Editor of The Zen Gateway website and practitioner of Zen Buddhism.
Setting up a Meditation Practice (Zazen)
The physical and mental components of sitting meditation. How to establish a meditation practice at home.
Meditation was originally devised as part of a religious practice as a way to gain insight; this is its primary intention. However, nowadays much has been discovered of its therapeutic value and for this reason it has enthusiastically been taken up by medics and those quite uninterested in any spiritual value it may also possess.
The reason it has value as a tool for insight is that it seeks to clarify our state of awareness, so that whatever it looks at can be seen more clearly. It is not difficult to discover for oneself that the more that conscious awareness is clouded by long thought streams, the easier it is to forget something important, or not to see something right in front of the eyes or not to take in something one is being told. Therefore the first thing to note is that the practice of meditation increases awareness by reducing the clutter of rampant thoughts, much of which are repetitive and often unhelpful in the situation just before one. It is important to make clear that it reduces, rather than eliminates, thought streams as thinking is a very useful tool. It is just that it is overused, and runs on in torrents bursting the banks if I’m all fired up about something or other; fired up by our anxieties, stresses and strains,our wanting and not-wanting.
As often happens with any ‘new discovery’, great claims are made for it, often over the top and in the end such hyperbole rarely delivers what it originally promised. So touching base with reality it is important to make clear that meditation alone is not a panacea to all my ills. Meditation itself will not make me a better person. Meditation will not mean that I will never again be upset, angry or find myself in a situation that I cannot cope with. What meditation can do is to supply another tool in the box with which to cope with the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’, along with all the other help available for specific problems that might be faced in life.
Read through the following practical instructions a couple of times and try out the physical position first. Once you are comfortable and confident with the physical posture then begin with instructions for the breathing and meditation proper.
The practice of meditation takes into account:
If one of these three is left out then it will not work properly. So, to begin we must take into account the body. The body is intimately connected with the functioning of the Mind and Heart (Mind is the centre of thinking, the Heart is the centre of feeling. These are not really two separate things, only described like this for convenience in order to refer to the two mental functions of thoughts and of moods/the emotional household). If you look at another person carefully and take into account the deportment of the body, the shape of the face, what the eyes are doing, how the hands are moving and so on it is easy to see in a glance what someone is feeling. People like Derren Brown make a living by being particularly skilled in this art which we all possess naturally to some degree. What is not always immediately realised is that just as the Heart is reflected through the body, so it can work the other way around. That is, by altering the shape, deportment and behaviour of the body the mood or atmosphere of the Heart can be altered. This is what an actor learns to do; not just to ‘act’ but to ‘become’ in his heart the state which the character he is depicting calls for on stage.
In meditation we are seeking to cultivate in the Heart a state of awareness that is collected and whose main characteristic is a quiet openness.
This ‘quiet openness’ is not the same as having no thoughts or even as not feeling an emotion; rather it is a state of Heart that is not carried away by thoughts and feelings even whilst thoughts and feelings continue to arise and fall in the Mind and Heart. There is a Chinese verse which sums it up:
Clouds swirling around the mountain peak
Do not disturb the stillness.
The mountain is the solidity of the body, which not thinking just is. The Heart and Mind produce the thoughts which swirl around, arising and passing away. Hopefully this conveys the state being suggested – often poetry is the best way to express inner states.
So the body needs to be set up like our proverbial ‘mountain’.
Take an upright chair that, when seated upon allows the hips to be slightly higher than the knees so that the upper leg is sloping down slightly. If necessary use an extra cushion on it. Ideally the back should be unsupported and if seated properly the back will support itself with the spine in its natural ‘S’ shaped curve. If you are seated too low the pelvis swings backwards and when relaxed the back curves like an archer’s bow. This will be uncomfortable for any length of time, lead to tiredness and is uncollected.
The feet should be apart and flat on the floor. The torso should be now facing forward with the shoulders back slightly and the stomach relaxed. If the stomach is being held in, the centre of gravity rises into the chest; if relaxed, it drops to below the navel. Hold the hands together supported by your lap.
For the head, the chin should be tucked in slightly, the mouth closed so you will be breathing in and out through the nose, with the eyes looking down at a spot somewhere in front of you on the floor. By doing this the eyelids will half close – this is desirable. Avoid completely closing the eyes as it signals to the body that it’s time for sleep or to drift off into daydreams. If you become sleepy during meditation (which is not uncommon), simply open the eyes wide and look up for a few seconds before returning to the eyes half closed position.
The body is now set up correctly. It will probably feel a bit awkward at first, but persist as in time this is the best position for longer term comfort and efficacious meditation.
Now the foundation has been laid we turn to the inner realm, the realm of the Mind and Heart. The old Indian meditation masters likened the Heart and Mind to a monkey who hops from one branch to another picking a morsel now here and now over there. Thus was born the term ‘monkey mind’ to describe the constant state of restlessness that marks our inner state. And rather like a monkey who is all over the place, what is needed is a tethering post to prevent it running off any which way but also allowing it to move a little. Meditation is not about forcing things, rather it is the quiet, patient cultivation of a new habit. The tethering post is provided by the object of meditation which in our case will be the breath. The breath is used because it is always in the here and now and is a physical anchor to which the Heart and Mind can keep returning.
Having now set up the body, turn the attention to the breath and simply notice it. There is no need to alter it in any way; if it is short then let it be short; if it is long then let it be long. During meditation practice it will change many times; just let it lead, and with awareness follow its rhythm. For about half a dozen breath cycles simply notice it. When this has been completed now begin to notice, in particular, the out-breath for another six cycles. Notice especially how each exhalation is accompanied by a slight sinking sensation into the body. You can experience this now by letting out a long sigh…!
Do you feel a sinking down into the body? In fact this sinking sensation is there every time the breath goes out for the full exhalation. So look for it now…
Having noticed the six breath cycles and having noticed the sinking sensation on the exhalation, just sink into that physical sensation, really give yourself into it.
Now you will probably notice that there is an inner commentary or dialogue going on about how you are doing and if you are doing it right and so on. This will tend to lead awareness away from the object of meditation so we use a little trick here. It is called using one thought to slay a thousand thoughts.
Onto the exhalation place a mental count which should last for the full length of the out breath; a silent oneeeeeeeee… twooooooo… and so on.
Each out breath should have this count, going from one to ten. But it is more than just counting exhalations. Rather it is the giving myself wholeheartedly into it like getting into a hot bath on a cold day.
So to recap, once the body is setup:
Notice the breathing cycle in-out for about six complete cycles
In particular notice the out breath
Notice now the sinking sensation accompanying each out breath
Go with it – give yourself into that sinking sensation and allow it to carry the focus of awareness deeper and deeper
Put a mental count on that out breath/sinking sensation and really make the effort to give yourself into this
Continue this practice for 10 minutes. Over time build up to 30 minutes four – five times a week
Quite quickly it will be noticed that the attention disappears into thought streams again…do not worry about this… as soon as it is noticed just let go of the thoughts and return to the count, on the out breath/sinking sensation giving yourself whole-heartedly into it.
Many people get very worked up about the thoughts intruding. This is often because they still make the mistake that meditation is about ‘blanking out my mind’ – IT IS NOT! The practice of meditation is, when realising that the thoughts have carried ‘me’ away to gently let go and return to the object of meditation.
If you make it to 10 in the count (most unlikely to happen very often), start at one again.
At some point you will notice that you are both counting the out breath and thinking something else in parallel. THIS IS NOT MEDITATION THIS IS JUST THINKING. So let go of the thoughts and firmly give yourself back into the counting on the out breath/sinking sensation once again.
The key is ‘whole heartedness of effort’. As it goes along there will arise a sense of quiet spaciousness; thoughts may still be arising - that is fine, just keep coming back, firmly and gently to the count etc.
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