My experiment: Counting 'Sticky' Thoughts

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  • shikantazen
    • Feb 2013
    • 361

    My experiment: Counting 'Sticky' Thoughts

    Since the past 3 or 4 days, I have been experimenting with something.

    A senior student told me during last weekend's Zazenkai that following/counting breath is recommended for beginners as with "just sitting" we may fool ourselves that we are alert even at times when we are lost. Somehow later during the week, I thought of putting his statement to test. I decided I'll count each time I "come back" from getting caught up in a sticky thought(-stream). I wont be counting just flashes of quick thoughts/images but only the ones where I get caught up.

    This turned out to be interesting. In a 20 minute sitting, I found my counts were mostly near 20 and ranging between 18 to 23. I did one 30 minute sitting and the count was 36.

    The other thing I noticed was that my concentration/awareness was very high throughout. I was getting caught up but was immediately coming back. It is interesting to note that I was getting caught up (and coming back) once per minute or so. So each minute, I was being aware initially (for about 10 sec or so), then getting caught up and then coming back. So about 40-50 seconds I was getting caught up. But surprisingly it didnt seem like so long when I was sitting. Each instance of getting caught up felt like 5-10 seconds and not 40-50 sec. It could have been that I was caught up in one long thought-stream which was for a few minutes with the rest of the thoughts being 10 seconds or so. To rule this out, I added interval bells every 5 min to my insight timer and found that the counts were pretty even during each 5 min interval.

    I also tried it while walking outside bringing my attention back to just walking whenever I was lost and also making sure I count it. I found the same thing even then, I was very aware and coming back very quickly everytime I got lost. All the "caught up" instances were even (I could say basing on the distance I walked during that caught up time).

    Did anyone try something like this? Can this be used as a practice? Is it like Shikantaza version of "breath counting"? Something that can only be used as training wheels? Or should it remain just an experiment and not useful as a practice

    Love to hear your thoughts on this.

    - Sam
  • Taigu
    Blue Mountain White Clouds Hermitage Priest
    • Aug 2008
    • 2710

    You are not going to love my thoughts.

    Now, next time bring other toys, you may try anything from spoon to gun. Little soldiers are great too. Sitting on your head could aslo be a nice experiment. or with a leg up...

    Seriously, when will you start to sit? To let it sit you?

    Do you see you issue with wanting to be in control, wanting to understand, wanting this and that?

    Can you take a break?

    Go on holiday?

    Take care




    • Jundo
      Treeleaf Founder and Priest
      • Apr 2006
      • 39211

      Sometimes one is so caught up in thoughts about being "caught up in thoughts" and thoughts about "methods for getting uncaught by thoughts" ...

      ... that one cannot simply sit, uncaught by thoughts and methods.

      One can count to 20, 30, 28, to infinity ... but can one count to Not One Not Two?

      Like the fellow standing right in Times Square Manhattan, constantly asking everyone "What's the best way to get to New York City from here?"

      Gassho, J (wagging finger and shaking head at this guy who keeps coming back asking for the Big Apple)

      P.S. - We are so direct with you, Sam, only because you keep coming back, month after month, asking the same darn thing about the best method of the method of no methods. Talk about being lost in New York!
      Last edited by Jundo; 06-28-2013, 03:47 PM.


      • Geika
        Treeleaf Unsui
        • Jan 2010
        • 4977

        You are getting some excellent advice, Sam! Please don't be discouraged. I also see the value in breath counting, but let's not get caught up in it.
        求道芸化 Kyūdō Geika
        I am just a priest-in-training, please do not take anything I say as a teaching.


        • Joe
          • Jun 2013
          • 52

          This is an interesting idea. I also tend to notice when I have been day dreaming or a sticky thought. I think though that counting them would hinder my ability to let them go. Noticing them while sitting reminds me of what I am doing, that is, sitting. But holding to the number doesn't let them go, it pushes those thoughts to the side. If you say, 'I was distracted five times last time I sat' you might try to remember what it was that made you distracted, and then you are distracted again!

          Thank you for this idea.




          • Daitetsu
            • Oct 2012
            • 1145

            Hi Sam,

            I agree with Amelia, don't be discouraged - our teachers actually mean it well.

            Just stop analyzing your zazen, don't think about it. Man, that's actually the beauty of it - finally doing nothing. Let the chattering in your head come and let it go. Don't supress, but don't cling either.
            It's a bit like riding a bike. You don't analyze all the time where to shift your weight in order to keep balance.
            Just do it, just do it, just do it - and then it actually sits you! No you, no sitting, just pure being. Yet all there is is sitting.

            I remember something Abott Muho from Antaiji once said in a German documentary:
            "You must be willing to die on the cushion."

            Don't take that quote literally, it is neither about the amount of practice nor about the length of sittings. Ponder a bit on these words.

            I know you've probably heard it thousands of times here, but is so important:
            Drop everything, drop yourself, and just BE. And then being and doing become one.

            And as Taigu said in one of his videos (can't remember which one):
            "Simple, yet difficult."

            Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and be easy on yourself.


            no thing needs to be added


            • Kyonin
              Treeleaf Priest / Engineer
              • Oct 2010
              • 6739

              Just sit, man.

              Quit experimenting. Throw away your intellect for a bit.

              In my humble opinion, the more you search, the less you sit.

              It's like all my fellow desk runners. They are huge experts in shoes, techniques and weather. Yet they still need to actually go out and run.

              Just sit. That's all there is to it.


              Hondō Kyōnin
              奔道 協忍


              • RichardH
                • Nov 2011
                • 2800

                Just sitting and being muddled is very unsatisfactory. But if you drop trying to find your way out of it, and just sit in/as an unsatisfactory muddle, the muddle itself is "emptiness presencing". This isn't something to figure out, it is just something to do, just sit unresolved and dissatisfied. Sit as you will be unresolved and dissatisfied forever, and that is ok.

                Gassho Richard.


                • shikantazen
                  • Feb 2013
                  • 361

                  Thanks Taigu and all for the teaching. It wont be teaching anymore if it is something that I agree with and already know. Thanks for pointing out my seeking mind


                  • Taikyo
                    Friend of Treeleaf
                    • Nov 2012
                    • 363


                    One way to categorize the meditation practice of shikan taza, or "just sitting," is as an objectless meditation. This is a definition in terms of what it is not. One just sits, not concentrating on any particular object of awareness, unlike most traditional meditation practices, Buddhist and non-Buddhist, that involve intent focus on a particular object. Such objects traditionally have included colored disks, candle flames, various aspects of breath, incantations, ambient sound, physical sensations or postures, spiritual figures, mandalas including geometric arrangements of such figures, or of symbols representing them, teaching stories, or key phrases from such stories. Some of these concentration practices are in the background of the shikan taza practice tradition, or have been included with shikan taza in its actual lived experience by practitioners.

                    But objectless meditation focuses on clear, non-judgmental, panoramic attention to all of the myriad arising phenomena in the present experience. Such objectless meditation is a potential universally available to conscious beings, and has been expressed at various times in history. This just sitting is not a meditation technique or practice, or any thing at all. "Just sitting" is a verb rather than a noun, the dynamic activity of being fully present.
                    Taigen Dan Leighton



                    • Jishin
                      • Oct 2012
                      • 4819

                      Hi Sam,

                      It's so painful to go against the flow of life. I just try to relax, take a deep breath, and go with it.

                      Gassho, John


                      • Jundo
                        Treeleaf Founder and Priest
                        • Apr 2006
                        • 39211

                        Sam, may I ask what Lineage and Teachers that senior student was from? I think I can guess the likely suspects.

                        The heart of what Taigu and I are pointing to is your using Zazen as an instrument and method to "get" something. Folks cannot fathom in their thick skulls how to "get" the total lack of need to "get". They seek to be free of thoughts, of seeking, of lack ... thus cannot find how to be free of seeking and lack. (The way to be free of seeking and lack is not by seeking to be free and not lack, but by simply abandoning all need to seek ... thus truly becoming free with nothing lacking!) There are schools of Buddhism and Zen that teach Zazen (even what they call "Shikantaza") as a means to an end. That is fine, but they do not know Shikantaza as The End to all means and all ends.

                        There are folks who teach Zazen as an instrument to quiet down the quantity or loudness of thoughts. They do not understand what it means to simply be unperturbed by thoughts, not playing their game, not clutching them, not taken prison by then, not attached, seeing right through them. We are simply not attached to thoughts that may come and go. We pay thoughts "no never-mind", and then truly attain clear mind like a mirror (a mirror is totally unperturbed by whatever is placed before it and appears in it, simply reflecting all, paying all no never-mind. Please do not seek to have a mind free of things ... rather, seek to have a mind like a mirror unperturbed.).

                        If I might try a simile "for the birds" ...

                        Imagine that thoughts going through the mind are like flocks of geese flying through the sky, coming and going. Some might teach various methods to reduce the number of geese, like bird hunters trying to clear out the sky of the birds and their traces with shotguns! Some folks might sit in Zazen really bothered each time geese fly by, saying "I need to get rid of these birds, chase them out of the sky". In their mind, there is a mental trace of each bird's path, and they are distracted by these birds. This is attachment to these thought-birds. But for the person sat by pure Shikantaza, the birds in flight leave no traces. The sky with birds, the sky without birds, is just the same clear and boundless sky. It is as if the birds are clear blue, the sky flying. The hunter puts down his gun, somehow the birds find their nests and settle down for the night.

                        So long as you continue to look at Zazen as an instrument, buckshot to catch geese ... you are the one caught by the geese.

                        Birds fly in the sky,
                        The water (of mind) reflects their images.
                        The birds leave no traces,
                        Nor does the water retain their images.

                        Gassho, J
                        Last edited by Jundo; 06-28-2013, 04:29 PM.
                        ALL OF LIFE IS OUR TEMPLE


                        • shikantazen
                          • Feb 2013
                          • 361

                          Hi Jundo,

                          I did not talk to the teacher yet. The student and the teacher are from the lineage of Mauzemi Roshi. Here is their website.

                          Regarding practice and the desire to get something out of it; I am talking aloud to myself here: I definitely think that I am going to get something out of my practice, more insight/wisdom and may be enlightenment/awakening/end-of-separation or duality. It might be true that I might be already enlightened and don't realize it. If so I want to realize it. That realization may be the one I intend to "get" out of the practice. You and Taigu and all of the senior students here talk with a clarity/wisdom which is what I intend to "get" out of my practice.

                          Why do I want that wisdom/insight? One reason is to fully realize my potential, to be all I can be. Another reason is the belief that it will make me suffer less, will help me face my problems in a much more informed way.

                          I understand it is important not to expect anything from the practice and be more accepting of what I have and what is here and now. But how do I ignore the above aspects of practice? Is it not true that we all desire above things. How would putting a non-true attitude of "not wanting anything" on top of my actual expectations help?


                          • Kokuu
                            Treeleaf Priest
                            • Nov 2012
                            • 6750

                            Hi Sam

                            I agree that pushing away or suppressing your feeling of wanting something would be a sham. I would say just to sit with that as well as everything else. We all probaby come to practice wanting to get something from it. I certainly did. That passes, and then comes back at times. Joko Beck points out early on in Everyday Zen that students coming to the zendo are seeking to go beyond wanting something to make it all better but usually replace the idea that a new car/relationship/house/job will make life great with enlightenment or wisdom. How about if all there was is here now? If this was as good as it was going to get? How would that change things?

                            Trying to listen to two teachers at this stage is probably going to be difficult unless they are very much talking from the same page. There is nothing wrong with the sticky thoughts meditation but basically you have to stick to one practice and stay with it to get anywhere. Some traditions have a wide variety of practices, Zen as done here doesn't. Shikantaza is exactly what it says on the tin - just sitting. Add anything and it is no longer shikantaza.

                            Just sit. Just do that.



                            • Rich
                              • Apr 2009
                              • 2595

                              Sam, if i had tried something like that I probably wouldn't have stayed with the practice. Zen is very simple, just do it. And yea I'm always caught up in something but I am free to move about the country or whatever you want to call it
                              無 (MU, Emptiness) and 氷 (HYO, Ice) ... Emptiness Ice ...