Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Don't just do something, sit there.

"I don't know why I do zazen, but when I wake up in the morning, the world is so beautiful I cry."

In my last post, I mentioned zazen, or sitting meditation. This form of passive meditation is antithetical to every tenet of modern society, because it refocuses energy away from external stimuli and back on the internal self. Practicing zazen goes against our instincts, which are typically preoccupied either with achieving instant gratification (channel surfing) or ineffectual, unending patterns of worry. By doing zazen, you conciously take a timeout from the cyclical information overload of daily life. The effects are impressive.

I like to do zazen in the woods, but location is not terribly important as long as you can find a clean, quiet place where it is comfortable to sit, away from visual or audio distractions. After slowly stretching out the body, sit cross-legged with your left hand cupping the right, wrists resting in your lap. Eyes can be shut, or left half open but relaxed. Try to keep good posture. Then, just sit for a while.

For the first few minutes, I've found that my mind fights hard to get me up and doing something. It takes discipline to just stay still, deal with small muscle aches and not get distracted. Funny when you think about it - we're so accustomed to constant action and stimulation that one of the most difficult things to do is simply sit still for any length of time.

Thoughts rise up from here and there while I sit. It's impossible to stop them, and I don't try to, but I don't engage them either. The key to zazen is passivity, even in regard to your own thoughts. If a joke from a The Simpsons wanders into your mind, it wanders in, but without gritting your teeth and concentrating on getting rid of it, it's better to just let it wander on out again. If it gets too crowded up there, you can try focusing on breathing - in and out, in and out.

If you make it 5 minutes without shifting your weight, looking up at something or getting distracted, the physical effects of zazen begin to develop. For me, it starts with my hands. First fingers and palms feel unnaturally light, as if they could float away in a heavy breeze, but I also become aware of a heaviness holding them down, a ball of energy balanced ever so delicately in my lap. The more still I manage to hold my body, the lighter my hands feel and the more tangible the ball of energy becomes. After 15 minutes or so, the airy feeling spreads up my arms, to shoulders and chest, encircling the energy in my lap. At this point, the relative scale of my body and spirt seem to move apart, like a feeling I remember from childhood when I couldn't sleep but lay still anyway, until my sense of self rose up like a helium balloon barely connected to the huge physical mass of the body to which it was still anchored.

This feeling is extremely delicate. A woodpecker ratatats on a tree from the other side of the hill and the state shrinks down suddenly as your focus swings over to the sound. It takes time to build it back up again, and after 30 minutes or so I'm usually unwilling to keep going once my focus breaks.

When it's done though, after getting up and stretching again I'm invariably in a good mood, comfortable and happy, as if I just jumped into a cool pond at the end of a long bike ride on a muggy day in August.

Give zazen a try - hold it as long as you can, use a timer if you have to. It's free, and you don't need accessories. The high doesn't quite touch marijuana, but it's comparable to the endorphin surge you get after running up a steep hill.


Anonymous PigsOnTheWing said...

There is no pain, you are receding.
A distant ship’s smoke on the horizon.
You are only coming through in waves.
Your lips move but I can’t hear what you’re sayin’.
When I was a child I had a fever.
My hands felt just like two balloons.
Now I got that feeling once again.
I can’t explain, you would not understand.
This is not how I am.
I have become comfortably numb.

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