Zen Meditation- A Brief View
“I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.”
More and more we are learning about the numerous benefits of meditation: physical and mental well-being, compassion, patience, calm, a more flexible mind, strengthened immune system, sharper memory. Whether it’s Zen you’re after, or just a peaceful respite in the day, meditation will shape your life as you utilize it and turn it into a habit.
“Zen,” the late master Shunryu Suzuki said, “is not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine.” Or, to paraphrase another writer: “first ecstasy, then the laundry.”
“If you cannot find the truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?”
Explore the nature of Zen “where you are.” Find a quiet, tranquil corner in your home, far from the bustle of the day, and make it your meditation space. Wear loose-fitting clothing. There’s no need for special exercise pants or the latest techno-fabric shirt. In the beginning any sort of mat or a thick pillow will do; later if you wish to, you may opt to using a zafu, a thick round cushion stuffed with kapok or buckwheat shells. A zabuton—a square pad that cushions the knees—may also prove useful, but a blanket or two folded in a square works equally well. The place is set, now to free you from distraction; you may consider a timer or timer app to keep track of your meditation period.
“Contemplation is the loving sense of this life, this presence and this eternity.”
Posture- The Legs
Stability is the key to proper posture, and the key to stability is in the legs. Traditionally, this means sitting in the full-lotus position: legs crossed with both feet resting atop opposite thighs. However, many of us are not disposed to this position. The half-lotus, with only one foot in the lap, is a bit easier.
If that doesn’t work, try the Burmese position by placing one leg in front of the other with both ankles on the mat, or the seiza, essentially a combination of kneeling and sitting, often with the help of a special stool. It’s not the exact position that matters, but the ability to sit without fatigue. Its fine to sit in a chair if that’s what’s most comfortable.
Posture- The Body
The expression “belly forward, buttocks back” is an encouraging mantra—and a useful reminder—of how to approach life. On the zafu, it literally means let the belly hang, which helps pitch the spine into its natural curve. Keep your chest out, head up, and chin slightly tucked in. Your ears should be in line with your shoulders, your shoulders in line with your hips.
Leave your eyes open, staring but not focusing at a spot on the floor just a few feet ahead. Form your hands into a mudra by resting your right palm face up on your lap and your left palm face up inside. Your thumbs should create an oval, their tips barely touching. The final step is to rock from side to side, starting with wide arcs and slowly settling in until you’re as unmovable as a mountain.
Posture- The Mind
“In this very breath that we take now lay the secret that all great teachers try to tell us.” —PETER MATTHIESSEN
The Chinese call the mind a wild horse. Thoughts don’t slow down, no matter how hard we try to impede them. Instead, we should acknowledge each one, and then let it drift away.
Often, the first technique of zazen, seated meditation, is counting your breath. Take a slow deep breath in through your nostrils and exhale slowly through your mouth. As you do this practice counting each inhalation and exhalation. When you reach ten, start over. Your breathing should be deep, slow, easy and regular. Of course, the mind will rebel and you will lose count. Return to one and start again.
Counting your breath can be a complete lifetime’s practice; but even if you move on to koans or other forms of meditation, it remains an invaluable tool.