It is important to remember there are a lot of forms of meditation out there. I have experience in Zazen which is Zen's foundational form of meditation. It is different than other forms of meditation in subtle yet important ways.
The instructions are three fold and deal with our body, breath and mind.
First, we sit as still as possible in Zazen. Body and mind are one. A still mind can only develop with a still and relaxed body. Once you start your Zazen period make an agreement with yourself that you will not move. Don’t scratch an itch, adjust your seat or let your posture slouch. Use a timer to create a defined period of practice.
To be able to sit still, we focus on having good posture. Flexible people can sit in full or half lotus on the floor with a cushion. Others kneel with a seiza bench. Many sit in a chair. The most important thing is that we attend to our posture: straight spine, shoulders back, chin tucked in, mouth softly closed and hands resting palm in palm with thumbs lightly touching in the cosmic mudra. (Picture below.) Our hands should create a beautiful oval.
If we are in an upright-seated position with good posture our breathing should be easy and unencumbered. It is helpful to wear loose fitting clothes, especially something without a tight waistband. Natural breathing feels like it reaches down into our lungs and through our belly. Like a newborn baby whose tummy billows with every breath, a calm body with natural deep breathing should expand down into our belly.
We don’t force the breath in Zazen. This isn’t a deep breathing exercise. We simply let breathing happen naturally. After sitting for a little while we will notice our breathing slows down and the rhythm of our chest has a soothing quality.
With good posture and easy breathing we turn to the mind. How do we practice? In Zazen we spend many years developing the ability to concentrate and quiet our mind with a simple practice of counting our breath. (Note I said simple, not easy.)
The instructions are basic. Place the focus of your mind deep into your belly. The bottom third of your belly is known in Japanese as “hara.” That literally translates as lower belly and in seated meditation we can feel each breath here. Breathe in count one, breathe out count two, in three, out four. When we get to ten we go back to one and start over again.
Almost immediately we will encounter our mind’s tendency to run away from being present to the current moment. Each morning when I first start meditating I find it difficult to get to the count of three before distracting thoughts arise. Our practice is to notice that we are thinking, let that thought go in the middle of it and return our focus back to counting our breath.
Thoughts don’t stop, especially not in a 10, 20 or 30 minute session. Minds think the way ears hear and eyes see. It is in a brain's nature to think. Don’t be critical with yourself. This practice is one of noticing our thinking, letting it go and returning to the experience of breath.
With time an ability to place our concentration where we choose develops and from this comes great ease. For some this happens quickly. For others, like me, it is a process that comes after many years of practice. Both are okay. As a Zen Buddhist I believe that this practice is the very essence of enlightenment. That moment when I first let go of a thought and I am encumbered, completely present in the moment, I am truly free.
May your practice go well!
- Anthony A. Cernera, M.Ed.
PS - Remember we host free introductions to meditation every month by conference call. Email me at ZenHappinessProject@gmail.com for details.