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.