A Detailed Guide To Practicing Zen Meditation

The effects of meditation have been studied by modern science and researchers have found that the simple practice of meditation has enormous benefits for the human body and mind. Recent studies have even found that meditation has the ability to modify your genes and reduce inflammation.

The practice of Zen meditation or Zazen is at the heart of the Zen Buddhist experience. It is a sitting meditation practice that encourages you to look inward so that you become more aware and conscious. And the good thing about meditation is that you don’t really need a studio or a meditation hall to practice it. Zazen can be done in the comfort of your home. This detailed guide gives you the entire list of steps you need to follow to practice Zen meditation.

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The Room

Before starting your meditation, you need to find a quiet and peaceful place where you will not be disturbed. The room where you will practice in should not be too dark or too bright, too warm or too cold.

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Posture

Traditionally, only the full lotus position or the half lotus position is used. If you lack flexibility, it is also possible, yet least recommended, to practice Zazen kneeling or to sit on a chair.

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Zazen is practiced sitting on a zafu, a thick and round cushion. The purpose of this cushion is to elevate the hips, thus forcing the knees to be firmly rooted to the floor.

This way, your Zazen will be a lot more stable and also comfortable. Additionally, you need to have a zabuton, which is a rectangular mat that is placed under the zafu to cushion the knees and legs.

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Ideally, its is recommended that you buy a zafu but, as a beginner, you can fold up a thick blanket to work as a zafu. Zafus are usually around 13-14 inches in diameter but can be found in a variety of sizes. You can also utilize a thick blanket as a homemade zabuton.

Head And Neck

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Always make sure that your back and neck stay as straight as possible. Pull your chin in a little to straighten the neck and try to “push the sky” with the top of your head. Do not be too tensed or too relaxed while you do this; try to find balance in your posture.

Keep your mouth closed during zazen; your teeth should be together, and your tongue should be against the roof of your mouth just behind your teeth.

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The Eyes

Traditionally in Zen, the eyes are kept open during meditation. This prevents the meditator from daydreaming or becoming drowsy.

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Without focusing on nothing in particular, direct your vision about one meter in front of you on the floor. Your eyes will naturally come to rest in a position that is half opened and half closed.

When doing zazen in a soto dojo (meditation hall), the meditator sits facing a wall in order to avoid getting distracted by external movement.

Hands And Arms

The hand position used during Zazen is called the Cosmic Mudra or Hokkaijoin in Japanese. To hold the position, put your left hand on the right one, and palms turned towards the sky.

Now, make an oval by touching the tips of the thumbs together so that your thumbs touch each other and form a somewhat straight line. The tips of your thumbs should lightly touch each other.

Both of your wrists should rest on your thighs; the edge of your hands should rest against your belly. Keep your shoulders relaxed.

Breathing

Breathing is a fundamental part of the Zazen practice. The correct breathing can only be achieved through the right posture. During Zazen, breathe quietly through the nose and keep the mouth closed.

Try to establish a calm, long and deep natural rhythm. You should focus on exhalation while inhalation is done naturally.

The State Of Mind

The right state of mind emerges naturally from a deep concentration on the posture and breathing. During zazen, it is normal to have images, thoughts and emotions coming up to the surface, appearing from the unconscious mind.

Do not pursue them or try to escape from them. The more you try to get rid of them, the more attention you give them, and the stronger they become. Try not to attach to them. Just let them go without judgment.

As soon as you become aware that you are interacting or grasping on thoughts, immediately bring back your concentration to your posture and breathing; your mind will settle down naturally. With experience, you will have fewer thoughts during Zazen, and your mind will come to rest more easily and more quickly.

Beginning Zazen

Place your zafu on your zabuton so that, once sitting, your body is about one meter away from the wall. Once you have taken the position that is the most comfortable for you, take a few deep breath.

Close your hands into a fist with your thumbs inside your fingers and the back of your hands on your knees, with the fingers up.

Now, slowly balance your body from left to right three or four times. Press your hands together in front of the chest as if in prayer, and bend forward a few seconds as a sign of respect for the Buddha and the Buddha’s teaching or Dharma. This is known as gassho.

Finally, place your hands in the Hokkaijoin position, and keep your back and neck straight (push the sky with the top of your head) and start Zazen.

As a beginner, it is best to practice Zazen for 15 to 30 minutes. A good way to keep track of time during zazen at home is to use a meditation timer on your phone.

Finishing Zazen

Once you have finished Zazen, do gassho again. Remain sitting on the cushion calmly and quietly for a few moments; don’t hurry to stand up. Try not to talk for a few minutes after completing Zazen.