Journeying from Effort to Effortless

The pith instruction of Zen is quite beautiful. It is considered elegant, practical, and direct.

Sit down. Be quiet. Wake up.

It’s also said to take a monk 20 years to do this… whatever this means! 

Our practice’s history is rich with instructions, maps, schemes, and methods. It is not at all vague. We can use these to set ourselves on a skillful journey of training that prepares us to just “Sit down. Be quiet. Wake up.” This article is a meander across some of the theories and practices in a way that will hopefully support you in your journey from concentration (dharana) to meditation (dhyana) to samadhi (liberating absorption). 

Evolution of Practice 1: preparation for concentration

This part of the journey is a little outside the scope of “meditation instructions,” so I’ll keep it brief. You need to know that the deep meditative states that lead to waking up depend heavily on the ability to “sit down” and “be quiet.” The teachings make it clear that this is precipitated by cultivating certain qualities; namely:

Further, the less in harmony we are with a positive, healthy lifestyle, the less likely our mind will be able to concentrate. Please understand that tending to your finances, relationships, exercise, diet, etcetera are all integral to your meditation practice. 

Evolution of Practice 2: concentration (dharana)

We should not expect to be able to “Sit down. Be quiet.” The ten ox-herding pictures that summarize the spiritual path put sitting down and being quiet in the seventh picture. That means the first 70% of the journey is learning how to do that! 

Essentially, we must train the relative mind (R.M.) – which is a free-for-all plurality of processes – to unify itself around whatever we choose to pay attention to. This is directly counter to the R.M.’s natural instincts. 

We can do this in any number of ways, in fact, almost every instruction you’re likely to have received is actually a concentration practice. Concentration practices include:

  • Whole Body Breathing

  • Following the breath

  • Listening

  • Candle gazing

  • Reciting a mantra 

  • Counting the breath

  • Walking Meditation

  • Qigong/Yoga

  • Gardening/Drawing/Martial Arts/Dancing/Music/etc. 

It may not be obvious, but this list is in order from nuanced to strong concentration anchors and can be used to progress in concentration. 

For example, ask yourself:

  • Can I become fully involved in my favorite task and remain attentive to it for extended periods of time?

  • Can I notice myself becoming distracted or sleepy and bring myself back into the flow of my desired activity fairly quickly?

If so, then you have sufficient concentration to try and engage in a type of spiritually-related intentional movements like qigong or yoga. When this is true of qigong/yoga or other somatic practices, then try it with just walking. From walking to sitting supported with counting breaths or chanting a mantra. From there to silent sensory experiences like candle gazing or listening. Next on to totally internal experiences of following the breath and breathing with the whole body. 

In my experience, people will report doing “whole body breathing” yet not be able to keep the R.M. from wandering in yoga class. Upon examination, we find that in “whole body breathing,” attention is moving all over the place, and there are all sorts of thought chains unrelated to the experience of being breathed. This tells us that the untrained R.M. needs a stronger anchor for concentration even to notice that it’s not concentrating! This is entirely expected and normal!

So – here’s a general “why” and “how” to the first 70% of “meditation” practice – unifying the mind around a single task. If you’d like more information on this process, Culadasa is exceptionally articulate in his masterful book, The Mind Illuminated

Evolution of Practice 2: meditation (dhyana)

Once we can unify the mind, we can get out of the way and start letting meditation happen. That’s right – an essential piece of meditation is transitioning from “effort” to “effortless” processes. 

An example of meditation instructions from “Discourse on the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana” by Asvagosa may help us here. It starts by saying that meditation is a harmonization of concentration and investigation (or stopping and seeing). Then it goes on to say that the best way to do “stopping” is to go sit down by oneself and:

Do not fix the thoughts on the breath; 

Do not fix the thoughts on the forms and colors;

Do not fix the thoughts on space;

Do not fix the thoughts on earth, water, fire, and ether;

Do not fix the thoughts on what you see, hear, learn, or memorize.

All particularisations, imaginations, and recollections should be

Excluded from consciousness, even the idea of exclusions being excluded.

Ok -Sit down. Be quiet. 

It goes further to say that we must ignore the external world and turn ourselves to the inner world. Once we’re in the inner world, do not attach to thoughts. 

That’s really quiet. If we stay this soft for a long time, eventually, we’ll wake up! Simple, right?

This process is so predictable that the teachings clarify the stages of “be quiet.” As with all of this stuff, it’s not a cut-and-dry linear progression, but a general map of a territory that we must explore for ourselves. This is a big topic so I’ll just give a cursory outline. 

  • Sustained and applied thought fades, and agitated bliss arises.

  • Agitated bliss fades, and contentment arises. 

  • Contentment fades, and equanimity arises. 

  • In equanimity, there is a perception of infinite space. 

  • The perception of infinite space transforms into one of the infinite Mind. 

  • Infinite Mind becomes no-thing-ness

  • No-thing-ness becomes neither perceiving nor not perceiving.

  • Complete cessation. (eighth ox-herding picture)

I cannot stress enough that we can “peak experience” any of these in any order, what is important is to take up the invitation to become well-trained in them. Leigh Brasington’s Right Concentration: A Practical Guide to the Jhanas is a good resource for further study of this topic. 

Evolution of Practice 3: Liberating Samadhi

I took up this topic before (see: Samadhi) so we will just summarize the main point here. The main point is that we come into an insight experience, or a direct knowing, of emptiness. (a.k.a suchness, the absolute, discontiguous unity, etc.) It’s important to note that there are many types and degrees of samadhi and they each can have profound implications for our lives. However, in Zen, we are specifically talking about the samadhi of suchness, which goes by many other names. 

It must be an experience that reveals our “self” to be a divine figment of imagination, that empowers us to live transformative lives in service to others, and that radically reorients our relationship to suffering. 

Even so, this is only the ninth of ten ox-herding pictures. We must then bring ourselves fully into integrity with this deeper truth, get a full belly of it, and then return to the marketplace. Profoundly content, full of wisdom and compassion, we bring this light forward into the world. 

Umi Dan Rotnem

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