I began collecting my thoughts for this post with a fairly straightforward objective in mind: provide a reasonably comprehensive review of the mechanics and usefulness of the traditional postures for seated meditation – zazen. I knew from the start that in order to achieve that objective I’d need to talk about appropriate stretching to at least some degree. Why? Well, first of all, the issue of flexibility (or lack thereof) comes up nearly every time I provide instruction to a group of beginning meditators. Stiff legs, tight hips, and sore backs just seem to be endemic in our increasingly sedentary society. Secondly, even though it is such a common issue, it doesn’t seem to be something that we in the Zen tradition are all that willing or prepared to discuss. When I think about it, though, that makes perfect sense. Japanese monks probably only rarely exhibited the difficulty that we Westerners have in molding ourselves into the full or half lotus position; and even if they did, I suspect that the sense of decorum within the monastic setting would have almost certainly precluded them from getting all sprawled out – in their robes no less – trying to open up their hips and stretch out their hamstrings! Oh, and then there’s the issue of liability, at least for our contemporaries, with respect to suggesting that somebody stretch their body in some unknowingly contraindicated way. Better to just leave the whole issue alone, right? Well, no. I really do think a little bit of knowledge about stretching will benefit meditators of all experience levels – but especially beginners.
Realizing that it would be a non-starter to talk about stretching without providing at least one visual accompaniment, I set out to find a good online resource that I could reference. And that’s when my original idea for this post got derailed. You see, as I was browsing the internet looking for resources, I was struck by the narrowness of focus or the outright inaccuracy of much of what I was finding. With respect to accuracy, for instance, one ostensibly reputable yoga resource included a description of the full lotus posture accompanied by a photograph of a woman sitting in what we always referred to when we were kids as “cross-legged” with her knees sticking up in the air. Regarding narrowness of focus, I’m referring to photographs of practitioners clearly straining to hold a position that must be considered magical in and of itself due to the fact that there was no accompanying explanation as to why someone would want to get themselves into such a position in the first place. That said, I did find some very good information on Erich Schiffmann’s website. He is advocating what, from my understanding, is a historically authentic approach to yoga – a practice wherein the various asanas are considered preparation for entering into the full lotus position in order to meditate for long periods of time. I have included a link to his website as well as a few others under ‘Zazen’ in the related links section. (Please note that stretching should never hurt.) If you check out those links you’ll be very prepared for my next post. I did say that I got derailed from my original objective, didn’t I?
Anyway, the process of browsing the internet looking for the aforementioned resources got me thinking about meditative practices in general – why we do them, and what they offer us. It got me thinking of my own life and the various meditative practices that I engage in and how they fit into my overall approach to spiritual practice. The result of this exploration is the following diagram. Please note that I refer to it as “A Spectrum of Meditative Experience” and not “The Spectrum of Meditative Experience.” Upon reflection, you will be able to construct a similar diagram of your own that incorporates what is unique to your spiritual/meditative practice. In fact, I hope you do. I think it could be instructive. Now, when I speak of meditation I’m simply referring to the focusing of the mind. By that definition anything can be a meditation. Life itself can be a meditation if you approach it in that way. However, it’s quite clear that not all meditative practices are the same.
The left hand side of the diagram represents how things can be for us sometimes – when we’re not approaching life as a meditation, that is. Unfortunately, that’s most of the time, right? Life when we’re in this mode is lived without awareness. Life when we’re in this mode unfolds according to the dictates of our karma – our “habit energy,” as Rosan Yoshida refers to it. Life in this mode is lived without free will. After all, where does free will reside if not within awareness? In the “action without awareness” mode we prioritize the activities of our life in the way that we’re socialized to do, and we respond to adversity in the way that has become our habit. In this mode our happiness or sadness or contentment is all dependent upon the ebb and flow of “good things” and “bad things” within our samsaric existence. When I become aware that I’m having a “bad day” in this regard, I often declare to myself: “I need to go for a run!” Yes, running helps to focus my mind so that I can see things more clearly and deeply and with greater perspective. I actually find it to be much more meditative than my placement of it on the spectrum might convey. My reason for positioning it where I have is as follows: If I’m running on a safe and easy path in the park my mind might end up wandering off and veering into some karma-driven realm of thought that isn’t much better than the one that prompted me to go for a run in the first place. Now, if I’m running on a rugged trail somewhere it’s a different story. There isn’t much room for the mind to wander when you’re flying down some treacherous goat trail where one false step will have you tumbling head over heals! Yes, that is a little bit more meditative an experience. Then it’s more like rock climbing. Actually, rock climbing is not something that I’ve done very much of at all, but I’ve done enough of it to know how focused your mind can be (needs to be) when you’re hanging by your toes and fingertips high up on a rock wall.
Somewhere in between more absent-minded running and focus-your-mind-like-your-life-depends-on-it rock climbing or trail running is what I refer to as “yoga as a workout.” This is when I’m approaching yoga practice as a means to an end. Usually I’m in this mode because I’ve got a running injury for which I need some especially focused stretching in order to heal. Sure, I’m approaching my yoga with mindfulness and awareness under such circumstances, but my intention has become – dare I say it – a tad bit mercenary and not that far removed from my usual habit energy. Most of the time when I’m doing yoga practice, though, I’m approaching it more meditatively and with greater purity of intention. Yoga is a practice that requires focused awareness for a sustained period of time, and over the course of that period of time the mind becomes more and more still. But what really makes yoga work from my perspective is when the teacher guides us through a good selection of asanas that get me all stretched out and supple and in the present moment and tired enough that my mind is pretty still. Then they let us catch our breath for awhile in the corpse pose before having us sit up and get into one of the lotus postures for a few minutes of meditation. Ah! The only problem, though, is that it’s always, oh, so brief! As you can see, I’ve put this variety of yogic experience right next to zazen, and for all practical purposes it constitutes a long introduction to zazen. Thus, I must give it its due and recognize it as a potentially transformative practice. The only reason I qualify that statement at all is due to the fact that I simply need more time on the cushion.
Okay, I’ve not forgotten t'ai chi. T'ai chi is a wonderfully smooth meditation in motion – one that never fails to calm and focus my mind. An almost constant awareness is required in order to navigate the subtle movements and shifting of weight that comprise the t'ai chi form (and constant awareness is required to do it well). But even though I hold it in such high regard, I’m just a little bit shy of being able to call t'ai chi a transformative practice – for me. Many people will disagree with me on that point, I’m sure, perhaps making the point that if I really gave myself up to the practice then I would think about it otherwise. So, if that is your point of view, then I’m already listening! For now, though, and for the foreseeable future, I’m considering seated meditation to be the ultimate meditative experience for me. I consider seated meditation – zazen – to be transformative rather than merely translational.
If you’ve read my post titled Transformation (or accessed the link in the related links section to some of Wilber’s thoughts on the matter) you already know what I mean by that. Translational practices calm us, console us, improve and enrich our lives, make us “better” people, and imbue our lives with meaning; however, they do not provide the total release from the confines of the small self that transformative practices do. When we’re sitting in zazen with still body and still mind, we have achieved a state wherein we are free (even if only briefly) from the confines of our karma-generated existence. I will elaborate on this point in my next post, but for now let me simply close by saying that it is the potential to realize this state of karmic cessation (nirvana – the “windless state,” as Rosan Yoshida describes it) that makes the practice of zazen a truly transformative practice.
Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank