When Sitting Becomes Difficult
December 06, 2018 by jim-lakey
Recently, on Sunday morning, someone asked how to sit when the mind is anxious and it feels nearly impossible to be still. As human beings, we have all experienced times when sitting is very difficult. It can also be hard to be still when your energy is high. Have you ever seen what happens when you try to get a three-year-old child to sit down? It can be like a volcano. You can just feel the energy coming off the little kid. And we are not different. It can be difficult for us to contain our own energy. That energy is just part of us, part of our mind. But in time, with repeated practice, sitting still over and over, we can develop the capacity to sit still even in the midst of anxiety or high energy or any of the many other difficult things. This capacity to be still can be helpful when somebody comes at you with really high energy, even anger, and you are able to be the container for all that energy. You may be able to offer some benefit in that process.
When someone says to me, “I’m stuck.” I often say, “Good!” That’s part of the process – you can’t go through things in life without getting stuck. When you feel stuck, look at it, start to go into it. Ask, “What is this?” Often, when we go into that place, something frees up and there’s clarity. If it’s difficult to sit, look into that difficulty and see what’s actually going on. These difficulties can be the last holdout of our resistance to directly experiencing the world. It’s a process, and you don’t know how that process will turn out.
We like to classify things, like good zazen or bad zazen, but who’s really judging that? It has to be you, so set that judgment aside and just experience this. With sustained practice over time you will become unstoppable. The realm of experience is vast and boundless. There are no definitive lines. Just stop for a moment and feel right now how far your life reaches. Is there a boundary around what I call “me” or “my family?” These lines are arbitrary. They’re not the real, experiential aspect of practice.
The poet T.S. Eliot wrote, “Wait, for it is not yet time…” This waiting and allowing oneself to be present for whatever comes up is the root of zazen. But it’s not waiting in the sense that there is something to come. It’s seeing that this moment is filled, everything is here, and there’s nothing that needs to be done in this moment. That doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to be done for the rest of your life, but it’s experiencing what fills this space moment by moment. When you sit, you’re entering into unknown territory, and when you enter that territory, that’s when you’re actually learning. Just trust in being. Be the container for all these emotions and feelings. In time, you’ll develop a certain mastery. The territory will become familiar to you.
The Japanese word for a Zen retreat is sesshin. Sesshin means to unite the mind. Whenever we sit, we’re bringing all our energies back into one place. We don’t move, and this helps the mind to be still. In time, as you practice, you become comfortable with the place where you stand, with all of the energies just present in one place, here. Of course, at first, when we’re beginning our practice, we’re not used to doing that, but then, in time, it becomes familiar and the energy you develop during meditation can be taken into your life, and into your work. All of the buildings here are a manifestation of that. They’ve been built by our community over many years. There’s an old Japanese saying, “Let the body sit, and let the breathing sit, and then the mind follows along.” Don’t try to manipulate the mind by pushing thought down so that it feels still. The mind will naturally settle through just sitting still, but it’s not a short-term project. It can be glacial.
Practice full awareness of life regardless of whether you judge it as pleasurable or difficult. We learn as human beings, through doing things over and over under all kinds of circumstances. When we do things over and over, we embody them. So, if you’re not sitting, you’re doing something else to replace that. You can’t get away from practice. You’re always practicing something. You are the container for whatever’s here, whether you sit or not. This same mind that sits also functions in all other activities. Sitting is a reminder that your mind is functioning whether you’re working or driving or watching TV. But in sitting, you notice how the mind works. When your body is engaged in activities, the mind, or the thought process, is engaged in whatever it is that you’re taking care of, and that whole process can be difficult to see. That’s why it is important to have that anchor of meditation as a basis.
There’s also the consideration of sitting for a length of time that’s actually sustainable. When I first started, I couldn’t sit for more than three minutes. I was young, and sitting was just too boring. Nothing was happening. But what brought me back was a certain stillness even in just three minutes of sitting, which I didn’t notice in the rest of my life. I didn’t need a teacher to point it out. It came through my own experience. So, the three minutes got extended to five minutes, and so on. A bus passed my window every ten minutes, so I didn’t need to look at a clock or ring a bell. One day the bus had an accident, so I sat for twenty minutes. Do what is sustainable for you. Don’t just say, “I’m going to sit for two hours.” Psychologically it may not be the best thing to do. You’ll benefit from what works. It’s far better to decide to sit each day for a time, rather than deciding to sit for two hours once a week. As we practice things, they become embodied. The peace that we often find in zazen starts to extend into other activities. That clarity, that “muscle memory” is there.
There is another aspect of practice that begins to function in daily life: the ability to consciously be with things, especially with difficult things, as they come up, rather than allowing the mind to go on automatic: “Oh, this shouldn’t be happening! I should be somewhere else!” When we go along with these conditioned responses, we are practicing aversion. And since we are already very good at this, it needs not further reinforcement. With this practice of awareness in zazen, you begin to develop the space so that your mind isn’t just running on automatic. Trungpa Rimpoche said, “When I meditate, I go to that which is most difficult. Otherwise difficulties will come to me.”
What do we do in our spiritual practice? Often, we practice putting a veneer of peace over the top of all of this, and then just go back to the same old habits. When it gets hectic again, we just put that veneer over it again. Real practice is looking at the question of what is not quite right. This is the stuck axle wheel—the suffering that the Buddha talked about—the sense that something is not right. If you avoid it and don’t look at it, you’ll always be putting that veneer over the top. Practice really helps us to see those things that cause the suffering in the first place. In seeing how those things actually work, there’s an opportunity to develop some space. If I don’t look at those things, I just go through the same sub-routines in my life over and over, and I wonder why my life’s not working.
The Buddha had some basic questions, but for the first five or six years in his ascetic practices, he avoided those questions by trying to become something. He was down to living on just one grain of rice a day, but then he almost died. He was saved by a milkmaid who pulled him out of the water so he wouldn’t drown and gave him some food. Then he realized that he might die without having taken care of his basic questions: Why is there old age, sickness, and death? He looked directly into these deep shadows of human existence, and he awakened. This is possible for everyone without exception.
— Tenshin Fletcher, Roshi