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The posture of the cook

Updated: Dec 21, 2023

"But we can't just sit in a cushion!"

I often hear this sentence in the world of activism.

Faced with a world in pain, how indeed can one consider that sitting can contribute to anything other than reinforcing the privilege of those who have the luxury of having nothing else to do but sit.

This reaction is deeply legitimate, it is common sense. How indeed can I remain idle in front of the homeless, the slaughtered animals, the beaten women and children, how can I not act to help people who are victims of social injustice, of racism, how can I not rush to the people who are stranded on our coasts etc.?

However, in my experience, when I adopt a posture of circumspection, then the larger question appears of what builds this common sense, what is at the origin of our actions?

In my cultural context this common-sense-activist perspective of me sitting on the cushion seems to stem from:

  • The intention to do good

  • The deep conviction that we are fully capable of analyzing a problem and therefore of solving it.

  • The certainty that once the problem is analyzed, it is enough to act on it.

But this ordinary functioning of reactivity to the world, is for me informed by the special human ability to forget to question the way in which our personal ethics or our capacity to perceive reality is constructed.

And it is realistic to conceive that what we perceive as "reality" most often concerns our projections resulting in a phenomenal co-production of all the experiences we have lived since our childhood and even earlier.

We also forget to question the intention with which we carry out our actions and that an enthusiasm based solely on the morality of the good can also have the effect of feeding the tensions that we are trying to resolve.

So what does a cushion have to offer me? How can I have the nerve to say that it is by sitting down that I will find another answer to the infinite boomerang effect of my most beautiful impulses? And how can I benefit from this sitting when I walk the path of activism? How can I hear what sounds like an irreconcilable paradox: the activism of contemplation in the form of sitting, begging, deep listening circles, silent retreats of all that sits the body mind?

Simply sitting

"When I eat I eat, when I sleep I sleep" says the wise man.

Sitting down and then, in this state of non manufacturing of thoughts, getting up from the cushion to cook, eat and simply live is the deeply disturbing proposal of sitting without a goal in front of the complexity of the world. At first sight it seems insane, but it is just as relevant as the one that consists in following without stopping for a moment everything we think we should do in the name of a conditioned good.

Sitting with a relaxed back and a straight spine (on the floor or on a chair, it doesn't matter) is our natural posture, that of babies who without tension stand with their spine spread out on their sacrum, and at the same time something extremely complicated, so much so that in our lives we have lost the sense of balance, so much so that we struggle against the gravity of the earth.

Carried by our thoughts, it is often our head that drives our body, physically but also mentally because our being is body-mind, whether we like it or not. The one cannot be separated from the other except conceptually.

To observe ourselves walking is very interesting if we want to know our relationship to the world: do we put our head first or our steps? Can we bring our upper body backwards without feeling fear or, on the contrary, confidence? Do we allow ourselves to stop and let go of the weight along the spine, release tension and automatically feel the opening of another space for thought/action?

The Alexander Technique approach to body posture talks about direction and inhibition. The concept is disarmingly simple: since early childhood we have produced conditioned reflexes which are often useless and tiring as we strain against the various injunctions of our parents and then of society. Thus, even the way we get up from a chair calls upon most of the back muscles (the volitional muscles) when our body is made in such a way that it has the freedom, when given the possibility, to function without tensing up (thanks to the deep muscles).

The methodology of the Alexander technique is literally "not doing": we put the intention to stand up (set the direction) but we don't do it, and in this space freed from conditioned movement, we relax and allow the deep muscles to take over. When we start moving again, in our direction, it is done without any effort. This simple pause "between intention and action" will deconstruct the muscular-mental body habit and offer again the possibility to the body-mind to function more freely in the adjusted and not conditioned effort.

This approach to non-doing is similar to the 'sitting without purpose' meditation of zazen in Japanese. As Issho Fujita says in his footnotes on zazen, “When we are absorbed in our thoughts, thinking about this or that - as usual - it is a function of the 'muscular-outer mind'. In the common French expression, we say: "use your head". In contrast, the "inner mind muscle" has the function of supporting the appearance and disappearance of thoughts at the basic level. It allows intuition, awareness and full consciousness to appear. Here again, in zazen, we can say that we are calming down an excessive activity of outer mind muscle and activating and manifesting the function of the inner mind muscle which has been suppressed.

Developed by Master Dogen in the 12th century, the particularity of zazen is that the mind of "not doing" goes through the posture of the body. His vision is still to this day considered radical in Buddhism, as it affirms the possibility of freeing ourselves from our conditioned reflexes by simply sitting; he goes as far as to affirm that awakening is the posture. To understand a little better what Dogen means by posture but also in what brings us to consider this practice of uninhibited posture as activism (of contemplation), we have to go back to the school of philosophy of Yogacara founded by Vasubandhu around the 5th century.

This philosophy speaks to us (as does all of Buddhism) about the confusion between reality as it is and our perception of the world. It is radically based on the fact that nothing has its own substance. Matter is formed and deformed according to the perception of the observer who influences the reality of this matter. Nothing exists in itself but is a game of crossed perceptions conditioning the actions resulting from it, themselves products of our projections. Nihilism is not far away and Dogen’s philosophy has often been judged as such but this is to misunderstand its purpose; on the contrary, it is at the root of contemplative activism.

In Yogacara school, the notion of a "memory chamber of our consciousness" is proposed, where all our actions and the experience we have gained from them are stored: Alaya Vijnaya. The school also proposes the space of the ego (manas) which would draw from this "memory chamber" of how to make sense of its individuality by creating a history from this fabric of experiences. A very simple example is, if a child is given sweets every time it works well, it will probably have the desire to celebrate successful work with sweets all their life.

We find these principles developed later by psychology. But when psychology will rather focus on understanding the constitutive effects of these experiences on our identity and, according to the therapies, influence our behaviors, another proposal will be born from this cartography of the mind: that of dynamic absorption, the simple sitting in the active porosity of life as it is; chan na, zazen in Japanese.

To take the direction of sitting upright, not doing and letting oneself be unformed by the innate capacity of the body-mind to form itself again in continuity, such is the non-methodology of this sitting.

The meaning of this meditation (zazen) is based on the principle that if we discern the causal mechanics existing between the experiential memory (memory chambers) and the way we build ourselves (the ego), we will divert the "ordinary" effects of the way we perceive ourselves, the world and our actions.

Compared to other meditations, the proposal of zazen has the particularity that it has no objective and even the intention of "letting it happen" of the posture must be abandoned here, if we want to really "let it happen". Here, all the thoughts constructed by Alaya and filtered by Manas are left to themselves and stop making the tensions of acting and doing, certainties and opinions. We stop the thread of the story that we tell ourselves simply by not participating in it anymore, by not grasping it. Comfortably installed in our conditioning, in full awareness of our illusions, we rest. When the mental productions appear, we say hello to them but without “inviting them to tea” as D.T. Suzuki used to say.

And like a computer, the fact of no longer doing, of letting what comes as it comes emerge without keeping or rejecting, we operate, in all unconsciousness, a radical deconstruction of our way of being in the world; a hard disk reset.

Simply by being in the receptive disposition of all that crosses us, we free ourselves from all our conditioning, instantly and without any possibility of seeing it. This is the notion of awakening according to Dogen, an expression of absolute reality that is perfectly elusive and completely outside of any personal desire.

This dynamic of Self-realization is a profoundly revolutionary way of living because it no longer seeks to escape from causality but, by diving into it, creates other routes, other possibilities, and, thanks to the receptivity generated by the open posture, it will activate all of our creativity in order to be able to act rather than react.

It will also, of course, create new causalities, other projections, other illusions because it is our lot as humans to produce thought, first of all with the language that must define, delimit, but if we remain in this movement of never grasping anything, then this sitting promises us from moment to moment the dynamic resilience of an interphenomenal self that adjusts itself infinitely.

If there is no longer an objective, if there is nothing to reach, to solve, to find, if our transformation no longer depends on us but on our capacity to become receptive, to let ourselves be in-formed rather than always seeking to transform ourselves, then a great relaxation takes place.

From this relaxation, a new form of action different from our ordinary way emerges and the true power of action is activated as a result of this continuous deconstruction of our conditioned self.

It is in this that the posture is activism; contemplative activism.

The posture of the tenzo (the cook in Zen) is the dynamic expression of this space of inhibition of action in the direction that unfolds in all activities of our life. Its invitation brings us back into the flow of our daily life, bridging the gap between the sitting posture and the deep spirit of the posture that reveals itself in each of our movements.

The practice of tenzo offers us to dive into all the activities of our life in the relativity of our singularity, in the obligation that we have to choose, to decide to take charge while acting from the same space freed as that of the sitting.

This is why, to the reaction "but we can't just sit!", the response is that we don't just sit, because sitting in this context is first and foremost a dynamic posture that unfolds throughout our lives, in meditation as well as in the kitchen, and everywhere else as long as we set a direction.

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