Our practice of zazen is also known as shikantaza, a Japanese term that can be translated as “nothing but precisely sitting.” The whole point is to just sit there. Doing nothing. A practice of not-doing.
This is so difficult for us, we can hardly even conceive of it. Instead, we imagine we are supposed to sit there meditating. We’re supposed to concentrate, or be aware of this moment, or something. Anything. Anything but really, really doing nothing.
When I settle into my morning zazen at home, I sometimes try to inspire myself by inviting myself not to meditate. Without even realizing it, I will have taken the seated position and started to do this practice of shikantaza. Then my mind will wander and I’ll think about how I’m not sitting zazen very well, and the whole thing will feel off. Laughing inwardly, then, I’ll remind myself I don’t have to do anything. Just relax and sit there!
For a moment, just sitting there, the whole universe opens up. I’m awake. I’m here. I’m appreciative, intimate, dependently co-arising with everything. My embrace of my life, momentarily, is no longer contingent on this and that. So simple!
Then I’m off again, thinking about things. Often thinking about meditation and practice, ironically.
Or am I really “off again?” Who is “off again?” Who is me? Am I only my self-consciousness, the part that is aware of, “I’m sitting?” Am I not my body as well, which through all of my mind wanderings, continues to patiently just sit?
Still, it’s nice to wholeheartedly sit – to mentally and volitionally just sit, as well as physically just sit. As expedient means, therefore, we “practice not-doing.” A practice is something we do, although paradoxically, in this case, our practice is not-doing. Because human beings are so attached to doing, this is a clever way to get us committed to zazen.
How do you practice not-doing? Basically, you use whatever technique you can find that convinces you, or allows you, to stop doing. You might do as I do, and invite yourself to relax. Or you might remind yourself there’s absolutely no legitimate reason you have to think about all that stuff during the 20-30 minutes you’re sitting zazen; you’ll have plenty of time to think later. (If you really need to think about something that badly, you shouldn’t be meditating!) Or you might try to imitate a cat when it’s just sitting there, alert and watching everything, but just letting time go by.
Another classic way to practice not-doing is to gently follow your breath. This is a good way to sustain not-doing for more than a moment – but it’s important, from the perspective of shikantaza, that you don’t make following your breath into doing! Instead, you settle into not-doing, and because you’re not doing anything else, you can follow your breath. Okay, it’s a little bit of “doing,” but it’s a relative tiny and simple “doing.” You might even want to count exhalations 1-10, and then start back at one.
Sometimes beginners are taught breath following or counting as a way to learn to do zazen. If this works for you, great. For many of us, however, we actually have to gradually grope our way towards not-doing in a less straightforward way before we can follow or count the breath! It’s taken me 20 years of diligent sitting practice to be able to reliably count my breaths 1-10 and start back at one. This isn’t because it’s taken me 20 years to develop a skill, or 20 years to figure out how to do zazen! It’s because I’m really attached to doing, and it’s taken me 20 years to let go enough – to be still, simple, and spacious enough – to allow my breathing to be the most exciting thing that’s going on.
Whichever gateway into not-doing works for you – concentration or relaxation – the process of finding that gateway, entering it, and learning what it really means to not-do, is itself the beauty of practice. We continue to learn how to “do” zazen our entire lives.
These are five ways we can make our work into spiritual practice. They’re from the “Tenzokyokun,” or “Instructions to the [Head Monastery] Cook,” which was written by Zen master Dogen in 1237, following a long tradition of Zen “work practice.” In the essay, Dogen writes, “just working as tenzo is the incomparable practice of the Buddhas.” While it may seem like specific instructions for cook in a traditional Zen monastery isn’t relevant to us, fortunately that’s not the case at all. Enjoy!
1) Taking Joy in Serving Others
2) Treating Each Thing as the Body of the Buddha
3) Refusing to Be Pushed About by Judgments and Preferences
4) Doing the Best Job You Possibly Can
5) Becoming One with Your Activity, or Getting in “the Zone”
Advice for Approaching Work Practice on a Daily Basis
1) Taking Joy in Serving Others
First, we can take joy in our work as service to others. Dogen writes, “The true bond established between ourselves and the Buddha is born of the smallest offering made with sincerity rather than of some grandiose donation made without it. This is our practice as human beings.” Note he says, “the smallest offering,” so this includes a sincere smile, leaving something cleaner than we found it, adding an edible flower to the top of a dish, or quietly taking up the slack when our co-worker overlooks something.
In the Tenzokyokun, Dogen describes how the tenzo should have an attitude of joy in her work, and approach it with the selfless love of a parent. He suggests we recall that it would have been very possible for us to be living in circumstances where we would be unable to engage in the work we’re doing, and how fortunate we are to have the opportunity to be of benefit to others. Rather than feeling burdened or underappreciated, we’re asked to approach our work as parents take care of their children: “A parent protects the children from the cold and shades them from the hot sun with no concern for his or her own personal welfare… In this same manner, when you handle water, rice, or anything else, you must have the affectionate and caring concern of a parent raising a child.”
The idea of enlivening our work by engaging it as service or generosity isn’t that radical, but many of us tend to imagine it’s only surgeons, firefighters, or particularly talented and remarkable people who get to feel deeply gratified by the benefits they are offering to others. However, Dogen emphasizes how the monastery cook serves others even as he’s going about simple, unglamorous tasks like washing rice or putting away pots and pans, so he’s clearly encouraging us to see the service and generosity within the work we do.
It can be challenging to see your regular daily work as beneficial to others to the extent that you can consequently take great joy in it and see it as noble and worthwhile. Personally, I don’t find it easy to sit alone at my computer, putting together a podcast episode, and nurture a sense that I’m benefitting others. Even though people have told me they enjoy the podcast and appreciate it, it’s still easy just to see it as something I’ve got to get done today – and certainly no big deal compared to the work that has to be done to meet the critical needs of the world today, like ending world hunger or researching climate change.
However, bringing a joyful sense of service to your work isn’t really about how much it technically benefits others in relative sense. It’s about the state of your own heart as you work; your offering may be small, but as Dogen said, the true bond between ourselves and the Buddha is “born of the smallest offering made with sincerity.” He also instructs us to “see that working for the benefit of others benefits oneself,” and to “understand that through making every effort for the prosperity of the community one revitalizes one’s own character.” The beautiful thing is that a community truly thrives when each person in it sees themselves as contributing, and aspires, in the manner of a selfless parent, to give whatever is needed without concern for reward or reputation.
2) Treating Each Thing as the Body of the Buddha
A strong theme in the Tenzokyokun is treating each thing you encounter with great care. Dogen quotes a Chinese Chan master, “Use the property and possessions of the community as carefully as if they were your own eyes.” In Zen work practice, we’re never supposed to do anything thoughtlessly or carelessly. Nothing is dismissed as garbage, or beneath our attention, or beside the point. Tools are handled with care, washed after use, and stored carefully. Things are carried with both hands. Assistants are treated kindly and thoughtfully. Parts of vegetables you’re not going to eat are conscientiously composted, and even wash water is carried outside and poured at the base of a plant instead of being tossed down the drain.
Dogen writes, “Handle even a single leaf of green in such a way that it manifests the body of the Buddha.” What does this really mean? First, we usually have to slow down a little, and actually look at what’s in front of us. This cultivates mindfulness, one of the main practices of Buddhism. Then we refrain from evaluating the leaf in our hand simply in terms of ourselves. Ordinarily we are thinking only about completing our task so we can rest, or get praise for how good a job we’ve done. Or we’re daydreaming about something else, because, frankly, this leaf isn’t very important to us.
If we cut through the fog of our self-centered dream, however, we may glimpse what a miracle this leaf is, and how amazing it is that we’re holding it. Inherent in the leaf is the wonder of life, and the power of the sun. Someone planted a seed, carefully tended the plants, and then harvested this leaf. The hard work and generosity of many people were required for this leaf to end up in our hands. Right here, right now, we are alive, and healthy, and capable of grasping the leaf with our fingers… what else do we mean by “the body of the Buddha?” The body of the Buddha is the physical, real manifestation of the Ineffable, and here it is.
Do we think about these things while holding a single leaf of green, or a pencil, or the steering wheel of a car? Maybe, but that’s not the point. It’s nice to have a personal sense that everything is manifesting the body of the Buddha, but whether we feel that way or not, that’s the truth of things. In treating each thing with love, care, respect, and attention, we align ourselves with this truth and honor it.
We’re also not separate from this truth, so there’s a strange way in which our participation is necessary in order for the whole scenario to be complete. After Dogen tells us to handle even a single leaf of green as we would the body of the Buddha, he says, “This in turn allows the Buddha to manifest through the leaf. This is a power you cannot grasp with your rational mind.” So, this isn’t about treating things carefully because they are sacred and we’re not, or about acting in a particularly way because we hope to glimpse of the Ineffable and we work. This is about learning how to treat things such that we allow the Ineffable to manifest through them. If we can do this, our whole day and everything we do has the potential to feel sacred.
3) Refusing to Be Pushed About by Judgments and Preferences
You might think it would enough to say we should treat each thing as if it’s the body of the Buddha, but we tend to be very attached to our opinions and reactions, so Dogen devotes plenty of time in the Tenzokyokun to admonishing us to rise above them. He writes:
“Your attitude towards things should not be contingent on their quality. A person who is influenced by the quality of a thing, or who changes his speech or manner according to the appearance or position of the people he meets, is not a man working in the Way.”
Specifically, Dogen instructs the tenzo to handle all food with respect, regardless of its quality, “as if it were to be used in a meal for the emperor.” He says a tenzo should “never feel aversion toward plain ingredients,” and instead should try to make the best use of whatever ingredients she has. Believe me, this is very relevant advice for a monastery cook, who is usually operating on a tight budget and forbidden to rely on rich, expensive ingredients to make the food delicious. It’s also common for monasteries to receive food donations that… well… prove a challenge. My teacher’s monastery once had to make good use of a semi-truck load of onions that overturned on a nearby freeway. For months, their tenzo had to find creative ways to incorporate way too many onions into the meals.
We’re also supposed to take care of people despite our judgments and preferences about them. Dogen is specific about this, saying “do not judge monks as deserving of respect or as being worthless, nor pay attention to whether a person has been practicing for only a short time or for many years.” He admits there may be significant differences between juniors and seniors, or those who are gifted with great intelligence and those who are not, but says, “Even so, all are the treasures of the sangha [community].” He explains, “Even though there may be right or wrong, do not cling to that judgment.”
So, even though in the course of our daily lives and work, opinions, judgments, and preferences will naturally arise, we don’t have to allow them to interfere with our work practice. We can diligently hold to our aspiration to treat each thing (or person) such that it (or they) can manifest the body of the Buddha. We should respond to circumstances differently depending on what and who we’re dealing with, but stay true to our underlying intention to serve others and honor the Ineffable at all times. This is a tall order, of course, but essentially this aspect of work practice is not allowing ourselves to be pushed about by our own thoughts and preferences. We can easily be lost in the fog of a self-centered dream filled with our opinions and reactions instead of responding appropriately and compassionately to things as they really are.
4) Doing the Best Job You Possibly Can
Again, this probably follows from the aspects of work practice I’ve already covered, because if you’re taking joy in serving others, and treating everything you encounter such that it manifests the body of the Buddha, you’ll probably do the best job you can. Still, it helps to view work practice explicitly through the lens of diligence. This is about taking personal responsibility, and being energetic and meticulous in your work.
Dogen illustrates the importance of diligence in our work with another story about an encounter he had with a tenzo in China. The tenzo was again an older monk – 68 years, to be exact – and Dogen found him drying mushrooms in the hot sun. Dogen writes, “the sun’s rays beat down so harshly that the tiles along the walk burned one’s feet,” and says he was concerned for the tenzo, whose back was bent and whose “eyebrows were crane white.” When asked why he never used any assistants, the old monk replied, “Other people are not me.” Dogen says, “You are right… I can see that your work is the activity of the buddhadharma, but why are you working so hard in this scorching sun?” The tenzo answers, “If I do not do it now, when else can I do it.”
Elsewhere in the Tenzokyokun, Dogen quotes the Chanyuan Qinggui (a classic set of Chinese monastic regulations), which instructs the tenzo to “prepare each meal with meticulous care,” and to “pay full attention to your work in preparing the meal; attend to every aspect of it yourself so that it will naturally turn out well.” After conveying disappointment and disgust as he described a careless Japanese tenzo, Dogen writes, “Strengthen your resolve, and devote your life spirit to surpassing the refinement of the ancient patriarchs and being even more meticulous than those who came before you.”
Now, we have to careful with these particular instructions about work practice because it’s common in our society for people to work too much, and to be very identified with the outcomes of their work. It’s not helpful for us to try to become even more controlling, obsessed, compulsive, ambitious, or self-critical. The valuable message for us here, I think, is an invitation to take a healthy pride in our work, no matter what it is, and to allow ourselves to unleash our energy, creativity, and vision as we engage in it. In other words, making our work into spiritual practice doesn’t mean making it half-hearted or dreamy, as we contemplate deep spiritual matters in the midst of our tasks. Rather, it means energetically applying ourselves. This reminds me of a sign I saw posted at Zen monastery, over a dishwashing area where mountains of pots and dishes were washed, rinsed, and sterilized after every meal. The sign was clearly in response to newcomers to the monastery who were just learning how to consciously engage their work as spiritual practice. It read, “Mindful does not mean slow.”
Personally, I was delighted when I learned that an essential part of the tenzo’s job is to make delicious and beautiful dishes. Dogen quotes the Chanyuan Qinggui: “If the tenzo offers a meal without a harmony of the six flavors and the three qualities, it cannot be said that he serves the community.” The six flavors are sweet, salty, bitter, sour, mild, and hot. The three virtues are light or flexible, clean or neat, and conscientious or thorough. According to the tenzo tradition I was trained in, you need to consider all kinds of things when preparing a meal: flavors, textures, color, contrasts between dishes and ingredients, and variety. You serve beans no more than once a day, and vary the carbohydrates by meal using rice, pasta, root vegetables, bread, corn, and other grains. Lettuce for salad needs to be torn in tiny pieces in order to fit in people’s eating bowls and be easily picked up with chopsticks. Particularly popular dishes like egg frittata are deeply appreciated on the third day of retreat, which tends to be one of the most difficult for people.
There’s a funny phenomenon in American culture where people are considered annoying or mildly anal retentive when they concern themselves with the details of a task and are very particular about the way it’s done. Eyes are often rolled behind the person’s back, and when they are scrupulous in fulfilling their responsibilities – often going above and beyond what’s absolutely required – they are sometimes seen as obsessive or attached. I think this is unfortunate, because it’s beautiful when people do the best job they possibly can, whether they’re pumping gas, offering tech support over the phone, stacking produce in a supermarket, or teaching children. It’s especially inspiring when people are diligent and take pride and delight in their work just for its own sake, regardless of their level of compensation or recognition.
Again, the exhortation to do the best job you possibly can isn’t meant to stress you out by implying you need to work even harder. Instead, it’s an invitation to imbue your work with significance, vitality, and beauty, rather than holding something back from it because you don’t think it’s all that important, or you’d rather be doing something else. No matter the job, it’s always possible to bring something personal and special to it. We’ve all had the experience of being cheered up by a friendly and competent receptionist, or relieved by an empathetic nurse, or made to feel valued by an appreciative shop owner who recognizes us as a repeat customer. With our diligence, we enhance our service to others – plus, there’s satisfaction in a job well done.
5) Becoming One with Your Activity, or Getting in “the Zone”
Becoming one with your activity has long been a goal of Zen practice, but many people will be more familiar with the popular English phrase “in the zone.” This is an experience where our self-consciousness falls away and we become completely absorbed in an activity, allowing us to perform to the best of our ability. Rather than daydreaming about other things while we work, thinking about ourselves and our relationship to our task, evaluating our performance, comparing ourselves to others, or imagining what people think of us, we just do, wholeheartedly. We just cook, wash, write, speak, design, or dig.
In the Tenzokyokun, Dogen says that if we would only step back and reflect carefully on the way our minds are usually racing about, and how often our emotions are unmanageable, “our lives would naturally become one with our work.” In practice, this means bringing awareness to our mind state whenever we remember to do so. When we notice we’re chopping carrots but thinking about an upcoming camping trip, we recall our aspiration to become one with our work, and therefore with our life. We want to be awake, right? Life is short, and we want to appreciate what’s going on. Right now, we’re chopping carrots.
In order to become more absorbed in our task, once we’ve woken up to the present moment, we employ one or more the practices I’ve already talked about: devoting ourselves to serving others, trying to treat the carrots as the body of the Buddha, refusing to be pushed about by our own preferences, and energetically doing the best job we can. Dogen explains, “If [the tenzo] throws all his energy into whatever the situation truly calls for, then both the activity and the method by which he carries it out will naturally work to nurture the seeds of the buddhadharma.” Sounds like being in “the zone,” doesn’t it?
But how does “the zone” work? How does paying attention to present moment, absorbing ourselves completely in a task, and letting go of thinking about the task, lead to everything naturally working out? Of course, this is an actual experience and not something that can be easily explained, but I think there’s a clue in Dogen’s instruction, found elsewhere in the Tenzokyokun: “Both day and night, allow all things to come into and reside within your mind. Allow your mind and all things to function together as a whole.” In other words, when we’re one with our task, we’re not shutting anything out or excluding anything. Everything we know and all the skills we’ve developed are accessible to us. We’re not even excluding daydreams or thoughts about self – we’re simply channeling our energy and attention into our work as wholeheartedly as we can.
Dogen further explains the process of our lives naturally becoming one with our work, writing that, “Doing so is the means whereby we turn things even while simultaneously we are being turned by them.” “Turning something while being turned by it” is phrase often used by ancestral Buddhist teachers, pointing toward the experience of simultaneously actively participating in something, and being carried along in a process by forces beyond yourself. When we become one with our activity in this way, amazing things happen – like the Buddha manifesting through a lettuce leaf! Dogen says, “This is a power which you cannot grasp with your rational mind. It operates freely, according to the situation, in a most natural way. At the same time, this power functions in our lives to clarify and settle activities and is beneficial to all living things.”
Advice for Approaching Work Practice on a Daily Basis
Of course, the moment we think, “wow, I’m in the zone, I’m one with my work, isn’t this great,” we’re no longer in the zone. Still, the only thing we can do at such a moment is throw ourselves back into our work. Hopefully, the five aspects of Zen work practice I’ve distilled for you from the Tenzokyokun will be useful:
- Taking Joy in Serving Others
- Treating Each Thing as the Body of the Buddha
- Refusing to Be Pushed About by Judgments and Preferences
- Doing the Best Job You Possibly Can
- Becoming One with Your Activity, or Getting in “the Zone”
Now, by way of encouragement I want to say that while descriptions of “being one with our activity” may sound transcendent or profound – and occasionally we may experience our life that way – work practice is also very challenging. There are few other areas of our lives where we are so tempted to adopt a self-centered agenda, be obsessed with the outcome, or be preoccupied with our performance, comfort, reputation, or status relative to others! Just letting go and allowing ourselves to be “turned by” things can become an elusive ideal against which our ordinary ways of operating seem pretty pathetic. Our minds wander over and over, and our opinions and preferences grandstand in our brains as if they had a life of their own.
I vividly remember my work practice from a weeklong retreat many years ago. I was given the job of maintaining the walking trails at the monastery. This was my favorite job – I loved being outdoors, surrounded by nature, doing manual labor. However, at that particular retreat, my two Dharma brothers were assigned to work on the monastery roof. I couldn’t help but notice that women were rarely, if ever, assigned to work on the roof or at other physically risky or skilled jobs. This pissed me off to no end, and I spent the work periods over the entire week mentally rehearsing arguments against this injustice, sneaking looks over at my male friends running around on the roof. I tried to let the thoughts go and pay attention to my trail work, but it was extremely difficult to fight against myself.
It would be easy to conclude, when we find work practice a struggle, that we’re just “not good at it.” It could be tempting to give up trying to make our work into an opportunity for practice. However, there are two essential reasons not to judge, or give up on, your work practice. First, Buddhist practice is not about reaching some ideal, but about paying attention to your life just as it is, right now. In other words, you don’t make any progress by dwelling on how you should be. Instead, you fully face and embrace your current reality – which is only possible if you refrain from judging it. You are where you are. There are no guarantees you’ll make “progress” in this life, but you’re very unlikely to do so if you give up.
Second, the Great Matter of Life and Death is much, much bigger than we are. There is beauty and truth operating within your work practice as long as you’re trying, regardless of what you think. This is what Dogen means by, “This is a power which you cannot grasp with your rational mind. It operates freely, according to the situation, in a most natural way.” This doesn’t mean you should go passive and stop trying because it’s all out of your hands, or that the Dharma will manifest no matter what you do or don’t do. Because, remember, through our practice we allow the leafy green to manifest the body of the Buddha! Still, our efforts and failures are part of the whole picture: While my work practice on the trail, where I spent my time inwardly bitching about sexism, was not ideal in one sense, in another sense I was diligently doing my best to cultivate awareness of my life. I may have missed a lot of the joy, service, and beauty of my work assignment, but I was very aware of what was going on in my mind, and had to face a deeper question about how to be true to my values and experience while still not being pushed around by my judgments and preferences.
A closing word from Dogen: “My sincerest desire is that you exhaust all the strength and effort of all your lives – past, present, and future – and every moment of every day into your practice through the work of the tenzo, so that you form a strong connection with the buddhadharma.”
Uchiyama, Kosho. From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment: Refining Your Life. Translated by Thomas Wright. New York, NY: Weatherhill, 1983.
 Uchiyama pg. 13
 Uchiyama pg. 18
 Uchiyama pg. 15
 Uchiyama pg. 4
 Uchiyama pg. 7
 Uchiyama pg. 7
 Uchiyama pg. 4
 Uchiyama pg. 14
 Uchiyama pg. 9
 Uchiyama pg. 12
 Uchiyama pg. 5
 Uchiyama pg. 7
 Uchiyama pg. 4
 Uchiyama pg. 100 (Translator’s note)
 Uchiyama pg. 7
 Uchiyama pg. 9
 Uchiyama pg. 6
 Uchiyama pg. 8
 Uchiyama pg. 17
If you’re always satisfied with your zazen, you’re probably selling yourself short. If you’re never satisfied with your zazen, you may want to learn how to deepen it.
Possibly the worst thing to do is ignore any dissatisfaction with your zazen because you think you’re not supposed to feel dissatisfied with it. It’s easy to come to this conclusion in Buddhism, where we’re taught that, essentially, dissatisfaction – dukkha – is a disease of the mind, and if we can just accept and be present with “whatever is,” all will be well. While it’s true, to a certain extent, that the key to peace, joy, and liberation lies within our own minds, that doesn’t mean we can truly attain liberation by merely wishing our dissatisfaction away.
How Dissatisfaction Can Be Good
Dissatisfaction is our friend! It’s just like a sensation of physical discomfort – it’s information, telling us something needs to be adjusted or addressed. If we didn’t feel physical pain, it would be difficult to avoid injury or know when we’re sick. If we didn’t feel dissatisfaction, it would be difficult to recognize when our approach to zazen – or life – isn’t working as well as it could.
It’s important to acknowledge our dissatisfaction with our zazen, because zazen is our gateway to enlightenment. No matter how diligent and rewarding our practice in the midst of everyday life, we need the stillness and simplicity of zazen to push the boundary of our experience of non-duality. In the depth of zazen, our usual way of going about things is called into question. In zazen, we touch our true being, and align our lives with truth.
Now, it’s understandable if you have a developed a deep faith that zazen is a beneficial practice regardless of the nature of your experience on the cushion. I know lots of people who diligently sit, gently bringing their awareness back to their breath whenever their mind has wandered. They do this, over and over – sometimes for 8 hours a day at a meditation retreat! Year after year, their zazen doesn’t really change or deepen, but they keep at it. This patient determination is admirable, and clearly zazen does have some kind of benefit even when approached this way!
However, zazen can be so much more. Just read a few descriptions of zazen from our ancestors, which suggest we should never feel satisfied with our zazen:
[Zazen] “is simply the dharma gate of joyful ease, the practice-realization of totally culminated enlightenment. It is the koan realized, traps and snares can never reach it. If you grasp the point, you are like a dragon gaining the water, like a tiger taking to the mountains.” – Eihei Dogen (Fukanzazengi)
“Now, zazen is entering directly into the ocean of buddha-nature and manifesting the body of the Buddha. The pure and clear mind is actualized in the present moment; the original light shines everywhere… Zazen alone brings everything to rest and, flowing freely, reaches everywhere. So zazen is like returning home and sitting in peace.” – Keizan Jokin (Zazen-Yojinki)
“Silent and serene, forgetting words, bright clarity appears before you. When you reﬂect it you become vast, where you embody it you are spiritually uplifted. Spiritually solitary and shining, inner illumination restores wonder.” – Hongzhi Zhengjue (Guidepost for Silent Illumination)
Working Constructively with Dissatisfaction
Now, of course, it doesn’t help to set up ideals and expectations about our zazen and strive to achieve them. For most of us, that just makes things worse and increases our dissatisfaction.
So what can we do, short of just trying not to be dissatisfied with our zazen, no matter how it is? Which amounts to being satisfied with our zazen even if we rarely ever experience it (or have never experienced it) as “joyful ease,” “returning home and sitting in peace,” or full of “bright clarity” and “wonder.”
Different Zen teachers have different answers and approaches to this, but here’s mine: In the midst of zazen, pay attention to your dissatisfaction and let it guide you toward a deeper experience. Rather than brushing away your dissatisfaction, let it inform you. Then renew your determination to taste what the ancestors have described, and unleash your creativity in order to find a way forward. All without setting up an ideal or creating a struggle within.
Okay, let me walk you through four steps in this process so you can see what I mean:
1) In the Midst of Zazen, Pay Attention to Your Dissatisfaction
This is not intellectual analysis! This is about paying attention to your direct, immediate, embodied experience in zazen. Where do you feel obstructed, or tight? What are you doing or trying that brings you “back to the moment” for an instant but then sends you off into daydreaming or dullness? What do you want? What are you expecting? What is keeping you from being completely and utterly at peace? What are you holding on to that obstructs your appreciation and joy?
I can’t emphasize enough that this is not intellectual analysis, and yet it also isn’t a purely physical exploration that excludes thoughts, feelings, and attitudes. This is an experiential exploration of what’s going on in the moment without arbitrarily dividing yourself up into parts like “body,” “mind,” and “heart.” For example, maybe you are filled with grief because of a recent loss. That’s part of what’s going on for you. You can be aware of the grief, or of your desire to be free from pain, or of your self-doubt, without that awareness being merely intellectual analysis.
Perhaps an example will help. Mandy (a hypothetical Zen practitioner) has been sitting zazen for a number of years. She spends much of the time on the cushion caught up in thoughts, but when she notices, she patiently shifts her awareness back to her breath, or sound, and experiences a moment of stillness. She does this a dozen times or more over the course of meditation period. She doesn’t usually experience anything that feels very special during zazen, but finds that it helps her feel more sane and joyful in her everyday life.
One day Mandy reads an annoying post by a Zen teacher that suggests her zazen could be more. She’s doubtful, because she’s tried awfully hard to be “more present” during zazen and it’s never worked. However, she tries to pay attention to her dissatisfaction during zazen. In one moment, she’s not caught up in thoughts and just notices the sunlight on the carpet in front of her. She tries to stay present with that experience, but then starts thinking about zazen, and what Julie said about it last week, and whether Julie has special experiences during zazen, and…
As Mandy wakes up to the present again, she notices resistance within her to staying present. Her mind seems to be leaning away from the present, toward something more interesting or exciting. Staying with this reality for a bit, she realizes the resistance is reflected in her body as well, as if her energy is surging forward and upward toward her chest and head as opposed to settling down in her lower abdomen and legs. She becomes aware of a conviction that she knows what’s going to happen next. She’s aware of this as a real attitude she’s holding, not as a thought about her experience. Exploring this attitude, she recognizes a conclusion that the present moment is boring, and staying aware of it – except for a second or two – is pointless. Therefore, she also recognizes – within herself – an unwillingness to attend to the present unless she knows there’s going to be some kind of payoff for doing it.
2) Renew Your Determination for Enlightenment
Okay, “enlightenment” is a pretty vague and lofty term, but essentially it refers to your deepest aspiration(s). What do you really want? Do you want to be free from your pain – not just temporarily, through distraction or coping mechanisms, but truly healed? Do you want to be as awake as possible for every moment of your precious life? Do you want to cultivate wisdom so you can respond as skillfully as possible to the suffering of the world? Do you want to access your innate compassion so you can respond with love to all sentient beings?
It’s okay to want stuff! Desire, like dissatisfaction, is not a problem in and of itself. As long as we work with desire and dissatisfaction appropriately – without making our happiness contingent on their resolution, or resorting to self-centered behavior in order to get what we want – they are the fuel for our practice.
So go ahead and call to mind what you truly want. Remind yourself of why you practice. Acknowledge to yourself that your current understanding and manifestation is relatively small compared to that of a buddha (which is true for all of us), and think of all the amazing experiences that lie ahead of you.
3) Unleash Your Creativity and Find a Way Forward
Many people conclude they don’t know enough about meditation to deepen their experience of it. However, while it’s certainly true that suggestions from teachers, seniors, and even peers can be helpful, ultimately we have to learn to navigate our own body-mind in zazen. We’re the only ones who actually know what’s going on in there, and we’re the only ones who can apply a particular technique or approach. You may need to tweak your body-mind in a way that no Zen ancestor or teacher has yet described.
Let’s return to Mandy’s story in order to explore this more fully. Having noticed a number of assumptions and attitudes she was holding, she tries letting go of them. She experiences what feels like a little energetic shift, but it doesn’t last long and pretty soon her mind’s just wandering again. So she returns to the sensations of resistance to staying present. She also reminds herself of her aspiration to open herself up to a deeper experience of the Divine.
Mandy remembers a teaching she heard once that in order to hear the Divine, you have to listen carefully. She works on listening. Instead of her energy being centered around her face, it now spreads more evenly throughout her body, as she settles into her somatic (embodied) experience. However, after a couple minutes her mind has wandered again because, she realizes, “nothing was happening” (that is, she didn’t “hear” anything from the Divine). She acknowledges this self-interested aspect of her experience, and it occurs to her that true devotion to the Divine involves the act of listening without the slightest expectation of a response.
Suddenly, Mandy’s energy settles down and even seems to penetrate into the earth. For a moment, she experiences a warm, embracing silence – as if she has, indeed, returned home to where she belongs. She has a sense that this supportive embrace is always present, even when she’s caught up in thoughts or self-interest. All she has to do is offer her awareness up without the slightest agenda in order to rest in it. A few minutes later, Mandy’s mind is wandering again, and for the remainder of the zazen period she doesn’t have another experience of embracing silence quite as deep as the first one – but the impression of the experience remains, spreading a kind of peace throughout her zazen.
4) Celebrate “Moments That Make You Dance” – and Then Let Them Go
Recommending that you “work on” your zazen is potentially confusing and harmful, I have to admit. Watch out for whether this recommendation makes you judge your zazen or yourself and get discouraged, or invites you cling to ideas about what “deep” zazen is like, or causes you to compare yourself to others, or makes you dwell on the “special” experiences you’ve had and try to recreate them. If you find yourself doing any of these things, though, these are just more examples of dissatisfaction that you can work with.
Unfortunately, struggling against ourselves doesn’t usually result in anything other than frustration. So it’s not advisable to set up an ideal and then strive for it – setting the part of you that holds the ideal against the lazy or stubborn parts of you that would rather get lost in thought or sleep on the zazen cushion. The kind of exploration and work I’m recommending you do in zazen is not like this. Rather, it’s a whole body-mind activity where, throughout, it’s just “you,” aware of your full and direct experience, curious and determined to push the edges of the zazen you already know.
So when, or if, you have an experience of zazen like the ancestors describe – a dharma gate of joyful ease, bright and clear, like returning home and sitting in peace – it’s important to appreciate it but then let it go. If you set it up as an ideal and try to recreate it, you’re pretty much guaranteed to chase the experience away indefinitely. Try to trust that these “moments that make us dance” have informed and changed us at a deep level. They are like a beautiful sunset – you’re never going to get them back, at least not exactly. Future moments that make us dance will be different and new, and we can’t predict what they’re going to be like.
We keep ourselves open to deepening our experience of zazen by doing the work I’ve described: Not just waiting passively for something to happen, but also not striving to make something happen. Instead, we navigate the dynamic Middle Way, staying alert, curious, and determined to master the elusive art of Right Effort.
What does it mean to practice acceptance and non-attachment? We stop resisting the way things are. This describes how we engage the present moment with our whole body, mind, and heart. It describes our subjective experience as a human being. It’s a practice, not a moral principle or belief.
If “stop resisting the way things are” was a moral principle, our practice would look like this: We would encounter some difficulty. We would remind ourselves of the principle, “stop resisting the way things are,” and do our very best to follow it. We would do this because we want to overcome our difficulty, and the powers-that-be have told us the best way to do this is to “stop resisting the way things are.” Once we have stopped resisting things as they are, we would know we were “in good” with God, or the Divine, or whatever forces are governing the universe, and things would start to go our way. (Right?)
When we practice in order to control the world, our feelings, or the good will of forces greater than us, the results are usually dissatisfying. Even though we’ve stopped resisting the way things are, they often still suck, and we still feel they suck. The worst thing about practicing this way is that it distracts us from the real practice – the practice that is actually liberating.
Here’s an example of what it feels like to engage the present moment and stop resisting the way things are:
I take a moment to be still, putting aside all activities in order to be aware of my own experience. I turn my attention toward my pervasive (or sometimes acute) feeling of dukkha – that is, the feeling of being dissatisfied with my existence, or the way the world is. If the dukkha is acute, I feel a nauseating tightness in my gut and chest as I strenuously object to whatever frustration, pain, misfortune, loss, or injustice I am facing. If the dukkha is subtle, I feel a pervasive sense of unease, as if something’s not quite right. I may also feel a sense of waiting, as if my life isn’t really happening yet, or now’s not quite the time to fully embrace it.
It is this dukkha that keeps me from feeling fully alive and authentic. It causes me to hold everything at arm’s length while I figure out what’s going on, or leads me to struggle to put everything right so the discomfort will go away. The thing is, I never manage to figure everything out with my mind, let alone get everything permanently fixed so my ride is perfectly smooth. Ever. In the back of my mind, however, I hold on to the hope that relief is right around the corner as long as I keep busy. (Maybe you react differently, and feel despair or become depressed, but the core of your problem is still dukkha.)
In the moment, I allow myself to fully recognize and feel my dukkha. It is an experience of my body, mind, and heart – not just an idea. Then I invite myself to give it up – to let go of it like a helium balloon.
After all, dukkha is just an attitude I’m taking toward my experience. In terms of how I feel about myself, I notice how limited, unmindful, selfish, silly, hopeless, irresponsible, unlikeable, predictable, etc. I think I am, and then I invite myself to say, “You’re okay.” I say this to myself like a kind parent would say it to a child, making it a comment on my fundamental worthiness as a human being, not an evaluation of where I rank on the human scale of success. I refuse to postpone taking my place in the world because I’m not perfect. I’m just the way I am, fundamentally no better or worse than anyone else. To my long list of proposed self-improvements I say, “Who really cares?” I dare to commit the sin of fully accepting my lame-ass self even though I’m nowhere near meeting my own ideals.
Then, in terms of how I feel about life “outside” of myself, I notice the ways in which life feels unacceptable, and resign myself to being fully present for it in spite of the pervasive inadequacy of my situation. This includes all of my feelings and thoughts of resistance to discomfort, loss, pain, shame, dullness, stress, injustice, or whatever is bothering me. “So, here we are,” I say to myself. “Surrounded by a mess. Forgot again. Stuck your foot in it again. You’ll never get it all done. This is incredibly unfair. Life can be so painful. Or horrifying. Or boring. Or lonely.” I don’t have to like it. I don’t have to approve of my own reactions to the crappiness. All I have to do is be with it all. All I have to do is not turn away from my life.
This practice is so subtle it’s almost impossible to describe in words, but I’ve still got to try. As I stop resisting the way things are, I refuse to postpone appreciation for my life until everything is perfect. I throw out the strident disapproval I’ve been carrying around in my heart as if it would shame everyone into changing. I loosen my grip on my almighty list of the way things should be, and experience the bittersweet intimacy of the way things actually are. I wake up in the driver’s seat. I come home to my life, like Dorothy waking up in Kansas and being so delighted to be back in the situation she had so recently run away from.
Want to explore this teaching further? Read a longer version of this post or listen to the podcast on the Zen Studies Podcast: http://zenstudiespodcast.com/zenacceptance/
I teach 8-10 new people to “do” Zen meditation every month. At times I feel kind of radical, but more and more I just want to tell them to sit still and do nothing at all. After 20 years of Zen practice, 14 years as Zen monk, and 5 years as a Zen teacher, I’m becoming deeply convinced that meditation is not something you do. Basically, just deliberately put yourself in the position of not doing anything, and the transformative and healing power of meditation takes care of itself.
“Meditating” is like resting or gardening. These “activities” may require a fair amount of care, planning, and effort in order to create a certain set of conducive circumstances, but ultimately the body rests or plants grow without “you” doing anything at all.
In the case of meditation, you create conducive circumstances by setting aside a period of time for not doing anything productive, entertaining, or pleasurable. You settle the body into stillness or into a very simple, repetitive physical movement. You gently set your intention to set aside all of your usually thinking and activity for however long you’re going to meditate. “Okay, I’ll think about my grocery list/ problems/ upcoming trip/ projects/ the book I’m reading/ etc. after meditation. There’s no reason for me to think about it all right now.”
As you sit, your mind will continue to try to be productive, entertained, or satisfied even though you aren’t acting on any of your thoughts, but this is generally much less agitating than actually doing things.
In these conducive circumstances, your whole being has a chance to realign itself. Your body inevitably gets included in your awareness more than it usually is. Your perspective increases. You remember what matters most to you. You realize you’re okay right now, despite all the things going on in your life and the world. The ephemeral and somewhat arbitrary nature of thoughts and emotions becomes more apparent. Your nervous and endocrine systems reset (I know from experience, not from scientific experiments, although those are supporting the anecdotal observations of meditators). A more sane aspect of yourself settles into the navigator’s seat – a seat which may have been empty, or occupied by various imps, much of the time since you last meditated. Generally speaking, the longer you go without meditating, the more the imps are in control.
The trick is, none of these results are something special. They are just a normal part of healthy functioning as a human being. It’s not that you sit in meditation and consciously try to experience grand realizations about What Is Most Important in Your Life, or who your authentic self really is, or how to achieve great inner peace (although you might gain a few insights). Meditation is an unconscious or semi-conscious reset that the conscious “you” has very little to do with. Which is a great thing, except…
We want to be responsible for the positive results of meditation. We want our meditation to be good because we’re doing something. We just can’t stand to be doing nothing at all productive, entertaining, or pleasurable, so we make our meditation into something productive, entertaining, or pleasurable. If we like our meditation experience or its results, we feel proud, successful, and satisfied. If we dislike our meditation experience or its results, we beat ourselves up, give up in frustration, or try harder.
We just can’t believe we’re just supposed to sit there. That’s unfathomable. How do you even do that? (See how natural that question sounds?)
I can imagine readers protesting, “What about following the breath, or concentrating on an object, or letting go of thoughts? What about the meditation techniques we’ve been taught, and that seem to help?”
My answer is this: As least as concerns Zen meditation, techniques are ways to counteract the strong habitual tendency of our minds to try to be productive, entertained, or satisfied even when we’ve decided not to act on any of our thoughts. You might say the techniques decrease your “doing” level (because a simple technique like following your breath involves much less mental activity than brainstorming a new project for work). In this sense techniques can make the circumstances more conducive to doing nothing.
But mostly I think we give meditation techniques because people need to feel like they’re doing something. Anything. Heck – make me do something as boring and unproductive as counting my breath, but at least I can imagine it’s good for me and try to do a really good job of it! Anything but nothing.
How do the benefits of meditation happen if you don’t do anything?! Surely you can’t just sit there and let your mind do anything it wants to! Surely you need to make an effort! (Because if you don’t do something, nothing will happen!)
Isn’t it amazing that plants grow all on their own? That our bodies rest and heal, moisture ends up in the sky and comes down as rain, and species evolve, without any direct, conscious effort on our part? We can affect these processes by what we do, but ultimately they are out of our hands and part of the larger functioning of our universe.
Our being – our body-and-mind, which are actually not two – has a way of reorienting itself to reality, if we only let it. Isn’t that great? You don’t have to do anything.
Except, that is, to spend some time not doing.
Zen master Dogen wrote in 1242, in his essay called Zazenshin:
“Nanyue said, ‘If you are identified with the sitting form, you have not reached the heart of the matter.’
“To be identified with the sitting form, spoken of here, is to let go of and to touch the sitting form. The reason is that when one is sitting buddha, it is impossible not to be one with the sitting form. However clear the sitting form is, the heart of the matter cannot be reached, because it is impossible not to be one with the sitting form. To penetrate this is called letting go of body and mind.” (Translation by Kaz Tanahashi & Michael Wenger)
We already have everything we need. When we sit, we are sitting buddha – no matter how admirable or insufficient our meditative concentration. Buddha does not depend on this. By our sitting, by our not doing, we place ourselves in alignment with this truth. Naturally we want to consciously realize it, and this is the passion behind our effort, but the irony is that we consciously realize it when we become completely immersed in nondoing.
Last Sunday we read chapter one, “Zazen as Inquiry,” from Taigen Dan Leighton’s Zen Questions: Zazen, Dogen and the Spirit of Creative Inquiry. Leighton writes:
“What are we doing in zazen? Each of us have some question that somewhere back there was behind our wanting to engage in this Buddhist meditation. What question has led you to face the wall in zazen, what is this? There is a question that we each have to explore.
“The point of this practice of questioning, however, is not to discover an answer. We sit upright, centered, with ease and restfulness. And yet there is some problem, some question, something we are looking into. How do we practice with question? There is not just one way to do this, because each have our own version of this question. But we must recognize that there is a question. How do we live this life? How do we take care of this world, face the problems that we each have in our life, the problems that we share together?”
I talked about how most of our heart-felt questions – the ones we don’t just wonder about intellectually, but those we really care about – are related to one another. We may discriminate between “superficial” and “deep” questions, but usually even our superficial, specific, personal questions are related to our version of a very deep, universal question. For example, I may struggle on a daily basis with how to focus my effort efficiently without getting too caught up in striving, but that relates to a very deep question I carry about the nature of effort and action. Who does, if there is no inherent self-nature? How do we exercise choice in guiding the activity of our life?
I asked the other people present on Sunday to write down at least one real question they were holding, and said I would post them. Here they are, the raw and precious material people in our sangha are practicing and sitting with. It is important to hold these kinds of questions with reverence. They cannot be answered simply, or no one would be holding them. We may be inspired or influenced in our work with questions by things we hear, read, or see, but ultimately our answer is something we manifest within our being and it cannot be given to us by anyone else.
Please feel free to add your own question(s) by leaving a comment! (I think it would have been very helpful and encouraging to me as a child to read this kind of list of questions from adults, so I would understand that adults were still trying to figure things out and the world they were presenting to me was not the best they could come up with.)
Why do some people suffer so much?
How do I push beyond my limits?
When should I stop?
Why do I become anxious when asked to write down my question?
What is anxiety?
How do I respond to climate change?
How do I stay awake to my life?
What is the relationship between inner work and working for social change?
What should my practice look like?
Am I engaged enough? What if I get this question wrong?
What do I do now?
How can I best live my life? How will I know if I’ve succeeded in the best living of my life?
What will give the most meaning to my life?
How can I best serve?
Why am I here?
Would Shakyamuni Buddha have been sad if he were to die before being able to teach?
When one has no attachments, on what does one act?
How do we maintain the will to move forward with optimism and creative energy in the face of the pointless suffering that humanity must endure? Is this why “enlightenment” is so important?
Is compassion (love) real? Can everybody feel it? Does one have to work on accessing it? Why does it not arise spontaneously? Were we born just to realize it?
How should I be living my life?
If the answers have no certainty, why the need for question? Is faith embracing uncertainty? Can I embrace uncertainty?
Thanks everyone! – Domyo
Photo by Marco Bellucci