In talking about how Zen meditation (zazen) works, we talk about body (shin), breath (soku), and mind (shin—a different Chinese character from the other shin). There’s a phrase: choushin, chousoku, choushin. The chou in each is the same, and it means “to harmonize,” or “to tune,” or maybe “to put in order.” It can also just mean “to investigate,” but that’s just another aspect of harmonizing—imagine trying to match someone else’s pitch with your voice, moving between too high and too low until you land in the right spot. That’s the idea.
The important point is that this is a progression: body, then breath, then mind. More than that, each activates the next, so if you harmonize your body, then your breath will be in order, and then so will your mind. In other words, though we may imagine meditation to be an activity of the mind, this construct says it’s actually primarily about the body.
You may want to let that sink in for a minute. What does it mean for our definition of spirituality if what’s happening in the mind is a byproduct of what’s happening in the body and in the breath? That may be comfortable for some, but I’d guess that for most people, spirituality doesn’t include the body at all; if anything, the two are seen as opposites. So this may be a little jarring. But it also offers a kind of relief, a path for correction. In meditation, if you’re struggling with your mind, you don’t have to find the solution within your mind. Instead, you can go back a step and ask, “Well, how is my breathing?” Maybe your breathing doesn’t feel right either. So you shift your body.
How do we harmonize the body? Zen, traditionally, has been very clear: you sit up straight on a cushion or chair, with your hips above your knees, pelvis tilted slightly forward so that your back is held straight with minimal effort. You don’t want to lean back, but more than that, you don’t want to hold yourself upright with your abdominals, in a kind of sustained crunch—if you do that, then breathing becomes a chore.
If you have physical limitations or obstacles that make the specifics of this posture impossible, then you do your best, whatever that looks like. Just make your posture, whatever it is, intentional. It’s easier for me to find this posture now, thirty years in, than it was when I started. Your body develops a memory for it. Even then, I still have days when it eludes me, or when I need to shift this way and that, forward and back, until it sort of clicks into place. But has it ever been just right? Maybe once or twice. Every single thing that affects the body, from diet to stress to humidity to sleep, affects this simple act of sitting up straight. It’s new every day.
What does it mean for breath to be harmonized? We know what we want, I think: we want to breathe unconstrained, deeply, slowly, in a way that feels completely full and relaxed. That would be so nice. And we know how to breathe that way—we do it in our sleep all the time, so it should be easy. The funny thing is, when we sit down to meditate, suddenly breathing becomes difficult. We’re self-conscious about it. It seems hard, and in that wonderful moment when it’s easy, we notice that and start trying to keep it that good, and then it doesn’t feel natural anymore. So for breath to be “in order,” we can first let go of the fantasy of it feeling just right—some days it will and some days it won’t, and some of the factors involved are beyond our control. But in the same way that we shift back and forth to find the posture that feels natural, that isn’t lazy but doesn’t involve straining, we allow ourselves to settle into breathing that isn’t trying to control itself. Don’t try to breathe deeply, or to feel full, or to inhale and exhale some set number of times per minute (I know people who do this)—let breath be breath. Like everything in this practice, it’s simple, but it’s also really, really hard.
Which brings us to the mind. What does it mean to harmonize the mind?
I’m not going to say. That would be cruel—even a hint of an instruction about how we’re supposed to think or feel can infect our meditation for years, making it an ongoing struggle to imitate someone else’s experience. Instead, notice how you got here. Notice how it feels to investigate the posture, what’s it’s like when it seems to require less effort. Watch yourself inhale and exhale, see the dance between trying to control the breath and letting it be. Start there. See what falls into place.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Zen Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the ZNS Podcast.
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