Dharma Q/A: In Zazen, Should I Cultivate Concentration or Spaciousness?

How do you see the concentration aspect fitting into zazen sessions? For example, do you think that part of every session, like 10 minutes, should be given over to just concentration on the breath or sound or an object, etc.? For me, only a slowly growing zazen student, it feels like I have just gotten to a more spacious place and would like to use that/be there/nowhere. So I assume that is okay (?), but just over time, the idea is to remain open to other ways and open to the moving of whatever meets us?

Seido’s Response:

I will offer a process at the risk of this not being for everyone. For now, I’ll divide this into two parts, preparing the ground (active quality) and tending the harvest (receptive quality).

Preparing the Ground

1. The Body

When we sit down in zazen, it’s a good practice even before turning toward the thinking mind to first tend the body and its posture. This is vital and often overlooked when we plunk down too quickly. Really settle into the rooted base and the flexible upper body and open heart. Relaxi around any contractions, notice sensations, impulses, the quality of the breath and energy. This may be just a few minutes or longer. For those without this experience, I recommend trying some longer body scan meditations that are easily found on the internet. Doing this roots practice is our karmic condition of this here and now and does a lot for illuminating resistance.

Some days we might spend the whole meditation period here.

2. Attention

After the body settles into stillness, focus the attention on a single particular, the breath, the belly, sound and so forth. There is no time limit. Allow this setting of attention with intention to aid in gathering the body/heart/mind completely into this one moment. We can investigate — what is the quality of my attention? Doing this reveals how much of our energy is elsewhere and the drive behind our thinking mind as well as particular resistance. Gradually you can begin to lessen the “grasp” of the object as the counting fades, the mind sits still, bright and present with ease without darting from place to place. This mindfulness does not need to be free from thought — it is free from involvement with thought and more about shifting awareness from the foreground to the background.

Some days we might spend the whole meditation period here.

Awaiting the Harvest

There is a wonderful teaching by Chogyam Trungpa I use often called the “Four Wheels of the Chariot of Meditation.” He says the first three wheels include concentration, relaxation, and befriending oneself (the essence of what’s above), and the fourth is this sense of “expectation” — we become curious and open to what emerges from this ground we’ve prepared, something we don’t quite know yet. Here, verbal instructions are not quite adequate to describe this “leaning in” or “listening” shift in awareness that releases the grasp on “knowing” the world in the usual subject/object way, the smaller self’s orientation to the world. Our intuition is what’s most important here, faith in ourselves and faith in the process. There is a willed surrender to just this. The self must get out of the way. We wait with open hands.

Some days we might spend the whole meditation period here. It’s a kind of prayer.

Most importantly

Forget these instructions if they just bring confusion with too much to do, or worse, one’s inner critic gets ahold of them and wreaks havoc. In Zen, we should primarily be our own explorers in this inner landscape — there’s no right/wrong, only being awake to what we learn and the willingness to keep going beyond. My teacher would offer with any attainment we achieve in zazen this deflating truth: “this too shall pass.” Dogen’s teaching was firm that the real samadhi is not the samadhi we enter and exit. Each meditator will be exactly where they are, perfectly so.
Spaciousness is marvelous — investigate that, explore its rooms, its scent, what it is asking of you. Grasped spaciousness is a hindrance. What I know as a teacher is that when someone says “spaciousness” they often mean different things. It’s good to watch out for its “near enemy” which is spaciness, a kind of dissociation that can be very pleasant!

Cliff Note Version of Instructions to All

Trust yourself and Investigate everything!

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