Ten In-flight Suggestions from Zen West/ Empty Field
The way of riding the clouds comes freely from the mountains.
~ Dogen Zenji
One: Take Great Care with Your Home Temple
Observe the same rituals at home as you would in the Earth Zendo – always bow to your cushion, to all beings before you, and neaten up your cushion area upon departure. When you pass by this space during the week, it will remind you of your intention and commitment to practice.
Rather than log into Zoom from the cluttered desk or busy kitchen, consider devoting one particular area in your home, no matter how small, to fostering a still environment. Soji screens are affordable and aesthetic means to section off sitting space. Set up an altar with an image of buddha, a candle, and fresh flowers. Create a stand at the appropriate height for your electronic device. Have ready your chant book and rakusu or wagesa.
The Earth Zendo is designed to evoke a body memory guiding us to return to the present moment. The uncluttered ordered space and soft lighting relaxes the body. Everything points inward as we “put aside all involvements and suspend all affairs.” We aspire to recreate this intention at home.
Two: Lights, Camera, (Non)Action
Position the camera in your device 10-15 degrees below eye level. This may require props to achieve the right height. Experiment with adequate lighting directly in front of you (rather than overhead or behind you). Good lighting helps everyone fully feel your presence. Inexpensive “circle lights” that clip onto your laptop are helpful. Get close enough to the camera so we see your head and chest. If you are in the dark, or the camera is well below you, it makes it harder for others to connect with you and register your facial expression.
Enter the Sky Zendo the same way you would enter the Earth Zendo. As you arrive before your device, bow to the online Shika (greeter), arrange your sitting place, and settle into meditation. Make sure you are muted. If it is an informal event or a class, there may be some casual conversation upon entry. In formal events, simply settle and begin zazen.
Remember to “rename” yourself to what you prefer to be called. Those with dharma names, please use those. For dharma talks, some people use the “Pin” Zoom function that can be found under the three dots […] rather than “Gallery” choice that shows all participants. “Pin” allows you to fix on your screen the speaker who will appear large while others are in smaller boxes.
Three: Honor the Sacred Forms
When the sangha is practicing zazen, it’s expected that all Sky Zendo participants observe the same forms, complete stillness in the upright posture for that period of meditation. However, those at home do have several additional options. Feel free to move to a different location during zazen and remove your video. Some people prefer staying on screen to maintain a felt sense of connection with the sangha. During zazen, you can face the screen, sit in profile, or even with your back to the screen. Experiment. If you remain onscreen, please know your presence is registered by those in the Earth Zendo in the same way it would be in person. Any movement is highly distracting, particularly eating, fidgeting, or sleeping.
If you are unavoidably called away from the screen by family members, children or pets during zazen or dharma talks, please remove your video so as not to disturb others. If this is a frequent occurrence, consider asking those who live with you to support your practice for the designated time online. During talks and informal gatherings, it’s OK to have pets with you, but be aware that too much excessive movement will distract the group.
Four: Compassionate Care for the Body
Staring at a screen is probably the most difficult challenge for Sky Zendo participants. Studies show we blink less than normal when online which strains the eyes. The screen also stimulates the nervous system during a time we are simultaneously inviting the body to relax. Some of us may need to pay attention and support the body’s relaxation response deliberately when online, particularly those who have experienced trauma.
Here are some tips to reduce eye strain from WebMD.
- Make sure your device is an arm’s length away positioned 10-15 degrees below eye level.
- Purchase a matte filter to attach to your screen to reduce glare.
- Observe a 20-20-20 recommendation. Every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds. This can be done during zazen if needed, although you can also close the eyes, and/or position your body so we have a side or back view of you.
- On your computer, you can also raise the contrast on the screen, lower the color temperature to give off less blue light, and raise refresh rate.
- Lastly, make sure the general lighting in the room is not in great contrast to the screen lighting.
Five: Sky Zendo Samadhi
Be curious about the nature of attention and consciousness online. Unlike the peripheral vision and depth sense we utilize in the Earth Zendo, online attention is narrowed by a relatively small screen, an absorbing experience similar to watching a movie. The backlit images of other interesting human beings looking back at us dominate consciousness. We can lose touch with our own bodies, the progression of time, as well as our orientation to the physical location we occupy until the lights come back on. While this demonstrates the malleability of one’s stream of consciousness, there is a hazard to prematurely “dropping off body and mind” in this unconscious often dissociated way.
To that end, consider occasionally zooming out your attention, like opening a camera lens. Pause from the screen and deliberately return your awareness to your own body and breath. Gradually widen the circle of awareness to include the room and those on the screen. Notice what percentage of your attention is on (or completely absorbed in) the screen (or even fixed on your own image!). What percentage of attention is aware of your own body including all its sensations, impulses, thought processes?
Do not force anything, simply be curious. The samadhi invited by the practice of zazen is a cohesive unified field where everything is reflected without judgment and nothing is excluded. It is not a form of dissociation, but a profound sense of interdependence where nothing is separate.
All buddhas and dharma ancestors realize the empty sky and the great earth.
~ Bodhisattva Precept Commentary
Six: Release All Self Attachment
Be curious about the attachment to the image of self. Many people report being disturbed or distracted by seeing their own image on screen in way one would not in the Earth Zendo. This is an excellent dharma gate – notice the habit of being drawn towards our own image. We all do it. What comes up? Is it possible to release the worry, judgment or the need to tend? Can you soften the heart to that appearance in the same way we soften to a good friend? Online practice invites us to completely let go of attachment to “our” image and take a kindly, open stance. It can be interesting to “hide self image” and notice what happens there. Whether on Zoom or not, we are always working on the release of our imagined self image.
Seven: Put Aside Distractions, Embrace the Unexpected
Zazen instructions say to “put aside all involvements and suspend all affairs.” At home, the endless distractions of ordinary life pose a significant challenge to that directive. The phone rings, the dryer cycle buzzes, the spouse wants to know where you left the keys. Forgoing distractions is honoring your practice and requires commitment. It can be helpful to ask your family or housemates to grant you this time without distraction. Ultimately, our practice should benefit those around us, making us more available and compassionate beings.
If possible, do not keep your cell phone by your side. Its magnetic allure offers continual temptation to check emails and texts. Forgo last minute snacks and eating on the fly. For the sake of all beings, let this time be as still as possible. Once we engage temptations like checking texts during practice, it’s hard to give them up. Treat the Sky Zendo in the same way you would the Earth Zendo. You will notice the difference in the quality of your experience over time.
Digital technology is always inviting us to let go of our expectations. It’s amazing how frustrating this “convenient” technology can be. Right when the teacher says, “It’s essential to remember…,” the internet drops you. Another time you realize you have the wrong Zoom link or you can’t find the right button to make the sound right? And so it goes. Each moment we meet these conditions of dukkha, we bow to what is happening. Yes, yes, yes, this too, is our practice. The dukkha that comes with our digital life is not different than the dukkha off screen.
Eight: Nourish the Sangha
Some practitioners report a sense of disconnection from others when online and a sense of being disembodied. We feel the loss of the enlivened presence we enjoy in the Earth Zendo. It’s true – there are many streams of information missing – the felt sense of another person’s body that includes posture, tones of voice, even heat and scent, as well as the emotional energetic quality we wordlessly express.
Given these conditions, notice how online practice can also be incredibly intimate. Several practices for Sky Zendo participants help remind us of our fundamental connection to one another. Before settling into zazen, take a moment to briefly gaze at everyone present. We can rather boldly enjoy this act in the Sky Zendo in ways that would not be acceptable in the Earth Zendo. Can you see beyond the image of the person into their heart? Remember our common intention to live an awakened life. Connect with the vulnerability we all experience in practice. This is taking refuge in the sangha jewel. A spontaneous metta prayer for someone present is most excellent practice. Notice your experience if you take time to choose one or two individuals and extend to them the wish that they be free from fear and be at ease.
During workshops or retreats, a breakout room will be offered to Sky Zendo members to connect with one another in the same way we would casually in the hallway. During most events, upon departure, unmute, say goodnight and thank you to everyone so our voices join together in a departing song of the evening.
Nine: Chant with Abandon
It may feel odd to chant alone at home. However, it is excellent practice to liberate the voice and chant fully from the hara (belly) without being self conscious. Why not chant with abandon? Think of the joy of singing in the shower or the car. Toning exercises (holding vowels like “o” and “e” and “u” for full extended breaths) are great ways to develop this body practice. Notice any hesitation in letting your own voice come forward freely. Consider seeking out some guidance on this. Be open releasing any karma that blocks your natural full bodied expression.
Ten: Take Note
One benefit in the Sky Zendo is that is perfectly OK to take notes during dharma talks. Many people appreciate being able to reflect on teachings they want to consider further. It’s useful to have notes when it comes time to share about what is most salient to you. And no harm is done if it includes a doodle or two.
Riding the “Sky Zendo” clearly requires a different sensibility about how to respect the space we create for practice. Perhaps we are only now just beginning to discover its amazing possibility and dance with its challenges. To dwell on the ways online practice is somehow lesser while being online is the mind of dukkha. While acknowledging the differences between Sky and Earth Zendos, a better question may be how we can practice wholeheartedly under all conditions.
Of course, practicing at home is not the same. Nothing is ever the same. That’s the liberation. If we are paying attention, not one moment of this life is the same as the next. One teacher I know who primarily teaches online made this comment when someone expressed disdain for the virtual world as somehow not real. He replied, “Everything is virtual.” If we study our mind, the way we construct a world “out there,” we discover the truth of this. We will always practice together in person and savor the beautiful experience that comes from our bodies being in one space. And now it’s time we extend the teachings to be realized in every realm of modern life for the benefit of all.
With palms together,
Not advancing, not retreating. Not real, not empty. There is a brilliant sea of clouds. There is a dignified sea of clouds.
~ Bodhisattva Precept Commentary by Dogen and Keizan