Wednesday, August 4, 2010
Miniature Landscape with Moss, Muonio, Finland, 2010
About a year ago when I started to do this Zen thing and reading about it, several people told me that zazen is really boring. Brad Warner, for example. "I guarantee you'll be bored," he said in one of his zazen invitations. I think some of the instructors at the Helsinki Zen Center intimated something to that effect as well. Uku of Dogen Sangha Finland bangs on about it too. Perhaps it's a DSI thing. Or perhaps they just say it to encourage people to stick with it until they figure out what it is and it stops being boring.
I think they're wrong.
Sitting on a cushion, staring at the wall, waiting for the bell to ring is dead boring. It's just like sitting on an empty bus-stop waiting for the bus, occasionally wondering if you missed it, or if there's maybe a strike going on and it's not going to show up at all. However, I'm pretty sure that's not zazen. It's just sitting on a cushion, staring at the wall, waiting for the bell to ring, being bored, and occasionally very mildly entertained by trains of thought or daydreaming, or hurting with various types of pain.
I've done a quite a lot of that over the past year, and I wish someone had told me, "Look, that's not it. It's not supposed to be boring. Try something else." It never occurred to me to complain about it in daisan, either, because I thought it was a part of the game. They did tell me stuff like "Whatever it takes, stay with the practice!" or "If your mind is wandering, note that thought and bring your attention back to your breath" or that sort of thing. But to my recollection, nobody told me "If it's boring, you're not doing zazen, you're just growing a callus on your ass." At least nobody I would listen to.
It's not that there's some huge engrossing light-show going on. In fact, there isn't anything much going on. However, if I'm really with the practice—or even really trying to be with the practice—keeping my concentration on my breath, snapping it back there the instant I notice it's wandered, sometimes with a twinge of annoyance, hanging onto it like a bull terrier with a hangover, it's not boring, at all. There's simply no room for boredom. I can't be deeply concentrated on something, or at maximum alert trying to keep my concentration from slipping, and bored at the same time.1
It's a bit like being completely absorbed in, say, building a scale model, except without the model—there's nothing out there to grab and hold your attention; it's up to me to grab and focus it on whatever it is my practice is about.
While I've only done a grand total of two kinds of basic practice to date, I'm pretty sure the same principle holds even when the object of meditation is "everything" or "nothing" or "the present instant" or any of the other slipperier things. Shikantaza, shmikantaza, same thing.
If you're bored, you're not meditating. Find something else to do, preferably from a list that doesn't include (a) falling asleep or (b) getting lost in a daydream. That might be it.
And no, I can't manage not being bored every time. I'm getting better, though.
1I suppose it might be possible to meditate on the sensations of being bored, but I have a hunch that if you did that, you'd stop being bored fairly quickly. Unless you're really good at it...