Instructional Talks Downloads
October 15th, 2022
Relaxation, Openness, Outside Practice: Instructional Talk
What is that we are doing when we are practicing? Mumon Roshi succinctly summarizes the aims of stillness-sitting thusly: align your body, align your breath, align your mind. In traditional Buddhism this is understood as Samatha-Vipassana or calming and contemplation. Let us consider this method of practice, which is the orientation of all Buddhist practice, from both of these categorizations.
In order to truly engage with the subjects of contemplation our minds must be settled. What is meant by a “settled mind?” This means that wandering thoughts have diminished to where they no longer are an issue. Thinking is what our brains do and at no point in the practice are we suppressing thoughts, or trying to stop this behavior. The almost random, brain driven thouights that come up when we are being still are know as scattered thoughts. If we purse these they are wandering thoughts This can be things like commenting on how things are going, what we will do later, dwelling on physical sensations and so on. Other forms of thoughts can be discursive where we analyze, plan and other types of reasoned through and narrative where we develop scattered thoughts into stories.
Align your body
We begin calming by aligning the body. This is our posture the physical form of our stillness-sitting. In Zen they say you have to “find your seat” which can take a long time to do. This is necessary for extended sitting but also applies in differing forms if we are walking, standing or sitting outside. There are many treatises on the physical aspects of sitting (see Mumon Roshi’s own in How to Practice Zazen) but the essence is:
Begin by sitting comfortably erect, back straight and naturally curved, eyes level, nose vertical, Chin tucked in. Shoulders should be slightly back, arms slightly open, hands resting in your lap. Eyes should be just slightly open. Settle into your seat.
excerpt from Breath Guided Relaxation in Dewdrops on Stinging Nettles
Align your breath
From a solid foundation we already have begun to settle our minds. We settled into our bodies when we align them and what we mean we when say settle our minds is that our minds no longer feel separate from our bodies. We further this though the second part of Mumon Roshi’s tripartite practice.
We must be fully relaxed for our minds to truly settle and for us to truly “find our seat” Relaxation is the next step of the process. It settles us into our bodies, eases that duality between body and mind and prepares us to focus on our breath. The body scan method is the most effective way to search your body for tension and to let that tension go. There are numerous guided body scans one can find for this and in the guided meditation link here includes this before going into to it. Below is the essentials for the body scan, using our breath as a natural guide for letting go of tension.
Breath Guided Relaxation
excerpt from Breath Guided Relaxation in Dewdrops on Stinging Nettles
For each breath we naturally exhale until we automatically inhale. There should be no effort involved. The breaths will naturally deepen and lengthen as we relax. As we exhale we slowly sweep our gaze from the current object downward as described.
Place your awareness on the top of your head and exhale, letting all tension go, sweeping down toward the eyes
Relax the eyes, paying attention to the space between the eyebrows, the eyelids and the eye sockets.
Sweep down the face, checks, up the jawline ending with a very slight smile on your lips.
Return your gaze to the top of your head and sweep down and back over your neck.
The shoulders can be especially tense, as you inhale your can deliberately increase this tension, slightly raising them up, them letting them relax as your gaze sweeps down shoulders toward your arms.
Let your awareness slide down your arms, elbow and hands.
Next we feel our inhale in the chest and sweep down to the abdomen, fully relaxing these muscles.
Then the back. Begin with the back of the shoulder blades and sweep down to the middle back.
Moving our gaze to the lower back, we relax down to the hips.
Continuing from the hips and slide your awareness down your legs, knees and feet.
Finally we we settle into our seat, exhaling from the top of our head down into our seat. Rooting ourself into the earth. Cultivating the Still Pool.
It can take us quite a while to truly relax into our bodies. Our circumstances are such that we float through this world from our heads and there are many stressors and difficulties. It can be hard to relax. So in an extended period of stillness-sitting one many go through the body scan over and over again as one continues to feel tension and separateness. As the relaxation method presented is guided by the breath, one is engaging with this essential aspect of our beings to increase calming and the setting down of pursuing our scattered thoughts. To truly do so, we must begin to cultivate concentration through the practice of focus.
It is essential to be able to focus our awareness, to naturally let energy flow to a single point concentrating our minds. Through practice we can develop this skill which is the basis of so many methods.
We begin as always by cultivating the Still Pool. Shifting our awareness to our abdomen, feel the rise and fall of the breath. It is vital that this is the focus, that we remain alert and attentive to the breath moving through our bodies. Naturalness is equally essential: we don’t force the breath or by will attempt to control it. Simply keep ones awareness directed toward the abdomen. Thoughts may arise, note that and place awareness back on the breath. If we notice that have followed a thought for a period of time, we do not castigate ourselves, simply return our awareness to the breath. If our thoughts are too scattered to stay with our breath in this manner we employ strategies that require ever more attention. Counting exhalations from one to ten is the most basic. We can increase the complexity of counting by counting by twos, by odd numbers, backwards and so on. We do this to engage the conceptual mind until it settles down. Then we simply place our awareness on the rise and fall of the abdomen.
By doing this we build up the skills of noticing when we are unfocused, of placing our awareness without commentary and over time deep concentration. These abilities will serve us well in other endeavors but is a practice that can be deeply pursued in its own right.
excerpt from Focus in Dewdrops on Stinging Nettles
Align your mind
From a calm and focused mind we move into contemplation, the active work of the practice of engaging with what is actually happening. At this moment we are siting, calm and aware. In the contemplation that we are investigating here we are cultivating increasing openness, the active awareness that is the functional of reality as it is. This is development of the unified mind, that is empty of a sense of a separate self, but fully engage, fully aware.
excerpt from Openness in Dewdrops on Stinging Nettles
Openness can’t be forced, you must ease into it naturally. We become increasingly open by cultivating the Still Pool and settling into awareness of our entire bodies. Then we can open up further by Listening, letting sounds in without discrimination, without placing attention on them. This brings our sense of awareness beyond ourselves.
Likewise the Gazing practices bring us to a place of greater and greater openness. Using the channels of eyes and ears and skillfully applying focus we become in tune with the landscape that is in our visual and auditory sensorium.
With practice we become increasingly open, open to sounds, sights, sensations, open to our bodies and surroundings, open to what is. By not chasing thoughts, by not naming or commenting upon what we see and hear, by not indulging in sensations, by not forcing everything into our story, we open even further and effortlessly remain open. Thoughts simply rise and fall uncommented upon and over time diminish. Our narrative fades and our sense of a separate self recedes. It is in this open condition, where we are mostly just a presence in landscape that are are in alignment with Empty Awareness. We find ourselves increasingly in tune with what is.
Transitioning from focus into openness
In the same way that one can transition from the Still Pool into openness, one can move from focusing on the breath into openness. When we engage in a period of stillness-sitting we always begin by relaxing and settling into the Still Pool. Once settled we place our awareness on the abdomen as it rises and falls. If our minds are particularly scattered engage in the necessary counting practice. As it calms down we return our awareness to the abdomen, always focusing awareness there when we are distracted. As distractions fall away we simply increase the field of our awareness from the rise and fall of the abdomen to our entire bodies and from there to the experience of sitting, increasingly open.
Every time that we engage in stillness-sitting we should transition into Openness. Until focus is deeply developed this might just be for short periods of time, as we return to the breath as we lose focus. But the practice of focus like all of the practices leads to increased Openness bringing us into alignment with what is.
excerpt from Focus in Dewdrops on Stinging Nettles
There are myriad ways to cultivate openness, aligning ourselves with reality as it is. In these talks we are examine sitting, but also engaging with the wider world though outside practices. There are myriad outside practices, that both cultivate dwelling in openness and the non-dwelling that is the mind of empty awareness. These can be found in the Outside Practices text Dewdrops on Stinging Nettles and we will consider both sitting outside and a visualization technique for sitting here.
excerpt from Being Outside in Dewdrops on Stinging Nettles
When out of doors we are naturally in our bodies, by being aware of our bodies, centering ourselves in the abdomen, rooting ourselves in the earth, breathing naturally, we can truly inhabit them. As we move amidst the natural environment with all of its continual change we can become increasingly aware of silence. Behind every sound, behind the incessant activity is a deep silence. At twilight, when birds come to rest and people are generally not out and about, you can feel a hushed stillness, that points to a yet deeper silence. Paying attention to these conditions facilitates seeing past the self.
When sitting out of doors our movement often noisy and careless, disturbs our surroundings. Stillness Sitting out of doors integrates us into the surroundings and the wildlife our rough behavior alienates will feel comfortable in our presence. Birds will fly right by, small mammal scurry right up to check us out, deep amble by unconcerned with our presence. As one’s stillness matures one becomes merely another feature of the landscape. We spend much of our lives distancing ourselves from our surroundings and in this way become a disturbance when we move through our environment. Being still outside teaches us how to naturally move through it.
When we are seated outside, or where we can see the outdoors, this is not an opportunity to ‘watch’ or to attach to additional stimulus. Gazing at what is in our field of view is not different from gazing at the floor in front of us. We engage in outdoor sitting in order to facilitate Empty Awareness.
Sit as you normally would, eyes mostly closed, gaze downward. Let the increased sounds of the outdoors flow through you. Let go of the environment and relax into awareness, cultivating the Still Pool. When thoughts have subsided open your eyes, fully utilizing your peripheral vision. There should be no distinction between them open and closed. The Still Pool, deeply clear, undisturbed by thought, sensations and feelings, brightly mirroring all that shines in.
Dewdrops on Stinging Nettles
A Companion for Practice
Dream Mountain Press 2020
Entry Into the Inconceivable
An Introduction to Hua-yen Buddhism
by Thomas Cleary
University of Hawaii Press· Honolulu, 1983
How to Practice Zazen
Comments on the Zazengi
Mumon Yamada Roshi
Institute for Zen Studies; January 1, 1980