Perhaps Dōgen’s most famous formulation of Zazen is that it’s the continuous dropping off of body and mind. It seems to be an expression unique to him, although he claimed it was derived from his teacher, Nyojō.
There are two parts to it: dropping off body and dropping off mind.
Dropping off mind is reasonably easy for us to understand, but what is the dropping off of the body? Much less attention is paid to that, to what it might mean.
One meaning is the dropping off of a habitual splitness that we experience with our body, the persistent and continual picturing of our body from a vaguely external perspective. This is often dominant over what we’re somatically feeling and experiencing. We’re frequently more aware of what we look like than how we feel.
Dropping off the body requires, as a prerequisite, the dropping off of this visualization of the body. When we do that, the sense of the body as an object amongst other objects falls away. And although we can still maintain the primary self/world dualism even when we are somatically embodied, the boundaries are much more porous than when we are trapped in the object world, and so, particularly in Zazen, there is much more chance that we experience moments when this separation drops off.
Just as the dropping off of the body has been given inadequate attention, very often the instructions given about our body and Zazen are likewise deficient and brief.
So, I would like to make some suggestions about practice.
If you ask someone to point to their body, they will generally point to their torso. They won’t point to their head. Yet, if we think about it for a moment, it’s obvious that our body is all of us. So it’s apparent that there’s an unconscious split that’s going on, whereby our head is identified with our self and with our mind. Our bodies are the subservient entity. That’s implicit in our everyday language. So if I asked you to paint my portrait, I would be rather surprised if you painted only my torso or if you painted my foot. I’d expect you to primarily paint my head.
When we are asked to give attention to our body, what we will often do is try to focus our breath in our lower belly or be aware of our moving rib cage, something like that.
Because of this unconscious dualism, we ignore what is easiest for us to do, which is to bring our attention to the various aspects in our head: to the slight tension our forehead or eyes perhaps; the tightness in our jaw; the sensation of air coming in the nostrils; the sensation of the tongue within the mouth, the textured lips, and so on. All of these sensations are very accessible to us, much more so than feelings in other parts of our body.
So, giving attention to that is helpful in a number of respects. Apart from being more accessible, it helps to break the identification which we unconsciously make of our head with our mind—that’s one thing. Also, in a slightly different way, again because of that unconscious identification, it – as it were – embodies the mind. Once the mind is embodied in that way, that embodiment can somatically flow down from the head to the rest of the body. Although the language is tricky, and certainly my language here doesn’t quite capture it, if you practice this, you will hopefully get a sense of it.
Another suggestion for enlivening the body is that you pay attention to a sensation which is neutral.
Very often when people practice they’re very aware – too aware – of their cascade of thoughts and emotions. They only become aware of their body when they experience pain or discomfort. And when they do, there’s often an anxious contraction of awareness around that pain or discomfort. A torrent of anxious thoughts occur which reinforces attention on that pain or discomfort. So it’s a very good idea to just be aware of neutral sensations in the body and develop a kind of muscle of awareness. Being able to hold within awareness a particular body sensation and hold it within a wider awareness of the rest of the body and the rest of your environment. If you can develop that habit then you can gradually re-frame body sensation not as something physical and specifically located but energetic, changeable, and connected to everything else—changeable, impermanent, interdependent.
A third suggestion is that you make a distinction between your postural muscles and your voluntary muscles.
Your postural muscles are what hold you up. Your voluntary muscles are those muscles which enable you to do things, reaching for a cup, for instance. If your posture is right, then you won’t be using your voluntary muscles when you’re in Zazen. You’ll simply be using your postural muscles. But if your posture isn’t right then you will be using your voluntary muscles. If, for instance, your pelvis isn’t in the right position your head’s probably going to be in the wrong position too, and you’re going to keep voluntarily moving your head or your torso using your voluntary muscles. You’ll stick your chest out, or try to lengthen the back of your neck.
One of the reasons why the distinction is important is, I think, because of the way the proprioceptive system works. Using your voluntary muscles often comes with a kind of visual sense. Your mind has a kind of picture of what your body is doing, which takes you back to the sense of the body as an object.
The postural muscles, in my experience, don’t come with that visual complement. And so, relying on the postural muscles makes it much easier to drop off the body because the ‘body as object’ isn’t unintentionally reintroduced.