Jus' Sittin'

August 27, 2015

We’re often told that zazen is “just sitting”, but with caveats.  In an article in the Winter 2014 “Tricycle” journal author Barry Magrid says:

 

’Sitting’ means sitting, walking, working, eating, speaking and being silent {and I would add playing with our children, mowing the lawn and even (gasp) having sex}.  ‘Just’ means that there is nothing in the world that is not sitting…We are describing a way of being in the world in which everything we encounter is fully and completely itself.  Nothing is merely a means to an end, nothing is merely a step on a path to somewhere else.  - Bracketed comments are mine

 

This really points out the potential mistake people can make - even monks - in “just sitting”.  Without encountering the activity “fully and completely itself” we are not doing zazen, we’re “jus’ sittin’”.

I’m reading “Sit Down and Shut Up” by Brad Warner, a Zen monk (and punk rocker).  It’s his interpretation of and commentary on Dogen’s teachings on zazen.  In it he makes the rather ironic assertion - for a punk rocker - that one can only practice zazen in either full lotus or half lotus posture.  To be fair to him he points out the irony himself.  This is because (I assume) those are the only two postures that Dogen mentions in his instructions.  In Pragmatic Buddhism we teach five basic postures for zazen: full lotus, half lotus, Burmese, seiza and chair.  The important thing is not the number of acceptable posture but the fact of defined postures.  Why?

 

There’s nothing mystical about postures - or mudras (the way you hold your hands) - but they do enforce discipline.  It is discipline that separates zazen from jus’ sittin’.  “OK” you may say, “I understand that, but why do I have to discipline my body to do a mental exercise?”  In the West that’s a good question.  In the East they would look at you like you were crazy for asking it. 

 

For centuries the West has viewed the mind and the body as totally separate - and barely connected - realities.  This has even gotten freighted with moral judgements - the mind (soul) is good while bodily things are bad.  This is beginning to change thanks mainly to the medical community.  They are leading the way to a new understanding of body-mind where body and mind are not separated but interconnected and interdependent.  The East has known this for generations.  This is why we have to discipline the body if we want to discipline the mind - we can’t do one without doing the other.  When slouched on the couch you’re not going to be able to keep from being pulled into the fantasies that come from clinging to a thought.  Thoughts will not be able to flow freely through your mind without entanglement.

 

At the same time I’m not advocating hours of meditation without movement.  True discipline understands the difference between discomfort and pain.  Discipline refuses to be undone by discomfort, it maintains posture and focus; but it also understands when sensations are indicating a pain that can harm the body.  This is actually one of the things you should be monitoring as you sit.  Are you clinching muscles in a way that can cut off blood flow?  Is that tingling in your leg indicating restlessness or a lack of blood?  This is what the postures teach.  As you use the various postures you come to understand when it’s time to move to a new posture or to flex a muscle that’s becoming cramped.  Indeed, sitting without consciousness of what your body is telling you is as much jus’ sittin’ as is crumpling on the sofa.

 

If you’re sitting is group setting you also need to be aware of the group dynamic.  Is your movement going to distract or unsettle others?  Be conscious not just of your body but of the body of the sangha.  Move when necessary, but only when there is a need - not just a desire - and move with deliberation and discipline.  This is the difference between just sitting and jus’ sittin’.

 

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