… after the fire a still small voice*


I’m somewhat amazed at the millions — maybe billions — of words written about Zen meditation. I’ve read a fraction of them and listened to some of the practice’s leading minds (Zoketsu Norman Fischer, for example, who is exceptional, and Dr. Dan Siegel’s more secular work on mindsight).

It’s somewhat ironic, because there seems to be this endless human need to use words to relate aspects of a non-linguistic experience that is best experienced much more simply by doing — which is precisely what many of the best texts recommend. I guess it’s much like the field of writing, and the amount of writing on how to do writing, when it’s best to sit down at the keyboard and just write.

With that caveat in mind, I’m going to add my own small contribution to the literature — small, certainly, but, I feel, important (… and aren’t they all? other writers might grumble).

I believe the following illustrates what’s meant by trying to achieve a state of “not thinking” during zazen.** Rather than this being the simple notion of having a completely inert, blank mind, it is uncovering a state where one’s mind is in motion, i.e., thinking, but is not inducing thought.

This is where the individual allows his or her thoughts to arise naturally, but doesn’t provoke thinking intentionally.

Putting it conversationally, don’t actively try to think. If it just happens, that’s OK, but don’t work at thinking. Thoughts may come of their own volition. Just let them.

I believe this is what Zen teachers mean when they talk about sitting without “expectation.” Expecting something helps drive thinking; it’s an active process, a wanting process, a doing process. In the odd realm of mind, expecting something to happen — thought, feeling, imagining — makes it happen.

Think of the process of thought like combustion in an engine (the mind). Active thinking is pushing the mind’s accelerator — it’s an intentional action. The engine should be left idling in neutral during meditation.

Unbidden thoughts are allowed. Not bidden thoughts.



* You’ll forgive me for using this title, because I think it’s cool even while it mischaracterizes slightly what I’m trying to communicate here. “Voice” invokes thoughts of some kind of language communication, and thus the intentional act of thinking that language requires, whereas the experience of zazen should be the reverse. However, in my interpretation, the “voice” is more a state of passive, non-judgmental awareness, or a communing with the true, Buddha self. I know, I know. I’m stretching the analogy to justify using this title. Bah.

** Central to Zen Buddhism is the practice of zazen, or sitting meditation. This is not about achieving some otherworldly trance state, or contemplation, but an attitude of wakeful awareness in which one observes in a detached fashion the workings of one’s mind. It’s not as easy as it sounds.

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