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307. Dropping off body and mind

Dogen described zazen as ‘dropping off body and mind’. We can assume that both are dropped off at the same time. I’ve often described this as being a letting go of our habitual sense of self, opening into wide spacious awareness. But we can also consider dropping off body and mind in a sequential way. 

Our sense of self is often something like: “I am this mental consciousness located in the brain, which is distinct from the body.” Few people now would explicitly say this, but it doesn’t matter, as it describes how most of us act. Anyway, the idea is obviously dualistic and disembodied.

So we can first drop off the mind by dropping the mind into the body. And we’re only able to do that to the extent that the body is dynamic, alive and joyful. Which is why we place such an emphasis on the posture, because if our posture is right then our body is naturally expressing itself.

So there’s naturally an upward movement of our spine – we don’t require to will it. There’s a natural dropping down of our weight. We’re in a dynamic relationship with heaven and earth.

If we can re-embody our mind, we have our sense of ourselves as this dynamic body (similar to what a baby might experience). And once we’ve done that, then we can drop off the body, because the body experienced in this non conceptual way isn’t separate from everything else. 

We let go of a sharp distinction between this body and the greater body of all being. And that’s easy to do because it’s obvious in our actual experience: there isn’t a clear boundary.

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305. The Unpictured Body

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.

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Master Hongzhi’s Practice Instructions; Number 28

‘All Beings Are Your Ancestors’

‘Fully appreciate the emptiness of all dharmas. Then all minds are free and all dusts vanish, and the original brilliance shining everywhere. Transforming according to circumstances, meet all beings as your ancestors. Subtly illuminate all conditions, magnanimous beyond all duality, clear and desireless the wind in the pines and the moon in the water are content in their elements. Essentially you exist inside emptiness and have the capacity to respond outwardly without being captured, like spring blossoming, like a mirror reflecting forms, So Hongzhi (or Wanshi in Japanese) was an exceptional Soto zen master, active round about 1130 -1150 in Song dynasty China. He expresses himself in these wonderful, rich poetic terms, but they contain a trap for us, that trap is essentially that we imagine he is using symbolic language. So when he refers to moon we might say- he’s meaning enlightenment. When he refers to wind – he might mean delusion, or possibly interdependence. When he is referring to the pines – who knows maybe a practitioner, but it will be something. And the problem with us reading the Chinese masters that way is

that we don’t see what they are trying to do, which is essentially an act of description. Description through evoking a kind of feeling in us.

In his recent book on Hongzhi ‘Cultivating the Empty Field – The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi’

Taigen Dan Leighton does us a wonderful service, both in bringing this teacher to greater attention but also in setting the context and in setting the background of his teaching.

Please investigate this great master.

Finally Dan Leighton’s wonderful website – Ancient Dragon.org- also has a really helpful article which is called ‘Hongzhi, Dogen and the background to Shikantaza’ which really helps to establish the connection between Hongzhi and Dogen and hence illuminates a whole aspect of Dogen who I think all to often is seen as an ahistorical character.

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Issho Fujita on posture

Please read a brilliant essay by Issho Fujita on posture from Dharma Eye.

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Posture Instructions: The Breath

When we hear an instruction to keep returning our attention to the breath, we need to unpack that instruction.

It is an instruction primarily given to people who keep having random thoughts. For these people, the instruction is quite simple. But many people have different problems. They may experience thoughts with a persistent, distressing theme – thoughts of torture, for example – or they may consistently experience a particular difficult emotion or cluster of emotions, the common ones being fear, anxiety, boredom, dissatisfaction and such like. For these people, the instruction, without further explanation, is likely to feel at best unhelpful, and at worst an attempt to ignore or minimise their experience in favour of a vacuous serenity.

So, to unpack:

It is not regarding the breath as the object of concentration. It is not as if the breath and the distracting/distressing thoughts or emotions are like two irate fat men, ceaselessly competing to sit on the one chair of attention.

It is the breath, not your breath.

It is our actual experience of the breath as a dynamic, non conceptual moving space within us. There is no barrier between that space and the greater ‘external’ space. Thus, the entire body is hanging in space, and both are fluid. In this way, we directly experience both ‘form’ and ’emptiness’, and can thus access a vast compassionate space within which our distressing thoughts – along with everything else – can emerge, express and change.

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Practice Instructions – What part does concentration play?

Q: what part does concentration play in sitting?

A: Often an instruction is given that we should bring our attention back to our breath and body. But that instruction is given in a context, and that context is what to do if we notice the mind wandering off in thought.

It doesn’t mean that the breath or the body is the object of our concentration. Once we have brought our attention back, we don’t keep it on the breath and the body, we open out into a broad expansive awareness, which has no object. If we say “concentration”, that assumes both something that we concentrate on, and something that we can succeed or fail at, and both these assumptions are not helpful.

Obviously, we don’t wish our awareness to be dispersed, and so we sometimes say ‘concentrated’ or ‘focused’, but we should use these words with caution.

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Zazen Instructions

When we talk about zazen, we need to be careful that our instructions do not casually reinforce the habitual dualities of body/mind and self/world. Yet, the most common instruction that newcomers are given does exactly this, the injunction to allow thoughts to come and go freely.

Perhaps we give this instruction because newcomers are always surprised and distressed at the unrelenting cascade of drivel that appears to be surging through them the moment they start sitting. But zazen is the practice of all of us, not just the mind.

After a while, what becomes more apparent is the persistent colouring of experience in a way that is often very disagreeable: agitation, fear, torpor, boredom, despair. How do we advise the student then? If we call these emotions, we somehow allocate them to the mind. If we call them disturbances of the nervous system, we somehow allocate them to the body. Either way, the duality is enforced.

We need to find a way to talk about practice which doesn’t take these familiar dualities for granted, only to try to dissolve them later.

One way is through the actual experience of breathing. If we pay careful attention, it is not that our breath is the movement of air in and out of our lungs, in and out of our mouth and nose. Our actual experience is that our breath goes everywhere. It goes up, into our head, it goes down, into our pelvis. It extends everywhere.

And, experiencing the breath in this way, it is possible to see a different duality: the dynamic movement of this spacious breath, like an expanding and contracting pillar of emptiness at our core. And around this pillar, likewise alive, likewise moving, the fabric of form; a fabric which is sometimes the body, sometimes the mind, sometimes the heart, sometimes the world.

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215. The breath liberated

In our practice, the breath is absolutely essential.

We are scrupulous about posture because when we sit upright and balanced, the breath is liberated.

The breath is central not because it relaxes and settles us; although it does, obviously.

It is essential because it clarifies our nature.

If we pay attention to the actual experience of breathing – not a conceptual one – we realise there is nowhere that our breath doesn’t reach.

It’s as if our breath is this dynamic vast moving space at our centre.

And the body is draped around it.

We are not this body in space. We are space.

There is no clear divide between the space inside and the space outside.

So to actualise this space inside us is to actualise all space; not as something abstract but as

the space between us.

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Posture Instructions: How to breathe in zazen

My first teacher said that we should have a long, deep, complete exhalation, pushing our belly out as we press down, and a short natural inhalation. I am sorry to say that I believe these instructions to be completely mistaken.

Dogen said hardly anything about the breath. He just said to let a short breath be short and a long breath be long. At first glance, these instructions aren’t exactly comprehensive, but I think the import is clear: we shouldn’t try to control our breath.

Sometimes this is rendered as an instruction to just breathe naturally. Note the word. Not breathe normally, as you would when slumped over your computer, or slouching in a chair, but naturally.

Naturally for the zazen posture. When we are balanced, it is as if there is a vast cavern of breath inside us. There is nowhere it doesn’t reach. Sometimes it is breathing the bones of our pelvis. Sometimes our belly. Sometimes our intercostal muscles. Sometimes our clavicle. Sometimes our head. This natural breath breathes us, and as long as it does so, the body is no longer ‘the body’. It is no longer an object in our consciousness. It – everything – is free.

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Practice Instructions: Bringing attention to the body and breath

If our intention is sincere, it doesn’t matter if our mind is busy or quiet. Nonetheless, if we are very distracted, it is often helpful to bring our attention back to our body and breath. But what does this mean?

For myself, I often find it’s helpful to focus initially on the head: the lips, the tongue, the musculature of the eyes, the pressure of the forehead, the muscles of the jaw, and so on. The attention then seems to flow quite naturally to the rest of the body. We use the unspoken equivalence of head/brain/mind/self to re-embody.

Likewise with the breath. We can start by feeling it in the nostrils, then the throat, then flowing down into the chest, the stomach, the pelvis, so that the whole body is breathing.

This feeling-being-body is the ground of practice.