mental or emotional discomfort.
This may seem like a lot of emphasis on physical posture, but remember that mind and body are not actually separate. In ideal zazen posture, we upright, calm, and dignified. We don’t lean toward anything or back away from anything, and for a time we give up trying to accomplish anything. Just sitting this way for a while has a profound effect on you.
How do you deal with physical discomfort during zazen? It’s sad to think how many people have given up on zazen or other kinds of meditation because it is physically uncomfortable! Don’t let this be the case with you. If you don’t like zazen, fine – but there is almost always a way for you to adjust your sitting so you don’t experience too much pain. A good rule of thumb is to think of a stoplight: Green is no pain, which of course is fine; yellow is the kind of discomfort you experience when you try something new, or give yourself a good workout, and for the most part yellow is fine, too. Red, however, is real pain – especially pain that seems to be caused by the meditation posture and lasts after you get up. Don’t make yourself experience red – talk to a meditation or yoga teacher about ways to change your meditation posture.
Finally, What Do You Do with Your Mind in Zazen?
Having discussed physical aspects of zazen, we come at last to the question of what you should do with your “mind” in zazen. As I was discussing earlier, in zazen – at least in shikantaza, just sitting – our only task is to sit with our whole body and mind, without dividing our experience up into categories like “mind” and “body.” Practically speaking, what that means is that you try to pay attention to your direct, somatic experience of sitting. Fortunately, this isn’t as boring as it might sound.
Maintaining the correct meditation posture is actually an ongoing process rather than a static thing, so you can always be aware of the position of your body. While sitting, you continue breathing, and perceiving with all of your senses – sights, sounds, smells, sensations… Anything you experience while doing zazen is part of your sitting experience, including the thoughts and feelings that pass through your mind as you sit! However, what you try to do in zazen is rest in your direct experience of things while remaining still; you refrain from mentally grabbing on to things that interest or attract you, or mentally pushing away or arguing with things you’d rather not experience. You let everything come and go as you continue just sitting.
Most meditation techniques involve mentally concentrating on something, so in this sense we don’t employ a meditation technique in zazen. You might call concentrating on “just sitting” a technique, but ideally when you do zazen, you engage sitting as wholehearted, undivided activity. As much as possible, you let go of a sense of separation between the “you” who is meditating, the “mind” which is being disciplined by concentrating on what the body is doing, and the “body” which is being concentrated on. It’s all you, and you’re just sitting.
Also, in shikantaza we don’t concentrate on any one aspect of our experience, even our breathing (which is a classic meditative object in many contemplative traditions). We let everything be part of our experience as a whole. However, it’s fine if you find yourself wanting to choose one thing to pay attention to, like the breath, or sound, if being aware of “your experience as a whole” seems too vague or challenging. If you concentrate very deeply on one aspect of your experience, you’ll eventually discover that you can’t actually separate it from everything else – that there’s no fixed boundary around it – and that the experience of it is one of ever-changing flow. At some point it may feel natural to let your awareness open up to include everything.
Now Give Zazen a Try!
I hope that’s enough to encourage you to give zazen a try! Just find a place and time where you can have some uninterrupted quiet, and sit down! You have everything you need to begin.
In my next episode, I’ll go more deeply into the practice of zazen. I’ll suggest ways to deal with stimulus-independent thinking during meditation, how to stay engaged and energetic while doing a practice that’s potentially pretty boring, and how to maintain a zazen practice over time.