Many of us struggle with how to get practice out of our head and into our body. We’re conditioned to lead with the head, to use our capacity for thinking and judging in everything that we do, and it filters into zazen. It can take the form of tension or rigidity. It can manifest as pain in our joints or our back. And we may be so used to conducting our lives this way that we’re not even aware of our discomfort—until we start sitting, and, with a new awareness of what’s going on in our body, we notice it for the first time.

When we’re engaged in activities like driving or walking or brushing our teeth while caught up in thoughts—say, thinking about a conversation that hasn’t even happened yet—we’re not aware of what’s going on in our body. At that moment, we’re so in our head that we’re effectively disembodied.

Philosophy and religion often present a dualism between mind and body, or spirit and matter. In some belief systems, the body is seen as impure, as if the mental realm were more valuable, more noble or virtuous than the physical realm. And the same goes for experiencing emotions, which involve bodily responses and bodily sensations. They’re often treated as something that we need to keep under control, so we won’t be judged as weak or unstable. But when we suppress or hide our emotions, we run into all sorts of problems, not just in terms of our own sense of well-being but in our relationships with others.

In Zen, we refer to body-mind, which helps to convey that the two are integrated, but it’s still just a word. It doesn’t get at the pure, direct, lived experience of being in a body. Likewise, we can talk and read and listen to the teachings and gain inspiration, but in the end, Zen is not a belief but a practice—a whole body experience. It begins with learning how to sit: the ideal positioning of our hips, head, shoulders, and the various elements that create a stable and relaxed foundation for zazen and make an effective posture for concentration. The Latin word for concentration (concentratio) means “to collect together, to gather at the center,” as in gathering our attention and placing it on the hara, a point about an inch or so beneath the navel.

And yet, our grasping, calculating mind can easily misconstrue concentration as mental activity. But concentration is a state of awareness that involves our body just as much as our mind. Taking a beginner’s mind look at posture can be very helpful, and this happens naturally for people who are new to practice. But for us folks who have been sitting for a while, it requires us to take an honest look at our posture and consider to what extent it might be helping or impeding our practice. Our bodies do change over time—because of aging or an injury or some other condition—so there’s always room to adapt and improve, keeping in mind that our sitting posture affects our ability to concentrate the mind.

Recently, I was reading the book Opening the Hand of Thought: Foundations of Zen Buddhist Practice by Roshi Kosho Uchiyama, which contains a vivid description of the difference between Rodin’s Thinker and the figure of a seated buddha. Uchiyama says the Thinker “sits hunched over, his shoulders drawn forward and his chest compressed, in a posture of chasing after illusions. The arms and legs are bent, the neck and fingers are bent, and even the toes are curled. When our body is bent and contorted like this, blood flow and breathing become congested; we get caught up in our imagination and are unable to break free. On the other hand, when we sit zazen, everything is straight—trunk, back, neck, and head. Because our abdomen rests comfortably on solidly folded legs, blood circulates freely toward the abdomen, and breath moves freely toward the tanden, or hara. Congestion is alleviated, excitability is lessened, and we no longer need to chase after fantasies and delusions.”

That said, if we have a physical limitation that makes it difficult or impossible to sit cross-legged, we simply adapt as needed. There’s always a way to practice—even lying down.

Each one of us has to practice in the body that we’re in. I have a curve in my lower spine due to childhood scoliosis, and my pelvis goes out of alignment quite easily. If I’m not aware of my posture, the next thing I know, I’m leaning over to one side and feeling pain in my hip. It took me years to figure out how to work with it, and I’m still working on it. That’s my body. “Correct zazen,” to use Uchiyama’s words, isn’t a matter of having picture-perfect posture. It’s a matter of working with the various elements of zazen as a way of engaging our whole body in our practice, not just our head. “It is easy to tell you to aim at the correct posture and leave everything up to that, but it is not so simple to do. Even while we are in the zazen position, if we continue our thoughts, we are thinking and no longer doing zazen.”

At the Chapin Mill Zendo, we occasionally hear trains passing by in the distance. One moment, we hear a train coming closer and closer, getting louder and louder, and in the next moment, it’s gone. We didn’t have to do a thing about it. It just passes. Likewise, there’s a difference between chasing after thoughts and just allowing them to occur. In zazen, we’re not pushing them away, and we’re not latching on to them. We’re just letting them pass by as we keep our concentration on our practice.

As Uchiyama says, “Zazen is not thinking, nor is it sleeping. Doing zazen is to be full of life, aiming at holding a correct zazen posture. If we become sleepy while doing zazen, our energy becomes dissipated and our body becomes limp. If we pursue our thoughts, our posture will become stiff. Zazen is neither being limp and lifeless nor being stiff; our posture must be full of life and energy. . . . When we actually do zazen, we should be neither sleeping nor caught up in our own thoughts. We should be wide awake, aiming at the correct posture with our flesh and bones. Can we ever attain this? Is there such a thing as succeeding or hitting the mark? Here is where zazen becomes unfathomable.

“In zazen, we have to vividly aim at holding the correct posture, yet there is no mark to hit! Or at any rate, the person who is doing zazen never perceives whether he has hit the mark or not. If the person doing zazen thinks his zazen is really getting good, or that he has ‘hit the mark,’ he is merely thinking his zazen is good, while actually he has become separated from the reality of his zazen. Therefore, we must always aim at doing correct zazen, without being concerned with perceiving the mark as having been hit. . . . Zazen is just our whole self doing itself by itself. Zazen does zazen!”

Or, more simply, it is our body just being in a body. We already have everything we need to get our practice out of our head and into our body, simply by being in the body that we’re in, as it is, in this one moment. Not just while sitting, but also in activity. In Zen, we often talk about bringing our practice out of the zendo, off the mat, and into the world. But it works in the other direction as well. Bringing the world into our sitting is to not separate ourselves from life as it is, as we experience it through our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body-mind.

In Master Hakuin’s Chant in Praise of Zazen, the final line is “and this very body [is] the body of Buddha.” What is that body? It’s not simply my particular bag of skin and bones or my particular ecosystem of microorganisms. Each moment that we release ourselves from our thoughts, we are releasing ourselves into that which lies beyond our material, physical being, beyond this body we call our self and into our True Self, which is no-self.

Adapted from Practicing With Our Whole Being, an episode of Rochester Zen Center’s podcast.