Today I tried to also read a book I have about Shikantaza, the Zen approach to meditation that involves not doing anything special. I did my best to absorb a chapter consisting of the words of an 8th or 9th century Zen teacher, but they didn't make much sense to me. Too poetic, too meandering, too unclear.
So I closed that book and happily read another podcast by Domyo Burk, the Zen Studies Podcast creator. Here's excerpts from her Part 2 regarding what zazen (meditation) is all about, which includes a discussion of what to do if you find that you're thinking too much.
In short, nothing. Which makes perfect sense. What follows is some of the best advice about meditation that I've ever come across. And believe me, I'm familiar with a lot of that advice, since I've been meditating every day for about fifty years.
If you’ve tried zazen (or any other kind of meditation), you’ll know that even if you really want to meditate, and you fully intend to be present without an agenda for the whole period of meditation, you’re still liable to get caught up in thinking – usually many, many times over the course of a meditation period.
What can you do about it?
In zazen, when we realize we’ve been caught up in thinking, we try not to react at all. We just return to wholeheartedly sitting. A classic analogy for this is trying to hold a bowl of water very still. If you shake, or the wind blows, the water will be disturbed, but there’s nothing you can actively do to make the water calm again. Any motion you make, like patting the surface of the water, will only make things worse; the only thing you can do is hold still.
Stimulus-independent thinking is like the turbulence in the water, and absorbing yourself in just sitting is like holding the bowl still. Patting the surface of the water is analogous to evaluating your meditation and mulling over how to improve it, feeling frustrated with your mind or with yourself, judging thinking as being bad, or even trying to hold your mind on something in a rigid way in order to brace yourself against stimulus-independent thinking.
...The second you realize you’ve been caught up in thinking, that’s great – you’re no longer caught up! You’ve woken up to what’s happening in the present!
Even if you had totally forgotten you were even meditating, even if you spent 15 minutes planning an elaborate meal you want to cook next week, simply be grateful that you remembered your intention to meditate and let go of the past as quickly as possible. Forget about your previous mind-wandering as if it doesn’t matter at all, and throw your energy into just sitting.
It may seem like it will help to strain harder, feel regret, or try to figure out what’s wrong with your zazen, but those things just make it worse.
This “forget about it and keep sitting” approach may seem foolhardy – as if you’re working on a practice but forbidden how to learn how to get better at it. But zazen isn’t ordinary effort; it’s more about not doing than doing. When you realize you’ve been doing (thinking, striving) all you can do is not do. More doing (such as thinking about how to meditate better) isn’t going to help at all.
...Zazen is difficult, but not for the reasons we think. We think it’s difficult because we’re not trying hard enough, or we’re haven’t figured out the right way to do it yet. But it’s difficult precisely because in zazen we’re aiming to return to a natural state of simple, open awareness.
Issho Fujita sensei (see the show notes for a link to his writings on zazen) offers this analogy: Imagine you’re holding a bamboo stick by the ends and then applying pressure so the stick bends. If you want to allow the stick to return to its natural state, all you have to do is release the pressure you’re applying.
This bent state is our ordinary way of operating; we think it’s the way we have to be, the way things need to be, but it isn’t true. Our conscious efforts, self-interest, and discriminative thinking are extra things we add to our experience, like bending the bamboo stick. In order to allow our minds to return to a natural state of awareness, all we need to do is relax the extra effort we’re making.
But we all know it’s not so easy to “relax” or “be natural!” Habits are strong.
For example, what happens when someone tells you to breathe naturally? It becomes more difficult to breathe naturally! So relaxing into our natural state of open awareness is not so easy for us. This is why zazen is difficult and requires almost Herculean effort – but not our usual kind of effort. If we strive harder, if we try to make something happen (or not happen), we are just applying more pressure to the bamboo stick.
A significant part of our Herculean effort is becoming more and more subtly attuned to our experience so we can begin to recognize the extra things we are adding to our experience, and learn to let them go.