In the introduction to my seminars and Sesshin I usually speak about certain misconceptions of Zen which obstruct a healthy and fruitful practise. Beginners, and often even advanced students, bring along a rucksack filled with a painful set of prejudices concerning Zazen, which, if not put down, can cause them a tremendous emotional and physical pain.
The most severe bias I encountered through years of teaching are:
- Zazen and Zen practise in general is good for nothing!
- You must stop thinking!
- You must endure and sit through any pain!
- You must not question your teacher!
Let me discuss one by one:
Zazen and Zen practise in general is good for nothing? Often one can read in Zen-related texts that Zen has no goal, we must not strive for any effect or outcome through our Zen practise, Zen is good for nothing and so on and so forth. Is it now wrong when I begin Zazen in the hope to change my life, myself for the better? Not at all! Without a strong desire to change, to develop and leave the probably painful cycles of my current life I would most likely not start doing Zen. A regular healthy practise with a qualified teacher will have some very positive effect on your life for sure, and a strong confidence in a positive outcome is necessary to keep up a good practise!
The warning “Zen is good for nothing” addresses the frequent misunderstanding that Zen practise will give you some additional super-magic qualities you can add to your otherwise unchanged life, just another skill providing extra power you can use to boost your career as a martial artist or manager. And of course a few hours or week-ends spent on your pillow will most likely not show any lasting effect, especially if you are distracted from your practise by anticipating and eagerly observing any expected outcome.
You must stop thinking? How should we human beings possibly stop thinking, and why? Without thinking we’d never come to read such a text, not to speak of all the arrangements necessary to participate a seminar. Thinking is essential to maintain our life, and especially starting any new practise comes along with a lot of extra thinking. It would be a horrible misunderstanding for a beginner of Zen to force yourself to stop thinking, and probably get angry about the fruitless effort to do so.
To a “stop thinking” I want to add “all the time!”. Our super fast intellectual planning ahead all eventualities mind does not have to run on 100% all the time. During Zazen we may allow ourselves to let it go in a gentle way and leave our thoughts and thinking what they are, just thoughts. Once they come up, we cannot stop them. But we can let them come and go without following them, without allowing them interfere with our concentration on a proper posture and deep breathing
You must endure and sit through any pain? Pain is not the purpose of Zazen, and enduring pain has no benefit. Pain does not allow me to concentrate well, in the worst case it indicates my body is experiencing some damage. My advise for beginners is to avoid pain, and more experienced students to carefully examine it.
When I know myself, my body well I realise it is often not pain, it is just a slightly unpleasant feeling. And when our mind has nothing else to do, we amplify and over-exaggerate it until it becomes mentally unbearable. Ever experienced the pain is gone when the end-of-meditation bell rings? Even before relieving from a painful posture? That was the extra pain we add to our slight physical discomfort. Not to add extra mental pain to our physical pain, by this relieving and enduring the physical pain is meant by “enduring pain”. If it really hurts, please change your posture!
You must not question your teacher? All the good teachers I studied with encouraged their students to question a lot. If your teacher does not allow questions, better don’t ask … leave him or her alone and find a new teacher!
Depending on the cultural background of your teacher, of course it is polite to find a proper timing when to ask. Sometimes a beginner is too keen to show off and fire a half understood prejudice at the teacher even before he or she had a chance to begin with the most basic lesson (which might be to make you clean the Dojo). Once you decided to trust your teacher, I recommend a willingness to do without hesitation. And at the same time, while you do, fundamentally questioning your and his or her doing. Why? Why? Why? Not just copy, dig as deep as you can, see if you can get deeper than your teacher’s and his teacher’s and his teacher’s teachers’ roots …