Zazen Part Two: Concentration
It is often said that in sitting, without even realizing it, one learns to concentrate. That, of course, is true. One of my early experiences of how I was changing through the practice was the noticing of how much my concentration was improving, although even from childhood I always had “good” concentration.
In the early days of my practice, I was working in the South Beach Family Court Clinic doing mental health reports to the court on families whose custody or neglect cases were before the court. Report writing was a big part of my job.
I would write a section and then give myself a break. I’d walk around our offices, dropping in to schmooze with a colleague. The typical report probably involved three or four breaks. I enjoyed that way of working. It made the job much more pleasant, much more social for me.
But as my zazen practice continued, I noticed that I was finishing reports without breaks. The improvement in my concentration was so obvious. It was one the first clear pieces of evidence that meditation “worked.”
Exciting yes, but the improvement in concentration was not the big thing. The practice of zazen was really about discipline. Sitting down every day whether I felt like it or not. Or especially when I didn’t feel like it. Staying on the cushion when I felt like jumping up. Noticing the impulse to jump and just sitting still. Noticing the wandering thought, -- “the monkey mind,” Zen calls it, -- and just coming back to my breath. Losing count, starting again.
“Why do I have to start again? Why can’t I pick up from where I was, just resume counting? Why do I have to follow an instruction?”
My internal dialogue.
Notice thinking. Begin again.
The big learning for me occurred not in the occasional moment of “great concentration” but in the moments of antsy frustration. Noticing the impulse to jump, like the impulse to scratch, and refraining from action.
Did I forget to turn the tea kettle off?
If I don’t wiggle my toes right now, I may never walk again.
If I don’t scratch my nose, I will go insane.
As we begin sitting, it is so easy to be distracted. When beginning students complain of distraction, I offer the very standard Zen advice, to find the quiet time in the day to practice.
“For most of us, it is late or night or early in the morning.”
The early time has always worked best for me.
“You can always set your alarm a half hour earlier.”
Getting up earlier to sit. What a lesson in discipline.
As our practice develops, as our concentration improves, we find that we can sit in the strangest, noisiest, most distracting places. What a joy to discover that one can pass the time in zazen while waiting in a crowded airport for a delayed flight.
And it turns out that airport zazen is, at the end of the day, a relatively low-hanging fruit, not all that important. After all, how often am I waiting in an airport? I am not a frequent flier.
A much bigger reward for me has been the ability to be present. Just to be here in conversation.
In the last year, I have become so aware of how hard it is for most people to just be here, to be present. In conversation, I can see their attention wandering. COVID has made it so obvious. I have spent so much of the last two years in Zoom or Google rooms. Everyone is up there on the screen. Watching, listening, it is so obvious how hard people find it to pay attention.
Seeing this has helped me, prompted me to notice my own lapses in attention. It is the cushion process all over again. Awareness. Choice. Freedom.
My choice: “Excuse me for a minute. I have to make a quick phone call.”
Or that can wait, bringing my attention back to the present moment, right here, to the conversation.
My choice. Freedom.
The big take-away from the practice of discipline is the experience of great freedom. I could see how reactive I was, how ruled by impulses, my momentary thoughts.
Just sitting, not jumping to the call of impulse was enormous freedom; and the experience of discipline which is freedom began to seep quickly into my life.
Beginning the practice of zazen, inspired by the mantra which I had created for myself, -- “without inner peace, nothing else matters; with inner peace, nothing else matters”, -- I imagined inner peace as a place where the storms of impulse did not arise, a place of calm, without greed, anger, fear, without pain. I imagined that was what the Buddha meant by the “end of suffering.”
The discipline of Zazen was teaching me something different. Sometimes the storms of greed, anger, and fear still rage. Zazen has taught me, has shown me the freedom of sitting still, of just noticing the storm. Freed from the compulsion to react to every feeling arising, my life takes on unanticipated spaciousness.
Every day is a good day.
I smile now.
What a gift, a great gift of zazen.
The great gift of discipline.