Don't Get Comfortable

Please don't be too comfortable. We spend most of our lives trying to be comfortable. We always tell our guests, "Make yourselves comfortable.... Make yourself at home." This is the one place, though it feels like home, we don’t want to be too comfortable. Be grateful for those little discomforts and nagging pains that keep you awake. We try to keep it kind of cool in here, so that the heat doesn't cause drowsiness. The whole point of zazen is being awake.

Everyone at sometime or other, sort of sets a goal to overcome discomfort, to be able to sit for a long period of time without nagging pain, or tingling legs or feet. These are too distracting; well, (chuckling) if they distract us from falling asleep, so much the better. If we were attending sesshin at one of the small family temples in Japan, Matsuoka, Sensei’s for instance, there are at least four of us who would have stinging shoulders at this point (from Kyosaku blows). I heard years ago that in some of the larger monasteries in Japan, some monks would consider it like a feather in their cap if they could learn to sleep in the lotus posture. Well, maybe it’s true, but it’s not a good idea. I find myself getting drowsy every now and then, and over the years I’ve found a few tricks to counteract that.

How can we learn to be awake all during our day, if we can’t stay awake during zazen? The pains we struggle with, or pain in general is an ally; very useful in maintaining alertness. We’re drifting away, eyes close, and all those fleeting thoughts become pictures and powerful images; we tend to start dreaming.... The only way to stay awake is to keep the eyes open. But still we can lose our focus and drift off, even with the eyes open. May I suggest, if you feel this happening, if you’re alert enough to be aware of drowsiness, open your eyes WIDE, look up instead of down, use that stimulation of the senses to revive your zazen. When you are comfortable you generally slouch a little, slump a little; the strength goes out of your spine. STRETCH UP, push up the ceiling with the top of your head, and pull the chin back. Straighten up every bit of the spine that you can. Stretching upward helps to be alert, it encourages the strong flow of Ki through the body; it strengthens and invigorates us. Keep a mental eye on your thumbs, touching lightly together at the tips, forming a perfect oval between the thumbs and fingers and palms of your hands. If you cannot feel your thumbs touching, if they collapse and fall apart, you’re getting drowsy. If you have physical tension somewhere, or mental tension in your body, your thumb tips will press together and steeple upward in a pint opposite the palms of your hands. But right now we’re not so concerned with tension, just keep the oval a perfect shape. There is a lens in your hands that is focusing the energy which is flowing into the body at tanden. When your focus drifts away from tanden, you may be drowsy or distracted; BRIEFLY tighten up the muscles in the lower abdomen, pointing directly to tanden, just below the navel, for one breath. You don’t want to create tension so relax that as soon as you attention has returned to tanden.

There is a story of a monk, who could meditate for hours without moving, and he would go into a trance and he would start hallucinating. He would see pleasant things and horrible things. Needless to say, they always distracted him from zazen. The only thing he could do to stop the hallucinations, even when he was awake they would continue, was to run and plunge himself into a cold mountain stream. The shock would wake him up completely, then he could return to his duties -– in the present moment.

Make a request for Kyosaku, it's not cold water, but the slap on your shoulders and that loud crack in your ear, will definitely wake you up and return you to the present moment; to this very instant where you are alive.

Kongo Roshi told me that when he was practicing at home, he always practiced zazen before doing his Chinese calligraphy to get into the right state of mind, and sometimes he would be drowsy, or distracted, drowsiness mostly. His solution was to get up and run around his apartment backwards; go just as fast as he could in reverse. What ever it takes, friends -– keep yourself awake.

I heard a story of a famous Zen Master who was visiting America, and was asked to speak at a temple. They sold tickets for a public lecture. This very famous man was going to come out and speak, and they had an opening ceremony, someone came out and talked for a while to introduce him. When he was introduced he came out in his best Robes and golden kesa, walking with a staff. He approached the podium and struck it with his staff, which produced a loud crack, and SHOUTED, "WAKE UP!" and left the stage. (Laughing) I’m certain hardly anyone got the point, but somebody did, or we wouldn’t have the story. And he definitely made a point. Our whole purpose in doing this (zazen) is to be more awake during our lives than most people get to be. Dozing during zazen is just not going to work.

CRACK! (claps hands and shouts) WAKE UP!