I talked before about how sitting za-zen helps me to physically wake up. I can’t sit for very long before I go to sleep, because it wakes me up too much. So, I sit in the mornings – and I’m going to try to sit in the afternoons, when I have a few minutes. I just set up a reminder on my calendar to do it every day at 3 p.m., and we’ll see how that goes.
Now, waking myself up is fine. But in fact, for me, sitting za-zen is about more than that. It’s actually about training myself to choose what kind of experience I want to have — if I want to give in to fatigue and frustration, or if I want to dig down and find the resources to deal better with my situation. I am actually able to change my frame of mind in different circumstances — that’s what I do when I interact with certain types of people. I suffer from terrible dread in so many situations, but I “buck up” and decide I’m going to have a different experience that being full of dread and anxiety, and when I do that, it actually works. I forget about my fears and dive in… and almost always, the result is a good one
Sitting za-zen has given this to me. That’s what it’s about for me — choosing the experiences that I want to have.
It’s very much about learning to choose my reactions to situations… training myself to wake myself up as needed, or to calm myself down if necessary. Sitting with focus demands that I pay close, sustained attention to some very simple things — my breathing and my posture. It trains me to pay attention to how I’m feeling in my body, so my posture is always good. It also trains my attention on my breathing, as I count my breaths and make sure I am breathing at a constant rate. It trains me to note any ideas and thoughts that are flit-flitting through my head, which are taking my focus away from my breathing and my posture.
And it’s hard. It’s quite demanding. It’s so demanding, that it’s rare that I can count 17 full cycles of breath without some interference from thoughts and distractions. I do my best, but it is incredibly difficult at times, to just keep my attention trained on my posture and breathing. My posture is not typically za-zen — I can’t sit cross-legged, because it is too painful and I have back and knee problems, so I generally sit up in a chair. My breathing is steady and balanced — five slow breaths in, a slight pause, then five slow breaths out, followed by another slight pause. Many’s the time when I get to 7 full breath cycles, and then my mind starts to wander.
But after working with this for many years — on and off — I am doing much better about not losing track of the number of breaths, and I’m not as “absent” as I used to get, when I would sit and breathe.
It turns out that this kind of practice is incredibly good for the brain — it decreases the activity which is associated with falling asleep and actually wakes you up. So, contrary to a lot of beliefs that meditation is all about relaxing and chilling out, according to the Awakening Is Not A Metaphor study:
“… the result (of meditation) is not a calming in the direction of relaxation/sleep, but rather a move in the opposite direction: toward an increased alertness and vigilance that counteracts mental laxity and sleepiness.” (p. 6 of 18 in the pdf of the study)
The study talks in depth about it, listing a number of examples where meditation training of one kind or another improved alertness, reduced fatigue, and had positive after-effects for months after a single training session. From personal experience, I can testify that when I sit za-zen regularly, I feel better, I act better, and I’m able to handle what life throws at me, even in very challenging circumstances. I’m training myself to decide — for myself — what my reactions to life are going to be, and I’m reducing my overall reactivity. I’m teaching my brain to not just run in every different direction, following whatever shiny object it might find, and I’m training my mind to not chase after my brain when it starts acting like a monkey running off into the forest with my car keys.
This is such an important part of my TBI recovery — it really supports and strengthens my ability to choose for myself how I will behave, how I will think, how I will react. That choice can mean the difference between saying and doing things to others I will regret and not be able to take back, and keeping my relationships neutral and healthy. It can mean the difference between getting into hot water with the cops and getting let go with a warning, or getting sent to jail. It can mean the difference between becoming angry and letting it go, or letting the rage take hold of me to the point where I break something or hurt someone.
It literally can make all the difference between a temporary upheaval — a speed bump in the road of my life — and a semi-permanent deep-sh*t situation that I have to then manage and smooth over and fix, taking tons of time out of my regular life to fix what I’ve broken.
So, sitting za-zen is more than just a way to pass the time. It’s an important part of my everyday life, that helps me not only feel better, but also helps me act and overall function better. It wakes me up. Because I’m training my brain to wake up. And I’m teaching my mind to react the way IT wants to, not the way others expect or try to force it to.