“Improving” Zazen with Yoga

Sit either in the full lotus or half lotus position. In the full lotus, first place your right foot on your left thigh. Then place your left foot on your right thigh. In the half lotus, simply place your left foot on your right thigh.

Zen Master Dogen (Fukanzazengi or “Universal Instructions for Zazen”)

If your zazen is very comfortable, you might fall asleep.  If we feel too good in our body, we often lose awareness of our body, and our attention drifts off to another realm, perhaps to a world far far away from this one here and now.  Who, then, is minding the store?

Or the opposite might happen.  Because we are so out of touch with our body we actually create more pain for ourselves.  The pain doesn’t come from life, but from our attempts to practice zazen.  We end up generating more suffering because of our practice.  This is no good either.  Practice is about ending our pain, not creating more.

Burmese Style with legs parallel

I first began sitting zazen doing “Burmese” style with my legs.  I experienced no pain in my body doing this, except for an occasional heat wave or the strong desire to move.  But after sitting this way for close to three years that pain subsided and I was able to sit for long periods of time with little pain.  It was more or less “nice”, but my practice began to drift into complacency.  My teacher noticed I had been sitting Burmese and said, “Why aren’t you sitting full lotus?  Or at least half lotus?”

Her comment stung me like a bee.  She felt I had the capacity to sit “better” than I had been.  So, I started working immediately at improving my posture, beginning with what I did with my legs.  Don’t get me wrong though.  I’m not saying everyone should sit full lotus.  I’m just saying we need to continue to look for opportunities to better the way that we sit.

Dai-En Roshi would often say, “working on posture is like trying to carve an ice sculpture with a butter knife.”  It’s difficult to do, but we must do it.  Otherwise, we fool ourselves into thinking that we’re doing it “right.”  But as Dogen says, “We are playing at the entrance way, and we are short of the vital path of total emancipation.”  Or the opposite happens.  We think we are doing it “wrong” so we lose hope and eventually quit.  We would do well to continue to look at healthier ways to sit.  It’s tricky with zazen because we say, “you are perfect just as you are.”  That’s true, but that’s only half the equation.  The other half is, “there is plenty of room for improvement.”

So how do we sit in a way that addresses the tendency towards complacency or towards creating more unnecessary suffering for ourselves?  Approaching full lotus is one way.  To sit full lotus, we need to look at opening our hips and keeping our back flexible and strong.  We also need to learn to be at ease in our body. There is a dynamic tension between finding strength and being at ease, and in our meditation practice we need remain aware of that tension.

The practice of yoga is designed to do this, to make the body both more flexible and stronger, and to prepare one to sit still.  Without it, it’s like being dropped off in the middle of the ocean without a life preserver or a boat on which to ride.  Yoga gets us in touch with our body helping us to better see our capacity for sitting still.

Sometimes people make the mistake of thinking meditation is going to do something for them, make them calmer or happier. There has been loads of research on how meditation does that.  But without adequate preparation it really just gets us in touch with our own misery.  This is why I suggest asking not what your meditation practice can do for you, but what you can do for your meditation practice.

The practice of integral yoga, which I teach regularly, is for free will donations, and open to everyone, is designed to get us looking at our body, and looking at how we can improve our health and be more mindful in our meditation.  The body is what grounds our meditation.  To think that we’re going to get to the celestial realms by ignoring our physical health is a kind of delusion.  Zazen is simply a reflection of the rest of our life.  That’s all.  So if you want to see changes in how you sit, consider a regular practice of yoga.

The words Zen Fields and a signature stamp next to a spare ink pen outline of a meditator in a field


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