Zen is a form of Buddhist meditation that originated in China in the 6th Century; the word Zen is a Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese “Dzyen”, derived from the Sanskrit “Dhyana” or ‘meditative state’.
Zen emphasizes wisdom gained through experience as opposed to theory. Zazen, or ‘seated meditation’, is at the heart of the practice. It is said that when Buddha achieved enlightenment, he was in a seated position. Walking meditation, yoga, tai chi and other moving meditations are not part of the Zen tradition.
We see our bodies, mind and even breath as separate entities. In Zen, there is no separation.
Zen begins with the study of the self; this leads to forgetting of the self (the ego, the physical). And in forgetting of the self, enlightenment is achieved.
The practice is simple. It’s easy to say, “this is how you do it” and just as easy to follow those directions. But… the very nature of Zen is that in its simplicity, it’s very difficult; and in its difficulty, it’s very simple!
How To Sit In Zen Meditation
The meditative positions mimic the seated Buddha – a stable, grounded, balanced pyramid. There are several positions to choose from, depending on personal preference.
Proper position is important. You don’t want to be distracted by physical discomfort, yet allows the free flow of life force energy (also called chi or prana).
When should you meditate?
Early morning is arguably the best time because you’re not tired, your mind is a clean slate – not yet having hopped on the commuter bus of worry and drama – and you’re not knee-deep in your to-do list.
The essence of meditation is the ability to focus the mind. You can use any point of concentration – mantras, the breath, a candle… in Zen, the focus is the breath. The breath is the vital life force. The first thing a person does when they are born is inhale; and the last thing a person does as they die is exhale.
The breath mirrors the state of the mind. When your mind is at ease, the breath is deep and effortless; when the mind is agitated or upset, the breathing is shallow, rapid and uneven. How deeply can you relax? In deep zazen, you breathe at 2-3 breaths/minute. The normal resting respiration rate is about 15 breaths/minute. The stillness you achieve in deep Zen meditation is greater than sleep – an incredible experience that must be experienced to be understood.
Keep the mind focused
Keeping the mind focused on the breath isn’t easy. You have to be constantly vigilant and bring your attention back to the breath every time the mind wanders off to explore some random thought. Eventually, you’ll be able to observe thoughts float into your awareness, acknowledge them, and let them go. Every time you realize your mind has wandered and bring it back to your breath, you’re one step closer to self-mastery.
Focusing/re-focusing the mind sharpens the awareness. Usually we’re barely aware of the thousands of thoughts we have every day; Zen meditation brings them into the awareness. And sometimes we’re so preoccupied with the internal chatter that we don’t notice what’s going on around us! Zen makes us aware of what is happening in the present moment.
Sometimes, meditation comes effortlessly. You can focus on the breath, the mind becomes silent and you experience an incredibly liberating, peaceful, ecstatic state of being – you feel your energetic quality and you lose awareness of your physical body or your “self” as you melt into cosmic consciousness.
Sometimes, you’ll struggle like hell to get your mind to stop its wandering. If you’ve got something weighing heavy on your mind, it may seem impossible to focus on the breath and let those thoughts go. If you can’t let go, let your mind run with the thoughts but be the observer, not the participant. This is an important difference. If things need to be processed, let them run their course. But gently guide your mind to a relaxed state open to intuitive guidance.
The mind’s activity is like a pond
When your mind is busy, the surface is disturbed as thoughts and emotions run every which way. But as the mind relaxes, the surface calms down. Eventually the stillness of the bottom of the pond becomes your state of being. After all – nothing can ruffle the feathers of an infinite, eternal being!
When you develop that power of concentration that shuts out all mental and external distractions, you have achieved “samadhi”: single-pointedness of mind.
How do you get the most out of Zen meditation? Put yourself into it 100%. There’s no goal, no achievement in Zen. There is only the moment and the experience.