In his essay, Fukanzazengi (Recommending Zazen to all People), our 13th century Japanese ancestor, Eihei Dogen instructs us in this way:
Once you have adjusted your posture, settle into a steady, immovable
sitting position. Think of not-thinking. How do you think of not-thinking?
Beyond Thinking. This in itself is the essential art of zazen.
This human brain generates thoughts. All sorts of thoughts, all day long, every single day. This is its nature; it can’t help but do this. So unlike what many people assume, you will never stop your thoughts. Zazen should not, and will not take you to a blissful island of complete silence, empty of all mental activity. This is an imaginary place that I think Dogen is calling “not-thinking.” You would be dead. Now it’s true that you might experience sweet moments of tranquility, and these moments are gifts. But it wouldn’t be your doing, and the instant you try to grasp onto that moment, it’s gone. And thinking will inevitably start again.
I love this cartoon, which perfectly illustrates our ideas about nothingness in meditation. We think we want what these monks have. A place of nothingness. We mistakenly equate total inner silence with ever-lasting peace. But this really wouldn’t be much of a life. And when we don’t find this in meditation, we often think we’re not doing it right and give up. Dogen is pointing to something different. He says what we really need is not a state of not-thinking, but a state he calls Beyond Thinking. This would be kind of like the monks in the cartoon purposefully changing the channel, or maybe choosing to turn it off for a while. Tuning into something that’s on around them like sounds, sights, smells. . . In this place, you’re not chasing thinking or not-thinking. You’re also not running away from thinking or not-thinking. In this place, you’re rooted in the present, and can see clearly when a thought arises; see it having its moment, and then see it dissipate. And each time you remember, you redirect your attention to the “Here and Now” channel.
People often compare this to clouds passing through a clear blue sky. With the sky as your anchor, you simply observe clouds coming and going. But this doesn’t quite seem personal enough, or wild enough to describe my experience. For me, it can feel more like a mosquito flying into my ear or up my nose while I’m sitting still in meditation. This mosquito thought may even bite me, but I just watch (resisting the urge to smack it or chase it off), and then off it goes, all by itself. Whether it’s like a cloud or a mosquito for you, you can see that it’s not you. You don’t have to identify with that thought, and therefore you don’t have to suffer over it. What a relief! So unlike the monks in the cartoon who prefer to watch nothing, you can not have any preference at all. You can choose not to choose. Whatever channel is on, it’s OK. The nothing channel, the blissed out buddha channel, the knee hurting channel, the what’s for dinner channel. All just part of a flow, and not only OK, but better than OK. It’s wonderful and beautiful and as it should be.