These are the basics of Zen meditation; you will have to adjust and customize them to fit your life, your home, your schedule, and so on. Zen is a combination of mindfulness and focus, resulting in clarity. When we begin with Zen, we focus our awareness on a single object – usually the breath. This practice, if done repeatedly and regularly, serves to intensify and increase our ability to concentrate. If we practice Zen regularly, every interaction throughout the day is easier, and stress and confusion become less frequent.
First, choose a time for your practice. I like mornings because I am the only “morning person” in my house. That means that it’s quiet and peaceful in the morning, so no one bugs me and there are no televisions blaring. You might choose early morning, lunchtime, or just before bed. One thing to consider, however, if you do choose to do your Zen practice near a mealtime, make sure to practice before you eat, not afterward.
Eating a meal results in the need to digest, and digestion requires additional blood flow; additional blood flow means that your lungs, heart, and brain all have to work harder than usual for a while. So Zen practice is not as effective immediately after eating. You might even decide that your mid-morning break at work is the best time.
Whatever you do, choose a time you can stick to every day, or almost every day. Some teachers of Zen insist that if you miss even a single day you have set your practice back to the beginning. I’m here to tell you that is not the case. If you miss a day of Zen practice, all you have done is missed a day of Zen practice. The most important thing about starting your Zen practice is to be as consistent as possible, without turning the practice into another burdensome demand on your time. The good news is that you only have to commit to ten minutes a day to get off to a good start. Later on you might choose to do more, like maybe twenty minutes each morning or maybe ten minutes in the morning and ten more at night, but that’s way in the future if at all. For now, just choose a time when you can set aside ten minutes every day.
Now that you have found your time, the next thing to think about is your space. Where will you practice? Sometimes people go overboard and think that they need to dedicate a room as a place to practice. This is not necessary. Any space will do. If you have one square yard of floor space available, you’re in business. I know what you’re thinking; “did he just say floor space?” Yes. You should sit on the floor if possible, but relax; if you can’t get up and down easily a chair will work too. Even the driver’s seat of your car will work if necessary – just make sure the car is off; we don’t want anyone meditating while driving. Driving takes all your attention, and so does Zen practice so the two are not compatible. Okay, back to the floor.
Find a cushion, a firm pillow, or a folded up blanket and set it on the floor. Something that will get your tailbone a few inches off the floor is all that’s needed. If you want to get the official accouterments for Zen practice you can order them on the Internet and have them shipped to your house. The mat is called a zabuton and the pillow is called a zafu. Just do a Google search on those terms and you will find plenty of options. You can choose anything from a basic round black kapok stuffed cushion to a new-age rectangular hybrid of kapok stuffing and memory foam wrapped in star-patterned silk brocade. Whatever you like so long as it gets your butt up off the floor a little bit.
Position yourself facing a plain white wall if possible. If that’s not practical just try to choose an area where you won’t be too distracted by your surroundings. You can gaze at the floor or you can gaze at a plain wall, but studying a painting or looking out the window is less conducive to good practice. That’s right, I said “gaze”, meaning that in Zen practice the eyes are never closed. Unlike some forms of meditation or some relaxation techniques in Zen the eyes are always open so that we can stay alert and aware of our surroundings. The purpose of Zen is not to escape from reality, but rather to experience it the way it really is.
Sit on the front half of the cushion with your legs folded out in front of you so that your tailbone is at least three inches off the ground. It’s best if you can keep your back straight and your knees on the ground because this makes for perfect balance and you can spend less time trying not to tip over and more time doing Zen practice. If you are able to achieve the full lotus posture, that’s great. If on the other hand you are like most of us and cannot possibly bend your legs into that pose without causing unbearable pain, then the Burmese posture is the next best thing. In the Burmese posture, you sit on the front edge of the cushion and bend your right leg as much as possible bringing your right heel as close to your bottom as you can. Then you bend your left leg as much as possible without laying it over the right; so that your left heel touches your right shin. In the Burmese posture, one leg is in front of the other but we are generally able to get both knees onto the floor.
Alternatively, for those who cannot manage to get into a seated position on the floor and back up again without the aid of another, a chair can be used. If a chair is to be used for Zen practice it is important to sit only on the forward ½ of the seat and not to use the backrest. The feet must be able to rest flat on the floor sufficiently out in front so that there is a slight downward slope to the thighs. The feet should be positioned about shoulder-width apart, flat on the floor. Whether sitting on a cushion on the floor or on a chair, it’s important to keep the spine as straight as possible; neither leaning too far forward or back nor leaning to either side. You can tell the perfect spinal position if you concentrate on noticing when each vertebra rests upon the other and no conscious muscle control is required to maintain balance.
Okay, now that you are seated and in a good posture, set a timer for ten minutes. Initially, you should limit your practice to ten minutes each day so that it can be fit into any schedule and does not become just another burden or demand on your time. Once the timer is set, place your left-hand palm up on your lap as close to your belly as possible, and lay your right-hand palm-up on top of the left. The thumbs should touch lightly to complete an oval shape with your hands. If the tips of your thumbs are turning white, you’re pressing them together too much. They should touch so lightly that you cannot tell without concentrating or looking at them that they are in fact touching. At this point, we are ready to begin the Zen practice.
Fix your gaze on the blank wall or on a space on the floor a comfortable distance in front of you. Remember that your head should be tilted ever so slightly downward, but not dropping to the point where your chin touches your chest. Your head should not tilt to one side or the other, and there should be no strain on your neck. Allow your eyes to relax, your eyelids can be allowed to droop, but not to fully close, and your vision can be allowed to blur out of focus if it happens naturally. The whole idea is to get the body into a posture where everything is self-supporting without any need for constant adjustment, fidgeting, or strain.
Now, take one slow, deep, cleansing breath in through your nose, using your stomach muscles to pull the air all the way down into your belly. Immediately allow the air to escape naturally back out through your nose and then begin breathing at a normal pace; neither forcing deep breaths in nor forcing full exhales out. Just allow breathing to happen as it naturally does, but pay attention to the feeling of your breath as it gently comes in and goes out. Audible breathing is incorrect for meditation, as is gasping and “coarse” breathing. The correct breathing for meditation is normal, fine, relaxed breathing. It is sometimes difficult to pay close attention to the breathing process without actually controlling it consciously, but this is what you should strive for. Allow breathing to happen and maintain awareness of it, but don’t control it. Finally, begin to count every exhale. Count each exhales from one to ten, and then start over again at one. Remember not to control the breathing – just pay attention to it.
One of the greatest obstacles and challenges that every beginning practitioner of Zen will experience is impatience. Everyone wants and expects immediate and obvious results from any undertaking. With Zen practice, the results will come quickly, but you will probably not be able to perceive them right away. You will initially be disappointed because your mind will not want to come to rest. You will experience a wandering mind somewhere around the count of two or three. When the mind wanders, we gently notice that it has wandered and returned the focus to breathing, starting over at the count of one. This is the part that most people struggle with, and virtually every person I have taught has assumed that they and they alone had a mind that was uncontrollable. That they and they alone could not bring their focus to just the breath and maintain it there without the thoughts of the day racing around. Every single person who has practiced meditation has experienced this wandering mind and these racing thoughts. It’s not just you, and it’s not a problem or a barrier to being able to meditate. In fact, it is a useful tool.
When the mind wanders during Zen practice, our response is to notice the thought and allow it to pass away. The simple act of noticing that the mind has wandered is a sign of progress, and by noticing the thought you can let it go and return to focusing on the breathing process. Many, many thoughts will come and go during the short ten-minute practice period, and each one should be noticed and released so that the attention can be turned back to the breathing process. Eventually, as your practice progresses, you will be amazed at the variety and volume of thoughts that will creep into your awareness – but that’s another story for another article.