I’d like to talk about a characteristic of zazen practice, as I understand it. We might say that the journey of Zen practice is going from knowing to not-knowing. Our usual process is to conceptualize who we are and how we fit into the world and then hold onto and protect this conceptualization or self identity. In practice, we move toward letting go of our conceptualizations, letting go of our need to hold our world and our personality in place. The activity of practice is independent from our conceptualizations or from the story which we are constantly telling ourselves.

This story can take the form of a commentary or inner dialogue or writing an imaginary letter to someone inside our heads in which we explain what is going on, adding our own comments. I’ve heard this described as the story of me, written by me, directed by me, starring me and... heard by me. The problem with this is that the storyline we are churning out replaces our real life. So, the story or commentary becomes a kind of insulation between us and our direct experience, here and now, and it functions by mediating our experience, so we’re never quite in sync with our actual experience as it is happening.

Sometimes I feel like I spend a lot of my life trying to figure out a strategy for how to do all the things I want to do or have to do. A lot of my time seems filled with one project after another, trying to squeeze in as much as I can in between buying groceries, doing the laundry, and getting something ready for dinner. But in zazen, or Zen meditation, we don’t need the mind that measures and tracks thinking stops, where we are no longer interested in “figuring it out.” The place where we meet the limits of our thinking is where we begin to trust. We all existed before we could think – so you could say, we are older than our thinking is. Before we could figure things out, we were eating and swallowing, breathing and smiling, and feeling warm and comfortable or not and expressing it.

Practice can’t be engineered or directed by our conceptual thinking. When we direct our practice with our thinking, we are practicing figuring things out, not Zen. When this happens, what we think of as practice is being limited by our conceptualization process, and our practice becomes just another one of the stories we tell ourselves. To be free from conceptualization or rationalization, we need to trust something wider than our thinking. It has been said that the answer or the experience of koans is found in our muscles. Rakan said, “That which doesn’t know is most intimate.”

In Zen literature, the image of darkness is often used to refer to enlightenment or the non-dual realm that exists before separation, differentiation, or discrimination arise. This realm of darkness is beyond our conceptualized world where we think we understand what is going on, where we track, and measure, and plot our strategy for making our way through life.

Whereas the image of light often refers to the discriminating, differentiating capacity of consciousness. Sitting sazen is a way we can begin to let go of the way we grasp – the way we try to pin things down and control our experience. To really practice Zen, eventually we need to put down our strategies, our expectations and goals, and allow ourselves to trust something beyond our thinking.

A metaphor for Zen practice is walking on a stone path in the dark, where there is a single stone for each footstep. Just walking and trusting each foot to find the next stone, trusting the intention that brings us to practice. Without knowing what comes next, just step forward, trusting this unknown realm of darkness.

Copyright © 2023 Josho Pat Phelan