Posts Tagged ‘Robert Rosenbaum’


Twenty years ago, as an integral part of my Zen training, I attended a sesshin, or five-day meditative retreat, at Dai Bosatsu Zendo, a Rinzai Zen monastery in the Catskills. In keeping with Rinzai custom, we sat in facing rows in the darkened zendo.  Across from me sat a line of longtime practitioners in their black robes, most of them gray-haired men in their fifties and sixties. The head monk struck a gong. And for the next forty minutes, these veteran practitioners sat perfectly still.     

During the long hours of sitting, one forty-minute period following another, I kept my eyes half-open, as Zen teachings prescribe. This way of practicing afforded me ample opportunity to observe the erect figures in my wider field of vision. Over time, these august presences came to resemble a human mountain range, austere and imperturbable. And their utter stillness became more than the absence of movement. It was itself a powerful presence, embodying what the Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck has called the “dignity of stillness.”

That quality of body, heart, and mind is hardly unique to Zen practice. It can be experienced in other settings, such as a Quaker meeting or a public memorial service. But in Zen, the maintaining of absolute stillness, together with absolute silence, is at once a condition and a fruit of long-term practice. For newcomers, sitting still for more than five minutes can pose a daunting challenge. But for those who persist in the practice, this mode of being can come to feel as natural as it is rewarding. And in due time, its true nature can come more clearly into focus.

To begin with, the stillness of the mature Zen practitioner should not be confused with stoicism or emotional repression. Viewed from the outside, the stillness of the realized Zen master might be interpreted as purely an act of will. He or she has learned to hold still. Forming a conscious intention not to move is indeed a part of the practice, at least initially. But as one eventually discovers, the stillness of zazen is achieved not by holding still but by settling into stillness. It represents a release rather than an act of conscious volition. Thich Nhat Hanh once likened settling into stillness to the dropping of a pebble into a river. As the pebble comes to rest on the riverbed, so does the body-mind of the practitioner come to rest on what in Zen is called the “still point”. When that settling occurs, the feeling of repose within currents of activity, of stillness within movement, pervades both the body and the mind.

The stillness of Zen is the natural result of sustained attention. It is the external manifestation of an inner concentration. Yet here again, the concentration of the Zen practitioner is not to be equated with that of a seamstress threading a needle or an artisan carving a scrimshaw medallion. It might more aptly be likened to a red fox sitting on his haunches, ready for whatever might arise. In contrast to the laser-like focus of foveal vision, which concentrates intently on the object at hand, the stillness of Zen reflects a cultivated capacity, common to equestrians, hunters, and Zen practitioners alike, to “spread” one’s vision into the periphery, encompassing both the object of attention and the wider environment. Sometimes called “soft eyes,” this way of seeing is at once invigorating and relaxing.  Shifting our orientation from close inspection to the field of awareness itself, it eases the tension created by one-pointed concentration.

Beyond this enactment of awareness, openness, and easeful circumspection, the stillness of the Zen practitioner also expresses an attitude of respect, both for oneself and whatever persons or inanimate objects may be present at the time. “Being still ourselves,” writes Robert Rosenbaum, a neuropsychologist and longtime Zen practitioner, “allows everything to be itself, still.” To put that assertion in different terms, the stillness cultivated in Zen meditation allows the people and objects in our environs to be exactly what they are, unhindered by any effort to change them or tailor them to our agendas. As I observed more than once at Thich Nhat Hanh’s weeklong retreats, where the gentle but forceful presence of our teacher quietened us all, the dignified stillness of the accomplished Zen practitioner can engender that same quality in others, creating an atmosphere of communal dignity and mutual respect.

 To be sure, the daily cultivation of stillness, as practiced in Zen, is not without its liabilities. We can become addicted to it. As Joko Beck has cautioned, we can focus so intently and so exclusively on stillness as not to notice anything else. But practiced skillfully, the discipline of stillness can be more than a beneficial pursuit. With diligence and commitment, it can transform our once-frenetic moods into tranquil lakes, our anxious minds into oases of stability, and our agitated bodies into human mountains, impervious to our changing inner weather.


Charlotte Joko Beck, Ordinary Wonder (Shambhala, 2021), 119.

Robert Rosenbaum, That is Not Your Mind (Shambhala, 2022), 190.

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