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franciscan - January 1996

© The Society of Saint Francis, 1995

Zen Body, Zen Mind

by Tom Chetwynd

There is an impressive Christian tradition of hard spiritual training for the sake of attaining spiritual excellence: the ascetic tradition of prayer that is little practised at present, and not even much favoured. It involved strenuous physical exertion, as well as mental effort: sleepless nights of vigil followed by days spent in prayer. One of the fathers of the desert meditated close to the wall so that if he nodded off he banged his head on a stone.

It was a tradition which required craft and skill as well as hard effort. That is the law of the universe: whatever you do, whether farming, carpentry or gardening, it requires skill and effort to get results. For the Desert Fathers, the Orthodox monks, and other Christians who followed the same path in the West, the life of prayer required comparable skills and exertion.

Long before I started practising zen, I once had the thought that if only Christians worked at their prayer from 9am to 5pm, as others work in factories and offices, they might get somewhere with it: on my first zen retreat I was reminded of this thought - because we were expected to meditate from 5am to 9pm (with breaks for tea and meals, as in the factories, of course).

But for the Christian hermits and monks of old, Christian prayer could involve standing with arms raised as the sun set behind you, and never budging till the sun rose in front of you - even though a viper climbed up your leg. Such were the stories gathered to inspire the next spiritual generation in their efforts to keep still and stay awake. And alongside the physical struggle, was the fierce inner battle against wandering thoughts and the vagrant imagination. This was sometimes called pure wordless prayer, or more usually contemplative prayer, and was respected as the highest and most difficult form of prayer. The aim was to attain a pure shining mind, that perfectly reflected the Divine reality - just as water when it settles and clears reflects the heavens.

From the teaching of Our Lord Jesus Christ and down through many spiritual generations of hermits and monks, it was the one way to experience the Kingdom of God. Be alert, as if a thief were about to break in, bang persistently till you break through; at the time of night when thieves go out to steal gold, go yourself and steal the Kingdom of Heaven. And even the ordinary Christian joined in the work of contemplatives, especially during Passiontide, and was exhorted (in the Penny Catechism) to raise the mind and heart to God. But how? It is this form of Christian prayer that most closely resembles Eastern meditation, and zen in particular.
Zen is surprisingly strenuous and physical - rather like training for sport. “Have a nice relaxing time”, people sometimes say as you go off on a zen retreat, and you know immediately that they have never tried it, even for half an hour. Watching somebody sitting cross-legged, facing the wall, you might not get that impression. Yet on my first zen retreat, which lasted seven days, I lost a stone in weight.

So what is so strenuous about it? The point is that the human body does not like keeping absolutely still, without budging an eyelash, not just for half an hour at a time, but one half hour after another, day after day. All the time, the body keeps wanting to move, to shift position - just a little - to stretch or to scratch. To keep it still, for long periods of time, is very hard - hard training. It reminded me immediately of hours spent in childhood training for sport, with the sweat pouring off me at times again, as it had then.

When the body is restrained from moving it sends out signals of pain. You try to reassure it that normally you would move, you have understood, but just this once it must remain absolutely still. Please. But the signals only grow more urgent. And the long wrestling match has begun. This is the sport of sports: the match is against your own ego and it is to the death.

Cease All Thinking

When the body is constrained from moving, at least the mind wants to think: but you have to cut off all thoughts. ‘Cease all thinking’ as Abbot John Chapman put it in his Simple Rules for Contemplative Prayer. When the human mind can’t think, it resorts to dreaming - but you have to turn your attention away from the inner TV set too.

After the pain comes the numbness: the legs go dead. It doesn’t do any harm so long as you take care getting up: make sure you have control over all your toes before you risk standing up.

Then back down for another half hour struggle with your own stubborn Ego. Still and silent as death, with the breath so calm and narrow it is barely perceptible. For a Christian, this is the ultimate form of self-denial, dying daily with Christ.

The ego hates the work and puts up all kinds of clever objections. But there is another part of ourselves which exults when doing zen. It seems and feels most unnatural at first, but in time it becomes second nature: a very natural communication with life itself. After the initial phase of determined hard discipline, the work grows easy. It becomes easier and easier to attain that state of effortless concentration that is required for true meditation. Of course there are still good days and bad days - just as a Wimbledon player may serve ace after ace - or a string of double faults.

Zen is a matter of position, breathing and concentration. With regard to the position, it is the stillness that is most important. There is no deep prolonged contemplative prayer without this stillness: both Teresa of Avila and Padre Pio were absolutely still when they prayed. The stilled mind may immobilise the body - or the other way round. Each contributes to the stillness of the other. But of the two the mind is harder to control, so zen starts with the body. And in keeping still, don’t under-estimate the value of a good solid position.

For this, there is nothing more solid than the cross-legged lotus position with the knees and bottom firmly on the mat and cushion: the point is a good solid base, like a tripod holding a camera. The good base supports the spine, which needs to be straight and stretched. If the spine is absolutely straight, you don’t waste any energy supporting it. It is like an arrow to heaven - a physical prayer. It is also stretched a little which helps to stretch and calm the breath.

With the eyes you look straight ahead and then drop the lids, so that they are three-quarters shut: there is a soft light and the vision is diffused through it. In this way you are not distracted by anything around you, nor by the even greater distractions within. You are as if on a tightrope between the inner and outer worlds - which is just where you want to be. Also, it diminishes the danger of nodding off to sleep if you shut your eyes. The breath is long calm and narrow, controlled (very slightly) by the muscles below the navel. After half an hour of zen the breath has normally calmed down from about twelve breaths to the minute to two - but of course people vary.

The position and the breathing help enormously with the concentration. You try to get your mind to sink down into the lower belly which does not think or day-dream: it just is. It is the centre of your body, and the centre of your life, your being. Our Lord Jesus Christ may have been referring to this important centre of our being when he said, “From your bellies will flow fountains of living water.”

Zen is not a doddle. It is hard work but effective. It is certainly not more difficult than learning to play golf or tennis, and does not require any particular aptitude. But it is more serious, and the prize is incomparably greater - nor does it conflict with anybody else’s prize.

Let us hope that Christians will turn back to recover their own great tradition of spiritual training - helped by the Zen Masters; living teachers of meditation, mostly Buddhist, but some Christian. f

Tom Chetwynd was educated by the Benedictine monks at Downside and the Jesuits at Heythrop College, London University. He is a writer, mainly on psychology (Jungian) and religion. Alongside his Christian practice he has practised zen for twenty years. His present teacher is Sister Elaine MacInnes, of Our Lady’s Missionaries, who spent 35 years in the Far East learning, and then teaching, Zen. She is now director of the Prison Phoenix Trust in Oxford, where she also has a zen centre.


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