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Thread: Some questions about shikantaza - dealing with a raging storm in the mind

  1. #1
    Senior Member Tiwala's Avatar
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    Some questions about shikantaza - dealing with a raging storm in the mind

    Hi, I'm sort of new to formal Shikantaza practice. For a few days, I thought I'd been doing good progress, but today I stumbled upon something quite difficult. Actually, I'd done what I conceived to be shikantaza a few times over the past few years and I eventually abandoned the method because I saw no fruit in it. There were several problems I did not know how to face and this sitting has brought them to the surface again, so I have a few questions regarding the practice.

    First, a little background.

    I was mad at a person, very mad and irritated. I did not know what to do. Thinking that perhaps I could get something important out of this experience, I decided to sit down for 30 minutes. I sat through the entire thing, but my mind was absolutely chaotic, restless. The more I sat, the more angry and impatient I seemed to become. I was absolutely clueless to what I was supposed to do. I tried to simply let the thoughts pass, but I felt like I was suppressing them. At other times, there seemed to be loud voices in my head screaming "What are you gonna do?! What are you gonna do about it?!" and it was very distressing. I simply let it pass and did nothing...I felt absolutely powerless and it was distressing to go through such mental turmoil.

    Now my questions after this experience:

    1)What does it really mean to let thoughts pass away like clouds? I can't seem to find a clear enough difference between letting thoughts pass and ignoring them...What if the thought is about something that I must, or feel like I must do? How do I know what I really need to do?

    2) Is Shikantaza truly 'without effort' or am I misunderstanding something? Do I just let a storm rage in my mind and watch it? I can't help but feel defeatist about it... It can be solved by analytic methods, to try and calm myself by taking on a little monologue, analysing the cons of staying mad - but this isn't shikantaza anymore, is it? And if ever there was no solution, my usual approach was to exhaust the intellect, having it run around in circles until it dropped dead.

    3) I watched the beginner videos about 'returning again and again to the clear blue sky' or something along those lines. Does this mean that we try to clear our minds when we practice shikantaza? If I understand correctly, the blue sky is no different from the clouds (and occasional hurricanes), so I'm a bit confused here.

    As a side note, I remember reading John Daido Loori saying that Shikantaza is actually quite the challenging form of practice. Right at this very moment, it seems very very true.

    Dear friends in the Sangha, please assist me and please receive my heartfelt thanks in advance!


    Ben
    Gassho
    Ben

  2. #2
    Hi Ben,

    Well, first, stop thinking about making "good progress", seeing the "fruit" in it. Forget about that right to the marrow, and just sit in the "no where in need of going" beyond "good progress", in the sweet fruit that is "no fruit needed". Then, and only then, will you start to make "good progress and taste the fruits" of your Zazen. Yes, we have fruits and progress in Shikantaza, but one reaches them by radically giving up the need to hunt.

    If that sounds as a Koan ... that is because such is a Koan.

    I offered a talk once in which I tried to "calm down" a bowl of disturbed, upset, swirling water in a glass bowl or jar by taking my hand and trying to forcibly hit the top, or stop the swirling by inserting my hand in the water to swirl it in the opposite direction. Of course, all my efforts to calm the water by "doing something" just made the water swirl and be disturbed more.

    Of course, the way to calm the turbulent waters is to radically let them alone, let them be, don't do anything. Put the jar down and stop shaking it more. You are creating the anger by thinking the angry thoughts, and on top of that, are angry at yourself for doing so. By putting the bowl/jar down, letting the swirling thought-waters naturally slow and settle, soon stillness and clarity manifests.

    Instead, you seem to be asking me the best way to shake the jar in order to calm it down. "Doing something" does not work. "Letting rest" does.

    If you really need because your head is running out of control, follow or count your breath for some minutes. Do so until you feel some degree of manageable calm.

    But then, switch to just observing your "angry" thoughts and all other thoughts much as you observe the walls, chair or table in the room where you sit: As objects just there, without judgment about them. Just as you may see the chair in Shikantaza without thinking "good chair" or "bad chair", see the thoughts as clouds floating through your head without thinking "good thought-cloud" or "bad thought-cloud". Just don't play their game.

    You are "just watching the storm", not in the sense of to keep feeding it fuel, but like a neutral observer ... like a non-judgmental umbrella in a rain storm. Be the umbrella, not the person carrying the umbrella who is pissed off that the storm is getting his shoes wet and ruining his picnic. Be an umbrella. Umbrellas do no get mad at storms, or play their game to keep the storm going or make things worse. (Yes, another Koan).

    Yes, it is a bit tricky.

    If there is a thought you "must think about", try to do so after Zazen is over. Unless your house is on fire, or it simply cannot wait for 20 minutes, during the time of seated Zazen tell yourself "I will think about that after Zazen" and return to just sitting.

    Gassho, J
    Last edited by Jundo; 10-12-2013 at 02:08 PM.
    ALL OF LIFE IS OUR TEMPLE

  3. #3
    Senior Member Tiwala's Avatar
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    Is it possible to try to use analytic methods of calming yourself down before zazen? Master Xuyun recommends that one not sit in prolonged mental distress and says that one should simply get off the cushion if the mind cannot calm down and try again later. On the other hand, the Dalai Lama recommends using logic to calm yourself down before meditation. Then again, these two great masters aren't of the Japanese Soto tradition and hence are not particularly familiar with shikantaza. Are there any 'contraindications' against these advices in the practice of Shikantaza?
    Gassho
    Ben

  4. #4
    Hi Ben,

    Jundo and Taigu will answer you soon I expect so it's not my place to jump ahead. I have a practical suggestion however:

    Sit Zazenkai and sit online everyday at least once with whomever is on. Sitting with others helps you to sit up straight, surrender and leave all excuses at the "door", that's what it is all about

    Where are you at on this globe m8? In Europe? "We" sit in our little Dutch Zen hut every day at 9 pm EST for 30 minutes. You are more then invited and your zafu is ready. If you want to talk or get some instructions, several people who are allowed to teach also host sittings on Google plus regularly, next to our teachers of course. Make a G+ account, look at the calender at the top of the forum page and join in at anytime to sit with other people, that's my advise right now. Next to listening to our teachers, that's all the understanding of shikantaza we need m8. It will come in time.....through practice, not through thinking. It will only cook your noodle without getting you anywhere.

    Gassho

    Enkyo

  5. #5
    Senior Member Tiwala's Avatar
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    I'm actually in the same hemisphere as our teachers and very close to its time zone. thank you for the suggestion with the calendar, I will definitely make use of it as soon as I can.

    And I'm sorry if I'm being so difficult with all my questions, it's just that this practice is new to me and radically different from the type of meditation I have been doing.
    Gassho
    Ben

  6. #6
    Blue Mountain White Clouds Hermitage Priest Taigu's Avatar
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    It is like being an old man watching kids playing in a sandpit.
    It is sometimes very charged with emotions and turmoil.
    It is so often different and yet.
    Give it space, and give yourself compassion. Maybe, you could just do walking meditation and then come back.
    Give yourself time.


    Gassho


    T.
    Taigu, teacher at Treeleaf Sangha, was born in 1964, started Zazen early and received Shukke Tokudo in 1983 at age 18 from Rev. Mokusho Zeisler of the Deshimaru Lineage. Received Dharma Transmission from Chodo Cross in 2002. Now resides in Osaka, Japan.

  7. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by Taigu View Post
    It is like being an old man watching kids playing in a sandpit.
    Oh, lovely!

    Ben, I just happened to read that very same quote from Xuyun yesterday! Xuyun was a brilliant teacher, but a teacher of Chinese Chan Rinzai Hua-du Zazen, rather different (different but just the same, precisely the same but quite different) from Shikantaza.

    No, unless one is having a true nervous breakdown, do not give up on Zazen too easily. At most, count the breaths for awhile. Then return to umbrella in the rain, old man in the playground.

    No, we do not try to reason away things analytically in Shikantaza Zazen. That is the hand trying to smooth the waters. Fine to reason about the problem before or when you get off the cushion (but even then, you may find that just "letting it go", umbrella of equanimity in the rain storm, is the best medicine).

    Gassho, J
    Last edited by Jundo; 10-12-2013 at 01:33 PM.
    ALL OF LIFE IS OUR TEMPLE

  8. #8
    Senior Member Myosha's Avatar
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    Thank you, and grateful for lesson.


    Gassho,
    Edward
    Practice with humility, respect all beings, avoid attachments, give rise to prajña from your own awareness, put an end to delusions - Hui-neng

  9. #9
    Senior Member Joyo's Avatar
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    First of all, welcome Ben. There has already been so much good advice given. In fact, I wanted to thank those who posted here, because I too have had the same issues as Ben posted and this advice has helped me a lot this morning.

    In my real life, I'm constantly judging myself, my thoughts, actions, intentions. So, naturally, when I started practicing shikantaza, I did the same thing. For people who are driven, who like goals and are analytical, as Ben said, it is hard to just let. it. go. It's an entirely different way of, I guess thinking (for lack of better words) But it works, just keep at it, through the shitty mind storms in your head (and trust me, I've sat with oh so many) when you feel like you are wasting your time, or when you feel like it's time to give yourself a pat on the back because in your head you think you finally "got it, conquered it" Just keep at it, and when you get up, do not judge yourself; just let it be, whatever it was. And, in time, you will feel the pressure to "get this" ease off.


    Treena

  10. #10
    Senior Member Joyo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Tiwala View Post
    I'm actually in the same hemisphere as our teachers and very close to its time zone. thank you for the suggestion with the calendar, I will definitely make use of it as soon as I can.

    And I'm sorry if I'm being so difficult with all my questions, it's just that this practice is new to me and radically different from the type of meditation I have been doing.
    No need to ever be sorry, in fact, I think you for posting this today, because, like I said, it has helped me a lot, and I hope it will help others here too!!

  11. #11
    Senior Member Tiwala's Avatar
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    Thanks very much! I'm now starting to finally understand how different shikantaza is to what I've tried so far.

    So let me see if I've understood this correctly,

    basically, when we sit, we just sit!
    Whatever state we find ourselves in,
    we just sit with that, deal with it,
    without trying to change anything.
    Literally without trying.

    Is this correct, Jundo? Hmm, if this is correct, what if despite all our efforts to just watch our thoughts, we are dragged along with it? Do we simply sit with that as well and 'go with the flow' even if the flow is a tornado spinning 'us' around?

    -----------

    Emmy, you said, "For people who are driven, who like goals and are analytical, as Ben said, it is hard to just let. it. go. It's an entirely different way of, I guess thinking "

    Yes! I've been swayed so long in the rat race that it's indeed very difficult for me to grasp the meaning of shikantaza. But I will keep at it.

    Thanks for all the replies, Jundo, Taigu!

    Last edited by Tiwala; 10-12-2013 at 02:36 PM.
    Gassho
    Ben

  12. #12
    Quote Originally Posted by Tiwala View Post
    Thanks very much! I'm now starting to finally understand how different shikantaza is to what I've tried so far.

    So let me see if I've understood this correctly,

    basically, when we sit, we just sit!
    Whatever state we find ourselves in,
    we just sit with that, deal with it,
    without trying to change anything.
    Literally without trying.

    Is this correct, Jundo? Hmm, if this is correct, what if despite all our efforts to just watch our thoughts, we are dragged along with it? Do we simply sit with that as well and 'go with the flow' even if the flow is a tornado spinning 'us' around?
    "Without trying to change anything" does not mean we let the fires of our angry thoughts burn on and on!

    We certainly --are-- "trying to change" the situation of being caught up in angry thoughts!

    But how? Not by "slapping the water" to make it settle, but by stepping back and letting it settle down. We sit quiet and still, observing life with equanimity, acceptance of life, just allowing "what is" in life. We sit with a sense of the Wholeness and "nothing lacking" of Zazen. If one is accepting life "as is" complete with all its imperfections, hard to be angry!

    We just stop slapping the water, and the water grows still and clear. We just stop adding fuel, and the fire naturally burns down.

    If the "flow" to go with is a spinning tornado (speaking literally, not figuratively here), accept the tornado ... even as you run for the storm shelter wetting your pants. Our way is accepting life as it is ... even as simultaneously we try to change it because we cannot accept. Accepting and not accepting at once. (Like accepting with the right eye, even as we might not accept with the left eye).

    If the "tornado" is (figuratively) a cancer diagnosis, or a boss at work who drives us bonkers ... we fully "are the flow" and allow it all, even as we take our chemotherapy and are not happy to be sick, even as we think about changing jobs. At one with the situation beyond "need for change", even as we try to change.

    Tricky, perhaps. But that is because we live in a world where we are always "chasing after", "seeking to change things", looking for profit. We do not know how to accept even as we may not accept, at once. We do not know how to work for some goal on "channel 1", even as we simultaneously drop all goals on "channel 2" ... so wholly that we say "not 1, not 2".

    Gassho, J
    Last edited by Jundo; 10-12-2013 at 03:43 PM.
    ALL OF LIFE IS OUR TEMPLE

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    Senior Member pinoybuddhist's Avatar
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    Hi Ben. We are in the same country so if you like we can practice together. I sit zazen for 10 to 15 minutes every day at around 5:45 or 6 am. I don't usually go online and use the Google hangout function because of the difference in time zones. (For Zazenkai I rely on the recorded versions on YouTube). If it's not too early for you I don't mind going online at that time so we can sit together.


    Rafael
    Quote Originally Posted by Tiwala View Post
    I'm actually in the same hemisphere as our teachers and very close to its time zone. thank you for the suggestion with the calendar, I will definitely make use of it as soon as I can.

    And I'm sorry if I'm being so difficult with all my questions, it's just that this practice is new to me and radically different from the type of meditation I have been doing.

  14. #14
    Senior Member Tiwala's Avatar
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    Thanks to everyone who posted. I'll just keep sitting, see what happens.



    Ben
    Gassho
    Ben

  15. #15
    Senior Member JeffreyB's Avatar
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    Let the storm come. hear the thunder, feel the rain and, just sit there.

    Gassho, Jeffrey
    "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."
    Henry David Thoreau, Walden

  16. #16
    Senior Member Joyo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by JeffreyB View Post
    Let the storm come. hear the thunder, feel the rain and, just sit there.

    Gassho, Jeffrey
    Such good advice, thank you for posting this.


    Treena

  17. #17
    Thank you, Jundo, for those words. There was a time when I thought that mediatating was only to be in a state of oblivion from reality. Here I have learned that to mediatete, even though some times I may find myself in such a state, is more than that, it is to be there in the present and to flow with whatever I may go through. That way my mind will be clearer to do whatever I may do, once I finish sitting. In the mean time, I go with my reality and let things go, since my reality is that, reality which I am going through, whatever that may be.


    Quote Originally Posted by Jundo View Post
    "Without trying to change anything" does not mean we let the fires of our angry thoughts burn on and on!

    We certainly --are-- "trying to change" the situation of being caught up in angry thoughts!

    But how? Not by "slapping the water" to make it settle, but by stepping back and letting it settle down. We sit quiet and still, observing life with equanimity, acceptance of life, just allowing "what is" in life. We sit with a sense of the Wholeness and "nothing lacking" of Zazen. If one is accepting life "as is" complete with all its imperfections, hard to be angry!

    We just stop slapping the water, and the water grows still and clear. We just stop adding fuel, and the fire naturally burns down.

    If the "flow" to go with is a spinning tornado (speaking literally, not figuratively here), accept the tornado ... even as you run for the storm shelter wetting your pants. Our way is accepting life as it is ... even as simultaneously we try to change it because we cannot accept. Accepting and not accepting at once. (Like accepting with the right eye, even as we might not accept with the left eye).

    If the "tornado" is (figuratively) a cancer diagnosis, or a boss at work who drives us bonkers ... we fully "are the flow" and allow it all, even as we take our chemotherapy and are not happy to be sick, even as we think about changing jobs. At one with the situation beyond "need for change", even as we try to change.

    Tricky, perhaps. But that is because we live in a world where we are always "chasing after", "seeking to change things", looking for profit. We do not know how to accept even as we may not accept, at once. We do not know how to work for some goal on "channel 1", even as we simultaneously drop all goals on "channel 2" ... so wholly that we say "not 1, not 2".

    Gassho, J

  18. #18
    Ahhh such a great thread! thank you to all.

    Some years ago, I had the same situation that you describe Ben, and a temporary mental tool I used was this:

    Just before I start doing Shikantaza, I sit and ask myself "where are you" I answer "right here", then I ask "what time is it?" answer "right now" then ask "What are you?" I answer "This moment" and just then I find it easier to just sit and let the thougths pass as clouds in the sky without effort and so. Hope it is useful for you.

    Gassho

    kb
    Dancing between stillness and motion I find peace.

  19. #19
    Senior Member Tiwala's Avatar
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    Frankly speaking,

    I haven't the slightest idea of who I am.

    Anyway, since making this thread, I've made some "progress" in the sense that I just let go.... I personally prefer looking at it as meeting this life and this mind face to face... as if for the very first time. This is what it is. I keep away even from words like 'sacred', 'whole', 'complete' when I sit. If there are traces of any mental constructs, it's probably a mixture of curiosity and a 'deal with it' attitude. I hope to eventually drop that with further practice. It has sort of helped me, in my own personal disposition, to just really sit, as I understand it.

    I also practice what you practice... asking where I am, what I'm doing, who the hell I am etc. But I do this mostly throughout the day. Aside from daily shikantaza, I sometimes sit with the questioning. However, I consider any answers that pop up to be ultimately unsatisfactory.

    "Not body, not mind, not heart, not buddha, not nothing, what is it?"

    really, really, wondering who is typing at this very moment.

    Gassho,
    Ben
    Gassho
    Ben

  20. #20
    Great thread!

    Gassho!


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  21. #21
    Junior Member Kim's Avatar
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    Thank you Ben for sharing your experience! Your struggle and the responses have helped me so much.

    Gassho, Kim

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