An Absolute Beginner's Guide to Zen Meditation
I want to meditate again, so I wrote a simple guide for myself and others.
Meditation is like exercise. We know that it’s good for us. We know it has clear and proven benefits. And we know that it’s something that we can (and should) make time for. So why don’t we actually do it then?
There are many excuses, but I’ve found it’s never too late to pick up the habit again. I haven’t been meditating as much as I planned for this quarantine. Given how close I’ve come to losing my mind, I figured it would be another great time to start the practice again.
About a year ago I was sitting in a countryside laundromat reading Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. As I listened to the swirl of the washing machines, I began to reflect on a section that I had just read.
“The true purpose of Zen is to see things as they are, to observe things as they are, and to let everything go as it goes. Zen practice is to open up our small mind.”
I stopped reading and looked up from the book. I took in the scene before me. It was dark out and the fluorescent lights seemed brighter than usual. The scrapes of a walking frame could be heard as an elderly woman made her way across the aisle. I felt my clothing stick to my skin. I breathed. A calmness enveloped me. There were no thoughts running through my head. Unlike most times that I’ve spent in a laundromat, I wasn’t itching to get out of there. That feeling of contentedness with no particular source would revisit me throughout my reading of different books about Zen and during my practice.
Where to start with Zen meditation
Breaking into Zen meditation might seem intimidating at first. If you google Zen, you’ll probably come across stones balancing on top of one another, the enso circle, and people sitting cross-legged with magnificent backdrops. Since there is an extensive history associated with Zen, I won’t bother going into it here. If you are interested, I recommend picking up The Three Pillars of Zen.
The actual practice of Zen meditation or zazen is pretty simple. Here are some things to keep in mind.
Sitting in zazen
It can be helpful to have a meditation cushion, but it isn’t required. At the least, you’ll want something that can use to elevate your hips above the ground a bit. Zen meditation focuses on a couple of different seated positions.
The first and primary seated position is Full Lotus. This position requires you to place each foot on the opposite thigh. I don’t recommend starting with this position since it requires you to have exceptional hip flexibility.
Half Lotus is a bit more approachable and only requires you to place one foot on top of the opposing thigh. Burmese is the recommend seating position for beginners. All you have to do is cross the legs and let both feet rest on the floor. Your knees should also drop at some point to touch the floor, but this can take some time to get used to. I recommend placing a pillow beneath your knees if they do not touch the ground.
You can also choose to sit on a stool, on a chair, or in the seiza position. You should choose whatever position is the most comfortable for you. The purpose of these different seating styles is to give you as much stability as possible. Here is a guide with more in-depth information on each seating position. Since Zen monks usually sit in zazen for extended periods of time, they tend to opt for the full lotus position since it is the most stable.
Adjusting your body during zazen
Once you’ve found a comfortable position, you’re ready to start meditating. Try your best to keep your spine straight. This should allow you to breathe easily during your session. After that, you’ll want to use your dominant hand to cradle the opposite hand. Try to keep it in the shape of an oval and rest your hands just below your navel. This hand position is called the Cosmic Mudra.
Lower your gaze to a 45-degree angle. You should be looking down slightly, but make sure to not move your neck in the process. Your eyes should remain open and unfocused. You might run into some optical illusions once you start meditating for a few minutes, but you can just ignore these.
Breathing during zazen
The breath is the best place to start for meditation. You can count your inhalations and exhalations or whatever is preferable for you. The goal is to become aware of your breathing. If you have any thoughts, acknowledge them and let them pass away on their own.
Try to keep your breathing even. It should be natural. You’ll quickly notice that thoughts will spring up out of nowhere. This is normal. Focus on your breathing.
I recommend setting a timer for five minutes. The typical mediation times for monks ranges from 25 to 45 minutes. However, this isn’t a contest. You should sit for as long as you are comfortably able to.
Zazen is good for nothing
Zen meditation is a great tool to increase your awareness, focus, and appreciation of everyday life. It’s one of those things that you don’t notice how much it affects you in a positive way until you stop doing it.
Dogen, a famous Zen practitioner, stated that “Zazen is good for nothing”. Although this seems like a contradiction, it points to an important mindset to have when practicing zazen. You should go into it with little to no expectations.
When I have a meditation habit, I am calmer, more satisfied, and I feel like I have more energy for other things in my day. These epiphanies come and go. If I go into the practice with an expectation of coming out of the session in a calm or blissful state, these results always allude me. That’s why it is so important to just sit in zazen and focus on your breath.