Attention and Effort in Zazen

As zen practitioners, our cornerstone activity is sitting zazen. If we are not practicing zazen, we should not consider ourselves students of the zen school. The importance of regular daily sitting practice cannot be overstated. The mechanics of how to sit are sometimes, however, overlooked. It is important to revisit the basics occasionally in order to help with the constant refinement of the practice of zazen.

I recently saw a photograph of myself taken when I first arrived at Yokoji. It struck me that although my posture looked strong and straight, and I also looked much younger, there was a certain forcing or sense of striving written in my body. It was important for me to sit that way at that time in my life. Now, when serving in the role of zendo monitor, it is amazing how much is revealed in the posture of those sitting in the room. Emotions and attitudes are written in the body and are expressed in tense shoulders, a slouching back or the tilt of a jaw. We should not just sit down on the cushion and expect the practice to magically work for us. Zazen is not a passive activity. It is attention in stillness and can take great effort, especially in the first few years. Beyond this, there is endless refinement, and the nature of our effort evolves as practice matures.

As soon as we enter the sitting hall, whether that is here at the zen center or at home in the space we have created for meditation, it is critical to pay attention. Notice everything that is manifest. Often as human beings we dwell primarily in the thinking aspect of the mind, constantly musing and weighing. We interpret reality through the lens of self-identity with its endless ideas and opinions. This is akin to living in a dream world. Zazen is nothing less than our great opportunity to reveal the original unperturbed, unconstructed nature. It really is a matter of grave importance.

This is why we pay attention to how we enter the space for sitting, pay attention to the forms, bowing when appropriate, and opening to what is real and apparent now. Walking to our seat, we notice everything in the room— the flowers, the quality of the light, whether it is hot or cold. We experience directly. As Tenshin Roshi often reminds us, the forms are here to wake us up.

When we sit on the cushion, it is beneficial to bring attention to breathing, taking the important step of shifting the attention from the mental to the physical. Breathing deeply we expand the lungs with the inhalation, allowing the breath to straighten the back, and then with the exhalation, releasing and dropping away anything extra we are carrying with us. Breathing in, breathing out, we find where we are, taking refuge in zazen, alive and awake!

Once we have settled into our posture and breathing and the sitting period has commenced, the choice is there before us. Do we  drift off into thought? Do we sit idly there thinking about this and that? There is often a temptation to ponder the events of the day, righting wrongs and projecting how things should be. This is not our practice. The practice of zazen demands that we cease identifying with the content of thought. If we can correct our relationship to thought we immediately slough off an enormous amount of suffering.

We are equipped with a brain, so naturally thoughts occur. At times there is a great deal of content, and at other times, not so much. Really, the busyness of the mind is irrelevant. In zazen, when you notice that thought is occurring, give it no more value than the feeling in your legs. It is a mistake to create and perpetuate this sense of separate, identified self. When we do this, we objectify the world and can never be truly satisfied. Be on guard for those juicy habitual thoughts that pull us back into the dream. In zazen the conditions are favorable towards interrupting this compulsion to self-create.

Yasutani Roshi said that when we sit we should have the attention of a cat watching a mouse hole. A cat stalking or waiting in ambush is not tense or striving, but relaxed in an economy of effort. All of our energies in zazen should be in attention or that energy is wasted. Energy appears in many forms: anger, boredom, fear, lethargy, or joy, expansiveness,  and great peace, to name a few. Whatever form is here now, experience it directly and without prejudice. Allow what is real to be revealed and welcome it all with an open heart. In making effort to be attentive over and over again it becomes, with practice, our natural functioning. We respond to our environment, people, and things. Zazen is absorption in reality, waking up to this miracle of our life that we so easily take for granted.  With the busy nature of life at Yokoji, I am  grateful for the time I do have to sit zazen and I am determined not to waste the gift.