Yesterday I was at the park relaxing in the grass with a friend who is a long-time sitter. She said she often encounters people who are interested in meditation and are just getting started. My friend asked me how to respond to people who say, “I can only sit for one or two minutes, and then I have to get up because I can’t stand it anymore.” I too have heard this comment, and I don’t doubt that it happens. Hearing it, I am reminded of the Zen tradition’s emphasis on posture both as a support for, and an expression of bodhi-mind, the mind of awakening. That is not to say that sitting up straighter will cause your mind to go blank, and result in a mental state of ultimate peace. Rather, it means that in Zen one doesn’t focus so much on the imperatives associated with thoughts. We simply abide in body and mind, without attempting to add anything or take anything away. In and of itself, it can be a tremendous relief to sit down on the cushion and know that, for a limited span of time, there is no need to get up and start doing something else.
Zen Master Dogen, the founder of the Soto Zen school, put it this way:
Just this seeing and hearing
Goes beyond seeing and hearing,
And there are not other colors or sounds to offer you.
Having completely settled within this,
You are genuinely beyond concerns.
Notice that Dogen mentions “Just this…,” subtly giving a nod to the fact that you might want to seek for some quieter or calmer state, particularly when you feel agitated, or as you get older and lose our seeing and hearing faculties. Alternatively, you might seek for some more exciting state, feeling more comfortable in the swirl of activity. Yet there is no better experience to be found, because awakening is already expressed within the everyday experience of delusion. In fact, it is impossible for one to be anywhere else but in the present moment, since everything is in the midst of being created in every instant. Still, to say this and accept it as a concept is what we call in Zen “a painted rice cake,” something that is not going to satisfy your hunger. Zen is a lifetime practice because ultimately the present moment is indefinable, and thus it cannot be conceptualized. It is a practitioner’s endeavor to encounter it, to live it.
So the question arises, “How does one settle within this?” Here you encounter the body, abiding within the sensations and mental states that arise. You might notice tightness or pain in the body, or a tight jaw. You might encounter a subtle sensation of fear and its sidekick adrenaline, or of anxiety, or of simply feeling sad and overwhelmed. You might encounter the sound of ringing in your ears, and of a rapid, shallow breath. The real question is, so what? What is so difficult about sitting in the midst of that? Is it that you think it will go on forever? It cannot, as there is nothing that goes on forever, even Shakyamuni. Is it that you think you need to do something about it? Well, sitting is a form of non-doing something about it and, if you sit long enough, you will see for yourself that your mind will change. In fact scientists have now shown that, due to neuroplasticity, which is the ability of the physical brain to change its structure over time, any activity that you do regularly will tend to be easier to do over time because your brain builds the pathways to enable it. However that is simply a symptom, I believe, of the truth that by sitting we can experience the natural stillness of mind within the world of activity.
And when you are sitting and you find your mind racing or simply wandering, pay attention to the way you are sitting. Are you able to balance between left and right, between front and back? Are your hands in an open, relaxed position? Is your chin tucked in enough to lift the crown of your head?