That’s Just the Content of Your Zazen



I know you get sick of answering the same questions, but I am sincere with my next few. 

I’ve been sitting for about 10 years (as a result of your first book) for the most part without a teacher. I have a teacher, but he is retired now and tough to get a hold of.

I know our zazen is supposed to be goalless, but I started with the goal of reducing my anger. After 10 years that doesn’t really seem to be any different other than the fact that I’m more aware of it. Is this a problem?

My real question is this: Is my zazen still “working” even if I spend most of the time half asleep and dreaming? Should I do something like count my breaths to keep me awake or is zazen “doing it’s thing” irrespective of what is going on internally? I sit in the morning and in the evening as the bookends of a long work day. Getting more sleep isn’t really an option.

Thanks ahead of time.

I do get variations on this question a lot. I’m going to write you an answer and, at the same time, I’m going to try and write something I might be able to use on my blog. So here goes.

Zazen is supposed to be a goalless practice. But nobody is going to waste their time staring at a wall for no good reason. So everybody who does the practice has some reason for doing it. My own reasons were pretty complex. But, like you, I hoped that doing zazen might help me control my frequent outbursts of anger. I used to break stuff when I got angry and that was a real problem for someone who didn’t have a lot of money to replace things. I had other reasons too. Everybody does.

After more than thirty years of zazen practice I still have anger. I still even have the occasional outburst. But the outbursts are far less frequent and when they happen I am better at letting them go. I’ve learned a lot about the nature of anger though this practice. I have written about this a few times. There’s a chapter in my book Sit Down and Shut Up called “Kill Your Anger” that goes into this in detail. My publishers put part of it on their website (that’s where the link above will take you, you can get the book here).

As to the question of whether zazen is “working” even when it feels like nothing is going on, I would say yes it is.

Whenever I asked questions like yours to my teacher Nishijima Roshi, he would say, “That’s just the content of your zazen.” Sleepy content, restless content, angry content, busy-thoughts content, sex-obsessed content, blissful content, feeling enlightened content, feeling stupid content… It didn’t matter. It was all the content of my zazen.

Our judgments about whether zazen is working or isn’t working, those are just thoughts. They don’t matter any more than any other thought that comes through your head while you’re sitting. If you can’t let those judgmental thoughts go, that doesn’t matter either. That’s just another trick thought plays with you to try to get you to pay attention. It’s unimportant.

You’re a big mess and you want to get better. OK. Fine. Sit with that. You’re going to die some day and you’re scared. Good. Welcome to the club. Sit with that. You’re obsessed with that coworker, or that politician, or the comedian who posted that awful picture on Instagram, or your mother, or your childhood, or the situation in Azerbaijan. No problem. Sit with it.

It doesn’t feel like this is doing any good. OK. Who says so? Why does he say so? Who cares what he thinks? Sit with it.

I know a lot of teachers recommend counting breaths or concentrating on existential questions, but it’s hard for me to see much point in that. It’s just another way of trying to create the illusion that you can control what’s happening when you sit, of trying to create specific content for your zazen that you want. If you get really good at it, you may be able to temporarily fool yourself into thinking you have some control. But that goes away after a while.

A big part of doing shikantaza (just sitting) practice is learning how to be OK with your thoughts being completely out of control. This can be scary. We all grow up learning that we have to constantly monitor our thoughts and choose which ones we will allow and which will not allow. Everybody does that. Society demands that we do that because if we are out of control we are a danger to society. So a whole lot of education and socialization is geared toward making that happen.

The trouble is that a little of that goes a long way. While some among us really need help doing that, most of us are just fine. Yet, even so, we keep up this constant vigil and strive to carry on re-creating and re-defining a “self” and making sure this “self” is “good” according to whatever standard of “good” we have learned. Or we fret endlessly over the parts of this “self” that don’t fit that definition of “good.” We waste a lot of energy on that.

It’s this “self” that we have created that wants tranquility or peace or enlightenment or to be free from anger or whatever. But it can’t have those things. Because it wants to have them, to possess them, and that stuff can’t be possessed.

Nothing the self thinks it has, thinks it possesses, including anger, fear, doubt, whatever it wants to be free from, none of those things can be possessed either. They all come and go. Even your anger isn’t really yours. So freedom from anger can’t be yours either. It’s just a losing strategy from the start. There’s no point in trying to make any of that happen.

When people look for a teacher sometimes they’re looking for someone who they think possesses enlightenment or possesses freedom from anger or whatever it is they think they want to possess. They imagine if they find such a teacher, that teacher will be able to give this thing the teacher possesses to them. Or maybe they think they can steal it from the teacher!

Sorry for the digression there.

The thing is, if you want to count your breaths or whatever, that’s not a sin or anything. It won’t do you any real harm. I do it myself from time to time if I feel like my brain is whirling away too fast. But that sort of practice isn’t how you get to the root of the problem. It’s still an effort to control something that’s actually beyond your control. It can be soothing and if you want soothing, then it’s fine. Sometimes you need that. We all do.

But I think the real value of practice is when you stop trying to make it into what you want it to be, and, instead, just allow it to be whatever it actually is. That’s when you learn the most.

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THERE IS NO GOD AND HE IS ALWAYS WITH YOU is now available as an audiobook from as are Hardcore Zen and Sit Down and Shut Up!

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Check out my podcast with Pirooz Kalayeh, ONCE AGAIN ZEN!

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September 10-11, 2016 Belfast, Northern Ireland 2-Day Retreat

September 14, 2016 Belfast, Northern Ireland Zazen and Discussion

September 16-17, 2016 Dublin, Ireland 3-Day Retreat

September 22-25, 2016 Hebden Bridge, England, 4-Day Retreat

September 27, 2016 – Wimbledon, London, England – Talk and Q&A

September 29-October 2, 2016 Helsinki, Finland, 4-Day Retreat

October 3, 2016 Turku, Finland, Talk about spirituality and popular culture

October 4-5, Stockholm, Sweden, Talk and 1-Day-Retreat

October 7, 2016 Berlin, Germany Zenlab

October 8-9, 2016 Berlin, Germany 2-Day Retreat

October 11, 2016 Wageningen, Netherlands

October 12, 2016 Brussels, Belgium Talk

October 14, 2016 Munich, Germany, Lecture

October 15-16, 2016 Munich, Germany, 2-Day Retreat

October 18, 2016 Salzburg, Austria

October 23-28, 2016 Benediktushof Meditation Centrum (near Würzburg, Germany) 5-Day Retreat



Every Monday at 8pm there’s zazen at Silverlake Yoga Studio 2 located at 2810 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Beginners only!

Every Saturday at 10:00 am (NEW TIME!) there’s zazen at the Veteran’s Memorial Complex located at 4117 Overland Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230. Beginners only!

These on-going events happen every week even if I am away from Los Angeles. Plenty more info is available on the Dogen Sangha Los Angeles website,

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