The basic instruction we give for beginning zazen is to simply sit and feel your body breathe. It’s a matter of simply showing up, a willingness to sit still, a willingness to experience what’s already happening, simply feel your body breathing. It’s not an attempt to regulate your breathing, to do it in any fashion that’s slower or more even than usual. The instruction is not geared on attempting to control your thoughts or to make your mind calmer or clearer in any direct way. It’s not an instruction to concentrate, but to feel.
Zazen is a practice of experiencing who and what we already are. And as we trust that one breath will follow another without our making any conscious effort to control that, it’s really just the same way we gradually come to trust that our attention will return to our body and our breath on its own, that our attention will naturally wander away, will have thoughts, will follow them off for a while, but as surely as an exhalation will follow an inhalation, at some point, our awareness will come back to our body and our breath in this room where we actually physically are.
As we do this practice, we find that that return of attention becomes more and more automatic, simpler, and we can trust the return of attention the way we trust the rhythm of our breathing. I think when we start out we inevitably don’t trust our own minds. We’re restless, our minds wander, and almost everyone gets to struggle with their own mind, one part of their mind struggling with another, trying to get it into shape. And there are practices to build up concentration, to try to discipline the mind to stay focused at all times on one thing. But our way proceeds from another direction. It’s based more on trust than on control. More on a sense of the inherent rightness of things as they already are, rather than a sense that we must transform or discipline ourselves in order to become something.
As I sat in first period this morning, I found my mind wandering to preparations for the Garrison sesshin. It went there for a little while and then it came back. That’s what minds do. I didn’t get into a fuss about my mind wandering. It wandered as long as it wandered and then it came back, and here I was! See, in the long run, it doesn’t make so much difference whether we are clear or focused, this or that percentage of the time. It makes a much bigger difference whether we experience a sense of struggle or self-hate in its extreme form over the state of our own mind and body. It really does no good to turn practice into a way of having one part of your mind fight another for being undisciplined. But discipline, the order of a calmness, will settle in of their own. We can trust that.
I was thinking that we say when we sit, we stay focused on the feeling of our body and the breath, and that there is something about the way we make an effort to be here on time, and to sit still. How then is it different from sitting on the corner waiting for the bus? Is there a difference in what your mind is doing there and what your mind is doing here? One way to think about that analogy is when you’re waiting for the bus, you don’t want to be where you are. You’re trying to go someplace and you want the bus to arrive. You may be looking at your watch, you may be worrying, is the bus late? You may be thinking about what you’re going to do when it gets there, whether you’re going to get a seat or not, how long it’s going to take to get where you’re going. All these things that we preoccupy ourselves with when we’re trying not to be where we are but to be somewhere else. It’s very easy to turn zazen into that kind of experience, the feeling that I’m trying to get from here to there, but that’s not real sitting. It’s more like waiting for a bus that doesn’t come, and you just sit there, and you go through a long period of impatience and restlessness and maybe anger, but imagine just having to sit there forever because the bus really never comes.
See, eventually we wear out our impatience about the bus coming, we realize that spending all our time looking at our watch, cursing the bus driver, complaining to ourselves we're not getting where we want to go, is just a lot of empty thought. We don’t try to make it go away, but in a certain sense we just get tired of it. See, if we have that kind of Beckett-like experience of waiting for the bus that never arrives when we sit, we just let our thoughts, our impatience, our wanting to be somewhere else, wear themselves out. And it will quiet down on its own eventually. Eventually we may simply notice more and more about where we’re sitting, what the bus stop is like, what the corner is like, what the air around us feels like, what our body feels like as we sit there. And we realize that our life is about simply the experience of waiting, it’s not about going anywhere. It’s not about the bus arriving and taking us someplace else. Really, our whole life is the bus stop.
Then we stop resisting this moment, this life, stop thinking about where it’s supposed to be that it isn’t. See, that’s the kind of transformation that takes place over hours and days and months and years and decades of Zen practice. Slowly, slowly we become less preoccupied with getting anywhere at all. Our experience settles down more and more onto where we are now. Not are we there yet? Are we ever going to get there?
We let, as they say, the muddy water settle by itself. We hold the glass still and gradually at its own pace, different for each of us, it all settles out, comes clear all of its own. Allow your trust in the practice itself to deepen of its own. Trust your attention to return the way each breath follows one another. Everything that needs to happen is already happening. Anyplace you need to be, you already are.
This talk was brought to you by the generosity of people like you. Ordinary Mind Zendo is a non profit organization that depends entirely on the generosity of people like you for its continued existence. If sitting with us, listening to our talks, or supporting a Zen center in New York City is in line with your values, you can make a donation here.