I’m going to talk about my zen practice for a bit.
Most mornings the birds call me to it.
The dawn chorus of magpie and crow call. There are other songs I can’t identify by instrument but know with deep familiarity their place in the orchestration nevertheless.
First light, everything just beginning to stir. The world waking up in a trillion fresh increments. This is the time that suits me best to learn to understand this awakening.
Brush my teeth. Splash some water on my face. Go out to the study and do some gentle stretching. Then settle onto my zafu a small round cushion purpose-built for meditation.
There are many approaches to meditation. From the body practices of yoga to mindfulness and its now well-commodified quest for improved productivity and measured inner wellbeing (at least 10% happier I hear advertised).
I notice a slow-growing interest in meditation. I think it is a natural response to the increasing disillusionment many of us feel in the over-stretch of our lives these days. A tension splayed taught by a creeping sense in the fakeness of things in a world that seems to promise us fulfilment, only to bend us towards gentle discomforts, and restless days. And the frequent interruptions of abrupt deep sufferings.
In response, there seems to be an innate awareness that something is missing. Something more substantial that might just open the door back in. Or back out. Something laying perhaps in plain sight that just needs to be picked up and opened and re-presented to the world.
The dawn chorus calls us awake each day.
Just to confuse the matter, trying to be clever with words I make it sound all esoteric and abstract and overly poetic, but it is none of those things. Zazen is simply sitting still and letting the homunculus in your head drop away. Zazen is being completely available to these questions.
It is simple and ordinary once you do it.
Zazen traditionally consists of two distinct forms of practice:
Shikentaza and Koan introspection. I would hasten to add here that to udertake these practices effectively it is almost essential to have an experienced teacher to guide you.
Shikentaza, also known as silent illumination, is a practice of sitting without any particular focus (such as the breath or an object) in a state of complete open awareness known as samadhi.
Koans are something very interesting to me. They are those tricky nonsensical little stories you may have heard of in popular culture such as “what is the sound of a single hand?” (usually presented as: what is the sound of one hand clapping?) or “show me your face before your mother and father were born?”
A koan is given to a student by their teacher and during zazen they ‘sit with it‘. It is difficult to explain what that entails and (because of this) traditionally a practitioner does not really talk about their koan work other than when meeting individually with their teacher.
The Australian koan teacher John Tarrant says of Zen koans:
(they are) marketed in the west as gadgets or can openers, but that notion seems to point toward certainty so it can’t be quite right. Koans are more subversive than gadgets: they alter you when you pick them up; they are doors to the other world that is inside this one.
And so each morning I practice zazen for 40 minutes, or sometimes for an hour. As the world wakes up I sit with it quietly letting it all advance. What is it? What is this?Without any real prospect or expectation of gaining anything or becoming anything.
And in this small act there is a great reassurance in the certainty that many others are doing likewise. This is known as the wayseeking mind.
Again, this from John Tarrant:
The change is in the direction of strolling through such doors. On the one hand you can get up and move through a landscape of inert stuff to get to work where the people are also more or less impervious, like billiard balls banging around. On the other hand, you can step onto a footpath in which the birds announce you and the oaks and stones greet you as you pass. Here, each person you meet is mysterious and surprising. In this second world, the world that koans usher you into, you are a member of a great swirling totality. You have a different feeling for what you are, and an intimation that you’ve always been here.