Zazen (Zen)

Brief Instructions:

1. Sit in comfortable position with a straightened spine

2. Rest both hands palm upwards on your lap, left hand on top of  right, 
and form an open oval by gently touching the tips of the thumbs together

3. Gently gaze downwards at a 45-degree angle towards the floor

4. Focus on the breath and on every exhalation, count a number, i.e. 
“one” on your first exhalation, and “two” on your second exhalation, etc.  

5. When you reach ten, simply return to the number one and start over. 

Can be done in short periods of a few minutes or as long as you feel comfortable. 

Full Details:

Zen or Zazen is a Japanese word that literally means ‘seated meditation’, but has many more subtle connotations as well.  However, here we will only give a basic introduction on how one can practice at home.  Body, breath, and mind might be seen as three key elements of zazen.  Hence, we will begin by giving a checklist of points to go over in getting one’s body ready for zazen, and we will close with a brief discussion of what to do with your mind and your breathing during zazen.  However, it should also be emphasized that real progress in Zen meditation requires the guidance of a qualified teacher, so the serious student is encouraged to seek a good instructor.

Preparing the Body for Zazen:
1.  Sit in a comfortable position.  

If you are using a cross-legged position, which is recommended, then the aim is to have both knees firmly on the ground.  Sitting on the forward third of your meditation cushion (zafu) will help to tilt your pelvis forward and lower your knees to the ground.  If your hips are open enough, half-lotus (one foot on the opposite thigh) or full-lotus (both feet on the opposite thighs) will enable you to get your knees to the floor.  Otherwise, Burmese posture (where the legs are crossed and both feet are on the ground in front of you, parallel) can also enable many people to have their knees grounded.  Burmese tends to work better with a higher cushion and the lotus positions work with smaller cushions.  If your knees do not reach the ground, you can place small cushions or other padding under them for support.  Or you may try the seiza posture, where you kneel with your feet pointed behind yourself and the buttocks supported by a cushion turned horizontally or a meditation bench.  The bench/cushion will prevent you from putting all your weight on your heals.  You may also choose to sit in a chair.  In this case, avoid slumping back into the chair.  Sit with your feet touching the ground (or a cushion, if you are short), and your spine upright.  The best is if you do not lean on the backrest at all.  Or, if you feel that you need support, place a cushion behind your lower back. 

2.  Sway your torso in small circles that get decreasingly smaller until you come to a rest when your spine is centered.

3.  Straighten and extend your spine, by taking a big inhalation and “pushing up to the ceiling” with the crown of your head and then relaxing.  Once your spine is aligned, do not hold it up rigidly, but rather maintain the natural curves of the spine.  In a cross-legged position, sitting on the forward third of the cushion will help keep your pelvis slightly tipped forward, allowing you to support your posture by lifting upwards from the lower back.

4.  Make sure your head isn’t tilted forward or backward or leaning to either side.  The chin gets slightly tucked in when you extend upwards through the crown of the head.  Your ears should be aligned with your shoulders, and the tip of your nose should be centered over your navel.

5.  Your eyes should be partially closed gazing downwards at a 45-degree angle towards the floor with a soft unfocussed gaze.

6.  Keep your mouth closed and breathe through your nose (unless your nose is congested). Place your tongue behind the top teeth. Swallow once or twice before you begin—this creates a slight vacuum that prevents salivation.

7.  Place your hands in the ‘cosmic’ mudra:  
rest both hands palm upwards on your lap, with the left hand on top of the right, and form an open oval by gently touching the tips of the thumbs together.

8.  Let your shoulders relax away from your ears.

9.  Make sure your whole body is comfortable and you are settled in before beginning zazen. 

10.  Take a couple of deep breaths.  Then do a quick scan of your body, noticing any points of tension and relaxing them.  Now you are ready to begin zazen.

11. Try and keep as still as possible during zazen.  Resisting the temptation to fidget or move around helps the mind to settle down.   

Breath and Mind During Zazen
The basic method recommended for beginners (and often practiced by seasoned veterans as well) is that of counting the breath.  Though you may have taken a few deep breathes as you were settling down, during zazen you will simply be observing your breathing, without deliberately altering it.  You will use your in and out breath as an object to focus your mind and gradually lessen the habitual and excessive thinking that usually dominates our experience.  

The basic method is:  on every exhalation, count a number, starting with the number “one” on your first exhalation, and “two” on your second exhalation, etc.  Continue until you reach ten, and then simply return to the number one and start over.  Often, your mind will wander off before you reach ten.  In that case, simply start over again with the number one.  Try not to be frustrated with yourself when your mind wanders off, as this will only be counterproductive.  Rather, whenever you notice that you are thinking about the future or the past, simply set your thoughts aside and return to your breathing.   Keep doing this, over, and over, and over; letting go of any expectations or ideas you may have about what your meditation should be like. 

At most Zen centers in the US, practitioners will typically sit in zazen for periods of 30-40 minutes.  However, even sitting for 5 minutes can be helpful.  You may wish to start with a time period that feels comfortable and gradually increase it.  Meditation, like many things, takes practice, and you will get the most benefits if you meditate consistently.

If you are intrigued by Zen practice, you may also wish to read some of the popular as well as classic Zen literature and study the Buddhist teachings.  However, Zen cautions that conceptual understanding is limited, and encourages us to work one-on-one with a teacher.  This is especially important if one is practicing Zen with the aspiration to experience the true nature of one’s own mind and thereby put an end to suffering and stress.  Most people, however, may not be interested in pursing Zen practice in this context, and may instead wish to use the technique of zazen as a method of meditation that promotes relaxation, greater mental focus, and overall health.