A few days ago I wrote a post about me embracing Shikantaza, the Zen Buddhist approach to meditation where you let go and do nothing other than remain aware of what's present without you doing anything.
The next day I checked out a post on the Zen Studies Podcast that I'd linked to, Shikantaza: Having the Guts to Just Sit and Let Go of Doing Anything First I listened to Domyo Burk, who narrates the podcasts.
Then I read the transcript of the podcast -- a great feature for those of us who like a choice of the written word or spoken speech.
I was blown away by how clear, coherent, informative, and entertaining Domyo's talk was. I tried to send her a thank you via a Contact page, but kept getting an error message.
Eventually I learned where Domyo does her Zen teaching and was able to send Domyo an email through that route. Interestingly, it is just a hour's drive from Salem, where I live: Bright Way Zen in Portland, Oregon.
I haven't listened, or read, any of the other podcasts. I've looked at a list of the 131 podcasts in the order they were made, and they look like an amazingly valuable resource for anyone interested in Zen or Buddhism in general. I'll be reading many of them, for sure.
Here's part of the Shikantaza podcast. I've chosen passages I really liked from the beginning and end of the podcast. Domyo clearly has a sensitive understanding of how the mind works in meditation, and also outside of it. Zazen simply means meditation, Zen variety.
It’s like we can’t fully trust ourselves, let alone beginners, to just sit. We’re afraid that if we give up trying to control our minds, they’ll do nothing but wander all over the place and waste our time. We’ll sit there on the meditation seat planning and rehashing memories and thinking random stupid thoughts unless the “executive I” exerts some discipline, or at the very least makes a wiser choice when the opportunity presents itself.
If we just sit there, we’ll never improve or attain anything. Nothing will happen. Those lovely moments when the thinking subsides – when we’re intimately “present for our lives” and everything seems to fall into place – will evade us or become very rare. Just sit? Are you crazy? We can’t just let ourselves sit!
In our doubt, we cling to overt or subtle meditative techniques to minimize the amount of time we spend caught up thoughts while sitting zazen. Our natural preferences morph into judgments, even if parts of us resist those judgments: Silence = good, internal verbiage = bad. Awareness of the present = good, thinking about past or future = bad. Calm = good, agitation = bad. A sense of transcendence = good, a sense of being trapped in a small self = bad. Self-consciousness = good, forgetting we’re even meditating because we’re lost in thoughts = bad.
We may learn to refrain from judging our meditation, but sometimes this is more about accepting we’re mediocre meditators (why make ourselves miserable about it?) than it is about entirely transcending judgment of our meditative experience.
Why is it so hard for us to wholeheartedly dedicate ourselves to just sitting? Because it doesn’t make any sense, and it’s scary because we don’t trust ourselves. We’re identified with our sense of “executive I,” which we perceive as guiding us safely through this world. To set aside or ignore the “executive I” seems like laziness at best and madness at worst.
But Zen says the “executive I” is an illusion, and therefore it’s an illusion it’s in charge of your meditation to begin with. Shikantaza challenges you to physically enact nonduality and no-self. When you let go of the struggle to control your experience and find out everything flows along perfectly fine anyway, this brings the Buddhist teachings home in the most profound and transformative way possible.
...I’ve already talked about how obvious stimulus-independent thinking is doing, but there are an infinite number of ways we’re exerting effort every moment without even realizing it. We maintain views that help us make sense of the world and our place in it. We hold assumptions about the nature of self and reality, and subtly avoid or deny certain facts or experiences.
We anticipate what’s going to happen next, and what our lives are probably going to be like from here on out. We gloss over our direct experience, categorizing it as something we’ve seen before, or something not worth our attention. In a strange way, we believe we’re holding reality together with our minds.
In zazen we can make energetic efforts to relax all of these efforts. Of course, this is not the usual kind of effort. It’s more like what you need to do if a massage therapist tells you your shoulder muscles are really tense and asks you to relax them. Or what you need to do if you’re feeling insecure in the water and someone tells you to relax and float. Or what you need to do to make friends with a standoffish cat.
Direct, willful effort isn’t going to work, but you need to put a lot of effort into paying attention, being sensitive and aware, letting go of what isn’t helping, and trusting the process. You also need to take a leap of faith that something beyond your sense of “executive I” – your body, the water, the cat, the universe – will respond and support you.
Gradually, zazen teaches us we don’t have to hold reality together with our minds. In fact, we realize reality is perfectly fine on its own, and the world we’ve constructed in our minds is only a pale reflection of it.
I’m guessing other meditative approaches, as well as the spiritual practices of other religious traditions such as prayer, can eventually get you to the same place. I certainly resonate with the descriptions of the divine and transcendent from mystics from all traditions, so clearly zazen isn’t the only way.
What’s consistent in all peak spiritual experiences of human beings, however, is a transcendence of the sense of self. I believe zazen is an elegantly simple and direct practice that very cleverly asks you to leave behind the “executive I” from the outset, so you don’t have to struggle to shed it later after it’s appeared to lead you to all kinds of great spiritual rewards.