When we start Zazen, what is disconcerting and dispiriting is the torrent of thoughts and emotions which we appear to have. We have an idea of what Zazen should be like, yet our experience is very different. And that’s when most people stop practice; they give up.
If we don’t give up, we gradually come to understand that the problem is not the thoughts and feelings. The problem is that when they arise, our awareness contracts around them. When we realize that, we can start to change our attitude, so rather than will these thoughts and feelings away, or distract ourselves with something else, we open out our awareness. For example, if I’m experiencing an imaginary noise – a tune, say, or a remembered conversation, – I’m not attempting to kill or nullify that. What I’m doing instead is throwing my awareness wide open, so I’m hearing everything.
In this way we gradually learn to develop what Charlotte Joko Beck called ‘A Bigger Container’, within which all that disturbs us can simply come and go within a broader awareness.
We can see a similar process going on with physical phenomena. Often when we’re sitting we’ll experience physical discomfort, or what appears to be physical discomfort. We’ll notice perhaps some disagreeable sensation in our hips, or our knees, or our shoulders, and what will tend to happen is that again we will contract our awareness, collapsing around the sensation. This contraction is usually accompanied by thoughts, such as “Oh, I wonder if this is getting worse… When’s the bell going to go… What does this mean… Am I ill in some way…”.
Just as we can change our attitude to the thoughts and emotions which arise, we can also change our attitude to what appears as physical discomfort. We can experience it, but within a greater awareness.
If we’re able to do that, what seems to happen is that the solidity of the discomfort gradually becomes more diffuse, and rather than being a specifically located thing, it seems to become more like an energetic pattern. And what we also notice is that when we can hold that discomfort in this greater space, then the experience of it is often accompanied by images or emotions. So we discover that our mind isn’t just located in our mind; our mind also appears to be located in our body.
Just as non-attachment to thoughts and emotions changes our idea of what our mind is – our experience of what our mind is – then non-attachment to physical discomfort changes our sense of what our body is. Body is much less a thing, a lump of flesh and bone, and much more a kind of spacious, energetic, interconnectedness.
We don’t just need to apply that to sensations of discomfort, we can apply it generally; to any feelings of, say, tightness in the back of the head, contraction in the belly, tremors in the legs, elation in the chest: any sensations; pleasurable, unpleasurable, neutral. Everything which is going on, which is much more than we had first thought. The body is much more alive than we first thought.
Practicing in this way gradually changes our sense of our body. I think that’s one of the reasons why some groups – not us, but some groups – insist on very long periods of sitting, almost to cause the crisis which will potentially liberate the practitioner from a habitual way of experiencing body phenomena.
It’s this which Dogen is referring to when he talks about the body leaping out of itself. It’s not that our heart is leaping out of our chest, but rather our heart is leaping out of our ‘heart’.