what sitting practice is like
No Shikantanza, Sherlock!
I’ve mentioned a few times that my spiritual path is zen Buddhism, roughly of the Soto variety. That manifests itself in a couple of ways: one, a constant effort to practice compassion and non-attachment to either physical or emotional things, and two, a sitting practice. I don’t have any icons or relics as such (well, ok, I have a little meditation bell…which is usually buried under dust and/or detritus on my desk).
The first part of that is often why I joke about being a “bad Buddhist.” I don’t have any greater compassion than the next guy – I still get mad at perceived slights, I certainly have a temper, and I’m attached to coffee, my iPhone, and The Newsroom like you wouldn’t believe. The joke, of course, is that you can’t really be a “bad Buddhist” because Buddhism doesn’t really have levels of “good” or “bad” – things just are, and the goodness and badness are simply values that we attach to them.
But the sitting practice (in the Japanese, shikantanza) is a practice, and as such there are both good and bad days. It’s almost like a sport, but a weird one because the harder you try at it the worse you are…until you’re not.
Wheezes and Stories and Joints, Oh My!
The purpose of a soto-style sitting meditation is to sit. That’s it. Not to find inner peace, not find enlightenment. Not to commune with the universe – your objective, such as it is, is to just be sitting. So I set my timer – usually for about 12 minutes, sometimes 15, occasionally 20 – and cross my legs and cup my hands in my lap and I sit.
Now the first obstacle people run into is boredom. We live in a hyper-stimulated cultural environment, and to suddenly just sit there leaves our minds desperately grasping for something, anything to hang on to. In my case, it’s usually stories. It’s the story of something that happened to me, or that’s going to happen to me, or that might have happened to a friend, or that I saw on a TV show, or read in a book when I was ten and for some reason I’m suddenly absolutely recalling every rough edge of the clay bowl in Taran Wanderer.
In short, I suddenly become Sherlock Holmes: I notice everything, and it all is filled with meaning.
That’s ok; that’s to be expected. It doesn’t mean that I’m bad at meditating; at some point I notice that I am thinking about Taran and Gwydion and Eilonwy and I say Ah, I’m thinking about something else and then I bring myself back to my breath, my posture. I bring myself back to sitting.
And that’s the second obstacle. It would be all too easy to sit there and count breaths, monitor my spine (is it straight?), resist the urge to scratch/shift/pet the cat, or bring my focus into a more localized place. In some ways that could be considered an improvement – rather than wandering to fictional happenings, at least my attention is on the now, on the here.
The thing is, even that here and now is an external experience. For me to notice my knees, I have to be outside of them; for me to count my breaths, I have to have a “before” “during” and “after” breath. To make sure my spine is straight I have to have a value placed on not-straight; all of these things keep me separate from the world as it is actually happening.
The value to having a posture at all, as I see it, is that it gives you a simple enough framework that you can get bored by it. At a certain point you get what your body should be doing, and so you don’t think about it.
When that happens, your mind either goes off into another fiction…or maybe, just maybe, it goes somewhere else. Maybe it goes somewhere like where Brad Warner went when he was on the bridge over the Sengawa River:
I saw clearly and unmistakably that this most intimate something that I thought was mine and mine alone, this thing that I thought was so personal to me that it could not possibly be shared by or even connected to anyone else in any way, this thing that was so unequivocally me that it was the very definition of the word “me,” I saw that this was not me at all.
In fact, this personal and private something was, I now saw, the personality of the entire universe from the beginningless beginning of time right on through eternity. I saw that this thing I thought was located so deeply inside of me that no one could ever even think of touching it was actually spread throughout all the universe.
But of course, if I’m trying to reach that kind of realization…well, then, I’m not having that realization. I’m trying to do it.
Right now I’m at the point where, if the timer goes off when I am more focused on breath than on the stories in my brain, I consider it a “good” sitting session.
With practice, though, I’m hoping I’ll be able to let go of that, too. Or maybe even stop hoping (some of the smartest people I know think hope is a really bad idea).
In the long run, though, shikantanza is exactly the same as tennis or piano or any other practice: what matters most is that I keep showing up. That’s really all it takes; show up, and let the practice take care of the rest.