A Zen Master’s Advice On the Greatest Gift We Can Give Ourselves
This is going to sound strange, and possibly self-indulgent, but sometimes the greatest gift we can give ourselves is: ourselves.
I’m not talking about buying some kind of self-care product from the comfort-industrial complex, however, but something more fundamental. Let me explain.
Kosho Uchiyama (1912-1998) was a Zen priest known for his down to earth, simple teaching of zazen, or seated meditation. As taught by Uchiyama’s Soto lineage, descended from the great master Eihei Dogen (1200-1253), zazen is a unique form of meditation. Zazen is not practiced to attain anything, has no stages or techniques, and does not promise ecstasy or cosmic insights.
The practice of zazen, and its goal are identical. Zazen is a state of mind where, as Uchiyama puts it, one “opens the hand of thought” and simply allows reality to arise as it does. To open the hand of thought means not to close our mental fists around anything, not to tense around or pick up or fixate on any thought. Rather, when a thought arises, we simply open up the hand of the mind and let it flutter away like a bird. Nothing in experience is grasped or rejected. This state of mind is sometimes called “receptive concentration”, but an even more telling name is one Uchiyama calls “the meditation of the self receiving the self” (jijuyu-zanmai in the original Japanese).
This may sound quite esoteric, but it’s not. From a Zen point of view, we are not separate beings experiencing an external world. The more direct and holistic truth of things is that it is our experience of the world itself that makes up what we are. When we open the hand of thought and sit in zazen meditation, allowing our experience to present itself free of filters and fixations, we can see for ourselves that the totality of our experience- the sounds we hear, sensations we feel, thoughts we think- the world we experience both “inner” and “outer” is, in fact, our self. Within that larger self, we tell stories about the smaller self we think we are and our egotistical obsessions.
“Usually people think of ‘self’ as something in opposition to ‘other’,” writes Uchiyama, “as I opposed to you… Clearly, it is our thought, our thinking, that considers this contrasting relationship of ‘self’ and ‘other’ but when we are doing zazen we let go of this very thought. ‘Self’ is not some fixed concept regarding who you are, it is the all-inclusive self you personally wake up to. This self is the whole reality of life. Furthermore, the only thing we can wake up to as reality is the life of this whole self, and this is always self which is only self… all things are the content or the scenery of that zazen or self. This is the meaning of jijuyu zanmai.”
In the quiet mind of seated meditation we can experience this, and more importantly, we can receive it. This is the meditation of the self receiving the self.
In our world of restless consumption, struggle, tense perfectionism, and fear, to sit down and simply receive our experience, to simply attend to what it is to be the kind of being we are, with tender attention and relaxed calm, is a tremendous gift. In my opinion, one doesn’t have to be a Zen practitioner and certainly doesn’t have to be a Buddhist, to practice this form of meditation.
Traditionally to practice zazen one sits in the full or half lotus position, but I’m not one to idolize this position. If you can do it, great, If not, sit comfortably in whatever position you want. What matters is the position of your mind, not your body.
Once seated, take a few deep breaths and tune into your body. In this form of meditation, as I understand and as I teach it in meditation groups I lead, your mind should remain grounded in your body. Remain aware of your body in a relaxed way, and then simply welcome whatever thought, sensation, emotion, image, or what-have-you occurs.
Do not resist anything, do not pick up anything. Do not think about or investigate anything (unless you really want to, but know then that you are taking a moment to investigate something and have stopped doing zazen).
Simply welcome each and everything that arises, one after the other, with a relaxed, cheerful mind. One teacher I know says “welcome everything with benevolent indifference.” By “welcome” I mean, allow the raw experience of what is arising into your awareness cheerfully, and then let it pass. Welcoming doesn’t mean “think about.”
That’s it. Welcome everything. Relax. Let yourself receive yourself.
The exact amount of time doesn’t matter, but for most people 20 minutes is good. Once you’ve settled into the practice you can expand that to 30-50 minutes, time allowing.
What is the benefit of this practice?
Nothing! Kodo Sawaki (1880-1965), who was the teacher of Kosho Uchiyama, once said, “Zazen is good for nothing!”
Of course, he didn’t mean that zazen is good for nothing. Why would anyone do it if there was no benefit? What he was pointing to, however, in his somewhat playful and confrontational manner, is that the whole point of zazen is to get out of the cost-benefit analysis, to stop trying to change the self or better the self or do this to get that. Zazen is a vacation. It is just receiving and becoming friends with the self, which is, in the final analysis, reality itself.