How Zazen Works: A Provisional Hypothesis

The following is an idea that I’ve been brewing up for the last few years. I offer it only as brain candy, not as some kind of final explanation. I assume this hypothesis is not entirely correct. And yet it has served me well for a few years now as a working idea of how the process of zazen may operate.

In Shikantaza (just sitting) style zazen, one is taught to ignore the workings of the brain. As Uchiyama Roshi put it in his book The Whole Hearted Way, “Thoughts are just the secretions of the brain, the way stomach juices are secreted by the stomach.”

The person doing zazen is encouraged to regard the thoughts their brain produces in much the same way as they would regard the routine workings of any other organ in the body. Sometimes they may require attention, the way, say, a sharp pain in the kidneys would require attention. But, in general, you can just let them go without paying any attention to them or getting particularly worked up about them.

This is hard to do at first. In fact, it can seem impossible initially. And it is impossible.

But it’s impossible in the same way that, for example, it’s impossible to play Black Star by Yngwie Malmsteen the first time you pick up a guitar, or probably any time you pick up a guitar in the first five years or so of playing the instrument. Learning to play something like that takes patience and practice. Which, I know, is easy to say and not quite as easy to do.

The biggest difference between learning to do zazen and learning to play Black Star is that learning to play a piece of music generally requires setting an intention to play that music. In zazen, you are encouraged to forget any intention you might have for your practice.

Of course, everyone has some intention. You just learn how to set that aside. You do this through a lot of trial and error, but eventually it becomes a habit.

ANYWAY, after a while you find you’re no longer paying much mind to your thoughts. And because you’re not paying much mind to them, they start to settle down. As the superficial layers of thought settle, deeper layers are revealed. It’s like peeling an onion. Under each layer is another one.

The deeper layers of thought tend to be weirder and more fascinating than the upper layers. So, you might be more inclined to get caught up in them as you go deeper. Some of the deeper layers can be so odd that you’ll think you’ve unlocked some ancient secret. And maybe you have. But there’s still more under there. A teacher who has been though this process can help.

Meanwhile, you’re also learning to ignore your perceptions of noises and suchlike, and to ignore whatever feelings that may come up, and to ignore your many impulses — such as the impulse to go do something else. This almost mirrors the old formula from early Buddhism of the five skandhas; form, feeling, perceptions, impulses, and consciousness.  I don’t know if you need to read too much into that. I just note it in passing.

What I think happens as this process continues is that you begin to encounter a rawer form of experience.

The ordinary experiences you have all the time are no longer quite so filtered through your thoughts about them, or filtered through your feelings about them. Your impulses to change the experience you’re having at this moment no longer seem that important. Even your sensory perceptions of the experiences are kind of just… there. They don’t mean as much. You know that even your own sensory perceptions of what’s happening are not necessarily correct, nor are they ever complete. There’s a lot going on that your senses cannot perceive or that they cannot perceive in any sort of all-inclusive way. Your senses are no longer quite as convincing as they used to be.

Once that begins to settle in, the experiences you have start to take on new dimensions. Nothing is quite like you thought it was, or quite like you felt it was, or quite like the perceptions your senses are feeding to your brain. You also know that what’s happening now is what it is and does not need to be different*.

Something else is going on.

If you do this for long enough, there may come a moment when all of the stuff that forms your specific take on things — the “me” that you carry around in your head — just kind of seems to drop away.

It’s still there. It hasn’t gone anywhere. And yet it doesn’t matter.

This is the moment when you see that the universe that you once believed was separate from you is actually more truly you than what you thought was “you” could ever be.

*Of course, sometimes some things do need to be changed. But you can’t effectively change what’s going on now without first accepting the reality of it as it is.


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