The question that I most often get from students engaged in the practice of shikantaza is, “Am I doing it right?” It’s understandable given that shikantaza, or “just sitting,” is, by definition, extremely difficult to measure. The instruction, in simple terms, is to sit and just pay attention—nothing else. We’re not supposed to focus, concentrate, note, let go, contemplate, or reflect in any way. We really just sit with bare awareness, letting ourselves be with things as they are. There is nothing to measure and nothing to do—at least not in the usual way we exert effort. It’s not that there’s no effort in shikantaza; it’s just that it’s not for something other than itself. We sit for the sake of sitting. We pay attention just to pay attention. For this reason, I consider shikantaza to be a practice of ultimate trust—trust in ourselves, trust in the dharma, trust in our ability to practice without a goal. Practicing in this way, we trust there’s no one we need to be, nothing we need to fix, nowhere we need to go. We’re not trying to be peaceful, kind, or insightful. We’re not trying to be anything, since we already are everything we need to be.
For those of us embedded in a culture that prizes doing and achieving above everything else, the practice of shikantaza can be deeply unsettling. If you’re doing this practice and find yourself feeling uncomfortably disoriented, take heart. You’re already well on your way.
In contrast to a concentration practice like following or counting the breath, shikantaza invites us to sit with wide-open awareness. Another way to understand it is that we’re looking directly at the mind. But this is hard to do. How do we look at the mind without any signposts to point the way or anything more concrete to anchor our attention than awareness itself? How do we know if we’re concentrated or distracted?
The 8th-century Chinese Zen master Yaoshan Weiyan referred to this “methodless method of zazen” in a typically paradoxical way:
A monk asked Yaoshan what he thought about when he sat so still and quiet.
Yaoshan said, “I think not-thinking.”
“How do you think not-thinking?” the monk asked.
“By nonthinking,” Yaoshan answered.
But how do you think nonthinking? How do you know if you’re doing the practice or are simply lost in thought? The answer is that if you’re sitting wholeheartedly, you won’t know. If you’re sitting with every ounce of your being, you won’t be able to measure your zazen. That’s why, when students ask me, “How do I know if I’m doing it right?” my answer is, “That’s not the point.” Right and wrong are not the point. Doing and not doing are not the point. Nor are thinking and not-thinking. That’s what Yaoshan is referring to: We’re trying to inhabit a state of mind beyond that which we can measure or understand.
That said, if we’re used to working hard to focus our minds, in the beginning we might feel a bit lost when practicing shikantaza. To counteract this, I’ve created a practice that encourages us to return to the vast, luminous, and spacious awareness that characterizes just sitting—a practice I call “Sky Mind.”
Sky Mind Practice
To begin, settle into your zazen by following the breath for a few minutes. Take the time to really come into your body and the seated meditation posture, and allow your mind to quiet down. When you feel ready, visualize yourself as a clear, blue sky. By “visualizing” I don’t mean you should create a picture of the sky with your mind, but instead feel yourself to be that sky. Feel the open spaciousness of your mind and see your thoughts as passing clouds. (Thoughts here include emotions and sensations.) Watch as they float by without fixating on them in any way, returning again and again to that feeling of vastness.
Continue sitting with this open awareness, and every time you catch yourself thinking, notice the clouds and silently say to yourself, “sky,” then return to that feeling of spaciousness. Don’t worry if it feels like you’re constantly having to return to your “sky mind.” “Returning” is just a matter of speaking, since, clouded or clear, the sky is always there. With this practice, we’re reminding ourselves of that fact and we’re widening our field of attention until we lose all sense of a limit or border.
Concentration and distraction both require the mind to contract. They narrow our attention to a particular thought or sequence of thoughts, to the exclusion of everything else arising in our minds. “Sky mind” helps us to cultivate the opposite state of awareness, and you’ll see if this is happening if, after your meditation, your attention feels spacious and relaxed.
Granted, noticing these drifting thoughts and returning to the vastness of mind is a bit more “doing” than the traditional practice of shikantaza entails. Yet I think of this particular upaya (skillful means) as applying a very light-handed touch to our zazen. All we’re doing is acknowledging that, like clouds drifting through the sky, thoughts drift in the mind, forming and dissolving endlessly. They’re not a problem or an obstacle—not when we don’t constrict around them, or try to define, understand, or pin them down.
“Sky mind” allows us to feel the spaciousness of the sky as the natural spaciousness of our being. It highlights the insubstantiality of our thoughts, making it easier for us to let them go. And it reminds us of the steady presence of the sky behind every one of those clouds. That’s why, in the practice of shikantaza, whether we’re focused or distracted makes no difference at all. Behind those white, layered stratus clouds or those dense, ominous cumulonimbus, our mind is still what it always is: open, luminous, and clear.
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