Shikantaza – “Just Sitting” – The Ultimate Nondirective Meditation
This is part of my Start Here series of posts aimed at teaching beginners the basics of the meditative journey.
One way to categorize the meditation practice of shikantaza, or “just sitting,” is as an objectless meditation. This is a definition in terms of what it is not. One just sits, not concentrating on any particular object of awareness, unlike most traditional meditation practices, Buddhist and non-Buddhist, that involve intent focus on a particular object. Such objects traditionally have included colored disks, candle flames, various aspects of breath, incantations, ambient sound, physical sensations or postures, spiritual figures, mandalas, teaching stories, or key phrases from such stories. Some of these concentration practices are in the background of the shikantaza practice tradition, or have been included with shikantaza in its actual lived experience by practitioners.
But objectless meditation focuses on clear, nonjudgmental, panoramic attention to all of the myriad arising phenomena in the present experience. Such objectless meditation is a potential universally available to conscious beings, and has been expressed at various times in history. This just sitting is not a meditation technique or practice, or any thing at all. “Just sitting” is a verb rather than a noun, the dynamic activity of being fully present.
… it is objectless not only in terms of letting go of concentration objects, but also in the sense of avoiding any specific, limited goals or objectives… just sitting is not a technique or a means to some resulting higher state of consciousness, or any particular state of being…
… [for Dogen] simply just sitting is expressed as concentration on the self in its most delightful wholeness, in total inclusive interconnection with all of phenomena.
–Taigen Dan Leighton
The above text was sent to me by a student and is from a PDF called A few views around shikantaza. The context of the conversation was that the student had asked me my views on meditating with eyes open, and I sent him a write-up of a practice I have been doing for the last few months in which my eyes are more or less always open. He replied informing me I was practising shikantaza, a meditation method I had not heard of but which matched exactly what I had been doing. I had found my way to it instinctually.
Shikantaza is Japanese for “just sitting”. It is a form of zazen practice found in Japanese Zen Buddhism, and is similar to Taoist zuowang (“sitting and forgetting”) practice. Shikantaza involves sitting very still and looking at a blank wall a few feet away for long periods of time. That is basically the extent of the instructions. The meditation is as close to completely nondirective as you can get. You are allowed to think thoughts and feel emotions. You do not take the breath as an object (nor anything else for that matter). You do not try to control any aspect of the mind, body or perception. In fact, the need to control events is the main thing you must allow yourself to let go of, and it is the relinquishing of control at progressively finer layers that deepens your state of inner peace. Goals must also be abandoned completely. You do not sit to gain jhana or some other altered state, or to practise magick, or to become enlightened. You sit in order to give up your resistance to simply existing! Just sitting means exactly that; no more, no less.
The first result of this practice is that, after some time, you may find yourself in a quiet, still and blissful state in which the separation between inner and outer worlds has thinned or disappeared entirely. This is the state of being I believe everyone is actually looking for when they make the decision to start practising meditation, whether they realize it or not. It is incredibly peaceful. The time it takes to fall into this state will likely vary between individuals, with experience playing a role. Furthermore, there is not a sudden shift into something profound, but rather there is an initial “switch” at around 20 minutes wherein the body noticeably settles, mood shifts to something more equanimous and open, and thoughts become easier to handle. After this point, there is a simple, gradual deepening of the state over time – a growing sense of peace, quiet and stillness, which grows and deepens, and grows and deepens until, eventually, there is no trace of a separate “I” living in your head, and all its problems are gone away with it. It is a total break from the world. This process may take a few hours to evolve depending on your experience and the amount of “stuff” you have coming up. However, the state becomes gradually more peaceful as time goes by, so it is not really a problem to keep sitting. Once you have ventured into this state even just a little, you will likely want to sit in it as long as you can!
I will describe a little more about how the above state unfolds in terms of the dissolution/dismantling of the sense of self. This is from my personal experience but I will talk as though it is universal. Ordinarily there is a sense of a conscious agent located in my head. This agent controls the body, makes decisions, and interacts with the world via thoughts, emotions and actions. This agent looks out through my eyes and sees objects – “tree”, “car”, “person”, etc. It has thoughts and feelings about each object, liking some objects (desire) and disliking others (aversion). It ignores or filters out some objects if it is overexposed to them or if they are not deemed “useful”. As well as an external world of visible objects, the agent also experiences an internal world of thoughts and concepts, which it also has feelings and judgments about. Some thoughts please the agent and it will return to them again and again; other thoughts are displeasing and the agent will try to suppress or ignore them, or to do actions in the external world to try to remedy them with the aim of those thoughts no longer coming up. The three processes of desire, aversion, and filtering therefore are applied to both objects in the external world (where they appear as physical things) and objects in the internal world (where they appear as thoughts about things). This constant process of judging and appraising objects is mistaken as a permanent, separate entity which resides in your head – your “self”, “you” – also known as “ego” or “false self” when viewed in spiritual practice. The problem with the separate self illusion is that the process of judging and appraising can never truly be satisfied – more of the good feelings are always desired (and their end is feared), bad feelings are always wished to be expelled or avoided, and there is always a slew of objects which can cause bad feelings just around the corner. The separate self illusion is the cause of suffering.
When I sit to do shikantaza, thought chains will begin immediately, usually about things that have happened over the last day which feel like “unfinished business”. However, by sitting very still in the body, and by looking at a completely still wall, the rapid movements of the mind will begin to show themselves, highlighted in contrast with the stillness of the body and the wall. I will say that again: The movements of the mind become visible against the stillness of the wall. (Later on, thoughts will even “pop out” and play on the wall, rather than “inside the head”.) This is a really important insight to get: the mind’s constant movement, its churning, dissatisfied thoughts, are the cause of suffering. Those thoughts can never be satisfied. Even if you somehow managed to give them everything they demanded, more thoughts would soon come, wanting more of the good things and fewer of the bad – or falling into boredom, apathy and despair, which are the hallmarks of dissatisfaction with the way things are. Recognizing this is really important. Once it is truly recognized that thoughts can never be satisfied, the way forward begins to become clear: by allowing thoughts to expire, they can be replaced with peace and silence (which is inherently satisfying). I don’t think this insight can be rushed. I can seed the idea in your mind by writing this post about it, but it is still your job to simply sit and look at the wall until the insight is realized experientially. When the mind realizes for itself that its thoughts can never be satisfied, it will naturally start to let them expire into silence. This is insight into dukkha, “dissatisfaction”, one of the Three Marks of Existence.
Around 20 minutes into the meditation, there is a noticeable physiological and mental shift wherein the body settles, mood shifts to something more equanimous and open, and thoughts become easier to handle. There is a lifting of the sense that meditation is a chore, and things suddenly become a lot easier. This stage is called Knowledge of Mind and Body in Theravada. Virtually all meditations involving sitting still will cause this shift around the 20 minute mark, which is why it is important to practise for at least 30 minutes per session, even as a beginner. This stage is pleasant, peaceful and relieving, and is the main reason for the early gains many meditators experience in their practice. In fact, many lay meditators across the world simply sit each morning until this stage is reached, then get up and go about their day, enjoying the benefits of the state without intending to go any further with their practice. (This is probably the extent of the “mindfulness” movement currently going on in the West.)
In shikantaza, the Mind and Body stage manifests as thoughts no longer being confined to the inside of the head. Visual thoughts may appear as projections on the blank wall, or as images simply floating by within the space of conscious awareness. Verbal thoughts might also take on a more object-like appearance, becoming more free to float around the mind-space rather than being tightly tethered to an illusory “narrator” in the centre of experience. This is insight into anattā, “No-Self”, one of the Three Marks of Existence. The thoughts did not come from a permanent self in the centre of experience, but rather arise in the clear space of awareness the same as any other object does. This experience of thoughts having space around them also reflects a partial dissolution of the (illusory) division between internal and external worlds. Objects “in here” are the same “stuff” as objects “out there”. It is all awareness.
Finally, there is the noticing that thoughts and emotions are completely transient. They come and they go. With enough sitting, even the solid wall itself is realized as a shimmering collection of transient sensations – an act of pure holography. This is insight into aniccā, “impermanence”, one of the Three Marks of Existence. Nothing lasts forever – nothing even lasts for a second. This means that today’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chips wrappers. The only thing giving life and apparent continuity to today’s drama is your own emotional attachment to it. It can be let go of.
Letting go of control is the most important lesson I took from shikantaza. It is the one piece of the puzzle I was missing, and it first came from realizing that thoughts appear, and I don’t have to like them. This is a totally different mindset to not liking thoughts and wanting to get rid of them (aversion), which is the default human approach. It means, in the stillness of shikantaza, a thought “I” don’t like can be allowed to exist for the short time it does exist, and the forces that arise in opposition to that thought is the illusory sense of self. The ego arises in response to unwanted thoughts, and it can be witnessed – it can be caught in the act. Simply noticing this desire to control the contents of awareness – while doing nothing – is enough to have that desire spontaneously vanish, and to find bliss and peace rushing in in its place. You don’t even have to purposefully “let go” of the desire to control – simply notice that desire, with clarity and honesty, and it vanishes. To see this clearly, a good question to ask yourself is, “What is the thing that seeks to control?” This practice has had permanent results for me outside of meditation. Someone said something that would ordinarily piss me off; the desire to control the situation arose, was noticed immediately, it vanished, bliss rushed in in its place, and I burst out laughing. (People always wonder why Zen guys laugh joyously at seemingly inappropriate times. It is because this is happening!) That “thing” was then gone forever – another layer of false self sliced off.
As thoughts phase in and out of existence, appearing projected against the backdrop of the blank wall, and apparently floating freely in space, the sense of a silent witness to those thoughts begins to be noticed – around the periphery at first, and in fleeting glimpses at first, before finally filling in the centre as control is relinquished. This silent witness is awareness itself. Like a fish becoming aware of the water in which it swims, shikantaza makes us notice the clear space of awareness into which all things arise and pass. Thus, shikantaza leads directly to Awareness Watching Awareness, or samatha without a sign. No effort is required – Awareness Watching Awareness is the normal state of affairs once control over the contents of awareness is relinquished. The mind eventually stops creating and labelling objects entirely, verbal thought stops, a state of flow is entered, and the contents of awareness are perceived directly and without judgment in an all-encompassing way.
Shikantaza also develops energy, causes myofascial unwinding on the micro-level where it is needed, and corrects posture over time. The eyes-open element is an immediate antidote to dullness.
The fact that shikantaza develops the best elements of all other meditation types – including insight, energy, mindfulness, elements of concentration, and Awareness Watching Awareness – makes it the most complete, yet most straightforward, system of practice I have come across. The benefits of every session are clear as day. That it requires no effort besides sitting still, and no special training beyond patience, makes it accessible and of benefit to all. I am in love with this meditation and suspect it might be the only one anyone ever needs.
What follows is how I practise shikantaza. It is a method I arrived at instinctually. Despite there being variants if you research it online, this is the superior form, in my experience. The session time is 30 minutes minimum, with 1+ hour being preferable for more rapid progress.
- Position yourself in front of a wall. I prefer a distance of around 2–3 metres (6–10 feet). This is to establish “medium-range vision”, which has a good balance of left and right brain hemisphere activation, as opposed to “close-range vision” which is dominantly left hemisphere. The wall should be blank, meaning free of “interesting” distractions. My wall has a radiator on it, but this is boring enough that it does not draw my attention. You would not have a painting, poster, or other “interesting” item in the field of vision, however.
- Sit up straight. I like to use a kneeling chair. However, cross-legged poses are fine, or even using a chair, provided you can stay completely still for at least 30 minutes with an upright spine. Stability is more important than comfort. At the same time, you do not want to adopt a position requiring massive effort to stay upright. If you have a weak back, note that regular sitting meditation actually fixes that over time, and shikantaza is the best one for it.
- Make dhyana mudra, and maintain it for the entire session. It is a strongly stabilizing vertical energy current which encourages stillness, becomes a “mental anchor” for stillness, and also helps keep your back straight.
- Keep your eyes open. Look at the wall. You are allowed to blink. You do not have to “stare”. However your eyes “want” to look at the wall, that is what you should allow. If your eyes want to defocus, let them. If they want to move around, let them. If they want to open wide, let them. If they want to close, let them. In maybe ten percent of my meditations, my eyes will want to start closing. They will turn into slits first, still letting in light. They will start to flicker with rapid, fine REM. This feels blissful. By the time they close, I will be in a blissful jhana-like state. I think this is natural, and is something like what your cat or dog is experiencing when he sits upright in his “roast chicken pose”. In ninety percent of my meditations, my eyes will stay open the whole time. Letting go of control and letting your eyes do as they want is the main thing, here. Note that having eyes open is an immediate relief to “dullness”, and people find this meditation energizing.
- Stay completely still below the neck. Breathing is the only thing allowed to move the body. Above the neck, things can move. You can emote, open and close the mouth, swallow saliva, and so forth. Your head itself should stay still, though. Regarding tongue pose, I let it do as it wants. If there is internal dialogue, it will tend to move or pulse subtly (since verbal thought is just very quiet speaking), which I allow. I have noticed however that the tongue eventually finds itself in the “correct” pose, which is the tongue tip in contact with the incisive papilla, the small fleshy bump on the roof of the mouth behind the front teeth. The meditation tends to end with the body in good form once the mind has expended itself of trivialities and settled into all-encompassing awareness.
- The rest of the instructions is a list of don’ts. Don’t fixate on a specific object – unless it “wants” to be fixated upon (e.g. awareness naturally settles on the breath at various points). Don’t try to control thoughts, emotions, or perception. If thoughts are running wild, let them. Just sit still and let it all happen. Don’t set goals or try to attain certain states. The only goal is doing the practice. The only state is whichever state arises in the practice.
That’s it. The practice is cumulative. Progress may be mostly unconscious and not “showy” at first. However, this gives way to more overt signs of progress later. Any overt progress is the result of the cumulative gains of covert progress. There is no such thing as a bad meditation. The meditation you got was the one you needed at that time. You cannot fuck up shikantaza. As long as you are sitting still and looking at a wall, you are progressing. Give it a trial week at 30 minutes a day and report your findings in the comments or make your own log on the forum.