You might have expected that to begin this journey on the metaphysical side of mind we would begin with pages and pages of description about what Buddhism is. While we will certainly explore this idea and concept more, in truth there is only so much to be said about it. That’s the nature of Zen. The common analogy is, if someone has never before tasted a banana, honey or sugar you can tell them they are sweet. But what does this mean? They are each sweet, and anyone who has tasted them can recognize them as sweet and understand the differences between they types of sweet. For someone who has never tasted them though, they can’t really understand this. There are no words or descriptions that can be said to explain exactly what these differences are. It makes no sense to spend countless hours trying to describe the differences between them. Instead it only makes sense to give each to this person and have them taste it.
Zen is much the same way. To try to describe it and explain it lacks reference. Instead it only makes sense to show someone the path, to let them experience it for themselves. Once you’ve began to experience it, then we can begin to talk about it in ways that will make sense, much as two people eating bananas and honey can discuss the differences between them.
This, and the use of koans by some sects leads to the riddle like appearance of Zen. If you ask what it means to wake up, or to become enlightened you may receive an answer, but this answer won’t make sense to someone who hasn’t experienced it for themselves. That’s part of the reason this site exists, because quantum mechanics gives us a scientific view into the nature of the universe and therefore a way to place into words that which is extremely difficult to explain. Still there is a deeper understanding that even a deep level knowledge of quantum mechanics cannot provide. This has only one source, and it’s right there inside of you, and inside of me, and inside of all conscious beings. It’s been there all your life, you just have to wake up in order to see it. That’s what Zen can provide, a wake up call of sorts.
So before I tell who how to experience it for yourself, I do want to touch upon a couple of things that sometimes come up.
What I’m going to be asking you to do is called Zazen. You can think of zazen as a form of meditation. An expression of yourself in your truest form. When sitting there is no thinking, instead you will just “be.”
Zen is often considered a religion, though I’m not exactly sure why. It really doesn’t make much sense to me to call it a religion. I’ve even had some who have balked at the idea of trying to sit zazen because they feel like it goes against any religious views they may have, or more unfortunately they’ve been told by their own religion that these other “isms”, Buddhism included, are terrible things that should be avoided. You won’t be given a “Good Book Of Buddhism” telling you what you are or are no allowed to do. You won’t be told what you should or should not believe in. Instead all you’ll be told is how to sit and be yourself. How to clear and focus your mind in such a way that you can clearly see through it. There can be answers to some of life’s most astounding questions to be found there, but those answers don’t come from me or any other source. Instead they come from deep within yourself, and you are free to interpret them in whatever way feels best to you.
Often times when explaining zazen to someone for the first time I’m asked the question, “So what’s the point?”
Think of zazen as a method of studying yourself but not thinking about yourself or anything else for that matter. We’re not trying to shut out the world or artificially manipulate our state of consciousness. We’re simply going to calm and quiet the mind and just “be.”
Suppose for a moment you wanted to play baseball. You love playing the game but you really aren’t very good at it. What would you do? You’d play a lot, and practice practice practice. The same goes for anything you want to get better at, rather it be a sport, a hobby or whatever. When we want to get better at something we practice doing it over and over again.
Isn’t it strange then that we don’t really practice using our minds? I don’t mean in a logical or analytical sense, but rather in terms of bringing clarity to it?
An old analogy is that of wanting to get a specific pebble out of the bottom of a pond. You jump in after it, but the moment you do the surface of the water rages and ripples obstructing your view. As you continue to try to grab where you think the pebble was silt and sediment are stirred up from the bottom. Soon you are standing in the middle of a giant cloudy mess full of turmoil and you have absolutely no chance of finding the pebble. If you wish to find the pebble what must you do? You must STOP! Be completely still. Allow the sediment and silt to settle back to the bottom. Allow the ripples to subside. Still yourself long enough and suddenly everything becomes crystal clear.
This is the heart of zazen. The reason it’s commonly referred to as practice is because this is the practice for the mind. In order to have amazing clarity of the mind you must first learn to still it. Allow it to become settled and clear. Once the mind is stilled we can see through it, just as we can see to the bottom of a still pond. When you can clearly see through mind what you find there will be absolutely life changing.
So if you’ve decided to try sitting, it’s really quite easy. The most important thing to remember is it truly is just that, sitting. Don’t allow yourself to get wrapped up in questions of rather you are doing it right or wrong. There is no right or wrong. You are expressing your true nature, there is no way to do that wrong.
So how do you begin. I’m going to describe the way that makes the most sense, but remember if you find anything described to not be possible then modify it as needed to make it possible.
Typically you will sit on a zafu and zabuton. A zafu is simply a round cushion or pillow. A zabuton is a cushioned mat.
While these provide an ideal, if you don’t have them you can easily substitute a folded up thick blanket and either another tightly folded blanket or folded over pillow.
There are a few different ways to position your legs. One of the most balanced is the full lotus. This is accomplished by placing the right foot on top of the left thigh, followed by the left foot on top of the right thigh as seen below.
This can be quite daunting, especially when you are first learning to sit. The Half-lotus is also a great position. The half lotus is accomplished by placing the right foot under the left thigh and the left foot on top of the right thigh as seen below.
Another great position especially for beginners is the burmese style. This is accomplished by placing the feet flat in front of you rather than either of them being on or under the thighs as seen below.
If you can’t manage any of these positions, you can also use the seiza position. This is often done by turning the zafu on it’s edge. There are also specialty benches made for this purpose.
One of the most important point of all of these positions is that you want to form a triangle between your butt and knees. Why? Because a triangle and very stable, and that stability is what you want. You want to be free to focus on your breath and sitting, not worried about rather you are falling over!
If your condition prevents you from utilizing any of these positions, you can always just sit in a chair.
Your hands should form a mudra by placing the left hand on top of the right hand with thumbs at the top just barely touching one another.
The small fingers should rest a little below the belly button. This is called the hera.
Once you are in position you should center yourself. Allow yourself to tip forward and backward and come back to center each time. Repeat the same process tipping left and right. Make very small circles while keeping your posture straight. (nose in line with belly button and ears in line with shoudlers) Once you have settled into a center take a couple of nice deep breaths through the mouth. Then close the mouth and teeth keeping the tongue pressed against the top of the mouth behind the teeth. This will reduce the amount of saliva you make reducing the need to swallow.
Allow your eyes to close slightly, about 1/2 to 3/4 of the way closed. You don’t want them to close as we aren’t going to go to sleep! We don’t want them completely open either though.
Now begin breathing through your nose. Feel the breath originate from the hera, feel it flowing in and out through the nostrils. Concentrate on the breath but don’t modify it, just allow it to happen.
The key to sitting is non-thinking. You might, especially at first think this is impossible! Thoughts will come and we never want to try to force them not to. As thoughts come let them drift into the mind as though they were a cloud. Don’t startle yourself or try to scare them away. Instead just allow them to float off like the clouds they are. It’s the moments of clear skies in between we are interested in here. The moments when there are no thoughts.
In the beginning you will likely find it much easier to give yourself something to focus on to keep from getting lost in your thoughts and not returning. To do this, you will count your breath. If your mind is really in turmoil you can count both on inhalation and exhalation. Then when your mind is stilled enough try counting only the inhalations. Still even more and you will no longer need to count.
When counting you will count to 10 and then start over from 1, but if you notice you have started thinking then you must allow that thought to float away and then restart from 1.
Our minds are in a constant state of turmoil. Most people when sitting the first time find it to go something like this.
… 2 This isn’t so bad. Oh crap! I just had a thought by thinking this wasn’t so bad. Wait, does that count as a thought? Yeah, I guess it does. Ok… just let it float away….
… 2 I wonder what I should cook for dinner tonight? There’s … ugh… ok, don’t shove it away… let it float away… I can worry about dinner later… ….
… 1 Oh no! Did I sign that contract? Maybe I should go check my email and see if … oh i did it again… ok… just float away… I have to stop forcing the thoughts away though… i have to remember just to let them float away….
… 2 I’m going to make it to 3! I can’t believe it, I haven’t even made it past 2 yet, but here it comes, I’m getting ready to …. ohh nevermind… ok….
… 3 YES! I did oh no…
… 1 I think I have a dentist appointment this week… I need to check on that… ohh no… again…
… 2 I think my leg is starting to fall asleep, maybe I’m not sitting the right away. ugh…
… 3 Do I smell coffee? Hey that coffee place that just opened up down the street is really good, maybe I should …. ……..
… 4 I made it to 4! I’m so proud of myself! I just …… ohhh… darn it!
and so on and so on. You wouldn’t think that just counting to 10 and not “thinking” would be that difficult, but it’s amazing how hard it can be when you are just starting out. It’s ok though. Don’t get discouraged. Remember there’s a reason it’s called practice. The more you sit and the more you work on stilling your mind the better at it you’ll become. Eventually you will make it to 10 and start over from 1… Soon you’ll be able to do that fairly consistently. Before long you won’t have to count at all, you’ll be able to just sit and still your mind. Thoughts will always come up here and there, especially when you are first starting zazen, but just allow them to float away and enjoy the clear blue sky between the clouds.
That’s it. That’s all there is to it. Don’t sit with a purpose, just sit!
So now that we’ve been observing our breath, let’s switch back over to the physics side and talk about observing particles.