I've got some amazing news to report about how I meditate.
I toyed with the idea of issuing a press release in case the New York Times and Washington Post want to cover this breaking news (CNN also, since everything is breaking news on CNN), but I decided that readers of this blog deserved to be clued in first.
Today, before I meditated, I decided that what I'm going to do from now on -- unless I change my mind -- is... drumroll, please... a little longer drumroll to let the anticipation build...
OK, take some deep breaths. Calm down. Let your heartbeat get back to normal. I realize that this meditation news could be as exciting for you as it was for me this morning, when I first heard about it from myself.
I've been edging toward this exalted approach to meditation for many years. I must be close to full enlightenment, since I heartily enjoyed the 20 minutes I spent today embracing what Zen calls Shikantaza.
I like that word because it sounds much more profound than my "absolutely nothing," though that's pretty much what Shikantaza meditation is all about. Doing nothing. Or rather, doing nothing special.
For 35 years, 1970 to 2005, my approach to meditation was decidedly special. In my own mind, at least, which reflected the teachings of the Indian religious group I was a member of during that time, Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB).
RSSB taught that through meditation it was possible to raise one's consciousness beyond awareness of physical reality into a spiritual domain that could loosely be called "heaven," even though that's a Christian term.
So the goal of my meditation was to concentrate on what lay within my mind, ignoring sights, sounds, and other manifestations of what the world had to offer. I tried to meditate in a quiet dark place to avoid distractions.
After I realized the drawbacks of the RSSB teachings, I gradually shifted to a mindfulness sort of meditation practice. Mostly I focused on my breathing in accord with a common Buddhist meditative approach. But I still had goals in mind: remain aware of my in- and out-breaths; try to relax; don't think too much.
Today, though, something shifted in my psyche.
I didn't want to keep on dividing reality into what I paid attention to in meditation, and everything else. That isn't what I did during the rest of my day. I just was aware of whatever I was experiencing at the moment.
So this morning I simply set my iPhone timer for 20 minutes, shut my eyes, and sat in my chair. I was aware of my breathing, because I was alive. I was aware of heat being blown through air ducts, because it was cold outside. I was aware of the dryer going in the nearby utility room, because my wife was doing laundry.
It was refreshing to feel that nothing could be a distraction, since I wasn't focusing on anything I could be distracted from. I was awake and aware, just without a preference on what my awareness settled on. I couldn't go wrong in my meditation, given that there was no standard of rightness.
There really isn't a whole lot to say about this kind of open awareness meditation. However, I've said something about it and so have other people. Here's some examples of writings about Shikantaza with an excerpt from each source.
Just Sitting, Going Nowhere
The practice of “just-awareness” is the essence of Zen meditation. The Japanese word for this, shikantaza, is usually translated as “just sitting,” but Dogen, the founder of the Soto school of Zen, specifically taught that zazen is “beyond sitting or lying down.” Shikantaza is more than the mere physical posture of sitting, although it certainly includes that. Fundamentally it is the practice of just being here, being present—except that we are not rocks or stones, but aware beings—so I think “just-awareness” more fully captures the essence of the term. But awareness of what? That is the first question.
Shikantaza: Having the Guts to Just Sit and Let Go of Doing Anything
I’ve been sitting zazen for over 20 years, but only recently have I had the guts to really do shikantaza or “just sitting,” and it feels profoundly liberating. In this kind of zazen, you utterly let go of doing anything except just sitting there. Really. I discuss why beginners are usually taught to count or follow breaths instead of do shikantaza, and why I think this is unfortunate. I also discuss the surprising results of a practice in which you don’t try to control your experience in any way.
Shikantaza: The Methodless Method of Zazen
A few years ago I came across an unusual description of shikantaza, the objectless meditation at the heart of Soto Zen Buddhism. “Shikantaza,” said Hakuun Yasutani Roshi, “is like sitting in the center of a clearing in the forest, knowing that ultimate danger is about to strike but not knowing what form it will take or from what direction it will come.”
I’d found this quote in an essay by Flora Courtois, a long-time Zen practitioner who’d studied with Yasutani Roshi at the Zen Center of Los Angeles. Her account of her spiritual unfolding was so striking that I was riveted the moment I began reading. But it wasn’t until I arrived at her analysis of Yasutani’s metaphor for shikantaza that I realized I’d found in it a teaching I didn’t even know I’d been missing. And like any good teaching, it would challenge much of what I thought I knew about zazen.
Just Sitting: The Zen Practice of Shikantaza
Once or twice a day, I sit facing a wall in my home. I just sit. I sit for twenty minutes, a half-hour, sometimes more. But I just sit. I sit and think not thinking; I do that by non-thinking.
This is the Zen practice of shikantaza, or “just sitting.” You sit, cross-legged if you can, and let your mind alone. When you stop thinking, you reach a point of non-thinking. It’s one of the typical paradoxes of Zen that makes your brain try and twist around those words, “not,” “non-” and “thinking” to figure out what they mean.
Unlike other forms of meditation, shikantaza doesn’t involve concentrating on an object, such as your breath or a mantra. It is “objectless meditation,” where you focus on everything you experience – thoughts, sounds, feelings – without attaching to any of them. When you get there, you know what it is.