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Zen Concentration Meditation Instruction by a
Meditator - Structural Bodyworker - Part 6
MAINTAINING A SITTING PERIOD
Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 --- Part 7
by Lou Gross
School Certified Master Postural Integrator
Founder & Director of The Institute for Enhanced Performance
27 years successful Bodywork experience - Meditator since 1969
For more information & free consultations, call 321-726-9083
Starting, Stopping and How Long to Sit: Zazen periods with a group are usually started with three evenly spaced hits on a bell, spaced 4-5 seconds apart, and are ended with two hits.
Between the bells, we're not supposed to move. But in reality, all but the strictest groups allow people to straighten their posture when they notice they're slumping, and to inconspicuously release their legs from half lotus to Burmese style if the legs are cramped, or in too much pain for you to keep your mind from jumping.
But changing from cross-legged to kneeling is a bit too disruptive and constant fidgeting around is definitely frowned upon. (Yes, it very often is the case that people trying to continue their concentration, with their legs really hurting, look forward to that release bell. And many of them are tightening up their legs against the pain.)
If you sit at home, without a bell, you can just set a timer, set a span on your watch, or sit for the length of an incense stick. Standard lengths of time are 30, 35, and 40 minutes. 20-25 minutes is good for beginners. 45-50 minutes, while not uncommon, are considered long periods. Pick a time and don't get up even if your mind fidgets. Change from cross-legged to kneeling when you must. And keep trying.
The Usual Physical and Mental Distractions: Sleepiness, mental hyperactivity, and physical fidgetiness are all stages along the way of getting into good, solid concentration. The standard instruction is to just notice it, feel it, and return to your concentration. However, it may help to do the breath circulating concentration or the centering exercises for a while instead. And if you're alone at home, stretching the back, arms and upper hamstrings, while still on the cushion, usually helps the mental condition, too.
These are three common conditions: of mental sloth, mental resistance and mental tension. They are often physiologically induced from sitting still, from the deep breathing, from a tense effort to do the process, from developing tightness from the posture, from a reaction in your body from the food you ate an hour before, and from emotional material that naturally rises to the surface on its way out.
I read a Zen Master who said to adjust the breathing to correct some of these problems. And as I said above, if you're practicing alone, a good stretch and physical adjustment of your body position can help a lot. Over time, you'll be able to concentrate through this mental noise, and it won't happen as much. But in the beginning, get to know how to handle it, because it happens routinely.
If you're sleepy, a standard procedure is to put cold water on your face, although I haven't found it to work that well on its own, unless the only problem I have is lack of sleep or being too hot. Lots of cool fresh air definitely helps.
What To Do With Your Creative Mind and Busy Life: If you're at a Zen Center or friend's house, you've already made a big transition in time and locality, from your own home or office. On the drive over, you can start your mental transition by gently following your breath and paying extra attention to your driving. Stretch a little, too. That will help dissipate the activity you've been doing all day.
If you remember important things during the drive, write them down when you arrive and you can forget about them while you're doing zazen.
When you're at your own home or office, turn on your answering machine (with the volume turned off), or ask another member of the household/office to answer your calls. Answer only exceptionally important calls that you know, before you sit down, that you'll have to answer.
Decide how long you're going to devote to zazen for that sitting time, and do that much. Even if you're having a hard time concentrating, use some of the techniques I mention, and keep starting over.
If a physical emergency comes up in the middle of your time to better yourself, go right back to the sitting as soon as it's taken care of. If you find you are often disturbed during your sitting time, set "boundaries" and make arrangements to eliminate the nuisance interruptions. And, you can make it your purposeful, stated intention that no emergencies come up. Just say it as an affirmation. You may also want to set a particular time of day when you won't be disturbed. A lot of people do it before others get up in the morning, after work when most everyone has gone home, or at night when others have gone to sleep.
If, at the end of your decided sitting period, you have more available time and want to sit some more (as often happens), extend it for another set amount of time. By knowing ahead of time how long you're devoting to your zazen, it will be easier to stay with it during that time. While some people use a clock or timer, other prefer a stick of incense. Short sticks usually last about 20 minutes, long sticks 30-40 minutes.
Often, a lot of "important" thoughts come up from inside. Put a notepad and pencil next to your place in case thoughts of things you forgot need to be written down. (This isn't done in group sittings, but at home you can do it without disturbing anyone else.) Since you'll be taking time out of your day to "stop doing," writing down what comes up on this pad will help you remain seated and not get right up and be busy again.
This technique is also a way to demonstrate to very busy people how sitting down in zazen can be an aid to their busy lives. As we count or follow our breaths, the chaotic noise in our heads dies out. We then remember details we'd forgotten and get inspired insight into subjects we've been thinking about. Using this pad and pencil is especially helpful when you're first starting to practice zazen. Also, the things we want to write down usually come up in the first 15-20 minutes of the sitting period. After that, the concentration gets more into the present physical moment of reality, with fewer internal distractions.
If you eventually get the (correct) idea that your creativity can just "channel in" when you've done some zazen, I suggest you only write down what really flows. As soon as you have to start making an effort to compose in your mind, go back to zazen breath concentration again for another half hour or so, and it'll often flow effortlessly again.
If you have just had coffee, you may be "inspired" for up to an hour or more. When this happens, you can try to make stronger effort to use the coffee energy to concentrate on your breath and physical energy flow, and try to ignore all the many thoughts.
Physical Re-adjustments During a Zazen Period: When we sit in meditation, our backs often start to sag or lean backward. Unless you're deeply absorbed in concentration, you'll probably notice this lean or sag, or you'll feel your body discomfort and/or mental wandering. When we become aware of this, we should correct our posture, remove tension from the body, re-adjust our breathing, and re-focus the mind.
If you're sitting alone and your moving won't disturb other people, you can readjust your physical position by again leaning forward and stretching your legs, buttocks and spine. But if you're in a group, especially in a meditation hall with organized "sitting" periods, doing that much moving would be too disrupting for them. So you can adjust by lifting your torso up, and/or letting it hang down.
Imagine the very top point of your head being attached to a string that goes upward and connects to a winch in the ceiling. (Or if you're outside, imagine a ceiling, too, or use a cloud.) Have someone turn that winch slowly until all the slack is out of the string and it begins to pull your head upward. When the slack is pulled out of your head, your neck and upper back will be pulled upward, then your middle back, and finally your lower back and part of your pelvis.
Let the person lock the winch in this position, and allow your lower body and any tension in your chest to hang from that string. Then continue your zazen.
Sometimes you may just have tightness in your upper back, shoulders and arms. You can then place your hands out on your thighs, and continue sitting strongly while your physical position releases the tension. Even in the zendo meditation hall, this is sometimes OK (if you're facing to the wall, as no one can see you and it won't be distracting for others). This isn't as concentrated a position as with your hands in your lap, but it often helps release some tension so your overall concentration picks up again. You can try it at home and see what it does for you.
Mindfulness When You Do Move: To maintain concentration even when you have to move, we use a little mindfulness gimmick, called a gassho (gah-sho').
First, decide mentally what you're going to move, and in what sequence. Then take both hands from the lap position and place them at upper chest height about 4-5 inches from your body. Press your palms together, all fingers touching each other and pointing straight up (including thumbs), and your elbows pointing out. (It's sort of like praying, but with more outward awareness.) Formally, on other occasions, gasshos are made with elbows exactly straight out, but when moving in zazen, let your elbows point down 30-45 degrees.
The movement into gassho will force you to pay attention, and the position itself will increase your mental awareness and alertness. Then do your adjustment mindfully.
In the zendo meditation hall, this is the proper thing to do before moving your hands or significantly moving your legs. If you can silently slide one leg off the other thigh without any other noticeable affect, just do it without the gassho. The less movement that affects other people, the better. But if your leg hurts or cramps so badly you have to pick it up and move it, then it's much better to stay formally alert and focused using the gassho.
Holding the zazen position and trying to concentrate even when you have some pain is not supposed to be physical asceticism. As your body gets used to the sitting positions, it will stretch out. But in the beginning, almost everyone has leg pain and legs falling asleep. If it gets really bad, you won't be able to maintain your focus, so you'll have to adjust the position. The point is not to let the experience of pain take you over and make you move hurriedly in a mini-panic.
The same aware and alert attitude of mind should also be created at home, if you have to answer the phone or suddenly use the toilet.
Adjusting Your Position in the Middle of Sitting Periods: Many people notice they're slumping in the middle of a period, and wish to straighten their position. If all you have to do is lift your back, adjust your body lean, and/or lift your head, probably no need to gassho; just do it mindfully. (And you'll already be in a mindful mode if you're alert to the fact that you're slumping.) But, if you have to adjust your leg position and lean forward a lot, use a gassho and do it as quietly and deliberately as possible.
Back Pain Versus Leg Pain: Back pain is a "different story" from leg pain. Leg pain will occur even if you're in the right sitting position. Back pain comes from general tightness and from sitting on your tailbone (or coc cycx) or having your head slump forward. Buttocks pain and numbness is in the same category as leg pain. Stretching effectively helps a lot, as does Structural Integration Bodywork and to some degree, deep massage and shiatsu. (Light massage might make you feel better while you're having it, but it doesn't do anything to stretch you out for sitting.)
Loud Noises Outside and Bothersome People Moving Near You: Don't give them much attention. Just like people who drop in when you don't want them to, any extra attention you give them, good or bad, will make them a bigger disruption for you and probably make them stay longer. Go back to your own internal concentration practice and keep bringing your mind back to the numbers and breaths.
Don't let the power of your sensory impulses or your conditioned emotional reactions take you over for extended periods of time. Definitely, in the beginning of your practice, they'll strike you strongly enough to cause a momentary distraction. And as soon as you notice your purposeful concentration has been disrupted, gently take charge and purposefully pay attention again.
This movement in a "positive" direction will quite naturally cut off any additional stream of distractive energies. You might have to keep doing this until the distractive people leave, but eventually, your zazen will outlast them. And you'll see that even these kind of phenomena rise and fall like the waves on the ocean.
Another way to practice with sounds is to really, really focus your mind into them. Really become so concentrated on each and every sound that you forget you're even listening, and there's only the sound. This means you have to open yourself fully into the experience of sound and, by inherent implication, you'll have to simultaneously let go of any psychological resistances that might come up. This technique is easiest (or should I say slightly less difficult) with non-verbal repetitive sounds, and is the most difficult with human language words.
paying deep, deep attention to the continuum of sound is often a
comfortable way to practice if the sounds aren't disruptive.
Concentrating only into the experience of running water, chirping birds
and even the sounds of the cars in the street, can help you clear your
mind of the day's busy thoughts before you try to work in your body with
your breaths. After you've been doing zazen for a little while, try "just
listening," and see how long you can stay with it.
Copyright 2001, 2002
Louis A. Gross All Rights Reserved