Zazen and the Practice of Simply Sitting

Years ago, when I was in my 30s, I conducted a television interview with a Zen Buddhist priest about the transformative power of meditation. At the time, I’d dabbled with various types of meditation, but certainly didn’t practice it regularly and couldn’t attest to its benefits. While I really liked the priest and everything she had to say, I didn’t feel drawn to sitting in silence and watching my breath—I had other things to do.

Over a decade has passed since then. I still have “other things to do,” but age has taught me that there’s a correlation between my thoughts and my problems. I can see more clearly now that how I perceive myself, how I view others, and what I believe about my circumstances all have a rather substantial effect on my life experience.

When I’m not happy, the culprit often seems to be my thoughts. With this heightened awareness, instead of heading to the computer first thing in the morning to check e-mail, I’ve started working on my mind.

I’m practicing Zen meditation, or zazen, which means “sitting meditation” in Japanese. Every morning, I spend 10 or 15 minutes (I’m gradually increasing my sitting time) focusing on my breath as I sit in front of a blank wall. “We give you an environment clear of distractions so you can see where distractions originate—in your head,” says author Karen Maezen Miller, a Zen Buddhist priest and my latest Kripalu Perspectives guest.

Speaking with Maezen (she goes by her middle name, which her Buddhist teacher gave her) inspired me to give zazen a try. I’m still in the early stages, but I’m surprised that, when my alarm rings to signal the end of zazen, there are times I actually want to keep sitting. I’m appreciating the silence, the simplicity of just being with myself and with my breath. When the birds chirp or a breeze rustles through the leaves outside my window, I notice the sounds and I notice them pass, just as my thoughts do. A part of me is clearly able to observe my thoughts without attaching to them. I haven’t spent much time with this part, but I like what I know of her. She’s infinitely wiser, calmer, and more patient than I usually am.

Maezen suggests these simple steps to help beginners like me ease into zazen:

  1. Sit on the front third of a chair with your feet spaced widely apart, resting firmly on the ground. To support your back, place a hard cushion between your spine and the back of the chair. This will prevent slouching and keep you alert. You can also practice sitting on a cushion or a meditation bench. “It’s important to be upright and mentally alert—no lying down,” Maezen notes.
  2. Put your hands in the middle of your lap: First place your right hand in your lap with the palm facing up, then rest your left hand on top of it, palm up. Lightly touch the tips of your thumbs together. “Holding your hands in this way calms agitation and restlessness,” Maezen explains.
  3. Align your ears with your shoulders and your nose along the same vertical axis as your navel. Tuck your chin in slightly. Hold your head as though it were supporting the sky; it should neither hang forward nor fall backward.
  4. Relax your belly. A stiff, cinched abdomen restricts breathing. Try to return to the full, rounded breathing of a baby. Focus your attention on the hara, the point two inches beneath your navel. “The breath originates here with the movement of the diaphragm,” Maezen says. “By focusing attention here, our breath naturally deepens and the activity of the thinking mind is calmed.”
  5. Lower your gaze, but don’t close your eyes. “If you close your eyes, you will be lulled into daydreaming,” Maezen explains. “Meditation is not a practice for sleeping; it’s a practice for waking up.” Look at a spot on the floor or on a blank wall in front of you. Any spot will do, as long as it’s not distracting.
  6. Close your teeth and your mouth. Take a breath and exhale completely.
  7. On your next inhalation, silently count “one.” When you exhale, silently count "two." Inhale again and count "three." Count each exhalation and inhalation up to 10, and then start back at one. If you lose the count, begin again at one. Counting to 10 gives the restless mind something to do that it can accomplish without thinking,” Maezen says.
  8. When a thought comes up, let it go away by itself. “It will [go away] if you do not pursue it,” Maezen says. “The point of zazen is to be able to release thoughts. We don't want to replace a thought with another thought. We want to liberate ourselves from the torment of our thoughts. That's true freedom.”

Maezen recommends doing zazen for up to five minutes to begin. As you meditate more often, you might be able to sit longer. “Do not be self-critical or impatient with yourself,” she cautions. “Do not push yourself. Do not make meditation one more thing that you have to do. If you’re gentle, encouraging, and consistent with yourself, your meditation practice will naturally deepen and lengthen.”

The benefits of zazen can include increased attention span, self-confidence, and discipline; better management of fear and anger; and a greater ability to feel genuine joy, compassion, and gratitude. “But mostly,” Maezen says, “zazen is entirely personal. Only you can experience transformation for yourself.”

Portland Helmich is the creator, host, and producer of the Kripalu Perspectives podcast series. She has been investigating natural health and healing as a host, reporter, writer, and producer for more than 15 years.

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