Zuowang Meditation: Forgetting to Remember
By Lori A. Furbush
An Exploration of Zuowang
How often we sit in the midst of great beauty, our minds so filled with diversions that we are sadly unaware of the graceful tree dancing in
the breeze or the rhythmic water flowing through a nearby fountain. The great Dao is all around us, indeed within us, yet we're too distracted
to notice. We have things to do and places to be. Sometimes, we're so busy trying to get through life that we forget to live.
To truly live is to be utterly aware of the present moment, to drink it in with all our senses, to pulse with the harmony of the universe. We can
experience the vastness of each moment through zuowang, an ancient Daoist meditation practice through which we forget the illusion of
identity and remember our inner Dao. Sima Chengzhen [AD 647-735], a Daoist priest of the Tang dynasty, describes this formless form of
meditation in his treatise Zuowanglun (Discourse on Sitting in Oblivion). The word zuowang literally translates as "sitting and forgetting" -
forgetting everything - self, ego, body, thoughts, concepts, preferences, even forgetting that you are forgetting. The process of zuowang is
simply to sit, free of intention and expectation, to rediscover our natural state. Any goal of achieving enlightenment is also released. Surely,
at this level of open awareness, you may encounter mystical experiences and resplendent moments of absolute bliss. But if you sit with the
desire reach a peak experience, then the desire itself becomes an obstacle. You are not waiting for enlightenment to magically appear; you
come to realize it is ever-present. As expressed in the Xisheng jing (Scripture of Western Ascension), "If one can empty his mind, practice
non-action, and be free from desires for the Tao, then the Tao will return to him naturally."
Zuowang is not something we can do. We can only allow it to happen. We sit, allowing thoughts to come and go, without dwelling on them
or attaching to them with emotional reactions. As Daoist Priest Shi Jing said in a presentation to the British Taoist Association, "Just allow
everything to be as it is." Thoughts are simply vibrations of energy that come and go. Shi Jing explains, "Thoughts arise from emptiness
and dissolve back into emptiness." In this state of pure awareness, we shed the layers of illusion that we call our identity. As waves of
judgments, beliefs, opinions, and preferences pass through us like a breeze passing through a screen door, we rest in "choiceless
awareness." It is okay that thoughts bubble up. It is okay to let them go. It is okay that some days there are more thoughts than others. It is
okay that some days there is utter chaos.
In those timeless moments when all ideas, concepts, and preferences are dropped, we discover that our natural self is empty of identity.
The idea that we humans are essentially empty may be foreign and even unsettling in the Western mind. Emptiness feels like a hollow
place, void and lacking. Look up the word empty in a thesaurus, and you will find synonyms such as blank, vacant, barren, meaningless,
pointless. In our society where consumerism and multi-tasking are a way of life, being still and empty suggests laziness and failure. To be
a "success," surely we must do something. So, our minds are forever on overdrive, devising ways to do more, buy more, be more - the ego
self seeking to prove our worthiness. If we take away this ego self, we feel like a zero, anonymous, a void. Yet that is the point of zuowang -
to release illusions of the mind and return to an empty state of pure awareness.
To fully comprehend the Daoist principle of emptiness, we must leave behind the notion that everything happens for a reason. We let go of
the concept of karma - that we somehow deserve what we get in life; that our actions have brought us joy or pain. We let go of the concept of
suffering - that we must strive and toil for our just rewards. We slip into the flow of wu wei, the Daoist philosophy of non-effort. To
understand wu wei, we first recognize that life is a cycle of ebb and flow, up and down, yin and yang. Rather than fight this cycle by
struggling to be on the upswing or cursing the downswing, we begin to go with the grain, riding the waves of life with equanimity. Our entire
universe flows with harmony through natural cycles of creation and destruction, and this rhythm is already inherently perfect. So to live the
principle of wu wei is to go with the flow and accept that everything is just as it is. This surrender is not to be confused with apathy, laziness,
or giving up. Rather, any action we take is effortless action - action that is spontaneous, that flows with the current and arises from a deep
connection with the pulse of life. As Chapter 48 of the Daodejing suggests, "When nothing is done, nothing is left undone." We act when
inspired to act, work when we need to work, rest when we need to rest, and, most importantly, let go of the result, knowing that all is as it
How to Practice Zuowang
To begin an exploration of zuowang meditation, we first adopt a sitting posture that allows us to sit without dispersing qi. The regular
practice of moving meditation forms such as qigong and yoga increase the body's flexibility, allowing for longer periods of sitting with
greater ease so that qi is not lost through physical discomfort. The Daoist practices of qigong and internal alchemy can be viewed as an
active yang path to immortality. In contrast, zuowang is a deeply yin, non-active route. Perhaps both paths arrive at the same place, union
with the Dao. But they also complement each other. Active practice prepares the body and mind for zuowang, and zuowang deepens the
experience of qigong.
The first thing we notice when we sit to meditate is the cacophony of rambling thoughts. Though we're ultimately allowing the clarity of
awareness to happen without thinking much of the process of getting there, initially we may need a method to help us turn down the volume
of the mind. For this we can rely on the opposite of wu wei - yu wei or effort. We can make an effort to focus on just one thing, such as
watching the breath or bringing awareness to the energy center of the belly, the lower Dantian. Every time the mind wanders and we find
ourselves following our thoughts, we return the focus to our target of concentration. Occasionally, we may slip deeper into the spaces
between thoughts and transcend the device of concentration into the freedom of spacious awareness. The Dingguan jing (Canon on
Concentration and Observation) declares, "Above the concentrated mind, everything is free and open and coverless. Beneath the
concentrated mind, everything is wide and spacious and bottomless."
When using the yu wei approach of concentration to begin meditation, one focal point that may be useful is to explore your deep connection
to space. Astronomers recently discovered a gaping hole in the universe completely empty of matter that is nearly one billion light years
across. That's a lot of nothing! One way to begin the process of sitting in oblivion might be to imagine the sheer, vast nothingness of this
hole - no light, no sound, no movement, no color. Envision yourself in the center of this void. As you float in the emptiness, your physical
body, vibrations, and thoughts are the only matter in this empty space. And then imagine that the cosmic matter surrounding this giant hole
is magnetic, pulling and dissolving thoughts and bits of the ego self away until you become the void itself. Yet remember this is merely an
illustration of how the concentrated mind can be a tool that leads to zuowang, but is not zuowang itself. Ultimately, the object of focus is
Beyond the Void
At some point in your zuowang practice, even for a fleeting moment, you may spontaneously uncover the delicious clarity of a quiet mind. All
opinions and desires that once defined you are silent. Chapter 37 of the Daodejing states, "When there is no desire, all things are at
peace." You become profoundly aware of the wisdom and perfection of wu wei in all that is. You have reunited with Dao. Sima Chengzhen
describes the Dao as, "a spiritual and wonderful thing. It is numinous and yet has inner nature, empty but without any symbol. Following or
meeting it, it cannot be fathomed. Neither its shadow nor its echo can be pursued. Without knowing why, it just is, pervading all life. Yet it is
never exhausted." The irony is that once you have dissolved into the Dao and then realize you are there, you are no longer there. The Dao
can only be experienced through meditation.
When we do awake to our inner stillness, however, we see the paradox that in the emptiness there is "everything-ness." The Qingjing jing
(Scripture on Clarity and Stillness) states, "Use emptiness to observe emptiness, and see there is no emptiness." Through the complete
shedding of the ego, we merge with life around us. We no longer feel a distinction between our self and the tree swaying in the breeze or
the water softly flowing. We can no longer sense where we end and other begins. We accept and merge with the ever-changing nature of
the universe, the seamless, harmonious cycle of creation and destruction. We realize that we are already, effortlessly a part of all that is.
Through zuowang, sitting and forgetting, we forget the veil of the ego and remember who we truly are. We are woven into the fabric of Dao.
Jing, Shi. "An Interview with Liu Xingdi." The Dragon's Mouth, Issue 3, 2005, p. 6.
Jing, Shi. "Interview: Eva Wong - Quanzhen." The Dragon's Mouth, Issue 1, 2007.
Jing, Shi. "Sitting and Forgetting: An Introduction to Zuowang." The Dragon's Mouth, Issue 1, 2006, pp. 10-13.
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