“When sitting zazen, if thoughts come to you and you begin to focus on them instead of ‘nothingness’, how do you deal? Do you ever let thoughts take full shape and form or do you push them away before they have time to become concrete? Is it important to ever focus on these or to push them out quickly?”
The problem here is the same problem everyone who has ever done meditation throughout history has had. The questioner is comparing her state while doing zazen with the image of the state she thinks she’s supposed to have, and she feels like her real state falls short of her ideal.
Your real state will always fall short of your ideal.
That is the nature of idealized states. It’s a trick your brain can do. It has great practical value. Our ancient ancestors looked at their efforts to try and kill apatosauruses by throwing rocks at them. They realized that wasn’t working and envisioned an idealized state wherein apatosauruses could be killed more quickly with less effort. They imagined an ideal apatosaurus killing weapon, perhaps pointy rocks attached to big sticks. And so the spear was born, and apatosaurus could be killed efficiently enough that the whole tribe could dine on apatosaurus burgers for months. Yay!*
Meditation practitioners all have the same problem of trying to match up their their actual meditative state with their idealized meditative state. Sometimes they come up with clever solutions to make it seem like this idealized state actually comes about. They invent words to repeat to themselves, or light candles and stare at them, or think about funny questions, or concentrate their whole mind on their solar plexis, or make recordings of weird sounds to listen to, or wear silly sunglasses with colored lights attached… There are thousands of variations.
They all do the same thing. They get certain people to feel like they’re a little closer to their idealized “meditative state” by temporarily tricking the thinking mind into believing it has achieved its goal. But what happens when you’ve achieved a goal? That process of creating idealizations kicks back in and creates a vision of an even better state it wants to get itself into. Then you’re right back where you started.
What we’re trying to do in Zen practice is totally different. Nishijima Roshi used to say “dimensionally different” to try to emphasize just how different it was. It’s so different it might as well be in another dimension of reality altogether.
You just sit with whatever comes up. Whether it matches your idealized vision of what meditation ought to be or not is completely irrelevant. Just sit with what you are at that moment. If it’s a lot of thoughts taking full shape and becoming concrete, then that’s what you’ve got going on today. Sit with it.
In any case, thoughts never take full shape and become concrete. That’s an illusion too. It’s always an ongoing process.
What I do when this sort of thing happens is adjust my posture. In 30 years, I’ve never had a single incident in which I was getting too wrapped up in the stuff in my head and my posture was not at least slightly off. Sit up straight again, let your shoulders drop, see if your neck is bending forward or back. Sway a little and re-discover your balance point if you need to. Then get back to it.
There is no need to focus on “nothingness.” There is no need to make your mind a complete blank. Kodo Sawaki said the only time when your mind is a complete blank is when you’re dead. There is no need to chase after your idealized perfect state of zazen because that perfect state is just another useless thought your brain has created. Pay it no more attention than you would any other random thought.
* I am aware the last apatosauruses died about 100 million years before the first human was born. Or did they???
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Speaking of random thoughts, random donations always help! Thanks for your support! I’m way into this new book and it really makes a huge difference.
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My on-line retreat at Tricycle.com is still on-going. Check it out!
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Here’s my upcoming touring schedule:
Aug. 2 9:30 AM – 3:30 PM All Day Zazen at Angel City Zen Center Los Angeles 4117 Overland Blvd. Culver City, CA 90230
Aug. 16 9:30 AM – Noon Angel City Zen Center Los Angeles 4117 Overland Blvd. Culver City, CA 90230
Sept. 5-7 Houston Zen Center
Sept. 9 Austin Zen Center
Oct. 1 Turku Panimoravintola Koulu, Finland– Movie screening
Oct. 2 Helsinki, Finland – Lecture Event
Oct. 3-5 Helsinki, Finland Zen retreat at Helsinki Zen Center
Oct. 6 Movie Screening in Espoo, Finland
Oct. 8 Lecture in Munich, Germany
Oct. 10-11 Retreat in Munich, Germany
Oct. 12-17 Retreat at Benediktushof near Würzburg, Germany
Oct 18-19 Retreat in Bonn, Germany
Oct 20 Hamburg, Germany
Oct 24: Lecture in Groningen, Netherlands
Oct 25: Day-long zazen in Groningen, Netherlands
Oct 26: Movie screening in Eindhoven, Netherlands at Natlab
Oct 27: Evening zazen in Eindhoven, Netherlands
Oct 28: Evening zazen in Nijmegen, Netherlands
Oct 29: Lecture in Amsterdam, Netherlands at “De Roos” bookstore from 19.00-21.00 (P Cornelisz Hooftstr 183)
Oct 30: Lecture in Utrecht, Netherlands at “De wijze kater” bookstore from 19.00-21.00 ( Mariaplaats 1, Utrecht)
Nov 1-2: Retreat in Utrecht, Netherlands
Nov. 2: Movie screening in Utrecht, Netherlands at ACU
Nov 6-8: Retreat in Hebden Bridge, UK
Nov 9: Noon – 5pm Manchester, UK