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Uprightness Through Life’s Challenges: Why We Practice

Published on 11/11/14
by randy



I’m just coming off a four day meditation retreat and had a couple insights I wanted to share.  The leader of this retreat comes from the Soto Zen tradition of Buddhism.  It was a silent retreat, except for the teacher’s dharma talk.  We begin sitting at six in the morning, interspersed with walking meditation, mindful meals and work practice, dismissing at nine in the evening.  During this time, the mind has various levels of restlessness.  I personally found great strength in the early mornings and seemed to note reduced awareness as the day progressed and my posture slackened.  Two months previous I had sustained a strong blow to my ribs and there was chronic pain in this area that seemed to grow near the fifth sitting.  In a personal interview, I questioned Dokai, the head teacher about this.  “Should I just be with the pain and watch it?”  My intention was to stay with the breath, but this sensation kept drawing me away.  Well, you’ll never get a ‘yes/no’ answer in Zen, but he gave me the information I needed to work through the discomfort and it’s what I’ve become passionate about: posture.

Instructions for zazen are very specific about posture.  Form a solid triangle base with legs and buttocks. “Sit up and straighten your back as if you were pushing your buttocks firmly into the cushion.  Keep you neck straight and pull in your chin.  Project your head as if it were going to pierce the ceiling.  Relax your shoulders.  Your ears should be in line with your shoulders and your nose in line with your naval.  Everything, trunk, back, neck and head is straight when you sit zazen.  Zazen is aiming to hold a living and vital posture.”, excerpted from Approach to Zen by Uchiyama Roshi.  Many of these same instructions come into play in my yoga practice as we find alignment, chest out, shoulders relaxed, back shoulder wings coming closer together.

So this posture is what we aim for, yet through the course of days’ gravity we may begin to lose this posture.  As we tire and/or thoughts fill our head, we may begin to bend.  This was happening with me.  Dokai instructed me to aim more resolutely to correct posture.  Going back to the cushion I put renewed awareness to this posture and found my capacity to stay with the present moment’s breath arising.  I became aware of how I had lost the slight inverse curvature of the lower spine and imaged with stronger determination pushing my buttocks into the cushion.  Once again, the gift of an injury was my signal to steward my posture back to correct alignment.

Dokai referenced a phrase from ancient Buddhist text that resonated with me.  When asked why we do zazen, the reply was “unborn security”.  I was once shown the depth roots go and was amazed with how some drill thirty feet just to be able to weather a severe drought.  This is such a good investment, coming from thousands of years of wisdom.  Practice an upright posture with grace and equanimity so you can move through life’s difficulties without making a mess of things.  When we lose our posture, we’re more likely to lose our balance.  Losing our balance, building momentum of negative thought and emotion, we’re likely to fall over.  Dokai acknowledged how we all will say good bye to our bodies.  He hoped his practice, this “unborn security” would serve him well in bringing keen awareness to his last inhalation and his last exhalation.

I’ve asked my wife to watch my posture and challenge me to correct it.  This is what community is for.  We support each other in life practices so we’re less likely to fall over when the earthquake happens.  A well stewarded life gains momentum in finding solid posture even if we do fall over to get back up.

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