Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Zazen Isn't Boring

Miniature Landscape with Moss
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...


  1. Hi Petteri. I've never found zazen boring - frustrating yes - boring no. I guess though it maybe depends on different people's psychology / karma / conditioning in relation to how they react to restlessness. Some people have a strong 'don't want to be here' reaction to restlessness and others maybe try to push it down or force it away, and so on.

    Restlessness ran my first couple of years of zazen into the ground, but since practicing Jodo Shinshu and encountering the teaching of Kosho Uchiyama I've learnt to duck my head under the waves and discovered that once you get through the surf the sea is calmer and clearer.

    It is amazing how intense restlessness can be. It often comes on about ten minutes into my sittings and can be an almost skin-crawling sensation. I'm naturally more of a passive person but I guess if I was more of an active type then it might trigger feelings of boredom.

    Being a more passive type of person my problems are more at the calm abiding stage ... its easy for me to just bliss out or sink down too much.

    Anway cheers for sharing. It helps to compare notes.

    1. I've been sitting, on and off, for almost 30 years.. Having said that, I must admit that I've never gotten through a one-day sit, let alone a sesshin. Restlessness still can make me nearly scream in the middle of the zendo. I would say, Zazen isn't boring... It's grueling!

  2. Hi, Kyōshin—I'm not quite that far yet. I have, just during the past few days, touched a state that is, I think, in the edges of "calm abiding"—things get a lot smoother and instead of a constant re-focusing of attention there's a sustained effort at keeping it where it is, and a definite blissful component kicks in. I could compare it to riding a bike when nicely warmed up, on a good, open road, right down to the endorphin kick. I can imagine that it'd be very easy to want to just stay there once that state solidifies. I am curious to find out what it's like and how I'll handle it.

    But yeah, restlessness is a pretty good way to describe it. Thanks for dropping by!