319. Experiencing Emptiness in Zazen

If we practice Zazen with a purely psychological or consciousness focus, it’s very difficult to overcome the sense that the contents of our mind come in pre-formed thoughts and emotions. Although we might understand intellectually that those are constructions, they can often prove very difficult to either dissolve or to embody (in embodiment, we are aware of the roots, as it were, in our body, in our senses, of what we’re choosing to describe as a thought or an emotion). That being the case, with this psychological focus, our practice is often primarily an exercise in stoicism and resistance. We’re trying to avoid being taken somewhere by the emotion which arises, being taken somewhere by the thought which arises, being drawn into interpretation, being carried away by a network of related thoughts and suchlike. The two pillars of practice are equanimity and joy. With this focus, equanimity is paramount, but joy is nowhere to be found.

Because our bodily feelings – our sensations – are far less seductive than our thoughts and emotions, it is much easier to experience their dissolution. Not though for pain. With pain, it is difficult not to collapse the awareness around that pain. If we practice with a psychological focus, the body is largely invisible until we feel pain. But once we do, it is all too visible, but in a way which is cramped around that experience of pain, and the anxious thoughts that come bounding along with it.

However, if we just give our attention to non-pain sensations that we are experiencing in the body – a slight tightness in the shoulders, heat in the palms of the hands, and so on – which are emotionally neutral and lacking in the significance which thoughts and emotions appear to have for us, we can hold those sensations in our awareness, but not contract around them. Our awareness doesn’t collapse around the sensation, so we’re able to feel it within a wide, spacious awareness. And if we’re able to do that, we’ll notice that what initially  we think of as something fixed and physical  is quite diffuse and indeterminate. Something that starts out by being a some-thing (this tightness in my shoulders) loses its shape and boundaries. And rather than remaining like a thing, it becomes more like an energetic pattern which changes, merges, appears, disappears. 

With body sensation we can have a direct experience of the emptiness of that sensation. And on the back of that, a felt experience of the emptiness of the form of this body.

The purpose of Zazen is not to pacify or still the mind, but pacifying the mind is a necessary prerequisite for enlivening the body, and it is that which is required to overcome duality. We need to understand that stilling the mind does not mean eradicating thoughts; it means to make the mind vast, not silent. In order to do that we require to, as it were,  drop the mind both into the enlivened body and thence release both into  the greater alive awareness, which includes this being, and all beings.

When I started practising Zazen, we were given an instruction that if our attention wandered we should bring it back to our breath, and to the various aspects of our posture. And, for me at least, that second instruction induced a kind of picturing of my posture. So I would think, “Am I balanced correctly? Are my shoulders tight?” and so on, almost as if either me, or someone like me, was looking from outside. We can see this strange picturing activity of our body going on all the time. For instance, if you say to someone, “Pick this up with your left hand,” the person will very often look at their hand and then pick it up, so the hand is existing in two ways: in an object way, like a seen object existing as an image, but also existing from the inside, in a felt way. But in our culture, the first sense is very often dominant, with all the attendant splitting and alienation.

One of the fruits of Zazen is that this picturing activity, which we are usually unaware of, and which creates a fundamental dislocation, is gradually reduced. If the instruction that I had been given was, rather than attending to various aspects of my posture, being asked to attend to various sensations which I was experiencing in my body- sensations, for instance, of heat or coldness, of slight tension, of weight – sensations which were emotionally neutral, and which couldn’t easily  be pictured, then those initial years of practice would, I think, have been different. And if I had been instructed to hold an awareness of those sensations, but not to contract the awareness around them, then I think my experience of my body would have changed: less objectified, more energetic, more patterned, more empty.