Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Cushion Testing, Cobwebs & Concentration

Cobwebs and Concentration

My "Middle Way" search to managing back pain while sitting zazen is to find 2 sitting positions I can move between to balance the stresses.

I've already reviewed my seiza bench which still proves to be the most comfortable.  Now I'm looking for a cushion solution that allows me to shift from kneeling to a cross-legged position.

Currently I'm testing out a cushion I purchased from the Zen Mountain Monastery (Dharma Communications The Monastery Store.)  I've been using it for about a week testing different leg positions.  Now I'm adjusting the height by removing some of the buckwheat shells.  I'll do the full review next week.

The one thing I will say already is that I LOVE their zabuton.  It is very comfortable; in fact, I'd say it is definitely the most comfortable zabuton I have ever used.  I'll describe why with the full cushion review.

I sit in my study.  On the window shelf I have a number of items and a cobweb has formed between 2 of them.  Today's concentration was on the cobweb.  It would float up and down with wind currents. Small specks of dust continue to collect on the strand breaking up the light.  The surface is rough.

We sat together.

Floating cobweb.  Thoughts drifting off...awareness...cobweb...drifting off...awareness...cobweb . cobweb . cobweb ... drifting off ... cobweb.

Friendly bows _/|\_

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Unintended Consequences

My Zen practice has been heavily based on the dharma teachings of Charlotte Joko Beck.

Her 2 books have been foundational to my study these last few years.

I have come to a point in practice where I was looking for a logical next step. That drove me to start looking at Joko's lineage to see who her dharma heirs were as a potential teaching source.

I was shocked to find that Joko had revoked transmission to Ezra Bayda and Elizabeth Hamilton and disassociated herself from the San Diego Zen Center.

I have quite enjoyed Ezra's work. He has some great Zen books (which I will review over time.)

Sitting zazen today my mind kept coming back to the question about why this hit me so hard. As I sat I realized that I had linked message and messenger and had developed a degree of awe and attachment with Joko because of the clarity with which she communicated the Zen message.

I don't know any details of the circumstances. From a distance it appears that Joko became senile in her final years. The ultimate demonstration of impermanence.

This was my reminder. Our teachers are the fingers pointing the way; they are not the Way.

I bow to your final teaching Joko...

Friendly bows to all, _/|\_

Friday, January 25, 2013

Review of My Meditation Bench

For the first 2 years of meditation I only used a cushion.

I tried a bench once and instantly got cramps in my feet.

Intense back pain was my motivation to give benches another shot and I'm really glad I did.  Now I prefer benches to cushions; however, I use both to shift the stresses more evenly across my body.

Top View of Meditation Bench
Top View of Meditation Bench
I discovered the foot cramps disappeared relatively quickly and the bench back support was superior to cushions.  Many people also find the bench easier on your knees.  My knees share minor screams of discomfort at about the 30 minute point whether I'm using a bench or a cushion.  Thank goodness for the bell and walking meditation time!

I did the standard internet research on benches and chose the "Deluxe Bamboo Meditation & Yoga Bench" sold through Amazon by Bean Products.

This bench is a folding style bench with rounded feet and flat seat.  I chose a folding model to make it easy to take with me to sangha sits or sesshins.  It is also a lot easier to store in my home study after my morning sit and I loved the bamboo.

Folding Meditation Bench Feet and Legs
Folding Meditation Bench Feet
The legs are approximately 6.25 inches tall and the seat is .75 inches thick so that the sitting height is approximately 7 inches.  This varies slightly based on the angle you choose.

I also put an incredibly tacky orange cushion on top of the bench that probably adds another 2 inches after compression.  I found this pillow at Goodwill and have been using it pretty much from the start of my Zen practice so it has some sentimental value (attachment?).  My dogs have a similar feeling based on their desire to chew and drool on it.  I have been designing a custom cushion that I plan to make at some point that will replace the pillow.

Tacky Orange Pillow
Tacky Orange Pillow
On opening the package I loved the bamboo was simple and beautiful.  However, assembly details and general workmanship were poor.  One of the legs came with a lot of dark scuffing and the feet weren't positioned symmetrically on the bottom (see photo.)

Poor leg alignment
The first time I took the bench to a sangha sit both of the hinge pins fell out.

However, sitting on this bench was a pleasure.  I quickly learned how to adjust the angle so that I can sit incredibly comfortably for an hour.  

  1. I kneel on the zabuton with my feet just over the edge so that the top of my foot is touching the edge of the zabuton 
  2. Then I place the bench over my legs extending and spreading the feet  
  3. Next I grab my tacky orange pillow and place it on top of the bench aligning the front of the pillow with the front of the bench  
  4. Then I grab each side of the bench with my hands and tilt it forward so that the front of the foot is tilted to the maximum forward position
  5. Finally I place my weight (bum) on the cushion and settle back to a comfortable angle
This has definitely been the most comfortable sitting position I have found.
Front Meditation Bench View
Front Meditation Bench View
Back Meditation Bench View
Back Meditation Bench View
Profile Meditation Bench View
Profile Meditation Bench View
To fix the hinge pins I went to my local hardware store and bought the cheapest beeswax toilet seal ring they sold.  Then I took some beeswax and crammed it into the hinges and replaced the hinge pins.  The beeswax provides the perfect amount of friction to keep the hinge pins in place and also lubricates the hinges.

The other modification I made was the addition of a felt to the end of each leg so that it didn't create a loud clap when the legs closed.

I would definitely buy this bench again, even with the required changes/modifications.  I have tried a lot of different benches at our sangha and a monastery and this bench proved the most comfortable for my needs and shape.

Friendly bows, _/|\_

Monday, January 21, 2013

How to Select a Meditation Bench or Seiza Bench

Since I currently use a meditation bench I'll start discussing benches and then cover cushions in a future post.

There are 5 main meditation bench design elements.  Each of these elements has many ways of being expressed.

  1. Seat Design - posture is the most critical element in picking your meditation support.  You want a bench to support a position that allows your body to take a natural and erect position that can be maintained for extended sitting.  Experiment with different designs until you find one that is a good match for your body.
    1. Flat Bench Seat - many benches come with flat bum support.  Simple and straight forward.  This design becomes uncomfortable for me with extended sitting.
    2. Flat Meditation Bench Seat
    3. Angle Bench Seat - these benches typically have about 1-2 inches of elevation added to the rear of the bench.  This helps insure a slight curve on the lower back and I find these to be more comfortable than the Flat Bench Seat design.
    4. Angled Meditation Bench Seat
    5. Curved Bench Seat - these seats are very similar to the Angle Bench seat but provide a shape that wraps more around your bum.  If the curve is a good match to your curve I suspect these can be quite comfortable.  I haven't found one that matches me yet.
    6. Curved Meditation Bench Seat
  2. Leg Height - most benches provide about 7.5 (+/- 1) inches of elevation.  More elevation is typically helpful if you are less flexible.  One thing to keep in mind is that you need enough elevation to accommodate your legs and feet.  Most benches assume an average build so you might need a special or custom bench if you are not average.  Test before you buy!
  3. Foot Design - don't overlook this design element; it can make a big difference.

    1. One Leg or Two Leg Designs - two leg designs tend to dominate.  I have seen pictures of some beautiful one leg designs but I have never used one so I can't provide a comparison.
    2. One Leg Design
    3. Flat Foot or Rounded Foot Designs - most benches have a flat foot on the bottom of the legs.  Some have a rounded design.  The bench I have has a rounded design that I quite like because I can find the angle that is best for my body.  I can also slightly shift angles for different sitting periods to ease muscle strain.  It takes some playing around to get comfortable with a rounded design but once you find your spot, aaaaahhhhhh.  If you have a Rounded Foot Design the bench is frequently "flat" because you create the angle by the angle you pick for sitting.
    4. Rounded Foot Design
  4. Fixed or Folding Design - the legs on a fixed design are rigidly attached to the seat and shown in pictures above.  The advantage is a very sturdy bench.  Legs on a Folding Design are attached with a hinge.  The legs swing down into position when sitting and swing flat against the seat when traveling or storing the seat.  I have a Folding Design.  I was concerned that it might not provide the solid support I need for sitting but this has not been a problem.  It does take a few times to get comfortable getting into sitting position.
  5. Folding Meditation Bench Seat
  6. Seat Cushion - some people like having a seat cushion on top of their bench.  This provides a little additional height and some cushioning for the bum.  I am currently using a small, tacky throw pillow but plan to make a custom cushion eventually.
  7. Meditation Bench Cushion
In a future post I will show the bench I chose for my sitting and show how I use it and provide a full bench review.  If you make benches and would like me to review your bench please let me know and we can make arrangements.  I would test it for a week of daily sitting before writing the review.  I offer this service to the meditation community because finding the right bench made such a huge difference in my sitting.

The one thing that I didn't mention is style.  Some meditation benches are beautiful works of art; others are functional 2x4's hammered together.  I greatly appreciate the aesthetics and love the bamboo used in my bench but deep sitting is deep sitting.

(Also click here to see my post on How to Select a Meditation Cushion.)

Friendly bows, _/|\_

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Zazen (sitting) Posture

When doing zazen there are 4 main elements of posture to pay attention to.

1) Starting with your head, I find the best approach to think of your head as a helium filled balloon trying to float lightly at the top of your spinal column.  Imagine it tugging up slightly to keep your spine straight.

2) Your spine should be straight - meaning not leaning to the left or right side.

3) Your spine should also maintain a slight curve in the lower back and your stomach should be relaxed and able push out easily on the in-breath.

4) Now we come to the legs. This is where things get tricky. Your legs provide the base for sitting. As you can imagine a good base is critical to sitting in a healthy fashion with the least discomfort. This is also where there are lots of options (and opinions.)  The main thing I suggest is experiment, experiment, experiment. Find the position that is right for your body.

The Lotus Position is the traditional position. If you are young and/or flexible this can probably work for you just fine. This position consists of resting each foot on the thigh of the opposite leg. It is a very stable position but I don't have the flexibility to do it.

The Half Lotus Position is similar. This position tucks one leg on the ground and the top leg rests the foot on the thigh of the opposite leg. I can do this position at 59 but after half an hour it becomes problematic.

You can sit with your legs resting flat on the ground and pulled close to your body. This works well for many people.

You can sit with your legs crossed; however, this tends to raise your knees off the ground which is not good for extended sitting.  You always want your knees resting on the ground or supported in some fashion.

Profile view showing correct elevation of sitting position
Click Image to enlarge
No matter what position you find most comfortable for your legs it is important to imagine a triangle that is formed from your pelvis down to each knee. The top of the triangle (your pelvis) should be elevated approximately 6.5-8.5 inches above your knees. Typically the more flexible you are the lower the required elevation. The less flexible you are the more benefit you get from additional elevation.

Elevation is typically provided by either a cushion (zafu) or a meditation bench (seiza bench.) Cushions and benches will be covered in future posts.

In addition to a cushion or bench, sitting meditation is typically done on a mat called a zabuton that provides cushioning for the legs and knees.

Friendly Bows, _/|\_

Thursday, January 17, 2013

2nd Back Injury

Well technically it's not a back injury and also this happened before the "1st" back injury.

Interception (click to enlarge)
I grew up in Texas and loved football as a kid.  I was athletic and had lots of energy to burn.  I joined our school football team in 3rd grade; the youngest grade that you could play organized football.  During a game in 5th grade I intercepted a pass and was instantly tackled by 356 players from the other team.  At least, that's how it felt.

The adrenaline rush was so high that I didn't realize until the middle of the night that I was injured.  Evidently I broke my collar bone.

I also grew up in a Christian Science family so doctors were taboo.  My Dad, Mom and I prayed for a healing.  Sure enough my shoulder got better.  I could even sleep on my right side after several years.

Right Shoulder 1.5" lower
The bones healed at a strange angle that resulted in my right shoulder being about 1.5 inches lower than my left shoulder.  This has effected my posture, as you might imagine, and is particularly painful when doing things like doing dishes (convenient :) and zazen (inconvenient :(.

I share these injuries to give some background as to the root cause of my problems and why I have experimented with the specific solutions I'm going to share.

Each of our bodies is unique.  The main thing I would suggest to people with pain issues is to experiment until you find a solution that works for you.  Our bodies and mind should have a balance and harmony.  Macho isn't really Zen.  Ultimately, if done with commitment, zazen will present enough challenge to both body and mind.  Finding the position of least discomfort is both practical and supportive of your Zen practice.  This includes the chair and, for some with extreme physical issues, the bed.

Friendly bows _/|\_

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

1st Back Injury

I joined the Navy right out of high school.  Physically, I'm Mr. Average.  So the question is, what's the matter with this picture?
Click to enlarge
The really nice but much bigger guy that was assigned to move this oxygen tank with me trudged ahead but the ship took a tweak and so did my back.  I didn't know it at the time but I broke off a little tip of a wing-like structure of one vertebrae. This occurred in my middle back just below my right shoulder blade.

My body has done what bodies try to do which is adapt to the situation and keep going.  Most of the time this isn't an issue...except when practicing zazen or doing some exercises at the gym.

Friendly bows, _/|\_

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Back to Pain

There are 2 common pain spots for practitioners of zazen: the knees and the back.  In my case my back dominates the pain register.

I sit 7 days a week.  My actual sitting time is typically 40 minutes.  By the end of that time I'm feeling some back pain but it's not too bad.  However, extend things to an hour and boy does the pain equation change.

I've talked to a lot of Zen practitioners including Zen monks and I've gotten answers that tend to vary from the macho "sucking it up" approach to maybe you should try a nice comfortable chair.

My approach has been one of exploration and a search for the Middle Way:).  Given the importance of zazen in Zen practice I have always been surprised at how little basic instruction is given to the physical posture.  It tends to get addressed briefly and then there is a quick transition to the breathing and the awareness of incessant thinking.

I have found that my thinking relaxes the more I can find an acceptable position.  It is hard to imagine extended sitting ever being pain-free but the goal of my exploration was to move the pain from a 12 on a scale of 1-10 to somewhere in the 3 to 5 range.

I have had 2 injuries that are clear contributors to my back pain problem.  In the next few blogs I'll describe my injuries and the different approaches, tips and tools I have found along the way to gain a balanced posture that supports my zazen.  If anyone has other techniques they have tried please share them.

Friendly bows, _/|\_

Monday, January 14, 2013

Giving Myself Permission to Sit

During this morning's zazen I found myself doing what I typically catch myself doing...planning the day, and analyzing what I got done yesterday.

Hmmm, interesting.  Why do I keep doing this?  Guilt!

I realized that I'm feeling guilty because "I'm not doing anything"...just sitting.  I have this need to feel like I'm accomplishing something in the traditional western sense of accomplishing something.

Exploring further, it becomes clear that I'm worried about what others will think about how I'm spending this time.  I'm worried that my wife or kids will be thinking I should be doing something more productive.  My body is tense from concern.

The funny part is I get up early to do my sit and my wife is still sleeping. Pretty silly how our small minds create unwarranted suffering.  Now I have a new awareness opportunity to look forward to.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Zazen is a Pain

Have you ever tried not moving for an extended period of time?

 It is very difficult to do.  Yep, don't wiggle, fidget, blink, name it.  Got an itch on your ear, cheek or nose?  Note it and leave it alone.  This is the physical constraint of zazen, or sitting meditation.

You might ask - Why would you do something like this?  If you sit for any length of time you start to realize that as you quiet your body you also quiet your mind.

However, this does lead to several practical considerations.  Ideally it's sort of like Lamaze...moving from pain to "some discomfort."  Over the next several blogs I will describe my journey through the land of pain and what I have done to move to some discomfort.  This is still an ongoing process but I have made some real progress.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Grabbing a handful of Spaghetti

Zen seems to be full of convoluted double speak.

Especially when you first start a Zen practice it's kind of like you are waiting for the secret handshake so that you can complete your initiation and start to understand what this mumbo-jumbo is all about. With patience and perseverance it does get easier to understand.

Really all of Zen can be boiled down to just one thing...being completely aware of what is happening right now - in this very moment. The problem is our minds are never satisfied with this. Especially if you have an "Oh look, a chicken!" ADHD brain like mine. You want to think about anything and everything but this very moment. Our minds will plan the future or mull over past events...worry, worry, worry. This is what Buddhists call "suffering" which is one of those key Buddhists terms you run into over and over.

Grabbing that handful of spaghetti refers to both unraveling these pesky Buddhist terms and the pesky business of keeping your awareness on just this very moment.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Where did the Wabi Sabi Penguin come from?

About a decade ago my wife and I opened an internet penguin retail shop.

Image of Pink Penugin Wabi Sabi T-Sirt
We sold everything penguin.  My journey into Zen started with a lot of pop Zen books where I ran into the wabi sabi concept.  One way to think of wabi sabi is as the appreciation and representation of impermanence in art and architecture.

I was way into appreciating impermanence at the time and I also enjoy Photoshop so I made the penguin design that is the blog logo.  Then I used this design to create different style shirts.

Recently we sold the business so that I could dedicate full-time to this lucrative blog instead but the shirts are still available if you click on the pink shirt.

I wish I could say there was a deeper meaning to the I achieved enlightenment during its creation but the truth is it was just fun to create and enlightenment, if it occurs at all, is a future event...but I'm not grasping (a little Zen humor.)

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

I Love Zazen

I'm a morning person.

A cup of coffee, a quiet house...the perfect setup for Zazen (meditative sitting).  Usually I'm up before my alarm because I really look forward to this this time.  I use my iPad with an app called Insight Timer that is beautifully set up for meditation.  It also supports the concept of friends and I have a group of fellow meditators all over the globe.

I also have this local Buddha buddy given to me by my wife.

A typical day starts with coffee, about half an hour of Dharma reading (Buddhist teachings) and about a 40 minute zazen sitting period.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Why the heck do Zen?

2010 was a tough year.

I had been working for more than 20 years at the same company and my job was on the line.  Panic!!!  As the sole income source for a family of 6 the pressure was pretty intense.  So I did what most people would do...I doubled down on the job.

This was also the tipping point that propelled me into Zen practice but in reality the ship had sailed years before I just didn't realize it.  Starting my Zen practice was like dealing with allergies.  The cumulative effect of all allergens determines if your body can handle them or not.  The job threat forced me to act.

My story is simple.  I got on the corporate train and tried to ride it.  20 years of exposure left me numb. I was going through the motions of life; not living.  The world was colorless and 2 dimensional.  No longer living and no longer safe in my work cocoon where should I turn or run?

I started by reaching for "pop" Zen books like "Zen in the Art of Archery."  They hinted at something potentially useful but I was still just smelling the warm chocolate chip cookies...not really tasting them.  Then I read Shunryu Suzuki's "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" and my true Zen practice started.