The other day I got an e-mail from someone who wanted to visit my Zen class in Santa Monica (which, by the way, has an average weekly attendance of about 4 people, so please feel free to stop by). She said that when she sits on the floor it is painful and asked me if it was OK to sit in a chair.
I didn’t know this person’s real situation, so I couldn’t give an easy “yes” or “no” answer. But in general, I don’t want to encourage people to do Zazen in chairs. If someone really cannot do the practice in any other way, I would not bar them from class. But I’ve found that most people who ask to do Zazen in chairs, really don’t need to.
A couple weeks ago I did a talk in Boston in the meeting room of an office building. The nature of the room was such that we had no choice but to do Zazen in chairs or not do it at all. So I chose to do it in chairs. But I discovered then that Zazen in a chair isn’t really Zazen.
Zazen is essentially a balance pose. In Yoga, there are several of these. Probably the most well-known is the tree pose. That’s where you stand on one leg with your palms together until, if you’re like me, you fall over into a heap on the floor after about twenty seconds. Zazen is in some ways an easier balance pose in and other ways a much more difficult one. When doing the tree pose, you know for certain you’ve lost balance when you find yourself in a heap on the floor. But in Zazen, the signals are not nearly as obvious. You can carry on for quite a long time completely out of balance without this being evident to any casual observer.
When we did Zazen in chairs that day in Boston, the feeling was entirely different from real Zazen. At best, we were just sitting quietly together. This isn’t a bad thing, of course. But it isn’t Zazen. The balance aspect of the practice was lacking entirely when doing it on a chair. Try as I might, I couldn’t find any way to real Zazen with a chair supporting me.
A lot of people complain about pain in Zazen. It’s difficult to assess somebody else’s pain. It’s very important to be careful not to injure yourself in the practice. If you’re not careful, it’s possible to do serious damage to your knees, for example. So when people complain about pain, it’s hard to know if the pain they’re feeling is something serious like what happens when you’re stretching your knee ligaments all to Hell, or if it’s just the usual discomfort associated with trying to keep still.
Zazen isn’t really “built for comfort.” It’s not supposed to be the easiest thing in the world. If it were, a lot more people would be doing it. A bit of pain in Zazen is normal. In a way it’s a type of exercise. To give up doing Zazen because it hurts a little bit would be like giving up jogging because it makes your legs tired.