THE ZEN BED
Many, many years ago I had the opportunity to do research in a number of Buddhist temples in Western Japan and South Korea for my Master’s and PhD degrees. This meant sitting in silent meditation (Zen), chanting various scriptures aloud (Shingon), and so on. In the course of my research I was taught various mental techniques to clear the mind and sit for extended periods of time without developing any physical problems.
Unfortunately, this emphasis on the tradition of sitting has developed into its own kind of orthodoxy, with little focus given to the contemplative power of walking, or yogic practices such as Shavasana, the well known yoga pose of lying flat on your back with your eyes closed, completely still while being fully aware of (and detached from) your surroundings. But can there be a Zen Buddhist manner of walking? There already is, an activity called kinhin, wherein a meditator gets up and walks around in a meditative state during long periods of sitting meditation, in order to avoid joint injury and blood clots in the legs. Shavasana too is an established tradition in yoga, being physically easy to do but difficult to achieve its intended goal. What about some kind of Zen shavasana technique? One could argue that shavasana is already a Zen technique by its very nature. I will even go as far as to suggest that using a modified shavasana I call “Zen Bed” is a mentally, physically, and practically beneficial activity as a morning waking routine.
One could certain use Zen meditation techniques when laying down at night as a way of getting to sleep comfortably and relatively quickly, but using meditation/awareness techniques to efficiently and strategically wake up is another matter. So what is my Zen Bed concept? I combine meditation, awareness, and Dialectical Behavior Therapy techniques to “Zen” myself out of bed in the morning: relaxed, positive, and mentally sharp. So I suppose it is so much a mix of things as not to be particularly “Zen,” but I can’t think of a better term, or at least a less whimsical term! As I am not a morning person, I love going to sleep, and alternatingly not leaving my soft cozy bed in the morning. Being awak and running around is great, but it the miserable, agonizing transition from soft and sleepy to “awake” that night people hate about mornings. Who wants to leave the velvety caress of Lady Night to have an employee review with the Sun? Not me. But getting from sleep to action can be a deliberately positive process, rather than just trying to get up in the morning. The Zen part of the process involves clearing the mind, the shavasana part involves using your already relaxed body to increase your detachment from a desire to avoid the morning, to comfortably transition the body from bed to physical activity, and the dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) techniques (emotional regulation) to activate and organize your ‘morning mind’ into a state that is conductive to positivity, not the negativity of resistance to the concept of waking up. This is the Zen Bed, the process of (a)waking up.
(NOTE: This isn’t a perfect, fix-all solution to any and all problems you may experience as part of the process of waking up, especially if you are injured, suffer from clinical depression, have chronic illness, etc. It is also not meant as medical, psychiatric, or psychotherapeutic advice and should not be taken as such, especially as a replacement for professional health services. It is merely something I do that helps me, and I am sharing this information with you.)
First, the Zen part. Soto Zen Buddhist meditation dictates that one clear their mind, that alone, with no goals, directions, or path on which one must follow. Known as shikantaza (“nothing else but sitting”), Soto Zen meditation is sitting still and just allowing thoughts to float by in one’s mind without trying to stop or analyze them. The point being to let them “run around” in your mind without trying to force them to stop or disappear. With enough sitting (not “practice”) the thoughts eventually stop floating by so fast and so often, and begin to decrease in speed and number. Thus, no one “practices” Soto Zen meditation, they just sit in a relaxed state with their eyes closed, as their thoughts float by in a manner that does not emotionally or mentally engage with one’s consciousness. Since waking up is easy and (99% of the time) relaxing, why not take advantage of this head start into a meditative state? You are beginning your day in a Soto Zen-like state, why not take it from there and just lay there just taking nice deep breaths, enjoying the state of relaxation. As your muscles will be relaxed, lay there and just let thoughts appear or not appear without trying to force them to be anything than what they are. For sure, this takes time, and for the first few weeks you will have the same kind of morning mind you have always had up until now. Beware anyone with a magic fix to your problems. There are no magic fixes, and these magic fix people always have some nonsensical book/pill to sell you. I am giving you Zen Bed for free. And it actually works, has been proven to work in my life, so that is at least one factual example. At least give Zen Bed a month of mornings and I guarantee you will see some kind of results. I’ll bet they will be positive. So Step One is: just wake up. Lay there for a few minutes just in your awakened state, soft and relaxed, and letting your thoughts float without resistance or judgement. This teaches your mind to not wake up and just start “running” around with the cares and concerns of the day. Learn to engage with the thoughts of the day when you consciously choose to.
Step Two is to remain relatively immobile in the shavasana position, lying on your back completely immobile while remaining aware of and detached from your surroundings. I find doing this works brilliantly as I move from the meditative to waking part of my Zen Bed routine. Once I have finished adjusting to being conscious in the morning via Zen meditation, I can now start being present in my actually body. Lay on your back with your arms by your sides, and your palms facing up, with the focus being on relaxing your entire body as much as possible. I also have modified this technique by adding the extra step of imagining your body is a giant river of hot butter running from the top of your head out of your hands and feet, as if your body was a tube through which the butter ran. You are aware of your empty body and the “butter,” and as the minutes slip by you feel better and better physically and emotionally. Thus, by the time you want to or must get out of bed, you ate not carrying physical stress out into the day.
The third and final step involves a cognitive and/or behavioral technique that activates your brain and gets you off on the right emotional foot. It is so common to wake on any particular morning and have your initial thoughts be worrying, negative, or outright pessimistic concerns about the activities of your day. This morning negativity can be regulated and changed into something more constructive. As someone who is absolutely not a morning person, my thoughts almost inevitably are negative in or about the morning. But rather than accept this as an unalterable fact, one can reprogram their thoughts to work for rather than against themselves. This is done through a simple and realistic exercise: for every negative thought, the goal is to think of three positive thoughts to counterbalance it. It is that simple. Not unrealistic, Pollyannaish thought, but three productive counterarguments against that morning negativity. For example, if you hate getting up because you have some kind of early morning activity you hate, then the goal is to lay in your bed before physically rising and think up three thoughts that replace the exclusively negative single thought that dominates your consciousness. No Canadian intrinsically likes shoveling snow, though we are so used to massive piles of it falling on and around us for months at a time. But rather than hate having to get up to shovel one’s driveway at 5 am in order to shovel 10 inches of snow off your driveway (in minus 20 Celsius weather) be able to get your car out of the garage, there must be three thoughts that can make the activity anywhere from tolerable to, dare I say, enjoyable. Though 10 inches of snow, minus 20 weather, and 5 am are a miserable combination, it is possible to enjoy getting out of bed to shovel if (1) later that morning you are leaving for a tropical vacation (2) driving your new Lamborghini to the airport, and (3) a massive amount of money in your bank account you won in the lottery paid for your car and vacation.
Though this is a rather fantastical example, it doesn’t take such extremes to find a positive morning engagement with the world and one’s daily activities. It just requires what positives one can find in a situation, even if they are not much more positive than negative. It is a morning behavior that just requires practice and a little imagination. It increases distress tolerance and one’s ability to manage their emotions, and not be ruled by them or ignore them completely, internalizing your morning stress. Shoveling snow at 5 am in minus 20 weather does not automatically appeal to me, until I create the emotional conditions in which it does. If I allow myself to shovel for five minutes then take a ten minute break inside, then it becomes at least emotionally manageable. If I also include shoveling my crippled neighbor’s driveway, it technically becomes more of what I don’t like, but in emotional terms a very satisfying and positive experience knowing that I can reduce emotional distress in someone else’s life. Counting up the various ways shoveling 5 am snow in minus 20 temperature is a great way to make me feel like jumping out of bed rather happily, rather than slowly dragging myself out of bed depressed.
I have found my Zen Bed process to be an enjoyable as well as productive way to wake up in the morning when I need to be active and efficient with my waking hours. On days off and holidays, just waking up and then going back to sleep is a great way to keep from becoming a “waking-up workaholic”, not becoming attached to making everything some kind of self-help goal and achievement. The Zen Bed is for making life (not your “spiritual resume”) better.
Why not try waking up this way tomorrow?