Posts Tagged ‘just sitting’

For people suffering from hypertension, panic attacks, insomnia, and other anxiety-related afflictions, many doctors now prescribe meditation. As a longtime practitioner, who has experienced the benefits of meditation over and again, I heartily endorse that prescription. But “meditation” is a large category. And even if you narrow it to Buddhist meditation, what you are speaking of is a loose aggregate of teachings, forms, and practices, some of them more useful than others.

Here in the midst of a pandemic, when most of us are experiencing fear, anxiety, and uncertainty on a daily basis, any meditative practice that purports to be helpful needs to address that emotional landscape. At the same time, that same practice will be most beneficial if it also enables the practitioner to remain engaged and realistic. Absent that realism and engagement, meditation can become yet another form of escape, and its overall benefit will be limited at best.

Of the many Buddhist practices available and accessible to newcomers, I would recommend two in particular. The first is drawn from the Theravadan school of Buddhism, as practiced in Southeast Asia. The second is rooted in the Chan and Zen schools of medieval China and Japan. Worthwhile as these practices are in separation, they are even more so when skillfully combined. At once contrasting and complementary, they address the need for stability and concentration, on the one hand, and on the other, the need to remain open and fully aware of a rapidly changing social reality. (more…)

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Jundo Cohen, an American Zen priest who lives in Japan, often refers to the “tool kit” of meditative practices. Within the Japanese Zen tradition alone those practices include susokkan (counting out-breaths), kinhin (walking meditation), samu (work practice), oryoki (formal meals), contemplation of koans, and shikantaza (“just sitting” ). And that is to say nothing of the multitude of other methods, such as meditation on a text or repetition of a mantra, employed by the world’s contemplative traditions.

Jundo himself practices shikantaza, which is also known as “objectless meditation”. In most modes of meditation, the practitioner is instructed to focus on an object, tangible or intangible. In Zen practice that object is usually the flow of the breath, at least at the beginning of a sitting, but it can also be a koan, such as “Who hears the sound?” or “What was your original face before your parents were born?” In either case, we are enjoined to focus our attention, exclusively and singlemindedly, on a chosen object. By so doing, we enter the state of one-pointed concentration known as samadhi.

In practicing shikantaza, we dispense with all such methods. Insofar as we can, we do nothing but sit in awareness, noticing whatever comes along, including the sensations in our bodies, the coming and going of the breath, and the urge to be doing something—anything—but just sitting. Should we begin to slouch, we correct our posture, but apart from such corrections, we focus on nothing in particular. Instead, we cultivate a panoramic attention, opening our minds to all that is occurring, within and without. If thoughts cross our minds, we note them but do not pursue them. Nor do we attempt to analyze our thoughts or discern their emotional subtexts. We just sit.

Shikantaza is a composite word, made up of three discrete elements. Shikan is usually translated as “just” or “nothing but,” and it connotes wholehearted attention. Ta is an intensifier, literally meaning “hit.” Za means “to sit,” or more broadly, “to sit together.” Together these elements describe a practice of sitting in precise, continuous awareness.

Eido Shimano Roshi, a contemporary Zen master, explains the practice of shikantaza in this way:

This is zazen in which one neither seeks enlightenment nor rejects delusion. The purest zazen, it uses no devices as such; strictly speaking, there is no goal or method. Shikan taza practice is a manifestation of original enlightenment, and is at the same time a way toward its realization . . . . Zazen is both something one does and something one essentially is.*

To sit without goals or methods is not so easy as it sounds. In a culture as competitive as ours, where doing rather than being is widely prized, such a practice presents an extraordinary challenge. But for all its rejection of goals, “just sitting” affords the diligent practitioneer uncommon rewards. In contrast to object-centered meditation, it trains us to include whatever we experience—and to let the things of this world reveal themselves, just as they are.

Shikantaza is best practiced under the guidance of a teacher, lest it become what Eido Roshi once called “shikan-waste of time.” If you would like to explore the practice, I would recommend that you visit Jundo Cohen’s Tree Leaf Zendo at www.treeleaf.org. There you will find detailed instructions, as well as a daily opportunity to sit with Jundo in shikantaza.


*Namu Dai Bosa, ed. Louis Nordstrom (Theatre Arts Books, 1976), 251.

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One afternoon, as I stood in a room in a Seattle hotel, I felt the building sway and the floor move beneath my feet. “What’s going on?” I said aloud, before I realized what had happened.

The hotel had swayed because it was meant to. Like other skyscrapers, it was designed to sway by as much as a foot in a high wind. If that seems like a lot, we have only to consider the skyscraper presently under construction in Dubai. At its current height of 2,250 feet, the Burj Dubai is already the world’s tallest man-made structure. Its pilings extend more than 150 feet into the ground. But when completed, its Sky Tower will sway as much as ten feet in the wind. A symbol of wealth and power, the Burj Dubai also exemplifies stability joined to resilience.

Although the human body is not a skyscraper, the posture of Zen meditation has much in common with the structure of tall buildings. Both require solidity below and flexibility above.

When we sit down to meditate, we first create a solid foundation. We sit on the first third of the cushion, letting our knees rest on the mat below. Crossing our legs in one of the “lotus” positions, we take care to elevate the pelvis above the knees. By so doing, we establish a triangular base of support, our two knees and our sitting bones becoming the three points of the triangle.

Having established that immovable base, we bend forward, then come up slowly, allowing the back to straighten itself. We push the crown of the head upward, stretching the spine. Rocking from side to side, we decrease this movement until the spine is vertical and aligned with the earth’s gravitational force. Then we exhale, deeply and completely, as we relax into the posture of meditation. Although the upper body is motionless and upright, it is also flexible and light..

For Westerners, especially those accustomed to slouching in an armchair or sitting rigidly at a computer, this posture may initially feel uncomfortable. But with practice, it can become the most natural way of sitting, as well as the one most beneficial to the body and mind.

At the physical level, the posture of meditation promotes the free flow of air into and out of the lungs. More broadly, it permits the free flow of energy throughout the body. As the weight of the body settles into its center of gravity—the hara, or lower abdomen—our muscles relax, and our tensions lessen. Rather than resist the directional energies of gravitation, the body enjoys their support.

In tandem with the calming of the body, the posture of meditation also calms the mind. In Zen meditation, we sometimes count our exhalations or follow the movement of the breath into and out of our lungs. But even without these aids to concentration, the posture of meditation fosters clarity of mind. When the body is grounded, upright, and relaxed, the mind more easily sheds its fantasies and fears, its worries and incessant chatter.

Beyond these tangible benefits, the posture of meditation also engenders a more open attitude toward the world. In ordinary life, we often brace ourselves, physically and emotionally, against the “other,” whether the other is threatening us or not. We defend what we call our “selves”. By adopting the posture of meditation we cultivate a suppler and more receptive attitude toward the realities of our lives, however pleasant or unpleasant they may be. Like tall but resilient buildings, we sway in the wind.


Since this column was written, the Burj Dubai has been renamed the Burj Khalifa. For my understanding of stability and resilience I am indebted to Will Johnson’s The Posture of Meditation (Shambhala, 1996).

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