How to do zazen

There are lots of guides out there on how to do zazen. I check out a few every once in a while, looking for tips or just to remind myself of all the different elements, and remind myself that I’m not an expert. This one isn’t bad, and has clear photos, but it’s best if you have someone in person to show you the basics. A person could write a book on how to do zazen, but it’s really not complicated.

  1. Wear comfortable clothes and find a soft place to sit.
  2. Set up a timer so you don’t have to watch the clock.
  3. Sit up straight, not leaning against anything, and breathe naturally.
  4. Watch the breath. When thoughts and feelings occur, let them go and come back to the breath.
  5. Be patient with yourself.

A soft place to sit

My zafu and zabutonIt’s best to sit on a cushion,¬† cross-legged or kneeling, with cushioning for your knees. Set up your cushions on the floor, facing a wall. If you have a quiet room to do this in, do it there. I basically live in one room, so I have a space against the wall that I can easily clear when I’m ready to meditate. Do what you need to do to make sure you won’t be interrupted – turn off the phone, etc.

In zen we use a small, round, firm cushion called a zafu, placed on top of a large square cushion called a zabuton. This is the best arrangement, but you can use other pillows and cushions or a folded blanket. I got my zafu at Samadhi Cushions and the zabuton is really just a big pillow from Bed Bath and Beyond.

If you have trouble with your knees or your hips, you can sit in a chair or a stool, but unless you have serious back problems, don’t lean against anything. The object is to sit up straight, with your spine in correct alignment, one vertebra stacked on another and your head centered on top. This is the best way to concentrate and keep yourself from falling asleep.

A timer

You’ll need something with which to time yourself. It’s not a good idea just to keep an eye on your watch, because you’ll get all focused on time instead of the breath. You can use an alarm clock, obviously; the little travel ones are not expensive and usually have alarms that are less obnoxious than the plug-in kind. There are meditation timers you can buy, but I find them too pricey. You can also download MP3 meditation timers online, like these at Audio Dharma, which start and finish with a simple bell.

I strongly suggest starting with a short time, even five minutes, and gradually work up until you can do the standard 45 minute sit.

Sit up straight

When we do zazen, before we begin, we stand in front of our cushion, place our hands in prayer position in front of our hearts (this is called gassho), and we bow to the cushion. There’s a lot of bowing in zazen, because the Japanese have been the custodians of zen for almost a thousand years, and there’s a lot of bowing in their culture, but I’ve grown to like it. Bowing to the cushion sets up a respectful attitude toward the practice. It also exercises the spine a little.

Set up your cushions and your timer. Bow to your cushion. Sit, and make sure you’re comfortable. You might have to experiment for a while to find your ideal position, with regard to the height of the cushion and how you arrange your legs. You want to be comfortably erect, not straining and not slumped. Ideally, your butt and your knees form a tripod that supports your spine. It’s a good idea to sway a few times to find the perfect spinal balance.

Westerners are not used to sitting on the floor, so your hips and knees might complain. Do not force your legs into lotus or half-lotus, especially if you’re over thirty. Once your cartilage has stopped growing, all you’re going to do is stretch it and weaken those joints, which is a very bad idea. I sit Burmese fashion, tops of my feet more or less flat on the floor in front of my hips, or with one ankle crossed over the other. Find what works for you, what makes you feel stable and comfortable and allows you to breathe freely.

You can just clasp your hands in your lap, or lay them on your thighs, or you can do the cosmic mudra (a mudra is a way to hold your hands that’s supposed to focus the mind in a specific way). Place your left hand in your right hand, palms up, the fingers lying on top of each other, and touch the tips of the thumbs together lightly.

In zen we keep the eyelids lowered but not closed, and eyes at rest.

Watch the breath

Don’t think about emptying your mind, or accomplishing something, or getting anywhere. Focus on the breath and just let your thoughts go. Breathe quietly, from the belly, through your nose. When you have a thought, recognize that it’s a thought, and don’t pursue it. In the beginning it helped me a lot to be mindful and present in the room, so instead of focusing on the breath, I would focus on the sensations of the space around me, the little sounds, etc. Not thinking about them, just noticing them.

You can also count the breath. I found this very helpful. At the end of each exhalation, count one, then two, etc. Go up to ten, then start over. You can quickly tell when you’ve been distracted, because either you’ve stopped counting, or you’re up to fourteen or something. I got up to twenty-one once before I realized I wasn’t paying attention. Again, don’t punish yourself for getting distracted, just let it go and come back to the breath. And start over at one.

Be patient with yourself

The Buddha shows us how it's done.

The Buddha shows us how it's done.

When you first start to do this, your mind will probably be jumping around like a crazy thing. Don’t worry about it. This is how everyone begins; this is just your mind doing what it does. Don’t punish yourself for getting distracted. Don’t tell yourself that you’re no good at zazen. This is zazen: sitting and focusing on the breath, and coming back to it when you get distracted.

Sit as still as possible. Be like a mountain. If you have an itch, just let it be. You will probably find that if you keep breathing and observe the itch, it becomes just sensation, and eventually fades. We don’t have to scratch every itch.

If you have trouble with pain, do the same thing. Just notice it and don’t worry about doing something about it. This gets easier with practice, and also, the more you sit, the less pain there is. Your body gets used to it. It develops the muscles in your back and neck that are needed to keep you upright without a chair to lean against. This can take time. It was over a year from when I started a regular practice until I could sit for the whole 45 minutes without screaming in pain inside my head by the end. Once I understood that shifting around, trying to ease the pain in my shoulders, was actually prolonging it, I made a lot of progress.

The point of zazen is not to achieve enlightenment, or samadhi, a transcendent state of blissful union with the universe. If that happens, great, but that’s not the point, and any zen master worth his or her salt will tell you that. The point of zazen is just to do it. Sit on the cushion. Focus on the breath. Practice letting thoughts and feelings happen without grabbing hold of them. When you find yourself thinking about something, relax and let it go. Come back to the breath.

When your time is up, put your hands in gassho (prayer position, in front of the heart) and bow again to your practice. This also helps limber up the spine, which might be stiff after sitting so still.

That’s it.

You can do this anywhere, at any time. It’s better to do it a little than not at all. And, while the benefits are not the point, there are definitely benefits. Medical research is always proving how beneficial meditation is, for your blood pressure, stress level, concentration, general peace of mind. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to do zazen, or shave your head, or be a vegetarian. You don’t have to be anything.

Just do this one simple thing for yourself, and see what happens.

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