In zazen we talk a great deal about the body but what do we mean by ‘body’?
If you ask someone in the West to point to their body, they’re very likely to point to their torso. They’re unlikely to point to their head. Which is unfortunate, because as soon as you state it, it’s obvious: our head is part of our body.
I find that the easiest way to start to enliven the body is through the sensory awareness that we have here: the feeling of our tongue in our mouth; the tension around our eyes; the weight of our jaw; the awareness of the air in our nostrils.
All of that is readily accessible to us in an immediate way that sensory information elsewhere in the body very often isn’t. So if we have a holistic sense of the body as including the head and all the sensory awareness there, then we can see how that sensory awareness can – as it were – gradually seep downwards. To our throat, our torso; all of us, animating and enlivening the whole body.
There’s an additional benefit. We habitually (in the West at least) identify the head with the mind and with the self, so the mind/body split has a physical counterpart and reinforcement in the head/body split. Reintegrating the head with the rest of the body starts to undo that primary, unconscious split, relocating the mind within the body, and hence changing our sense of both.
And when we do this, our sense of both ‘mind’ and ‘body’ can change. Our mind is no longer necessarily just located within our head. Our body is no longer an object just located in space. And that starts to undo the self/world split which, in my view at least, is essential.
Turning to the breath, everyone is familiar with the instruction that when we feel distracted, we should give our attention to our breath.
Why is the breath so fundamental to meditation? Perhaps because it is immediate and difficult to objectify, or straightforwardly conceptualise. We cannot help but notice that when our breath changes, our state changes.
We often talk about being aware of the breath as if the breath and the body are two separate facets of experience. But if we pay careful attention we’ll see that our experience of the breath and our experience of the movement within us (when we take an in-breath, for example) is the one movement. And we can focus on the breath or we can focus on the body which is moving, or alternate. But it’s essentially two aspects of the one experience. It is not like wind blowing through the stiff rock of a cave. It is like two beings dancing.
We are not picturing the body from an imaginary, external vantage point. We place our attention whenever we can immediately feel, and gradually widen and deepen that, from the ‘inside’.
Additionally, if we can sit in the correct posture, our body is progressively enlivened without conscious effort. If our pelvis is in the right position, our weight dropping down through our sit bones, then we experience an uplift that often feels as if the back of our neck is being stretched and our head is moving upwards. I experience the uplift as originating somewhere in my upper thoracic spine, but you may experience it differently. The key is to experience it, not force it.
That feeling of uplift is the source of a terrible instruction about tucking your chin in and stretching the back of the neck. It’s terrible because there’s an attempted duplication of something which needs to be non-forced and automatic. If you are sitting correctly, your chin will naturally be slightly tucked in, but you can’t will it, anymore than you can create a joke by forced laughter.
Your sit bone isn’t a single point, it’s three dimensional, like – say – the elbow, and it’s helpful if you can experience that three dimensionality, that front and back, by touch and movement. And that illustrates a more general point about balance: it is an exquisite aliveness, not a forced absence of movement. We are subtly wobbling around the point of balance, like a tightrope walker.
When you’re sitting correctly – correctly for you – you’ll also experience a relaxing and widening of the back of the head, specifically around the occipital point, what the Chinese call the Jade Pillow.
Correct posture also manifests a dynamic relationship with the ground.
Your weight is dropping down into the ground and the ground is pushing up, like two hands pushing gently together. There is something similar, although more subtle, happening with the space around and above us.
When we sit, we are in a dynamic and connected relationship with the environment: through the ground; through the air; through the breath. All of this breaks down the self/world dualism for the benefit of both: the body is no longer spatially imprisoned and disconnected from the world, the world is no longer “out there”, waiting to be done-to, but immediate and alive.
Zazen is not the practice of the self. It is the effort of all beings expressed through this person.