When in the Zazen posture, your mind and body have great power to accept things as they are, whether agreeable or disagreeable.” – Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki (1905-71)
I’ve written a lot about meditation; now let’s explore how to do it. The Japanese word “Zen” means meditation, and in the Zen tradition, the word for sitting meditation is Zazen. Within the Zen tradition, what is needed for enlightenment is determined Zazen, helped along by a few koans and some challenging guidance from masters. In the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment, after all his intellectual and ascetic strivings, frustrated, but determined, he sat in meditation, completely settled in stillness, conquering all his desires and fears until at last his awakening occurred. This is the challenge and promise for every student of Zen.
Whether you sit cross-legged on a cushion or upright in a chair, the posture and attitude you bring to sitting in meditation is of greater importance than is readily appreciable from a conventional perspective. The quality of your meditation will be greatly affected by the posture of your sitting. It could be said that your sitting posture is, in effect, the posture or stance you are taking not only to your meditation, but also to life, to the entire issue of the possibility of enlightenment. It is an attitude we take with the posture of our body that can steer our minds towards deeper and deeper levels of insight into our own deepest nature. It is a posture of dignity, of uprightness, of relaxed alertness, of compassionate curiosity, of welcoming openness to the secrets of existence.
We sit with an upright spine, a strong sense of the earth beneath us, the crown of our head reaching ever so lightly toward the sky. Our hands are folded in our lap, shoulders relaxed. If sitting on the floor, our legs are crossed or folded beneath us. If sitting on a chair, both feet are on the floor or with ankles crossed. At first, it is good to meditate with eyes closed, although eyes half-open is traditional. I find eyes open is fine after you have become experienced, but the focus in either case must be straight ahead, about two to three feet in front of you, about navel height, focused on nothing, consciousness turned inward. Sit with a relaxed jaw, the tongue lightly touching the roof of the mouth. As the facial muscles relax, perhaps a slight smile will emerge as the face’s natural expression.
OK. So we are sitting, looking like a good meditator. Now what? What to do with the mind? What to do with this skittering, distractible mind? Meditation is often described as mind looking at mind to better understand mind and eventually to direct mind into the deepest and subtlest of insights and experiences. How do we do that? We begin by focusing awareness into the sensations of our breathing. (Why the breathing? We’ll discuss that another time.)
Experience the subtle ever-present sensation of your ordinary every-moment breathing. Watch with the alertness of a sentry the coming and going of breath. It is important to remember that a good sentry is not tense. A good sentry watches what comes and goes with relaxed alertness, otherwise they would tire quickly, and with a tense focus, they would also quite possibly miss many important observations, because a tense focus is a narrow focus. To see everything, there must be a relaxed alertness that takes in everything. Watch the breath coming and going. Experience the rising and falling of your chest. Experience the slight breeze across your nostrils. Exhale slightly longer than you inhale. Allow a deepening of your relaxation with every exhalation and a sharpening of the alertness of your awareness with every inhalation. Secondarily, experience whatever comes along, but always, keep coming back to the breath.
OK, you say, I am watching my breath like a good sentry, but my mind keeps talking. Am I not supposed to make my mind quiet? No. The human brain is a thought-making machine. You cannot force it silent. But, like a good sentry, you notice the thoughts, but because they are not what you are looking for, you notice them and return awareness to what you are watching for, your breath, coming and going. The thoughts will pass, like travelers through the sentry’s field of vision. Many thought/travelers will come and go. Some will very strongly beckon you to follow them. Let them go. Return to watching, to experiencing the breath rising and falling.
If you have difficulty getting started, a very effective method is to count the breaths, combining the mind’s desire to talk with the task of focusing into breathing. Silently count on the exhale ten breaths, then another ten. Three sets of ten breaths is usually enough to settle us into quietly experiencing the breath. An alternative method is the use of a mantra – a word/sound meant to elicit the highest consciousness of true self. “OM” (pronounced “Ah-umm”) is a fairly common mantra expressing connection to the Universal. “Buddh-O” is a typical Buddhist mantra, with “Buddh” silently expressed on the inhalation and “O” on the exhalation, calling to the Buddha within, until “just sitting,” called “shikantaza” takes over.
As you settle into the posture of relaxed alertness, watching the breath come and go, always returning to the breath when the mind distracts with thoughts, you begin to experience a heightening of all senses. You notice the sensations of your body sitting. You may notice the feel of your clothing on your skin, the feel of the air touching skin where there is no clothing. The ambient sounds around you become clearer and more distinct.
If you are indoors, you may hear the ticking of a clock, the hum of a furnace or air conditioning, the passing of traffic outside. If you are playing music (let it be soft and quiet music) you may notice the notes with an increased clarity. If you are outside, you will notice the breeze rustling the leaves, the song of the birds, the hum of the insects – and of course, the sounds of human civilization as well. Insights about the qualitative differences of civilization and Nature may arise. Meditating in Nature, away from civilization, is the best. The experience may begin to be slightly psychedelic. Enjoy it, but don’t be fooled that this euphoria is the point or end of meditation. Still, look deeper.
As you focus into the ever-present, very subtle sensations of your breathing, all of your senses begin to take on a quality of presence and subtlety that we do not typically experience as we rush from where we were in our life situations to where we are going. We typically only pay enough attention to our senses and the present moment to get where we are going, or for the utilitarian purposes of work or entertainment. No, in our Zazen, we have stopped all that. We have, in a sense, stopped time. We are here. We are paying attention. And in our paying attention, the world begins to open up.
There are still thoughts, but now they are quieter. In fact, you may notice there are moments when there are no thoughts. There is just the breathing and the sensations of the moment. Of course, then another thought will come along, but quieter, less insistent, and fewer of them. You may notice the inner quiet. You may discover a dimension of mind that is empty of thought, a silent mind beneath and out of which the talking mind arises. You may notice now the sounds around you are also arising out of silence. There is sound and silence. You enter the silence with your awareness. A great feeling of well-being accompanies this. There does not seem to be this solid, separate self with its thoughts and activity as all that there is to the experience of “me.” There is also silence. There is stillness. There is awareness of being aware. There may even be awareness of being the awareness. You are now at the gates of Zen. You are at the precipice where the awakening beckons you toward the realization that, in the words of the Zen Master Haku’un Yasutani (1885-1973), “You and the Universe are one.”
But first, as novices, Master Suzuki instructs us, with his famous sense of humor, “When sitting, just sit. Above all, do not wobble.” In the double entendre style of Zen, to not wobble in sitting will lead to not wobbling in life. This is our goal. Relaxed, aware, not wobbling in the face of all the comings and goings of life, just as we learned to not wobble in the face of all the comings and goings of thoughts, emotions and mental perceptions in our sitting.
“Show me your face before you were conceived,” challenges the Zen Master. Pure consciousness sits here. Awareness sits here. Awareness of breath. Awareness of sitting. Awareness of the rising and passing of thoughts. Awareness of awareness. Our deepest nature has arisen, and like all of Nature, it is attuned to the perfection of the moment. It knows itself to be vast. It knows what is needed. Your very next thought might not be some worry or calculation or absurdity. Your next thought may well be exactly the thought you need for deeper insight into some aspect of your life, or Life itself, for you have touched the essence of Life with your mind. You have discovered a much bigger you than you ever imagined. From being trapped in your insecure little personal chattering mind, you have found what Buddhism calls, “big mind.”
And then it is gone. Distraction returns. The whole field of awareness collapses back into something smaller. You are back to being little you, “little mind,” again, no longer sitting at one with the Universe. So— return to awareness of your breathing and start the journey over again. But now, you know the destination. Over and over, you make this journey. You confront restlessness, boredom, ordinary and crazy thinking, the pain in your back and legs, even the allure of euphoric oneness. You return over and over to the breath, to the silence, to the stillness until you KNOW.
As Master Suzuki says, “In this posture there is no need to talk about the right state of mind. You already have it. This is the conclusion of Buddhism.”
And as 13th Century Zen Master Dogen said, “If you cannot find the truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?”
Welcome to the truth. Right where you are sitting. Now stand up, walk, and live Zazen.