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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.

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Practice Instruction: what are ‘thoughts’?

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”.

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Practice Instructions

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.

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Practice Intructions

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

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Posture Instructions

Since the online publication of Issho Fujita’s marvellous collection of essays, ‘Polishing A Tile’, it seems impertinent for others to give instructions about sitting posture except in one respect, the breath, which Fujita doesn’t seem, to refer to in detail.

Breathing is quite problematic as a topic. We don’t want to get into a mentality of trying to build up power in the dan tien in order to achieve something. So instead, we tend not to talk about it at all, saying only that we should breathe naturally, and that our breath will naturally settle down if we take up the correct posture. However, there’s a difference between awareness and intention. Between awareness and technique.

When we try to breathe abdominally, there’s a tendency to use muscular effort to push our belly out, but not notice that we do. Just as people who try to stretch the back of their neck by tucking their chin in, rather than allowing the natural uncompressing of the spine when the weight is dropping correctly through the sit bones, willing our posture to be a particular way is liable to create tension, tension we’re unlikely to notice.

I think also, if we imagine our breath coming in through our nose, going down through our chest and into our belly, there’s a tendency too to inhibit movement in our chest and back.

For me, it’s very helpful to be able to feel the whole pelvic area, not, as it were, as an object, but from the inside. If we can,we’ll notice the willed-ness of our abdominal breathing, but we’ll also notice what doesn’t move. Our lower back. Our pelvic floor. And once we get that awareness, there’s a number of things we can do. We can, for example, picture a golden ball at the centre of our pelvis. When we breathe in, the ball gets bigger, pushing the belly forward, pushing back against the bones of the spine and pelvis, pushing down to the pelvic floor. When our body moves in accordance with this, it’s different from willed movement. Once you regain your sense of movement, you won’t need the image any more.

An alternative, and one which I prefer, is to breathe from the perineum. This is the first chakra and where our weight drops down, between the genitalia and the anus. That is, you feel the in breathe coming in through your perineum, filling your pelvic bowl, pushing the belly gently forward, the lower back gently back, animating and enlivening the whole area, then passing upwards to the chest, the upper back, the neck, the head and all the while, no tension.

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Practice Intructions

It is of paramount importance for our pelvis to be in the correct position, our weight bearing down on our sit bones.

Posturally, this means that our trunk and head can be balanced, light, activated, vibrant and free of tension.

Energetically, the spine can uncompress itself, there can be a clear connection between the base chakra and the crown chakra.

Breathing wise, it is as if the upper body is directly sitting on our abdominal/pelvic breathing. The in breath isn’t pushing the lower belly out. There is no intentional pushing. It is as if there is an energetic ball at the centre of the pelvis. When we breathe in, the ball expands. The lower belly is pushed out. The area around the sacrum is pushed back. The pelvic floor pushes down.

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Posture Suggestions

The most important thing, whether we are sitting in a cross legged or a kneeling position, is to have our pelvis in the correct position. Habitually, people tuck their pelvis forward. The effect of that is to collapse the chest and bow out the back, and push the head forward. We then try to correct this with our voluntary muscles, but we can’t maintain it, and so we alternate between muscular effort and collapse.

To remedy this, we need to sit on our sit bones. The best way to achieve this is, as we sit down, to stick out our buttocks, bringing our weight forward onto the knees and creating a curve in the lumbar spine. If we are balanced on our sit bones, we will be able to sit upright without muscular effort. Our weight will drop down through the sit bones into the Earth. Releasing the weight into the ground creates a corresponding push from the Earth, up the spine, allowing the spine to lengthen and relax. Our large postural muscles at the front can become engaged, holding us up without effort, and making the posture more energetic.

If the pelvis is in the correct position, it is far easier to correctly align the head, which is normally pushed a bit forward, like a tortoise. We can simply drop the head back and slowly bring it to vertical. The point of balance is normally a bit further back than we are used to. If the head is balanced, it should not feel heavy. Sometimes, when the head is in the right position, a breathing reflex is set off in the lower abdomen.

The posture is dynamic. The head and the upper body should not feel heavy. If they do, it is indicative of you not being in the right position.

You will sometimes hear that you should tuck your chin in and extend the back of the neck. This is a terrible instruction, as it simply creates tension in the neck. If your head is in a balanced position, your chin will be slightly tucked in, but this is a consequence of your good alignment. It should not be forced.

Rather than try to stretch the back of the neck, you should allow the neck to naturally lengthen. A way to do this is simply to be aware of tension you are holding in your throat, and allow your lower jaw, at the hinges, to go up, without making any muscular effort. You can do the same thing with the top of your hard palate, allowing it to rise and being aware of the connection between it and the crown of your head. The push which enables both of these to rise comes from the pelvis, not from muscular effort. If we use our voluntary muscles to push us into what we imagine to be a good posture, we are practicing Ego, not Zazen.

Don’t try to control the breath. If you are in a balanced position, you will naturally breathe from the abdomen, but don’t artificially restrict your breathing to that area. Remember that the breath flows first into the belly, then into the back, then into the chest.

When we are doing Kinhin, we take a small step forward with one foot. Placing the heel of the foot down, we spread the toes and, breathing out, we roll the weight forward from the heel to the top of the toes. All the weight is then on the front foot. Breathing in, we then push down near the root of the big toe, stimulating the Bubbling Stream acupressure point and allow the push to travel up our front leg, up the front of our spine, up through the top of the hard palate, and out through the crown of the head. Towards the end of the in breath, with all the weight on the front foot, we bring the back foot forward, heel down, and do the same with that foot, in this way walking slowly round the room. Our pace is regulated by the length of our breath. If we are moving slower than the person in front of us, we can take bigger steps. If we are moving faster, we can take smaller steps.