“Put it in neutral, Bud,” my father said, quietly but firmly. It was the summer of 1958, and I was learning to drive. The car was a 1950 Chevrolet sedan with a three-speed transmission and the gearshift lever on the steering column. “Three on the Tree,” it was called. Learning to put the lever and the Chevy itself into neutral was my first lesson.
It might also be the first lesson for the Zen practitioner. Wherever else it might lead, the practice of Zen meditation begins with finding, establishing, and maintaining a neutral center, both for the body and the mind. Neutrality may well be the body-mind’s most natural condition, but for many people it is far from habitual. In a culture as competitive as ours, neutrality is often not an option, much less a state to be cultivated and explored. To do so requires training and sustained attention.
The posture of meditation is a good place to start. Generally speaking, that posture should be upright, aligned, and resilient, whether one is sitting on a cushion, bench, or chair. Even when we are sitting upright, however, the parts of our bodies may or may not be in a neutral state. That is why the standard instructions for Zen meditation direct us to rock in an arc from side to side and backward and forward until we find our neutral center. Once we have done so, we can then check the positions of the spine (upright, but following its natural curvature), wrists (gently curved, not angled), shoulders (neither slouched nor stiffly pulled back), head (chin tucked in; head not tilted up or down), eyes (neither closed nor wholly open), and other parts of our bodies. As the last step in this process, we can determine whether our general physical state, which in Zen teachings is likened to a lute string, is neither too tight nor too loose but at a neutral point in between.
As with the body, so with the mind. Here is how Zen teacher Jan Chozen Bays describes the state of mental neutrality, as experienced in zazen (sitting meditation):
In zazen, the restless activity that separates us from everything-that-is settles. Boundaries dissolve and we become light and transparent, completely receptive. Heart and mind become clear and open. Then each breath is the sacred, original breath, moving across the face of the earth. Sound, light, and touch are the play of existence arising endlessly out of emptiness. There is nothing lacking, nothing to ask for–except that everyone else be able to experience this perfect ease.*
In this neutral, non-judgmental sate, Bays goes on to say, we become aware of “the continual gift, of the outpouring of all that exists, from the bottomless font of the unknowable.”
The state of mind which Jan Bays is describing (and which she likens to prayer) is that of an experienced Zen practitioner. A beginner’s experience might be very different, as might that of even a seasoned practitioner on any given day. As anyone who undertakes this practice will soon discover, obstacles abound. From early childhood we are conditioned to be active and productive. Resting in awareness is easily perceived, even by ourselves, as laziness or a culpable passivity. As a result, both body and mind resist the neutral state. They want to be doing something. They want to accomplish something. And most of all, they want to be gaining something, whether it be immediate release from stress or eventual enlightenment. Merely to sit in a neutral, attentive state, aware of “everything-that-is” and open to it all, is a discipline to be acquired and a skill to be practiced. For many people, especially at the beginning, the state of neutrality can prove as elusive as it is beneficial.
All the same, anyone with the will to do so may experience a taste of this liberating and restorative practice. If you would like to try it, may I suggest that you choose an habitual activity–something as routine as reading your e-mail or making breakfast or cleaning your kitchen counter. In the midst of that activity, stop. Return to your breath and your body, allowing your engines, as it were, to idle. Observe the immediate effect on your senses, your feelings, and your state of mind. After a period of a minute or two, resume your normal activity, noting any changes in your attitude, your distance from or intimacy with your surroundings, and your performance of the task at hand. Continue this practice several times a day for at least a week, and observe its impact on your daily life.
* Jan Chozen Bays, “The Paradox of Prayer,” Buddhadharma, Fall 2014, 39.
Photo by Trekphiler