Zen Buddhist Meditation in the Soto and Rinzai Tradition
How do I meditate?
If you are interested in receiving instruction in meditation in the Doncaster and Sheffield areas (sometimes refered to as Zazen or 'sitting') please attend one of the weekly groups where full instruction can be given. We offer a free introduction to meditation every Tuesday in Doncaster at 18:30 by appointment. Contact Scott for details.
Zazen is literally sitting meditation, Za means to sit and Zen is a transliteration
of the sanskrit term Dhyana that is usually translated as meditation. Whilst
there is increasing evidence of the health benefits of meditation and
mindfulness, particularly in helping us to manage our stress, it is also at the
core of Zen Buddhist practice.
It can be practiced alone or with others, sitting cross legged on the floor or on
a chair. It is a method that has been used since the time of Shakyamni Buddha
to investigate who and what we are. In Zen Meditation we begin to appreciate
that body, mind and our environment are intimately connected. Practice and
realisation are one. Body and Mind are one.
There are a number of different postures that can be used for Zazen, one of the
most important principles though are to adopt a posture that is stable and
relaxed. This will probably take some time to achieve starting with short,
regular periods of sitting for 5-10 minutes building up to longer periods of
30-40 minutes. It is good to time your periods if you sit alone with an alarm or a smartphone app of which there are many options.
Body: The Postures.
For all the cross legged postures it is good to use a meditation cushion sometimes called a Zafu (a sitting cushion). If you don't have one then you can use a rolled up blanket, firm pillows, foam blocks just about anything that can be used to raise the buttocks a few inches from the ground to facilitate your knees to touch the floor or a mat.
For all the postures it is also very useful to take a moment to come truly into the body before starting the formal meditation practice. Feel the ground beneath your legs or feet, become aware of your body; the legs, torso, arms and so on. Really ‘inhabit your skin’. It is also a good opportunity to relax. Notice any tension you are holding in the body and let it go. This helps to de-conceptualise the sitting practice making it really grounded in the non-conceptual experience of the body. Zazen is a practice that synchronises the body, breath and mind.
Posture 1 - Burmese
This is one of the easier and more comfortable of the postures and is particularly suited to sitting for longer periods. Sit on the forward third of the cushion resting on the ‘sitting bones’ in the buttocks. The knees touch the ground with the feet together just below the groin. The hands are in the lap and form the cosmic mudra - left hand on top of the right hand, second joints of the fingers overlapping and thumbs lightly touching, forming an oval. It is the posture commonly seen on Buddha statues.
Moving up the body it is important to sit upright with good ‘head and shoulders’. The shoulders should be open to facilitate natural breathing the chin slightly tucked in, the eyes half open and naturally gazing downwards several feet in front of you. We are not staring or looking at anything in particular the eyes are just allowed to be. The spine should be allowed to follow its own natural curve when seated upright. It can be helpful to imagine a small cord pulling on the crown of the head to support getting into the right posture.
The tongue can be placed behind the upper teeth on the palate and the lips lightly closed or very slightly open. Unless you have a blocked nose or difficulty in doing so then the breathing practice described below is done by breathing in and out through the nose.
Posture 2 - Half Lotus
One alternative to Burmese is the half lotus; this can also be a stable and comfortable posture. In this position one of the feet is placed on the opposite thigh - it is recommended to switch which foot this is in alternating sessions to ensure that the body and the flexibility is kept balanced. All the other instructions for the posture are the same as for Burmese.
Posture 3 - Full Lotus
Considered by some to be the most stable (and potentially most difficult) cross legged position. In this posture both feet are placed on opposite thighs. It is only recommended for the most flexible of people. There is no special significance to which of the postures you can adopt. Trust your own body and pick the one suited to you and your flexibility. All the other instructions for the posture are the same as for Burmese.
Posture 4 - Seiza (Kneeling)
Seiza is a good alternative to all the cross legged positions. In this position you can use a bench or turn a cushion onto its side and sit on top of it. All the other instructions for the posture are the same as for Burmese.
Posture 5 - The Chair
If you are unable to sit on a cushion it is perfectly fine to use a chair. The back should not touch the back rest of the chair and all the other instructions for the posture apply to sitting in a chair. Both feet should be flat on the ground. All the other instructions for the posture are the same as for Burmese.
Practicing with the Breath
In this particular meditation practice the emphasis is on paying attention to our breathing. We are not trying to do anything special with the breath except just resting our awareness in it. Allowing the breath to breathe itself without any controlling or agenda on our part.
As you breathe in keep your awareness in the Hara, the physical centre of the body located about 2 inches below the navel. Follow the breath into the body, experience the gap between the in and the out breath and then follow the breath back out. Again there will be a short gap between the out and the in breath and then follow the breath back in. The practice is very simple; deceptively simple. We are just becoming aware of the breathing process as it happens. The breath is useful as an anchor into the present moment, into nowness or presence.
In the beginning it will be helpful to count the breath as it goes in and out. This supports keeping the mind where you want it to be - in this case focused on the breath. Breathe in and count 1. Breathe out and count 2, repeating the process until you reach 10 and then start again at 1. If you become lost in thought or distracted simply start again at 1. Eventually as you are more able to stay aware of the breathing, reaching 10 without interruption you can drop the counting and just stay with following the breath unsupported. It’s important not to rush to just following the breath, allow your awareness practice to develop before moving on.
Working with the Mind
Of course within all this you will encounter the thinking mind. In fact it can feel like the mind becomes busier with more thoughts and emotions when we first start to meditate. Traditionally this can be seen as a good sign and usually means we are developing more awareness - we are paying more attention to what is going on internally. As thinking arises and interrupts the attention on the breath, become aware of it and label it simply as ‘thinking’. The process of labelling should be very gentle and non-judgmental like a ‘feather touching a bubble’. Then return to the practice of following the breath.
Labelling our thinking helps to take some of the heat out of how the thinking mind operates. Usually it builds more and more thoughts and feelings on top of each other adding one to the other until we are literally lost in thought. If we notice this happening and interrupt the process by labelling it and bring the attention back to the breath then we start to cut through the seeming solidity of thought. If there is a particularly involved train of thought or there is a crisis or issue arising in your life and the same thoughts keep coming back then allow it to run its course, pay attention to the thoughts themselves, watch them intently ‘like a cat watches a mouse’. Then when they are exhausted return to the breath.
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