At Ease in Body and Mind

Zen teacher Edward Espe Brown with yoga teacher Patricia Sullivan on combining Buddhist practice and yoga.

Edward Espe Brown
2 September 2016
Photo by Patrick Hendry.

Zen teacher Edward Espe Brown with yoga teacher Patricia Sullivan on combining Buddhist practice and yoga.

Patricia and I met in Judith Lasiter’s yoga class nineteen years ago. Nowadays I buzz my hair back to fuzz when it gets long enough to need combing, but in those years I kept my head shaved and wore a black cotton or blue denim Zen hippari, a cross-over-the-front, half-robe top. To complete the priest look I wore Buddhist beads wrapped around my left wrist. During yoga I went with shorts and a tee shirt, but still you couldn’t miss me, I suppose, especially in a class with twenty-five women and only two or three other men. (Gentlemen looking for a female mate-get thee to a yoga class!)

I was one of the few people at San Francisco Zen Center who practiced yoga. These days yoga is in such high regard for all the benefits it provides that it is difficult to remember how stridently meditation students were urged to place supreme confidence in their way alone. We were led to believe that a “good” Zen student didn’t need to do anything else but Zen. If you were really practicing Zen, you wouldn’t need a doctor, a therapist, yoga classes, or coaching in developing communication skills. Just wake up!

Yet Zen alone was not “doing it” for me-and I had been “doing” Zen for fourteen years when I began yoga practice in 1979. I was overly inward, intense, self-absorbed and tightly wound. Boy, did yoga make a difference! From the start I experienced my body having s-p-a-c-e. This was a kind of revelation, one marked with bliss and ease. (Exactly what the Pope cautioned his followers not to confuse with the true God in Heaven. Fine, I would agree. Let’s not confuse this conditioned world with the absolute-even though the absolute must also be identical with the conditioned, because in order to be absolute, it can’t be relative to anything.)

Yoga practice opened up space to be in my body. The stifling sense of stiffness, constraint and stuckness dissolved. Movement, fluidity and vitality were restored, which meant that “I” could easily, comfortably, reside in the body rather than seeking escape. (No brainer-of course your spirit wants out of the prison of a too-tightly-structured body.) It felt as though yoga practice remodeled my body to make it much more livable. There was room to stretch and spread out; the larger windows let in more light. In a more poetic sense, we could say that yoga transforms your body into the proverbial temple, high ceilings and all, rather than the hovel down by the swamp you were used to living in.

Once Patricia and I became a couple (it’s a great story, but not for this article, I’m afraid), we began meditating together. I didn’t give her any instruction, but after a while she went to Zen Center to find out how to meditate. In the mornings, we would get up and shower and then sit together. Often, since we lived in small spaces, we would simply put our meditation cushions at the head of the bed and pull the covers up over our legs for warmth. We’d meditate for about half an hour and then do yoga. It was a great way to begin the day. On one hand, doing some yoga before meditation loosens the body for sitting. But on the other hand, there is something quite sweet about sitting quietly before moving into the activities of the day, and the sense of mindful composure lingers on into yoga practice.

Patricia took readily to meditation. After all the effort and ceaseless adjusting she had put into yoga poses, she appreciated right away the stillness and repose of sitting meditation. She found it a relief not to be examining her posture for flaws and imperfections. At last she could rest in who she was, where she was, rather than constantly aiming to improve, to perform, to perfect. She could come home to herself in a way that had not been possible for her in yoga practice.

Patricia became, she says, “more and more interested in not having to control my mind and body, not constantly adjusting, not always examining to see if I was doing my yoga correctly. That was a big relief. I didn’t have to be ceaselessly vigilant about every detail of my posture.” She says her vigilance “expanded into a more open receptivity, which included a wider range of sensation, thought and feeling within the larger matrix of existence itself.” This is a shifting from control to compassion. Listening to me and to other Buddhist teachers, she says, “I began to understand the teaching that there is nothing to attain, and I had more of a sense of rest, a sense of ease or repose.”

Meditation also gave her another kind of relief. “I could stop having to reconcile all the differences, all the viewpoints. I didn’t have to have everything figured out. I could stop comparing ‘who is right’ and ‘who is wrong.’ I heard the Zen teaching, ‘Don’t slander the sky by looking at it through a pipe,’ and I realized that all the different systems of yoga were just different views through a pipe. I can’t see it all and nobody can.” The focus of her practice shifted, and she began asking, “How can I connect? Can I simply sense, simply be with?”

Since those days, yoga has become hugely popular. No longer an off-beat practice at some hidden-away studio, yoga has entered the mainstream at health clubs, gyms, spas and hotels. People who do yoga are feeling renewed vigor, lower levels of stress, and greater flexibility of body and mind.

But becoming mainstream in America, yoga has been secularized. Although not always the case, yoga is more often presented as exercise for health and fitness than a way to know God or “harmonize the spirit.” Patricia remarks that, “While yoga traditionally includes meditation and other ‘limbs’ of practice, it is usually presented as-and many Americans have limited their study of yoga to-the practice of asana (postures) and sometimes pranayama (breathing). Many of us who were not exposed to a well-rounded approach in our yoga practice have enlarged or expanded ourselves through various Buddhist meditation practices, which are more widespread and somehow feel more accessible for study.”

For example, in 1984 I had a really wonderful time attending the International Iyengar Yoga Conference in San Francisco. Having the opportunity to study with various teachers over the course of the week, I felt a brightness and vitality, and I made it a point after several of the classes to approach the teacher and inquire, “What is the most important point in yoga practice?” Some of the answers were: “To be one with God,” “To live in complete peace and harmony,” “To realize oneness of body, mind and spirit.” What was striking, however, was that none of this was ever mentioned in class, which was all about how to do the postures. (Since then I know that many of these same teachers have developed their teaching to include aspects of the spiritual journey or self-realization.)

Partly this is a matter of teaching style and partly it is responding to students’ wishes. As Americans we tend to approach yoga the way we do everything else, emphasizing activity over stillness, effort (or doing) over receptivity, performance over presence. “It’s amazing,” Patricia says, “how restless yoga students can be. What they keep asking is, ‘Give me the next thing to do.’”

With yoga you can stretch, expand and work, and you will feel like you are getting somewhere or improving. You may have a satisfying sense of accomplishment. Meditation is more of a challenge-the challenge of not doing. In this sense Buddhist meditation runs counter to our cultural model, which is to identify what is wrong and apply the proper protocols to remedy the situation. This model is powerful, effective and quite pervasive, but it has its limits. The myth is that everything can be remedied, if you are just skillful enough, smart enough, dedicated enough. Yet the suffering is that we are never skillful enough, smart enough, and gung-ho enough to remedy everything. So we feel not good enough endlessly.

Although some schools of Buddhist meditation offer more in the way of “remedies,” the heart of Buddhist meditation is mindfulness, which is to be aware without judging “good” or “bad,” “right” or “wrong;” to be aware without comparison to past memories or imagined futures. To emphasize the practice of mindfulness is to appreciate the blessings of life, or in the words of Suzuki Roshi, to see that “right there in the imperfection is perfect reality.”

How can that be? Shouldn’t we be trying to perfect ourselves, or at least to improve? While this effort to improve can lead to beneficial results, the danger is that we rarely value the inherent preciousness of our lives, which is not dependent on performance or accomplishment. Busy aiming to attain some future success or happiness, we lose ourselves.

As the Zen teacher Huangbo said, “When will you have today?” To practice mindfulness, to practice meditation, is to “have today.” To have today is to sense what you sense, to think what you think, to feel what you feel, moment after moment, receiving your experience rather than attempting to orchestrate it. It is to take life in and respond freely and fully, to play as well as work, to enjoy as well as to strive. This is the challenge of learning to sit still and breathe with our difficulties and struggles. “We are,” Suzuki Roshi said, “purifying our love.”

What’s important finally? As one yoga student commented recently, “I feel that if I give up the effort to improve, I will never be good enough.” I hastened to remind her that effort or not, improvement or not, she will never be good enough, but “you could learn to love and appreciate someone who is not good enough. She is inherently good-hearted, you know.” The softening of her facial expression-we become “hard-minded” or “hard-headed” in pursuit of improvement-and the greater depth of feeling in her face led me to believe she had gotten the message. “Remember what Suzuki Roshi said,” I added, “‘Each of you is perfect exactly the way you are, and there is room for improvement.’”

My simple instructions for meditation are, “Sit down, sit still, and see what you notice.” Then let what you notice inform your activity. If you are willing to make this kind of study, you have freedom; you are not sticking to anything (“I should this,” “I must not that”). You might notice how aiming to make one thing happen and prevent another causes a tightening of the body and constriction of the breath. You may find out how you “hold your breath” while waiting to see how things come out. Because you are not sticking to a particular way of being, you are able to respond in appropriate ways. Your response to life can grow out of your experience, rather than being a set of rules you try to coerce yourself into following. You will discover pretty quickly that you cannot shape every moment to meet your criteria for acceptability. Now what?

You’ve reached a remarkable crossroads, an important gateway. This is the First Noble Truth: things will never quite work the way you think they should. Do you go on trying to make every moment acceptable according to your internal (self-created) standards-and in the pursuit of this try yoga, therapy, temper tantrums, sex, drugs, alcohol, rock ’n roll, money, status-or do you have the insight, “I could practice learning to live with and appreciate a wider range of experiences. I could agree to have my life, every moment of it”? Welcome to the world of “meditation.”

Sit up straight, not leaning to the left, not leaning to the right, not slouched forward, not slumped back. See if you can find a balance between effort and ease, between the vigor of sitting upright and the sensation of settling down where you are. I call this “meditation,” but of course, it is also “asana,” which is “steadiness and firmness without tension or rigidity as well as happiness and ease without dullness.” In Buddhist terms it is mindfulness which does this balancing.

Having already discussed mindfulness, let’s look at some other aspects which would characterize meditation, or the meditative side of yoga practice: trust, vigor, concentration and wisdom. First, though, let me remind you that meditation is not about performance, where you are caught up in the quest for gaining approval. This will separate or distance you from others, as you remain hidden behind your performance, unrevealed to yourself and others. How will you come forward to meet life, to meet yourself and others, to attain intimacy and connection?

Trust in a Buddhist sense is the trust that life is inherently okay, that your life is the path. Zen Master Dogen says, “Those who trust in the Buddha way should trust that they are in essence within the Buddha way, where there is no delusion, no false thinking, no confusion, no increase or decrease, and no mistake.” You have never strayed. There is not some perfected life which you should aim for, which through your negligence or shameful lack of worthiness you have missed out on.

Trust is to dive into the depths of your life, where, the poet Rilke says, “it calmly gives out its secret.” When you dive into your experience more deeply-beyond good/bad, right/wrong-you find your way. Things are clarified: what appeared muddy or turbulent is clearly revealed to be what it is. Trust is the wish-fulfilling gem, because this is our wish: to dive into the depths of our life and realize our inherent blessedness or good-heartedness. It is our goodheartedness which takes the plunge. Not that everything will be okay, not everything will come out alright, but we can touch the pain and difficulty with warmth and compassion, as well as the pleasure and delight, and survive and grow.

To encourage trust I sometimes ask my students: “Will you have this life? The body and mind of the present moment?” To say, “Yes!” is to trust. “Yes, I will have this body. Yes, I will have this mind.” This moment. Now.

Vigor or presence is not about accomplishing this pose or attaining that state of mind, but steadfastness: showing up, not running, not hiding, being alive in the present. Vigor is associated with willingness and determination. You will not abandon yourself. You won’t reject yourself. Steadfastly, you will experience what is to be experienced. Vigor supports trust. Without vigor the tendency is to be waiting for your life to happen, waiting for something outside to break through to you, when all along you could be stepping into life, “standing up” in the midst of your life.

Concentration is often misunderstood to mean focusing on a particular object of awareness, but concentration can be on each thing, each moment. You do not divide your mind by comparing this mind with one you could have in the future if only you tried harder. You settle into the present. You resonate with your experience, good or bad. Rather than aiming to get back to what is familiar or what you think you should be experiencing, you make yourself at home where you are. In Zen this is the proverbial, “Take off the blinders, unpack the saddlebags.” You are not scattered because you do not scatter yourself-between now and then, here and there, present and future. You do not set up artificial boundaries and say, “I must have that,” “I must not have this.” Yoga is sometimes described this way in the sutras: “the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.”

Wisdom is to find your way unlimited by fixed ideas about how to proceed or what to do. The usual idea of wisdom is that it is a body of knowledge, which you could “have” and “follow.” But if you simply are doing what you’ve been told, however excellent it is, you are limiting your capacity to find your way, to be interested and curious, to make discoveries and have adventures. Your life, your spirit, becomes narrow and constricted.

So real wisdom is to “not know,” to always be finding out how: how to be with yourself, with others, with thoughts, feelings, conceptions and impulses. How will you do it? Whatever suggestions or pointers I have given you, I’d like you to use these to inspire you to find your own way in your life.

Patricia sees wisdom as, “Taking the appropriate action in all circumstances. And while regular practice of a form or a set of asanas may be invigorating and reveal something to us about ourselves and the way the world actually works, we can become seduced by ‘progress’ and not truly abide in the vastness of the present where many things are possible.”

So you can use the practices of yoga and meditation to find and establish your own way. By practicing in this way-“feeling your way along in the dark” is Suzuki Roshi’s expression-you are liberated from fixed, ingrained responses. In this sense you could say that “liberation” is liberation from your habitual posture or stance, your fixity of being, from the confusion of thinking that your posture or stance is “you.” Yoga and meditation, each in their own way, will help you free yourself from your limited ways of going about your life. And as both Patricia and I have found, once you have a yoga or meditation practice, often the best way to change or enlarge your approach is to take up another practice, which can inform or infuse your current practice with new possibilities.

This is what the yoga teacher Mary Paffard discovered as well. Teaching yoga in northern California since the early 1980’s, she also began doing Vipassana meditation retreats. “The willingness to be present in every moment, to ‘see clearly,’ answered many of the questions that had been arising in my previous ten years of a more physically-oriented yoga practice.”

For Mary this has meant a further nourishing of her life and practice: “The many days spent on retreat or in silence have deepened my connection to the richness of the yoga path, and allowed me to live more truly in touch with spirit and with community.” Now at her yoga retreats she finds that “the power of moving in and out of silence creates the possibility of a profound unfolding at the core of our yoga practice. In these turbulent times, we need these moments to retire, reevaluate, practice and rest in the cradle of quietness. With less emphasis on teaching and analysis we can focus on making contact with the still, clear song that is uniquely ours, and how to bring that voice into the bigger dimension of the world we live in. Can we find inside ourselves the peace that will move mountains?”

Finally, then, both of these practices are about heart, about living in and from our hearts (rather than from our heads or some entirely disassociated space). So it was quite gratifying that after our last Zen and Yoga workshop Patricia and I received a card from one of our students saying, “Your gentle kind presence opened up a place in my heart that has stayed with me and when I get lost I can come back to (that open way of being).” May all beings awaken their open-heartedness and learn to live with what the poet Rumi calls “fierce courtesy.” Thank you very much.

Patricia Sullivan began practicing yoga in 1970 and has been teaching for more than 25 years, integrating her experience in several systems of yoga and Buddhist meditation.

Edward Espe Brown

Edward Espe Brown

Edward Espe Brown is abbot of the Peaceful Sea Sangha based in northern California. For two decades he lived and worked at the various practice centers that comprise the San Francisco Zen Center. He is author of The Complete Tassajara Cookbook and editor of Not Always So, a book of lectures by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. His new book, No Recipe: Cooking as Spiritual Practice, will be released in May 2018.