One of the curious things about Zen is that, whilst the central part of our practice, zazen, entails an intensely physical posture, and one which is very specific in its form, there’s very little discussion about that posture, apart from hackneyed instructions about having a straight spine, tucking our chin in and pushing up with the top of the head.
Which, anyway, are wrong. The mind is forcing the body into a shape which only increases tension and reinforces an unconscious body/mind duality.
It’s helpful to remind ourselves that the Chinese and Japanese masters took it as a matter of course that people practicing zazen would practice in the full lotus position.
But hardly any western zen practitioners can do full lotus.Quite often they might practice in half lotus or quarter lotus. Sometimes they practice in the burmese position. These alternative cross-legged positions are not symmetrical.
Obviously when you’re in half lotus, your pelvis is tilting. But even if you’re in the burmese position, your pelvis isn’t symmetrical because one foot being in front of the other torques it.
By an odd coincidence, at the start of lockdown I started sitting much more. But also, because of a knee injury, I started sitting in a chair. I would sit on a little zafu, about half the height I would normally use, which I placed on a firm chair.
Whatever else can be said for it, sitting on a chair is an even posture; there’s a clear balance between left and right. And I think because of that balance I became much more aware of my pelvic floor, much as I would have been had I ever been capable of full lotus.
In the Fukanzazengi and in other instructions about Zazen, we’re given an instruction that just before we start, when we’re in position, we sway from left to right, but we’re not given an explanation why. I think the reason is that it balances our weight between our two sit bones, so we’re not inadvertently weighing down on one side more than the other, or having our spine off centre.
We’re balanced. Our physical weight is dropping down equally through our sit bones and energetically our weight is going down through our centre at the perineum, where, in the traditional Indian outlook, our first chakra is located.
What I’ve noticed, because of an increased awareness of my pelvic floor, is that my perineum isn’t an undifferentiated area. Specifically, I’ve noticed that if I move very slightly and slowly forward and back (my weight going slightly further forward on my pelvic floor and then slightly further back), I can find an area which to me feels like (though may not anatomically be) a smooth, round bone. When my weight appears to drop down through that area, it does something to my posture.
It seems to produce what I experience as an energetic, pulsing response. It’s as if my spine becomes like a gently uncoiling snake, and there is sometimes pulsing in my third eye. The crown of my head and my thoracic spine feel as if they are effortlessly going up. Having an awareness of that precise position seems to make the posture deeper, my whole body and breathing dynamically integrated.
Because of all of this, I wonder if the instruction about swaying was incomplete and, hence, misunderstood. Should the sway be a delicate, deliberate sway, not just from side to side, but from front to back too?
My desire is to open up the physicality of Zazen from its subservient and given position, to make it a fruitful area for the exchange of experience, and enquiry. If we don’t do that, the risk is that zen will, with some exotic kinks, be incorporated into a dominant yet unbalanced western view of meditation, which doesn’t just privilege consciousness over alive embodiment, it doesn’t even see it. Which would be a catastrophe.
Once we do open ourselves to somatic enquiry, then all sorts of exploration becomes possible. For example, in kundalini yoga ( and tantra), much emphasis is placed on the coccygeal gland, located near the tip of the tailbone, which is closely associated with kundalini energy. To what extent is that engaged through the posture? Isn’t it legitimate to be at least curious about that?
It may be said that somatic enquiry has nothing to do with zen. But that’s disingenuous. We are given a very specific posture, which originated in yoga. If we close ourselves off to somatic inquiry, our view will become – and often has become – brittle and ignorant, and fetishises the posture rather than becoming intimate with it. And, I think, the joy and the heart of practice would be lost.