why zazen helps autism

(by Greg, Puzzleboy, autistic)

Social disconnectedness is the defining feature of autism, supplying the auto, the apparent "isolated self", of autism. Autistic people have limited instinct to generate or interpret social cues. The usual response to this is to have autistic people memorize social cues and responses to them. However, my own experience is that this approach does not address a central ordeal of autism, felt isolation.

One day I had the following thought: "What if we take the opposite approach? What if instead of memorizing social cues we eliminate them?" I realized that there is a form of social engagement independent of all ordinary social cues: shared quiet presence. Shared quiet presence is a fundamental act of relationship for people without other social ability. It is arguably a fundamental act of relationship for anyone. Because shared quiet presence lacks social cues it “levels the social playing field” for autistics and allows a meeting not of abled and disabled but of human beings.

It is not surprising that I noticed the value of shared quiet presence, because I had already been practicing it for almost forty years. What is surprising is that it took me forty years to notice that its lack of social cues suited it to autism. It happens that I had been practicing shared quiet presence called by a different name. Here we arrive at a fascinating juncture. Shared quiet presence is not new. It is an ancient practice.


There are many ways to be quietly present with each other, but very few that are truly quiet and truly present. The essence of quiet is stillness, and the essence of presence is caring attention. The upright immobile sitting posture of zen meditation, called zazen, cultivates shared stillness and caring attention to a very high degree: It is truly quiet and truly present, making zazen a preeminent form of shared quiet presence.

Zazen is far simpler than other forms of meditation and in itself has nothing to do with religion. It is a natural expression of a basic human drive to intimacy and peace. Perhaps because of its natural potency, zazen does form the centerpiece of an ancient tradition called Zen, a tradition that purports to address the cause and end of suffering. In other words, hunting for a social practice without social cues takes one directly to the central practice of the Zen tradition that addresses suffering generally. How odd! It’s as if Zen identifies social disconnectedness as the root cause of human suffering, and prescribes the practice of shared quiet presence as a means to awaken amidst it. The Zen view seems to be that all people are to some degree autistic! Whether or not this is so, a straightforward attempt to lessen autistic isolation takes one directly to Zen’s central practice.1

In sum, a simple insight about autism — that limiting social cues can help in autism — brings two notable results:

  1. It suggests ways directly to address the central ordeal of autism, social isolation.
  2. It opens an entirely new view of an ancient practice honored as a way to awaken amid suffering.

At some point a person may want to take up a more earnest practice of shared quiet presence, but doing that takes some effort. We see now that there are two possible reasons to make the effort: 1) to ease the isolation of autism, and 2) to awaken from needless suffering.

That then is the insight that urges the overall experiment of Godzen.net. Here are its individual experiments again in brief:

  1. Contact each other with occasional requests/offers of a single breath of remote shared presence.
  2. Make a date to sit upright and still together, more than is strictly comfortable.
  3. Plan and realize a day or days of more intense sitting practice together.
I do not simply describe these practices: As an autistic and human being, I need them and I invite you to try them with me. As suggested in the opening, my own experience confirms the traditional Zen view that zazen is a most helpful practice in a troubled world. However, I practice outside of formal tradition because of my autistic temperament and in order to underscore that zazen precedes all tradition. No one owns zazen. That said, I am indebted to monastic Zen practice and I support it. If you are more comfortable practicing within a tradition I can suggest a few.

In a lifetime there is a natural arc from get to give. I am attempting that arc myself. Paradoxically, in shared quiet presence and in zazen in particular, get and give are indistinguishable.

Prayer and God

Zazen is also an almost perfect form of prayer: It is an abject surrender, coupled with personal sacrifice, effortful service, and an utter innocence of demand that God behave in any particular way. Even a child’s prayer cannot surpass it. No one owns God, and one can use the word without violence or credulity. Once I shunned the word God, but now I use it out of respect for a long history of care.

If you have troubles beyond the pale my heart is with you. I see that your zazen — and other humble prayer if you are so moved — are extremely important. You are free to continue practicing your present religion or none, of course. I devote my effort to fostering comprehension of Dragon Puzzle Story (the forty-page book I wrote about how brains are built and what they seek)2 and to encouraging zazen and non-coercive prayer. I deeply appreciate your support of this embarrassingly fragile autistic person! I am grateful for prayers and offer my own where they are wanted.

Please pass along the message that one more person added their voice to the chorus of praise for a remarkable approach to difficulty, zazen. I am not a zen master nor even a monk: I am an autistic person fighting for life, and for all liveliness throughout space and time.

I will happily sit upright and still with you. Will you please pray for me?
Feel free to ask any question. The answer may be quiet presence.

godzen.net@gmail.com     P.O.Box 591713   San Francisco, CA 94159-1713   1zazen, traditionally   2see dragonpuzzle.net