Below is a draft of an article I've written, that I'm planning to submit to The Loop Magazine, an iPhone/iPad only magazine run by a fellow tech journalist. I've written a half-dozen articles for the magazine so far, about music, Shakespeare, movies, etc. The editor is open to pretty much anything, so I thought I'd write about just sitting.
Feel free to comment about anything you want; all criticism is welcome. Thanks!
Twice a day, I sit facing a wall in my office. I just sit. I sit for twenty minutes, a half-hour, sometimes more. But I just sit. I sit and think not thinking; I do that by non-thinking.
This is the Zen practice of shikantaza, or ďjust sitting.Ē You sit, cross-legged if you can, and let your mind alone. When you stop thinking, you reach a point of non-thinking. Itís one of the typical paradoxes of Zen that makes your brain try and twist around those words, ďnot,Ē ďnon-Ē and ďthinkingĒ to figure out what they mean.
Unlike in other forms of meditation, shikantaza doesnít involve concentrating on an object, a mantra, or on your breath. It is ďobjectless meditation,Ē where you focus on everything you experience - thoughts, sounds, feelings - without attaching to any of them. But when you get there, you know what it is.
ďOnce you have adjusted your posture, take a deep breath, inhale and exhale, rock your body right and left and settle into a steady, immobile sitting position. Think not-thinking. How do you think not-thinking? Non-thinking. This in itself is the essential art of zazen.Ē
Iíve been practicing meditation off and on for about 25 years. After following the Tibetan tradition for a while, I drifted among other forms of practice, notably Theravadan insight meditation, before settling on Zen. There are many different schools of meditation, and even in Zen, there are two main currents: Rinzai and Sōtō. It is this latter, Sōtō Zen, founded by Eihei Dōgen in the 13th century, that feels right to me. Itís the one whose main practice is just sitting.
But you donít need to follow any school to meditate, or sit, as we say in Zen lingo. In the past few decades, mindfulness, or a secular form of sitting meditation, has become mainstream, notably as a tool to reduce stress. Many studies have shown that meditation of any kind is good for the brain, but thatís not the best reason to sit. The best reason is that just sitting reboots your brain.
Even if you donít want to follow a path of meditation, or a particular tradition, just sitting for a few minutes every day can be a wonderful way to get back in touch with reality and recharge your brain. You can use just sitting to simply ground yourself, to take a few minutes away from the vortex of the world around you.
You already know how to do this
Youíve certainly done this many times. Perhaps you were on a hike in the mountains, and came across an especially nice view. You sat on some rocks, and just sat. At first, you looked at the view, but then your mind went on pause as you appreciated the silence, and the simplicity of just being in the moment. Or it may have been a lazy summer day, sitting on the deck, listening to bees buzzing around you. For a few minutes, you felt apart from the worries of the world, and your mind felt clear. This happens to all of us, from time to time, but you can cultivate it, practicing regularly.
You can do this anywhere, almost any time. Start at home; itís easiest to start in a quiet place with no distractions. Turn off the TV, the radio, the computer, and put your cell phone away. Find a quiet place to sit: you donít have to sit cross-legged on a meditation cushion; a chair is fine. All you should do is try and keep your back relatively straight (in other words, donít slouch in a recliner).
Place your hands on your thighs, close your eyes, and feel your breathing. Concentrate on the fact that you are breathing. Feel your in-breaths; feel your out-breaths. Youíll probably notice that your mind starts showing you all sorts of pretty pictures, and you leap toward them like a puppy running after a new toy. Let those thoughts go. Donít try and stop them; they will just get stronger. Just let them go; go back to the breath.
In shikantaza, we try and go even further, to non-thinking, to objectless meditation. Donít worry about that. Just sit, let the thoughts come and go, and, when you get lost, come back to your breath, again. Donít worry about how long youíre sitting, donít worry about what you need to do in 15 minutes or an hour or a day. Just be with yourself, allow yourself to have that time to just sit.
When youíve had enough, get up slowly, and donít rush into whatever you have to do next. Try and let the relaxed feeling you felt when sitting last a bit before you turn on the world again. If you can do this for a few minutes every day, youíll start realizing that your body needs to put itself on pause every now and then.
Sitting here, sitting there
The thing about just sitting is that you can do it anywhere. I do it in trains, planes and busses; in doctorsí offices, dentistsí chairs, and Iíve even done it in MRIs. I do it outside on the patio, or on a couch. You can do it anywhere; all it takes is the intention of just sitting. Donít worry about the noise around you; youíll get used to letting that just fade away too.
Even if you donít want to ďmeditate,Ē you can try just sitting as a way of unplugging your mind from the myriad distractions we face during the day. It only takes a few minutes, it doesnít cost anything, and you really can do it anywhere. The great thing about just sitting is that you can do it no matter what your beliefs are. Whether youíre a Buddhist, Christian, Muslim or atheist, just sitting can fit in your worldview. Even if you donít want to meditate, you may find that just sitting for a few minutes every day - free of distraction - will clear your mind.