Dharma Talk

You Think You Can’t Meditate…But You Can

April 1, 2020

Hosho Peter Coyote

Well, let me start with and introduction. I’m Peter Coyote, When you see me wearing this [holds out rakusu] I’m Hosho Peter Coyote. My Buddhist name is Hosho Jishi. It means Dharma Voice, Compassion Warrior. My teacher gave me that name at my ordination, years ago, when I sewed my first rakusu, and agreed to live by the Buddhist precepts and vows. Later when I became a priest, I sewed a black one, and now I have a brown one, because I’m transmitted—which means my teacher has liberated me from his authority, and given me the authority to ordain priests and teach independently.

Which is why we’re here.

After my transmission, I made a promise to myself to not teach publicly for five years. I wanted to settle in to that new identity and not make any foolish mistakes. During these particularly difficult pandemic times, a number of friends have prevailed on me to speak, suggesting I might be helpful. Today is the first experiment in reaching out to people online—people who may or may not be Buddhists—and to see if I can be of use.d

So, the purpose of this talk is going to be about meditation.

I’ve been practicing for almost 50 years. Ten or eleven years ago my teacher asked me to begin teaching. and I said, “Oh I can’t do that. You know what an idiot I am.” And he said, “There’ll be people behind you that you can help, and people in front of you to learn from.” So I began teaching within my sangha—the group of people practicing together—and at various other Buddhist groups across the country.

So, that is the spirit in which I’m talking today. There are people behind me I can hopefully help and people ahead of me that I can learn from. And I haven’t really done a lot of public teaching about Buddhism  because where I live in Sonoma County, you can swing a cat and hit a teacher. I thought, “there are plenty, there are enough.” For people who prefer to come to me personally for counseling, or to talk I prefer to do it as what we call a “dharma friend”, which means a peer. We remain on a horizontal plane with each other, instead of me being elevated as a teacher. Perhaps it’s more  like being an uncle or a pal you like to discuss things with.

I’m going to hit my little chime, which is how we open the dharma talks. And I’ll close this dharma talk with another chime and a three-sentence prayer. And I invite you join me with. So here goes.

[bell, a bow]

(My dog Chico barks in the background. )

My dog needs meditation, but never sits still.

So, meditating. What is it and what is it for?

The first thing which most people overlook, is for the body. So, let’s begin there.

While you listen to me, I’d like you to make a decision of how you are going to sit. If you want to sit on the floor, with your legs crossed, Indian style, fine. Put a pillow, [gesture some 4”-6” between thumb and forefinger], something firm under your butt that will raise your butt, tip your pelvis down [slanted hand at some 30 degrees], so you can keep the curve in the small of your back.

If you prefer a chair, move to the front edge of the chair. Don’t lean back against it. Sit up straight. One of the most important things is to feel rock solid and secure. If you need pillows under your feet so that the chair’s edge doesn’t cut off circulation, fine. If crossing your legs jacks your knees up in the air, shove little pillows under them for support. We use little support cushions all the time in the zendo when we sit. Because you want the body to be steady. You want it immobile.

So, once your hips are firmly planted on something – there’s no wiggling, no instability, then raise your head as if there was a string pulling it up top, straight up. No tension. And tip your chin just enough so you can feel the back of your neck lengthen. So, you’re pulling ears back to be in line with your shoulders.

That’s the posture. That’s a straight spine, that allows energy to run up and down the spine unimpeded, and it also stills and calms the body. Which is one of the big points of meditation. The posture is formal, for a reason. If you could sit any way you wanted, there’d be no way to measure how well you’re paying attention. Standards are there to help you.

We think of meditation as being just for the mind, but the mind doesn’t exist by itself. It exists in the body. And when we sit still, and diminish movement, we diminish input to the mind. With diminished imputs the mind gets to calm down and rest on its own.

So please pay good attention to this form. It’s important for a couple reasons.Zen is not laissez-faire—at least the training—and if you ever hope to train and discipline your mind/body you need to be strict with yourself.

I’m going to show you another form, which is called a mudra. And this is what Zen people do with our hands when we meditate. You place you dominant hand in your lap, and your non-dominant hand above it, palms up. You put the middle finger, second-joint knuckle in the corresponding place of the hand below it. Then you put your thumb tips together to make a nice soft circle. It should look like this. (I review this in the first several minutes of each video.) I should be able to pull a piece of paper between your thumbs.There may be all sorts of arcane explanations for every mudra you could possibly make, but the simplest way to think of it is as your attention gauge. If your thumbs separate, you know that your attention has lapsed. If the round circle collapses, it tells you that your attention has lapsed.And it is the same with your posture.

We do these forms, not because they are rules, or because a guy behind you will smack you with a stick but because having a common form is the only way for you to know how you are doing.If you don’t have a standard against which to measure, you can’t know. “Is my posture okay? Am I sitting right? Am I steady? Am I solid? Is my mudra in good shape?”

This is how we begin.

Once you are sitting upright and solid, relax your stomach. Just let it pouch out. Because that is where deep breaths are drawn from. When your stomach is pouched out, your diaphragm can drop all the wayl Your lungs can fill without restrictions.

Cast your eyes down, at about a 45 degree angle in front of you, let them go out of focus.We don’t close our eyes in zen practice. And the reasons are: we are not trying to leave the world and, it is too easy to fall asleep.

We’re in this world.

Keeping your eyes open,will help you stay alert. And you can regulate how alert you are by how open you make your eyes. If you find your eyes are at half-cast, and you are starting to drift off into dreams, just open them up more. That will wake you up and help you.

So, a quick posture review. Hips are steady, back is straight, chin is tucked a little bit, eyes are down 45 degrees.Now your breathing is just natural. And, what we do in zen often for many years – it’s not a question of being a beginner or not – is we count our breaths. And this is the way to do it.

Your inhale takes care of itself. If you don’t inhale, that means you are dead.Once you have inhaled, release your exhale very gently through your nsostrils, and put all your attention into feeling that stream of air coming out past the edges of your nostril. The feeling is as if you are tenderly releasing a breath out into the world. And as you do that, count to yourself, “one” – all the way through that breath. That breath is “one”. It is not “one on the way to two.” It is just one. In the same way, the next breath will be just two.

That breath is what is binding you to the present moment. When your attention is fixed on that breath, you cannot get “more present”. You are not drifting off into daydreams and fantasies, So, the second exhale is “two”. Just “two”. You are not on your way to “three”. You are just “two”. Right now. This very breath.       

And if you let every breath pass out of your nose, taking really good care of it, by the end of a 20 minute meditation, or a 30 minute meditation, or even 10 minute meditation, you’ll feel rested and refreshed.

In this way, you count up to 10. And then you start over. Most people will never make it to 10. It’s okay. It’s important to say that when you make a mistake, don’t berate yourself. You don’t judge yourself as faulty. I once said to my teacher, “My zazen was perfect today! I counted to 10 every time!” And he looked at me like I was an idiot and said, “That’s not the point.”

By staying focused on your breath, and returning to it, when you get distracted – you will get distracted, and one of the first things you’ll learn is how busy your mind actually is. But that is okay. That’s your mind. That is your life, in this moment. That’s not a problem.  Your worrying about it, or getting hung up in what it could mean and other ideas…that could be a problem.

Your mind will slow down, on its own. I promise you. If you sit still. If you don’t scratch and fidget and keep adjusting yourself. If you just plant your hips, straighten your spine, tuck your chin, relax your stomach, keep that little mudra, and breathe – your mind will slow down.

It may not slow down today, but I promise you by the end of a month, if you do this every day, you will find a growing sense of internal spaciousness, a sense of openness. And you will find that you are a little less disturbed by the thoughts that you do have.  One day, every one of our lives is going to end with an exhale, so in a way, we are practicing to leave this life gracefully and generously.You could say we are practicing for that moment. We’re practicing calmness, and focus, and presence, for that moment. We don’t have to worry about the inhale. The body will inhale. If it does, we can rejoice that we are alive. And keep going. We must be doing something right.

That’s sitting zazen. Or shikantaza—just sitting—-no mantras, no visualizations, just body/mind undistracted from its own reality.

You are training the mind like you train a puppy. You are training the body like you are training a puppy. To resist impulses. To resist fidgets. To stay concentrated and focused. You are teaching “I” to heel and loosen its attachment to dominance and always being in control.

By putting your attention on your posture, your breath, and your mudra, you are actually sequestering a certain amount of awareness so that your mind can’t seize it and run away with you. For instance, there’s a huge difference between getting locked into a thought where you are saying to yourself, “Jeez, if that guy ever talks to me that way again, I’ll slap him into tomorrow!” That’s being hooked by a thought.

But if your attention is sequestered on your posture, and your breath, and your spine, you have a little perch that you can sit on to watch those thoughts, and you can become aware, of them, without be carried away by them.  “Wow, I’m really angry. Where in my body is that anger operating? What part of that little fantasy triggered me? What set me off?”

And we all know how close to impulse we’re bound. Someone cuts us off in the car, and we flip them “the bird”. We don’t stop to consider how close that impulse is to pulling a trigger. The impulse is no more than that. So, one of the first things we learn as Buddhists, and we learn to accept by sitting intimately with our minds every day, is that we are human beings. And every [each] thing that any human being can think of, feel, want, hate – can blow through our minds.

And if we know that, we can be on guard. We can stay sequestered. And we can watch what comes up through our minds and decide, “Am I going to let that sentence out through my teeth? Am I going to act on that impulse? Or am I not?”

And all of a sudden, you are in the driver’s seat.  It doesn’t matter what your mind does or where it goes.  It doesn’t matter what you’re thinking. The awareness that’s observing awareness is like you in a movie theatre. The awareness is a movie screen. The thoughts that are running across it are a movie. (in your mind, they are awareness as well.) You don’t have any trouble watching a movie.You can watch a movie because you know it is a projection, and some part of you goes, “Oh yeah, this is a projection.” Well, your thoughts, impulses, sensations are no different.

By attending to your posture, by attending to your breath, by attending to this mudra, you train the body to stay in this present moment, and then you have a basis from which to watch your thoughts.

Many of you may have read Michael Pollen –  or know him normally as a food writer, a very brilliant guy – he recently wrote a book called Change Your Mind about the renewed interest in the therapeutic use psychedelics. In that book, he pointed out something that there’s a part of the brain called the “default mode network”. The default mode network. This where your brain resides “on default”, automatically. And what that network actually does is stops us from being high.

Obviously, if our ancestors were so fascinated by the beauty of every butterfly and flower, they could easily be distracted and eaten.

So,evolution has created a kind of governor on the brain. The governor keeps us locked into what our cultural definition of our universe is. We know all the names, and that naming saves us a lot of energy. Once I say “tree”, I don’t actually have to experience every tree again in its fullness, uniqueness and variety. In all its interconnections. I don’t have to do it. I know it’s a tree, and I can get on with what I am doing next.

The default mode network switches off when you take psychedelics. And when you meditate. When that occurs the brain is allowed to make many new and unusual connections. You are going to submerge into a larger, formless kind of awareness. It is not something “you” do. It’s something that happens when deeply and fully relax.  Think about that.

If you come to meditation because you want something; if you come with an idea of “you-as-a-you-are” over here  and the state-you-imagine-enlightenment-to-be” over there (holding up another finger)  it is very difficult to bring them together. If I come to my cushion wanting to be enlightened, I have an idea of myself over here, and I have enlightenment over here I’m creating the dualism I’d like to resolve.

Zazen is not about you, your small mind. You don’t sit zazen. Zazen sits zazen. The best thing you can do, and the reason we have these forms, and the reason they seem a little strict to many people, is because they are extremely helpful in keeping us still, and focused, and ready to relax. Deeply relax. And when we relax, it relaxes  – that little self that frets us and worries about us so much relaxes. And when it relaxes, we merge into Big Mind which has been there all along, outside the constructed perimeters of our small-mind.  It’s like imagining the back of your head opening onto infinity.

So, this is a serial progression. The more you do this, the better you get at it. You should try to do it every day. You should try to resist “not-wanting-to” because that’s your old habitual self intervening and coming up with rational reasons not to change.  You’ll want to try to do it at the same time every day. It doesn’t matter if you do it in the morning or at night. I like to get up a half hour earlier and sit before I’ve begun my day, so I have taken care of myself first.If you don’t think you can do 20 minutes, or 25 minutes, take a cookie timer and set it for 5 minutes. If you can do five, you can do six tomorrow. Keep going until you get to 25,30, or 40 minute periods.

There’s a wonderful little app I use when I travel. I don’t know if it’s available on an Android phone, but I know it is on an iPhone, and it’s called “Insight Timer”. It’s free. And you download it and it’s got 7 or 8 different chimes that you can choose among to start your meditating session. You can set the duration; you can see how many people in the world are meditating – it will keep track of how often you do it. It’s an invaluable little tool.

The chime tells us that we are in a sacred space. This little sound (bell chimes). And everybody who hears that little sound (Chico barks) except my dog, who thinks it’s the doorbell, everybody who hears that is in the same space.

If I get enough feedback indicating that people find this useful I’ll give another Dharma talk next week. I don’t think it needs to be longer than this. Anyone who wants to ask me a question can just send me a note on Facebook, or you can write to me at my email sfzencoyote@gmail.com . I’m happy to talk about meditation.

I don’t want to discuss difficult personal problems on email. But if you want to find a way and time to talk to me by phone or Facetime, that can be arranged.

I’m going to end with this little prayer, which you are invited to say along with me. It’s three lines. We say,

May all beings be filled with loving-kindness.

May all beings be free from suffering.

May all beings be happy and at peace.

And I do that with this chime. {repeats three times. Chico chirps in on the second bell – Chico, you too.)

I hope you have found this useful. Please let me know if you did. If you did, “like” it and “share” it.  Thank you very much.