Please read a brilliant essay by Issho Fujita on posture from Dharma Eye.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There is a general instruction in many meditation schools that we should allow our thoughts to come and go freely, but what is meant by “thoughts”?
We are aware – all too aware – of what we might feel as the noise of our mind, but what we are less aware of is what lies behind this noise. If we reflect carefully, it appears that there is a ‘something’ which – as it were – endeavours to keep us in a familiar state, and usually a negative one : fear, dissatisfaction, boredom, dissociation, dullness.. the list is endless, and different for each of us, but it’s there. There, but difficult to see.
Rather than focus on purifying consciousness, what is essential for us is to be thoroughly grounded in the dynamic, living body, which means to be grounded in the breath, and to experience the breath as permeating the whole body. Everything moves with the breath: the bones of the pelvis, the bones of the head, the face, the legs. That movement from ‘mind’ to body loosens and liberates us, and is “beyond thinking”.
Practice instructions: The different aspects of practice are different facets of non duality.
When we sit, we are just sitting. The mind, body and universe are this single piece of just sitting.
We completely exert ourselves, moment to moment, to cease this mental fabrication. Exertion is illuminated. The ground is equanimity.
When we do kinhin, we completely experience ourselves. We feel our feet on the ground, the push of the earth travelling through us, our intimacy with all beings, our complex aliveness. Experience is illuminated. The ground is joy.
When we chant, together, we are completely focused on wholehearted expression. Everything is illuminated. The ground is redemption.
For a long time, I’ve given this instruction to people coming to Zen for the first time:
“When you sit just try your very best to maintain a present awareness. Your mind will wander. If it does, don’t be harsh on yourself. Just bring yourself back to this moment. Sometimes, it’s helpful to focus on the breath, or on the various aspects of your posture..”
I’m not sure if these instructions, although they might appear helpful, actually are. They might suit someone who is prone to distraction or dissociation, but are less useful for someone prone to strong feelings or sensations. But more generally, I think the instructions match up with a ‘mindfulness’ perspective, giving great weight to ‘presence’ and ‘awareness’, setting that up as a kind of standard [against which practitioners will tend to judge themselves, and judge badly] but without really encapsulating what buddhism is about.
So I now prefer to say something like:
When you sit, just allow your experience to completely be. Don’t judge it. Don’t interpret it, Don’t make a story of it, just allow it to be. You’ll notice that your mind always wants to do something with this moment to moment experience. It wants to define it [‘now I’m feeling sad’]. It wants to locate it [‘I’m doing zazen looking at a wall’]. It wants to interpret it [‘I’m feeling sad because..’]. It wants to judge it [‘I’m very distracted’]. Your experience does not come to you packaged as thoughts and emotions. This is construction too.
This endless activity of the mind is what buddhists call samskara, which is often -and clumsily- translated as ‘mental fabrication’. Nirvana is, moment to moment, ceasing to do that, allowing something other than the constructed world and self to swing open and shut