Our intent to live a life of benefit to other living beings is often hindered by the anxieties that accompany a mind still not fully settled. Swept along by circumstances, we generate endless thoughts of good and evil, gain and loss, love and hate. This is the nature of samsara - our ordinary existence marked by an unending flow of dualistic thoughts in a mind out of contact with its own essence. The swirl of thoughts pulls us one way and then another, exhausting both body and mind. With our attention constantly directed toward outside matters, we’re left inwardly anxious and depleted.

It is by opening ourselves to our innate compassion, this urge to awaken all beings both good and evil, that the constant stream of delusive thoughts at the source of our anxiety comes to an end. However, this opening cannot be attained through mere conceptual thinking, but must be fostered through the practice of zazen. 

Bodhidharma described the practice of zazen as follows: “Outwardly cease all attachments; inwardly grasp not with the mind. When your mind is like a wall you will enter the Way.” In other words, let go of all concerns with outside distractions and stop troubling yourself with inner worries that do nothing but generate one agitated thought after another. Turn the mind’s eye inward, integrate inside and outside, unify body and spirit, and in this state nourish the inner energy that is the “merit of the Buddha.” This cultivation is not simply mental, but rather a feet-on-the-ground, all-inclusive accumulation of this vital inner force.

When I instruct people in zazen I often compare the process to inflating a balloon. Without allowing your attention be drawn away either by external things or internal thoughts, let your entire awareness rest your exhalations, as it is primarily through the exhalations that our inner energy settles in the lower abdomen. Let each and every breath out as far as it will go, then inhale naturally, remaining fully open to and aware of the breath as it shifts from exhalation to inhalation and then from inhalation back to exhalation again. Let no gaps appear in your attention. This is the method of zazen. Full attention is essential, but at the same time it is important to avoid all tension and strain, particularly in the upper body. Strain, which results from attempts to forcibly induce certain states of mind, prevents the natural accumulation of vital force in the lower body beneath the navel. In zazen we must be deeply aware of the natural flow of the body.

With the settling of the body, the breathing, and the mind comes a more fully open awareness. Continuing in this way, the inner energy gradually accumulates, just like a balloon slowly inflating. Finally the lower abdomen feels fully expanded, and the entire body, to the very pores of the skin, is infused with vital energy. 
This upwelling vitality steadily replaces any melancholy brought on by our various anxieties, and fills us with a sense of hope and possibility. This is the profound flavor of zazen. To taste it we must remain utterly simple and open—the moment we deliberately try to create it, it is gone. If, however, we carefully attend to each and every breath then our consciousness naturally ripens. Our innate desire to contribute to the wellbeing of society is stimulated, and we’re filled with the energy to accomplish this. Our true aspiration is not for personal happiness but for the liberation of all humankind.

The actual practice of zazen requires some getting used to, both physically and mentally. One can’t expect the zazen of a person who is just starting meditation to be the same as that of someone proficient in the training. At first the body resists, particularly in people with no experience of the zazen posture. There is tightness and strain in the breathing, too, and wandering thoughts fill the mind. Because of this many beginners get discouraged and quit. Those who persevere, however, gradually settle into the practice. They find from experience that physical pain causes no injuries and is not something to get overly concerned about as long as one sits correctly. The breath gradually relaxes and opens, and the mind, so scattered and unruly at the start, becomes more still and quiet. It’s like training a dog. At first the dog is still unmanageable, running about and sticking its nose into every trash can it sees, so you leash it to keep it under control. Gradually the dog settles down and becomes accustomed to staying close to its master, until in the end it walks calmly by his or her side even when unleashed. 

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