Zazen Instruction

I had my own brush with impermanence recently, a salutary reminder that there are many things in our lives we can’t control and don’t happen the way we want them to or think they will. My practice right now is to watch how this play out in my body and my mind, trying to take care of myself and letting go of expectations as best I can. It helps that I have my trip to England coming soon, and I can focus on getting the last details sorted out – the train journeys, the flights, and the car rental.

When I offered the zazen instruction at Zen Center last Saturday, one person wanted clarification on something I said about the impermanence of emotional states. If I understood his question correctly, he said that he meditated to relieve his anxiety, to try to return to a less-stressed baseline, and wondered if I was also proposing that, if happiness is fleeting and we should be wary of clinging to it, we should be meditating when we are happy to return to a less-happy baseline as well. In other words, that meditation should function as an emotional regulator, keeping us away from the transient highs and lows.

It was a tricky question to respond to; I told the story of the data scientist who was happy when he could measure his meditation, with my usual admonition about what happens when your numbers don’t keep improving, when you have a spell, as we all do, where nothing works well, you are still stressed, and you are starting to wonder if meditation ‘works.’

I had talked in my instruction, as I always do, about posture, emphasising that sitting upright has a physiological benefit that I noticed in my own practice, especially in my second two-year spell at Tassajara. I never feel like enough of an anatomy expert to be able to explain it, but I have read other teachers talking of this, and it chimes with my own experience, so I trust in this process. And I know that at certain times, I use meditation techniques to notice my own levels of stress and tension at particular moments and to try to soften whatever it is I am feeling in my body.

I also trust that, through this practice, we tend to end up with a more stable contentment, and the ability to take a profound joy in many things, which is not the same as happiness. I am remembering various books and articles where this is discussed – some are sceptical of this whole notion, but don’t seem to me to have pursued practice for long enough to have found this out for themselves.

Beyond that, though, and this was where my answer ended up on Saturday – though I am not sure that my argument was well-constructed or convincing – zazen is beyond any transactional demands we place on it, beyond (as everything is) our ideas of what is happening or what we want from it. And that getting to participate in something that is on that different level from our other human activities and concerns can only be a good thing – though I did throw in Kodo Sawaki’s quote for good measure.

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