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Thread: What do you do with your mind during zazen?

  1. #1

    What do you do with your mind during zazen?

    I'm currently attending an introductory meditation course in the zen tradition. The teacher mentioned in passing that she was trained in the Rinzai school. She instructed us to count to ten while meditating, one number per out-breath.

    This internal vocalization helps me to get concentrated in the beginning of my meditation, but becomes rather distracting after a while. As far as I know, in shikantaza you're suppossed to cultivate a broad, open awareness. This works great for me after I've settled my monkey-mind a bit using the counting, but I find it hard to do from the start because it's more difficult to note when you have become lost in thought, since there is no reference point, so to speak.

    So, I'd like to know what you do/don't do mentally while meditating, and what you recommend to a beginner.

    PS: I'm aware of the fact that there are differences between these meditation schools, and that it is more skilfull to focus on one technique. I started attending the course because I wanted to bring more regularity to my practice. I find a real-life group to be quite beneficial in this respect, my meditions also seem to be deeper when I'm with others. I have not been able to find a shikantaza sitting group in my city though.

  2. #2
    Hi soitgoes (Is this a Vonnegut reference?),

    Welcome to Treeleaf.

    While Jundo can address this far better than I, my understanding in this lineage is that one is taught to count breaths in the beginning of practice, perhaps for about 1-6 months. The counting is thought to act as "training wheels" to help focus the mind. After that time, one should take the training wheels off and practice "just sitting."

    How's that, Jundo?

    Gassho,
    Keith

  3. #3
    What I find helpful when just beginning, in order to gain more concentration, just look at the wall in front of your face, what's it like? Hear the sounds, feel the breathe, notice the thoughts and just keep sitting

    After about 45 years of doing that you should be fine :wink:

    You might want to alternate that with just sitting and enjoying the moment with no goal. Just let it all come and go and sit up straight.

    Nighty Night

    Gassho Will

  4. #4
    Is this a Vonnegut reference?
    Yes! Reading Vonnegut made me realize I was not the only one having trouble dealing with issues such as the absurdity of life. I really felt we were on the same page, that he understood me. I'll take Vonnegut over Camus or Sartre any day

    just look at the wall in front of your face, what's it like? Hear the sounds, feel the breathe, notice the thoughts and just keep sitting
    You might want to alternate that with just sitting and enjoying the moment with no goal. Just let it all come and go and sit up straight.
    How is the first different from the second? I thought hearing the sounds, feeling the breath, etc. was the definition of just sitting with open awareness.

  5. #5
    Quote Originally Posted by soitgoes
    Is this a Vonnegut reference?
    Yes! Reading Vonnegut made me realize I was not the only one having trouble dealing with issues such as the absurdity of life. I really felt we were on the same page, that he understood me. I'll take Vonnegut over Camus or Sartre any day
    Slaughterhouse Five is one of my all-time favorite books.

    Best,
    Keith

  6. #6
    I'm a total beginner and I vaguely look at my eyelashes. Previously my eyes have not been comfy in the medium-distance spot on the floor position. When my eyes get comfy, I notice my thoughts coming and going without much hooking going on. If I find myself trying too hard, I just guide myself back to not trying so hard.

    Before I was all skeptical of counting my breaths... I thought it would be more "thinky" before but now it seems it's less "thinky" than I previously thought and it really helps.

  7. #7
    Hi Soitgoes,

    Fellow Vonnegut fan here.

    The best answer as to what we "should be thinking" during Zazen is in this series of talks I made for beginners recently, especially this one ...

    http://treeleafzen.blogspot.com/2008/01 ... s_522.html

    ... but actually the whole series (I think there are 20) ... Please have a listen and a "sit-a-long" with each ...

    http://treeleafzen.blogspot.com/search? ... +beginners

    I recommend to count the breaths as a newcomer as a way to build concentration. It is a practice only for a few weeks or months, then we move into open, spacious "just sitting". We can still count the breaths for a few minutes at the start if we have trouble to "settle", but then we should drop that for "just sitting". Losing track is part of the game!

    I hope that helps.

    Gassho, Jundo

    PS - If you are concurrently taking an "intro to Zazen" course with a Rinzai teacher, expect to find some differences and even conflicting advice. The reason is that she is teaching you to fly a prop plane and I am teaching you to fly a helicopter. Not exactly the same approach to flying all the time, although the same sky.

  8. #8
    Slaughterhouse Five is one of my all-time favorite books.


    Me too!

  9. #9
    So it Goes
    How is the first different from the second? I thought hearing the sounds, feeling the breath, etc. was the definition of just sitting with open awareness.
    Well with the first there is a goal "To pay attention" our concentration hasn't developed as such, so it is hard to just sit in the moment (for some anyway) For the the first the goal is just bringing yourself back to the wall infront of you and noticing how you get caught up in those thoughts.

    Goaless sitting is just sitting. No Goal. Nothing to do. Don't try to pay any specific attention to anthying. Just sit up straight and forget sitting



    Gassho Will

  10. #10
    Forget sitting... ok.

    i have a related question. i would definitely be one of those who has a hard time just being in the moment. my habits are so intensely introspective and introceptive that i've had physical perceptual changes such that the world no longer looks real. enough of that.

    i've juuuust starting sitting daily. one week going on two now.

    i have a "helpful voice" i keep paying attention to. it's very eager to control how "well" things are going. it's full of ideas on "how to do this" i should probably let it be, but it's compelling. i guess i lack the faith that i'm doing what i "should be" doing. i just want to hear about others peoples' experiences with it.

    i've listened to jundo's beginner talk on clouds and sky and read the other thread on "what to do with the mind". this works for me. don't reject the clouds, don't separate them from the sky, just look for the sky.

    i experienced a similar metaphor before. i saw it. it was of low fog over a still, black pool. so i got a sense of the still surface of the pool, and watched it when it was revealed.

    but now the "helpful voice" is saying things that sound very helpful, like "look for the pool" etc. so i find myself trying and grasping on account of how convincingly helpful that voice seems to be. the helpful voice even says "don't grasp, don't try" and "some days are cloudy, some days are clear" and "run into the fire" (don't ask).

    i've noticed that sometimes after about 30 minutes of sitting it gets tired/it loses its significance, but only momentarily. is it just a matter of time and not doing anything about the "helpful voice"?

    gassho

    nicole

  11. #11
    Nikolelie,
    There are alot of different skilful means for starting out. I think that what you are doing is ok. I would also say that one of my first practices was to just follow the breath. Paying close attention to the breath to the exclusion of everything else. No counting, no voices, just following the breath. I have found that to be a good way to settle my “self” before Zazen begins. Hope that helps.

    Gassho,
    Jordan

  12. #12
    Hi Nikolelie,

    I second what Jordan says,

    Ultimately, the goal is to sit with no goal whatsoever, radical goallessness. No judgment of the experience or expectation, nothing to shoot for, no aspect to add or take away, no hope for some special state or experience.

    Sounds pointless, you might think. But how many things in life do you experience in that way, with no need for a payoff tomorrow? Achieving non-achievement, and dropping all thought of special state, is a very special state indeed.

    Trust me. I've been doing that for 25 years, and I have gotten absolutely nothing out of it. It is marvelous.

    Gassho, Jundo

  13. #13
    Stephanie
    Guest
    Quote Originally Posted by nikolelie
    i have a "helpful voice" i keep paying attention to. it's very eager to control how "well" things are going. it's full of ideas on "how to do this" i should probably let it be, but it's compelling. i guess i lack the faith that i'm doing what i "should be" doing. i just want to hear about others peoples' experiences with it.

    ...but now the "helpful voice" is saying things that sound very helpful, like "look for the pool" etc. so i find myself trying and grasping on account of how convincingly helpful that voice seems to be. the helpful voice even says "don't grasp, don't try" and "some days are cloudy, some days are clear" and "run into the fire" (don't ask).

    i've noticed that sometimes after about 30 minutes of sitting it gets tired/it loses its significance, but only momentarily. is it just a matter of time and not doing anything about the "helpful voice"?
    My "helpful voice" was one of the first things to get KO'd by my sitting practice. Not that it doesn't still come back from time to time, but it has lost so much of the power it once had that it tends to be just a faint whisper that vanishes when I turn attention to it. Sometimes I let it do its thing because it actually can be "helpful." That's the freedom that working with the mind can grant you--you can pick and choose your neurosis of the day :wink:

    What knocked it out for me was a combination of sitting and painful experiences of disappointment and loss. You've got to hit up against the wall for some of this stuff to lose its grip, or at least that's been my experience. The "helpful voice" is just one of many permutations of the inner control freak, which has trouble holding on to its position when your face is being pushed into the mud by the contingencies of existence. It's hard for the dumb thing to say "It would be helpful if..." when your back's pressed against the wall. Good zazen can have the same effect. The voice just becomes stupid and irrelevant.

  14. #14

    The best way I can approach this state is to focus on awareness of the present moment. So far I've transitioned from counting my breath to letting myself experience the breath itself as it's happening, to feel my lungs expand and my chest lift, and then to expand that physical awareness through the rest of my body.

    As thoughts inevitably arise, I acknowledge and let go by re-focussing on the physical, sensations I'm experiencing in the present moment. If I can return often enough, and quickly enough, I can significantly decrease the natural "monkey-mind" type chatter.
    Hi Chris,

    In our particular form of "Just Sitting", we might be said to calm the mind by radically not trying to calm the mind. It is almost as if there are two ways to "calm" a stirred up glass of water (representing the disturbed mind). One way is to try to take some action to calm the waters, such as by taking your hand and trying to pat down the ripples. The other is to do absolutely nothing, be still, and put the glass down allowing the water to naturally calm.

    I believe we are of the latter approach. Think of this as "Radical Not Doing", not even trying to 'do' "Not Doing"!

    So, the type of "awareness of the body" and "awareness of the present moment" practice you describe is fine, and good for a little while to calm and center the mind. But after a time (a few minutes perhaps), we do not even do that ... and just sit openly aware of everything and nothing in particular (like a car put into neutral gear). If the mind truly becomes chaotic, it is alright to return for a few minutes to counting the breath, or other focused awareness as you describe. But, soon, return to a focused non-focus ... just sitting.

    We even experience the "present" by dropping all thought of future, past or present. That's a "present" that is REALLY "present"!


    If I feel physical pain I give it my attention in a way that doesn't judge it as good or bad but just acknowledges it and tries to let it go. This almost always seems to alleviate my discomfort. This also works to a lesser degree with emotional pain.
    That is a good practice. But, if the pain, despite your efforts, will not go ... we just have to sit/live with that.

    Gassho, Jundo

    PS- That does not mean that we should pursue Zazen to the point of injury or always try to be in pain and never take action to avoid it ... I wrote on that here in another post ...

    viewtopic.php?p=6802#6802

  15. #15
    Hi everyone... thank you.

    Quote Originally Posted by Jundo
    Hi Nikolelie,

    I second what Jordan says,

    Ultimately, the goal is to sit with no goal whatsoever, radical goallessness. No judgment of the experience or expectation, nothing to shoot for, no aspect to add or take away, no hope for some special state or experience.

    Sounds pointless, you might think. But how many things in life do you experience in that way, with no need for a payoff tomorrow? Achieving non-achievement, and dropping all thought of special state, is a very special state indeed.

    Trust me. I've been doing that for 25 years, and I have gotten absolutely nothing out of it. It is marvelous.

    Gassho, Jundo
    Jordan, thanks.
    Stephanie, "hitting the wall/nothing to say" makes sense to me.
    Chris, "not to calm the mind", ok.

    Jundo,

    Well, I it seemed my mind was "all systems go" with the "radical goalnessness", haha. I *thought* I wasn't expecting anything, but how wrong that was. The ideas about goallessness became a thing. Guess I have to sit.

    Gassho

  16. #16
    It is almost as if there are two ways to "calm" a stirred up glass of water (representing the disturbed mind). One way is to try to take some action to calm the waters, such as by taking your hand and trying to pat down the ripples. The other is to do absolutely nothing, be still, and put the glass down allowing the water to naturally calm.
    This metaphor really works for me. I think it may have finally broke the code of what "just sitting" means in Zen, but I won't get too attached to that.

    Gassho,
    Chris

  17. #17

    vonnegut connection

    My favorite phrase from Vonnegut's writing, which is zen in spirit, is "so it goes."

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