Since around 1992, I have had a regular sitting practice.
It has been on-again, off-again, and there have been periods where I have had an almost semi-monastic life, rising early each morning to wash my face in cold water, then sit for half an hour before getting on with my day.
And then there have been periods where I have either reached an impasse, or I just got sick and tired of sitting, or I wanted to use that half hour for something else, and I did not sit at all for a long time.
Eventually, the pendulum has always swung back to sitting, and I am doing so again, after several months away from regular practice.
This is beneficial, I think, because it allows me to integrate what I learn while sitting into my everyday life, in very mundane and spectacularly unimpressive ways.
And I always come back again.
Now I am back again — with a purpose: to balance my Autonomic Nervous System. Gudo Wafu Nishijima roshi was a great advocate of zazen as a way to balance the autonomic nervous system (ANS). He talked about it to a zazen group in Brussels in 2002 – and the talk he gave can be found here: http://www.dogensangha.org/ans.htm
I have been studying the ANS for a number of years, and the more I learned about the activity of the sympathetic (fight-flight) action and parasympathetic (rest-digest) sides of the coin, the more clearly it seemed connected with zazen. So, reading what Nishijima roshi had to say about it, was very validating. It was like I was hearing an echo back, after calling into a vast, seemingly empty canyon.
Zazen can balance the ANS. And this is particularly important to me, because — as Stephen Elliott explains (see What is Ego? and What is Ego?-Part II), the pesky ego, which so many of us are seeking to balance, escape, minimize, etc., is actually a symptom of an over-active sympathetic nervous system — a “sympathetic bias,” if you will.
Which is a great way of taking the judgmental charge out of all our ego concepts. If the “ego” as we call it, is actually a symptom of an out-of-balance autonomic nervous system — AND Zazen can balance the ANS, then there is clearly hope. And there’s no need to fall into the pit of judgment and recrimination — either towards ourselves or towards others.
My intention of starting to sit in 1992 was not to gain enlightenment or reach a peak experience. It was really to chill out my system in ways that worked for others. A friend told me about how daily sitting had saved her grandson from slipping into juvenile delinquency — and jail — and it seemed like a compellingly simple way for me to take the edge off my own intensity.
It worked for me. I wasn’t sure why, exactly, but I knew it worked.
Now I’m much closer to understanding why. And that in itself is valuable to me.