Just Sitting: The Zen Practice of Shikantaza

Once or twice a day, I sit facing a wall in my home[1]. I just sit. I sit for twenty minutes, a half-hour, sometimes more. But I just sit. I sit and think not thinking; I do that by non-thinking.

This is the Zen practice of shikantaza, or “just sitting.” You sit, cross-legged if you can, and let your mind alone. When you stop thinking, you reach a point of non-thinking. It’s one of the typical paradoxes of Zen that makes your brain try and twist around those words, “not,” “non-” and “thinking” to figure out what they mean.

Unlike other forms of meditation, shikantaza doesn’t involve concentrating on an object, such as your breath or a mantra. It is “objectless meditation,” where you focus on everything you experience – thoughts, sounds, feelings – without attaching to any of them. When you get there, you know what it is.

P1000115.JPG

“Once you have adjusted your posture, take a deep breath, inhale and exhale, rock your body right and left and settle into a steady, immobile sitting position. Think not-thinking. How do you think not-thinking? Non-thinking. This in itself is the essential art of zazen.”[2]

I’ve been practicing meditation off and on for about 25 years. After following the Tibetan tradition for a while, I drifted among other forms of practice, notably Theravadan insight meditation, before settling on Zen. There are many different schools of meditation, and even in Zen, there are two main currents: Rinzai and Sōtō. It is this latter, Sōtō Zen, founded by Eihei Dōgen in the 13th century, that feels right to me. It’s the one whose main practice is just sitting.

But you don’t need to follow any school to meditate, or sit, as we say in Zen lingo. In recent years, mindfulness, or a secular form of sitting meditation, has become mainstream, notably as a tool to reduce stress. Many studies have shown that meditation of any kind is good for the brain. Even if you don’t want to follow a path of meditation, or a particular tradition, just sitting for a few minutes every day can be a wonderful way to get back in touch with reality and recharge your brain. You can use just sitting to ground yourself, to take a few minutes away from the vortex of the world around you.

You already know how to do this

You’ve certainly done this many times. Perhaps you were on a hike in the mountains, and came across an especially nice view. You sat on some rocks, and just sat. At first, you looked at the view, but then your mind went on pause as you appreciated the silence, and the simplicity of just being in the moment. Or it may have been a lazy summer day, sitting on the deck, listening to bees buzzing around you. For a few minutes, you felt apart from the worries of the world, and your mind felt clear. This happens to all of us, from time to time, but you can cultivate it, practicing regularly.

You can do this anywhere, at almost any time. Start at home; it’s easiest to start in a quiet place with no distractions. Turn off the TV, the radio, the computer, and put your cell phone away. Find a quiet place to sit: you don’t have to sit cross-legged on a meditation cushion, a chair is fine. All you should do is try and keep your back relatively straight (in other words, don’t slouch in a recliner).

Place your hands on your thighs, close your eyes, and feel your breathing. Concentrate on the fact that you are breathing. Feel your in-breaths; feel your out-breaths. You’ll probably notice that your mind starts showing you all sorts of pretty pictures, and you leap toward them like a puppy running after a new toy. Let those thoughts go. Don’t try and stop them; they’ll just get stronger. The goal is not to get rid of thoughts, to silence yourself; it’s all about just letting those thoughts be and not getting tied up in them. Just let them go.

Treat your thoughts as though they’re clouds in the sky. You may look at clouds, watch them move by, but you never forget that behind them is the clear, blue sky. Your thoughts are ephemeral: they arise, they take center stage, then they fade away. Once you realize this, you understand that all your thoughts can just fade away if you let them. Don’t try to push them away; simply let them move on on their own.

In shikantaza, we try to go even further, to non-thinking, to objectless meditation. To find that blue sky that lies behind he clouds of thought. Don’t worry about that. Just sit, let the thoughts come and go, and, when you get lost, come back to your breath, again. Don’t worry about how long you’re sitting, don’t worry about what you need to put in 15 minutes or an hour or a day. Just be with yourself, allow yourself to have that time to just sit.

When you’ve had enough, get up slowly, and don’t rush into whatever you have to do next. Try and let the relaxed feeling you experienced when sitting last a bit before you return to the world. If you can do this for a few minutes every day, you’ll start realizing that your body needs to put itself on pause every now and then.

Sitting here, sitting there

The thing about just sitting is that you can do it anywhere. I do it in trains, planes and busses; in doctors’ offices, dentists’ chairs, and I’ve even done it in MRIs. I do it outside on the patio, or on a couch. You can do it anywhere; all it takes is the intention of just sitting. Don’t worry about the noise around you; you’ll get used to letting that just fade away too.

Even if you don’t want to “meditate,” you can try just sitting as a way of unplugging your mind from the myriad distractions we face during the day. It only takes a few minutes, it doesn’t cost anything, and you really can do it anywhere. The great thing about just sitting is that you can do it no matter what your beliefs are. Whether you’re a Buddhist, Christian, Muslim or atheist, just sitting can fit in your worldview.[3] Even if you don’t want to meditate, you may find that just sitting for a few minutes every day – free of distraction – will clear your mind.[4]


  1. In the Sōtō Zen tradition, one meditates with the eyes partially open, facing a wall. This is to minimize the distraction of seeing other people while you meditate. Many other traditions involved closed-eyed meditation, and you can sit anywhere.  ↩

  2. Eihei Dōgen, Fukanzazengi.  ↩

  3. It’s no surprise that all of the major religions have forms of meditation as part of their practices. Some use the word “meditation,” others call it “prayer” or “contemplation.”  ↩

  4. For more about shikantaza, see The Art of Just Sitting: Essential Writings on the Zen Practice of Shikantaza. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, is one of the best books to get a good introduction to Zen. And if you want to go further, check to see if you have a local Sōtō Zen center, or visit Treeleaf, an online Zen community that has members all around the world.  ↩

This article was originally published in Issue 28 of The Loop Magazine.

8 thoughts on “Just Sitting: The Zen Practice of Shikantaza

  1. “You already know how to do this”

    I will note that, while living in Japan, it took me a good 2 to 4 weeks of attending a daily group sitting before I felt that “I knew how to do it”.

    In short, expect that there will likely be some not insignificant initial frustration as you do indeed feel that you don’t know how to do it. But the learning curve is relatively brief in getting past that, so ganbatte!

    —–

    Now, my petty critique:

    “Concentrate on the fact that you are breathing.”

    Nope. Don’t try to concentrate on anything. If you notice yourself breathing, then you notice yourself breathing.

    “Don’t worry about the noise around you; you’ll get used to letting that just fade away too.”

    Nope. If you worry about the noise, don’t “don’t worry”. If you’re worrying about the noise, notice yourself worrying about the noise.

    And the sounds don’t have to fade away for successful practice. If you notice the sound, notice yourself noticing the sound.

    • The way I interpreted the breathing comment is that it’s a good introduction towards being eventually able to not concentrate on anything. That’s what I did when I first started meditating because my brain needed something to focus on. Then when it got used to more stillness, I was able to get past having to concentrate on something.

      Being able to simply observe can take a while, especially in today’s era of constant overstimulation. I guess what I’m saying is that in my opinion, there isn’t a “do” or “do not”, whatever gets you where you intend to go is fine. Oftentimes people can interpret such comments as admonishing and may give up because they think they are “doing it wrong” :)

      Isa

  2. How do you manage the time that you “just sit” for? Meaning can you just drift off and hope to “resume” in a reasonable amount of time? 15 minutes? An hour? How can you come back from sitting? What am I missing. Pardon my ignorance.

    • You can use a meditation timer. I wrote an article for Macworld about iOS meditation timers. After a while, though, you tend to feel when the right time has passed. For some, that’s 15 minutes; others a half-hour or more. Or, on certain days when you have more time, you might want to resist the urge to get up when you think it’s time to get up, and sit a bit more.

  3. I’m glad there’s an actual name for this practice. I had practiced a rigorous approach to meditation for a number of years in my early 20’s and abandoned it for several years.

    Then in my later 20’s, I started again, but I didn’t want a rigorous and long-winded approach to meditation, though I needed something that was genuinely effective while being minimalistic. So, I would literally just sit, with my eyes open, and clear my mind. It felt utterly natural. If my mind became mired in thoughts, I’d gently return it to thoughtlessness until it naturally came to prefer thoughtlessness to thinking (it didn’t take long for my mind to recognize the superiority of non-thinking to thinking in just about every aspect of life.) For a number of years, I used that singular and simple technique to brighten and freshen my mind and return it to a peaceful and highly creative, energetic thoughtlessness, before I, for some unknown reason, yet again abandoned meditation.

    I went a couple more years and my health began to suddenly decline inexplicably. Having practiced years of meditation on and off, I was more than aware that meditation maintained my vitality and allowed me to avoid illness, and gave me quick recovery times with weak symptoms when I did, so I picked it up again, using another slightly rigorous system. For 2 years I’ve practiced all manner of techniques from different systems – moving up and down both the jhanas, as well as the stages of insight, respectively. But recently I’ve returned to this simple sitting and forgetting. I’d forgotten how wonderful and relishable it is, and how it completely changes the experience of daily living into something beautiful, extraordinary, and blissful.

    • I was about to post a comment so similar, it’s a bit eery!

      So all I will add is thank you Kirk for writing this wonderful article. I too didn’t know there was a name for that kind of practice, and just like Mark, it brings me so much happiness and wonder (and health!) :)

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.