just sitting

On Just Sitting

Just Sit­ting — a way of doing med­i­ta­tion that needs noth­ing. NO count­ing breaths, no mantras. Just sitting. 

Finding Your Flexibility
Find­ing Your Flexibility

Want more help with things like deal­ing with stress, learn­ing to com­bat pain nat­u­ral­ly, med­i­ta­tion and Qi Gong? Check out our Book / Videos pack­et, Find­ing Your Flex­i­bil­i­ty. It’s a pdf guide, and a group of online videos.

Rather than Just Sitting, our upbringing and nature cause us to complicate our lives.

One way we do this is to assume that the stuff of life is here for us–per­son­al­ly. Rather than see­ing our­selves as a part of some­thing, we see every­thing as here for us to play with. So, for exam­ple, some­thing sim­ple (like med­i­ta­tion,) is declared to have a “point,” and that point is to be of ser­vice to me.

If you want to see this, try Googling “med­i­ta­tion.” What you’ll see is a myr­i­ad of orga­ni­za­tions, ideas, and “rea­sons for med­i­tat­ing.” A sim­ple thing has become what is described in the Tao as “the 10,000 things.”

Thanks to the Mind­ful­ness move­ment, med­i­ta­tion has become a “tool” designed to aid diges­tion, reduce stress, cure pho­bias, and fix what ails you. This fits with the decid­ed­ly west­ern notion that what we do ought to have a “goal.”

Which is not to make goals wrong. It’s to say that the begin­ning of wis­dom is to be able to see that there is some­thing else going on.

We are trained to become iden­ti­fied with the sto­ry we tell our­selves, and that in turn leads to us see­ing every­thing through the lens of “me.” How does this serve me? What will I get out of it? How can I use this to my advantage?

And beneath this, almost unnoticed, is the energy in which we swim

The Taoists talk about it as an ener­gy field from which “things” (includ­ing us!) arise. Ener­gy becomes manifest–it is con­tained in the thing that aris­es. In the Tao te Ching, the writer uses a cup as an example:

XI (trans. Ted Wrigley)

We fire clay to make a cup,
But we use the emp­ty space in the center
We build walls to make a room,
But we use the emp­ty space they surround
We form a wheel to spin,
But we need the axle hole to use it

The point:
Hav­ing some­thing is good only to the extent
That it makes noth­ing­ness usable. 

Here’s part of the intro­duc­to­ry section:

I (trans. Ted Wrigley)

A path is just a path, a name is just a name
What is, is, with­out sense or differentiation
And only divides itself into things [often trans. ‘the 10,000 things’–WCA] when we give names.

For­get the names of things and you sense fit and flow
Use their names and you see unique­ness, significance
Each per­spec­tive is as true as the other.

(For more on the Tao, see my book, Half Asleep in the Bud­dha Hall)

The assign­ing of names is a human activ­i­ty. The names aren’t real­ly a prob­lem; that comes with the assign­ing of cat­e­gories: good / bad, for example.

The Tao tells us that names are one side of a coin, and Tao (the under­ly­ing still­ness) is the oth­er. Focus exclu­sive­ly on one, and it‘s hard to see the other.

Why we meditate

With­out get­ting into “right,” one might choose to use med­i­ta­tion as a way to shift gears enough to see the under­ly­ing nature of being. That was cer­tain­ly med­i­ta­tion’s orig­i­nal “face.”

Things have changed.

At the start of this arti­cle, I men­tioned how many dif­fer­ent types, and places, and “rea­sons for” med­i­ta­tion there are, and it wouldn’t be hard for me to “like” some, and “dis­like” oth­er types, or styles.

That there are many types is nei­ther good nor bad. It just is. Find­ing the need to judge one over the oth­er, on the oth­er hand, kind of takes us away from the essence.

For sev­er­al years Dar­bel­la and I stud­ied a fam­i­ly style of Tai Chi, and enjoyed it. Then we moved, and decid­ed it was too far to dri­ve to get to the class. A while lat­er we found anoth­er school, this one an insti­tu­tion­al­ized brand of Tai Chi that shall remain nameless.

pissed off

We went, and learned their short set of moves, which was dif­fer­ent from what we knew (the order of the moves) and slight­ly dif­fer­ent regard­ing the moves them­selves. I found myself occa­sion­al­ly revert­ing back to what I knew, and this seemed to annoy the wife of the guy teach­ing us.

Even­tu­al­ly, she stormed up to me and demand­ed to know what I was doing there, and that I “…wasn’t allowed to teach this style, and I’m watch­ing you!” All this judge­ment, both over style and substance.

Weird, as all I was doing was moving my hands a bit differently from what she was used to

This would be the “good / bad” thing, writ large. She’d made some rather strange spec­u­la­tions about me and my motives, and then just clob­bered me with them. Labels get in the way.


Shikan­taza is a Japan­ese word that is pop­u­lar in Soto Zen (a school of Zen.) It rough­ly trans­lates as “only just pre­cise­ly sit­ting.” Or, as I put it, “just sit­ting.” In this school of thought, just sit­ting is equiv­a­lent to wak­ing up.

In oth­er Zen schools, zazen (med­i­ta­tion) might be taught using props or tech­niques — chant­i­ng, count­ing breaths, doing mudras (hand posi­tions.) In Mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion, goals are stressed, or bet­ter, outcomes–like low­er blood pres­sure, for exam­ple. In these cas­es, med­i­ta­tion is a tool to get some­place else.

This is done for a reason

Because of our ten­den­cy to both label and judge, it’s easy to get con­fused when our minds don’t do what we think they ought to do. For exam­ple, many think that the point of med­i­ta­tion is to qui­et the mind. And when they dis­cov­er how dif­fi­cult that is, well, “I just can’t med­i­tate,” or “I must be doing some­thing wrong” pops to the fore.

So, the oth­er med­i­ta­tion schools came up with tech­niques to dis­tract the mind–by giv­ing the mind some­thing to do, like count­ing breaths, or what­ev­er. They real­ized that, with­out a tar­get, the mind is going to wan­der, and obsess, and sto­ry-tell, and this could lead to a not so good experience.

To toss a bit of Tao into the mix, though, wandering is what the mind does, (it is the nature of mind) so therefore, fighting it with techniques is likely doomed to failure.

Shikan­taza sug­gests an alter­na­tive (not right or bet­ter) and that is just sit­ting. And observe. To see the nature of mind.


And that nature is rest­less, at least to begin. It’s called mon­key-mind, and if you’ve seen mon­keys in the wild, you’ll know that they often are rest­less, and mov­ing from branch to branch.

With shikan­taza, you sit, and you watch your mind. You may have an image of clouds mov­ing across the sky. A thought aris­es, and, unim­ped­ed, will drift across your mind like a cloud. To be fol­lowed by another.

A dif­fi­cul­ty aris­es when we latch on to a par­tic­u­lar thought. The sto­ry we tell our­selves about the thought takes over, and we flesh it out, play­ing all the roles, hav­ing a dia­logue, a fight, what­ev­er. This is monkey-mind.

Now, because we were yelled at as kids for being “bad,” the norm is to yell at our­selves for get­ting dis­tract­ed. Then we get to have anoth­er inter­nal fight, and declare our­selves inca­pable of sit­ting qui­et­ly. Maybe I should count breaths!

But nothing works, because this is the nature of mind.

So, what to do?

Notice. Let the thought go. Have a (non-count­ed) breath, and watch. And anoth­er thought will arise, and this time, maybe I can just watch it drift by.

This is the truth of Shikan­taza. Mind is as it is, and resist­ing leads nowhere, so if I can just be with what is, I can be in the flow.

I can touch the Tao. The base. The thing that underlies the 10,000 things.

In glimpses, we we see what is there, in that dark silence. We see the noth­ing that makes up all things, and per­haps we see it for as long as a sec­ond or two. In that sec­ond or two, we are awake.

Bringing Just Sitting out into the world

just sitting

Med­i­ta­tion is a tool for wak­ing up, but it would be a pret­ty lame one if it only worked on a cushion.

The oth­er day I was doing some wiring. My first dis­cov­ery was that the per­son who had installed a light had done a dan­ger­ous job, and I start­ed off on an inter­nal and exter­nal rant.

Then, I real­ized that this was not help­ful, so I had a breath, took apart the “bad” wiring, and replaced it.

Over the next hour, I found myself focussed on the myr­i­ad of wires; con­nect­ing, pulling cable, cut­ting, strip­ping (the wire, not me.)

Very Zen.

Because I was doing what I was doing, and only that. Oh, I was talk­ing a bit too, but most­ly focussed on the nec­es­sary pat­terns of connection.

Zen wiring.

Just sit. Find the time to watch the judge­ments and mon­key-mind. Breathe. Let it go, just for a minute. Or a sec­ond. and see if you can see the still­ness that under­lies everything.

Not one bet­ter, one worse. Just to see it all, and be it all, with­out need­ing to hold on to any of it.

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