Week 1: Zen and Zazen
1. The abbreviation of Zenbuddhism, the school of buddhism which originated in China and Japan
2. The abbreviation of Zazen, meaning sitting meditation. The main practice of zen and the core of this course
3. Another way of expressing what your attitude is “I’m feeling zen now”. Relaxed and focused, without worries. More a marketing term.
Zazen is also
The basic practice to integrate Zen into your life.
It is like playing scales to a musician: just to increase your basic skills and stay in shape. No heroism, no escapism, but based firmly in reality.
It is also a perfect lab situation to which you expose yourself voluntarily. In it you can really get to know yourself, because if you do not know yourself, it is impossible to be fully aware and free in the present moment.
This knowing of yourself, or of who you are, arises out of the careful observation of what occurs inside you while you practice Zazen.
Learn not to jump on thought trains, be more and more in control of your focus and attention, gradually becoming master over what you do and think.
This is what enables good Zazen:
Posture: upright, sincere.
No movement, no sound: we create stillness to be able to observe everything that occurs in and around us unimpededly.
Our restless mind may try to interfere and create a strong urge do something else: change our posture, scratch, look at our watch, even get up. Whatever the urge, it will pass if you just observe it quietly, without judgment.
We develop concentration and the ability to let things go by counting and observing the breath.
Being zen is also
Concentration. Not as in thinking very hard about something, but by being fully aware of everything that is right here in this very moment.
Awareness of everything that occurs, inside yourself and around you; not judging anything, be a neutral and kind spectator.
Let go of everything that is not part of the here and now.
Be free and unimpeded in every moment, so you can do whatever needs to be done.
The things which you are doing right here and now are then always the most important, and you do them as well as you can.
First Instruction Zen Meditation
Materials and Posture
Practicing Zazen (sitting meditation) can be done on a meditation pillow (zafu), a meditation bench or a straight chair (without arm-rests). The quality of your meditation does not depend on what you sit on.
The variations in your posture are only in the lower half of your body: on a chair you sit with your upper legs in a 90 degree angle with respect to your body. On a meditation bench it is easiest to sit in seiza, (the camel seat), with your lower legs between or outside the supports of the bench. On a meditation pillow you can either sit in seiza, or with your legs crossed in front of you. If you sit cross-legged, make sure your knees touch the ground, or are supported by pillows. Then your upper body is supported by a stable triangle. If you sit cross-legged, you can put one leg in front of the other (Burmese Lotus), put one foot one the lower leg of the other (Quarter Lotus), on the upper leg of the other (Half Lotus), or put both feet on the opposite upper legs (Full Lotus). The Full Lotus position is the most stable of all, but our bodies are different in flexibility, and it may not work for you.
Always build your posture carefully at the beginning of your meditation. Your upper body should rest firmly on the sitting bones in your buttocks. Straighten your back by tilting your pelvis slightly forward. Being fully upright with your back straight (or rather curved very slightly in a natural way) is the most important part of the meditation posture. Balance your position, left to right as well as front to back.
Put your right hand with the palm facing upwards in front of your lower belly, below your navel. Put your other hand in it, the fingers just overlapping. Let the thumbs touch each other, forming an oval with your hands. The thumbs touch with slight pressure, just enough to be able to hold a piece of paper between them. Relax your arms, and then you will notice that the elbows move away a bit from your sides. Like this the body can breathe freely and fully.
Relax your shoulders; let them sink effortlessly all the way down and backwards.
Position your head straight up by imagining the crown of your head hanging from a wire from the ceiling. This will make the back of your head a straight continuation of your spine. If you do this properly, the crown of your head will be the highest point, and your chin is turned slightly towards your chest. Relax your facial muscles and the tongue in your mouth. You can let the tip of your tongue touch the roof of your mouth very softly.
Your eyes will stay open, or at most half-closed, all the time, gazing at a point about 1 meter in front of you. Don’t stare; allow your eyes to lose focus. Breathe silently through your nose. Sit as much as possible without moving, and completely silently. If you notice that your posture has slackened, adjust it calmly without abrupt movements.
The meditation method
Concentrate by counting your expirations (out breaths) silently. Each expiration is one count, which lasts as long as the breath. Keep this natural, if your breath is short, it is short, if it is long, it is long, don’t try to actively change this. Count ooooooone while exhaling, as long as it lasts. Then count the second exhalation twoooooo, and so on until ten. After ten you start over with one.
While you are doing this, thoughts or emotions may show up in your mind. This is not a problem; this is the way your mind works. Just let them drift by. If you notice that a thought has led to a whole train of thoughts, and your attention has turned to this train of thoughts, notice it, and return to counting your expirations, starting from one. Don’t worry about this, there is nothing to achieve. It is perfectly fine if you never get beyond three. Just try to notice when you are distracted, and calmly start counting your breaths again. We are just training our ability to put our concentration and focus exactly there where we choose it to be, which, during meditation, happens to be the expirations.
Meditation at home, tips and tricks
1. Create your own space
Choose a place in the house where you can meditate daily. If you want, decorate it with objects which symbolize awareness to you. If you want, light a candle and/or incense (a good brand of incense is Shoyeido). Use a clock to produce a signal when the meditation period is over. The app Insight Timer is very useful in this!
2. Find a time for meditation in your daily routine
It is very important to not make meditation an unpleasant obligation. Take one single decision to meditate every day, if at all possible always at the same time. Meditation in the morning is not better than meditation in the evening or vice versa, but you can find out what works best for you. Experiment a little until you have found the most suitable time for yourself, and then adhere to it. Meditation practice does require a good dose of discipline.
3. Use a realistic ambition level
It is better to decide to sit only for four days a week and then live up to your decision, then to wait and see every day to see whether you manage to persuade yourself to meditate. If it is really impossible for you to meditate daily, then set a minimum quotum for yourself, and fulfill it. Don’t feel guilty if it does not work out for once, but then do sit the next day.
4. Stay in the present moment
Don’t be too tolerant towards yourself. While sitting at home, don’t make any movements you would not make in the meditation group. Just consider all sounds and other disturbances around you an extra practice in letting go. Just return to your breath, and stay in the present moment.
5. Tell the people around you
If you live together with other people, tell them you where and when you meditate. Ask them not to disturb you unless the house is on fire. If you clearly tell them when you would like to meditate, they may even help by reminding you.
And remember: there is no good or bad meditation
Sometimes your concentration is weak and your thoughts wander frequently. Another time it may be easy to keep your focus on your breath during the entire period. This is just the way things are, always changing and different. But one meditation period is not better or worse than another. Do not blame yourself; this is the just way it is for all of us. Don’t try to achieve something. The only thing you should request from yourself is to try to stay in the present moment, and see it just as it is. Just return to your breath, and start afresh.