Jules Shuzen Harris teaches Zazen, the practice of meditation at the heart of Zen Buddhism.
There are many forms of meditation that offer you the opportunity to cultivate stillness and open up space in your life. One such form, zazen, has both external and internal instructions on how to involve your consciousness in the immediate, uninterpreted experience of the present moment. Zazen is awake but let go, experiencing your awareness of the present moment without thoughts or stories.
As a central form of meditation in Zen Buddhism, zazen is often combined with study and teaching to help develop greater clarity in our practice. Zazen often includes a specific practice, such as counting your breaths, to focus your attention and develop your powers of concentration.
Much attention has recently been paid to the many practical benefits of meditation. It lowers stress, lowers blood pressure and is effective in dealing with depression, anxiety and anger. All of these are good reasons to meditate, but in the end Buddhists practice zazen and other meditations to realize what Buddhism calls our true nature, which is beyond one’s own identity with its self-imposed limitations. From a Buddhist perspective, our main problem is our attachment to our deceptive idea of who we are and what we need to do to maintain that deception.
To truly advance in zazen, we need to make a genuine commitment to practice. We may not recognize dramatic changes in our lives right away, but that’s okay. One aspect of the relationship with our practice is to approach it with a balance of effort and patience. To find what is beyond our ideas of self, we must participate in our own practice experience. Books and articles, however well written, are no substitute.
Preferably, you should sit in the morning, starting with ten minutes a day during the first week. As your practice progresses, gradually work up to 20-30 minutes a day. Here are some simple instructions to get you started:
Find a quiet place to sit. It can help to create a tidy space, free from as many distractions as possible. Working to create a clear and quiet outdoor space reflects our care for our practice and also supports the interior aspects of our zazen. A zabuton (soft mat) i zafu (pillow) will provide support to sit upright.
Pay close attention to your body and posture. If you are just starting out, try different ways to sit down and find one that works for you. There are several options. Sit with both legs crossed so that each leg rests on the opposite thigh (full lotus); sit with one leg resting on the opposite calf (half lotus); sit on your knees with your legs folded under you, riding on a pillow like a chair; sit on a low bench with your legs tucked under the bench; or sit in a chair with a straight back.
The sitting position that works best for you will depend in part on your flexibility. Stretching before each sitting will help relieve tension and discomfort. As your meditation practice evolves, the pain you may experience at first will become less of a problem. While there may be some discomfort as the limbs stretch in unfamiliar ways, the body gradually adapts.
Whatever position you choose, your back and head should be erect. The ears should line up with the shoulders and chin slightly sunken. Sit quietly with your eyes open and out of focus. Look down at a 45-degree angle. Pay attention to your breathing. First, inhale and exhale through your mouth as you swing from right to left three times. Join your hands in a zazen mudra (the left hand resting on the right hand with the palms facing up and the tips of the thumbs just touching).
You are now ready to focus on your breathing. Focus on inspiration and count one, then focus on exhalation and count two. Inhale again, counting three, and exhale again, counting four. The goal is to reach a count of ten without thoughts going through your head. If the thoughts come out, start again at one o’clock. Breathe through your nose with a natural, unforced rhythm.
Refrain from trying to stop your thinking; let it stop on its own. When a thought comes to mind, let it in and let it out. Your mind will begin to calm down. Nothing comes out of the mind. The mind includes everything; this is the true understanding of the mind.
Your mind follows your breath. As you continue to breathe, drop the notion of “I’m breathing.” Without mind, without body; just keep in mind the moment of breathing. Let go of the ideas of time and space, body and mind, and just “sit”.
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