In Buddhism, the main path to liberation is meditation, or, as it’s called in Zen, zazen, seated meditation. My first Zen teacher used to say, “Zazen is not contemplation, it’s not meditation, it’s not concentration. It’s not quieting the mind or focusing the mind. Zazen is a way of using your mind. It’s a way of living your life and doing so with other people.” He meant that zazen is not about being quiet. It’s not just about focusing or even about gaining insight. Zazen must function in our everyday lives, for if it’s not working there, it’s not really working. But in order for zazen to work, we must first learn to settle into stillness and silence. Because without some form of meditation practice, it’s very difficult to see ourselves clearly. So we start by paring things down to the bare essentials—body, breath, and mind—so that on this stable ground we can build the foundation for a strong zazen practice.
To begin, sit on a zabuton (a thick cotton mat) and place a zafu (a small, round pillow) under you. If you don’t have a zabuton and zafu, a blanket and pillow will do, but know that if you plan to establish a long-term zazen practice, having the appropriate cushions will allow you to sit more comfortably.
When taking your seat, sit cross-legged on the front third of the zafu. This will tilt your pelvis down slightly and allow your knees to come closer to the mat. It will also help to keep your abdomen relaxed so you can breathe freely and naturally.
When sitting cross-legged, you can position your legs in different ways. The first and simplest is the Burmese posture, in which the legs are folded one in front of the other with the tops of the feet resting flat on the mat. When sitting cross-legged, avoid crossing your ankles and letting your knees dangle in the air because this puts a lot of strain on your back muscles. If sitting higher can help to get your knees closer to the mat, turn your cushion on its side and sit on its edge, or experiment with different cushions. But if even with these adjustments your knees still don’t drop all the way down to the mat, then use one of the other postures and give your body time to get used to the cross-legged position. Also, stretch whenever you can. I find that doing even ten minutes of yoga a day or a series of hip opening exercises helps to keep my body limber.
Another cross-legged posture is half lotus, in which one foot (let’s say the right) is placed on the left thigh and the left leg is tucked under and behind the right knee. This position is slightly asymmetrical, so you must adjust your sit bones on the cushion in order to avoid leaning to one side. If you use this or the Burmese posture regularly, make a habit of alternating the leg that’s in front or on top of your other leg to keep your body balanced over time.
The most stable of the postures is full lotus, in which each foot is placed on the opposite thigh, soles of the feet facing up. It’s a symmetrical and solid posture, but it’s also difficult for most people to do well. In general, I don’t recommend starting your zazen practice with it. Most beginners who sit cross-legged use either the Burmese or half-lotus postures if their flexibility allows.
For some people sitting cross-legged is difficult, so an alternative is to kneel on the cushion (a posture called seiza). Turn your cushion on its side and straddle it. Make sure you’re still sitting on the front third and that your abdomen is relaxed. You can also use a specially-designed seiza bench, which should be positioned with your legs in between the bench’s legs, with the tilt facing forward. Kneeling like this helps to take some of the pressure off your ankles, shins, and knees. You can also alternate between the cross-legged and kneeling positions, which is especially helpful during meditation retreats or when sitting for long hours.
If you’re not able to sit on the floor, or if you’re unsure whether you can do it without moving, consider sitting in a chair. Stillness is paramount in zazen, so make an effort to sit as still as you can, even if you’re sitting alone. The reason for this is that every time your body moves, your mind moves, which makes it harder to see what’s happening in it. But you don’t actually have to still your mind. It will come to rest naturally when the body comes to rest. So in zazen you’re getting out of the way to allow your mind to settle.
As you take your seat, be careful not to slump or lean against the chair back, because this will most likely make you drowsy. Ground your body by keeping your feet flat on the floor and use a cushion or zafu to support your sit bones. Some people like to use a second back cushion to keep their spine straight, others sit without a cushion at all. Either way, make sure that you’re not leaning backward. Your posture should support your practice of concentration and wakefulness.
Having chosen your leg position, now allow your back to be straight and your diaphragm to move freely as you breathe. Imagine the top of your head pressing up toward the ceiling, tuck in your chin slightly, and lengthen your spine. Release your shoulders and back muscles, allowing for a slight curve in your lower back. The zazen posture is both alert and relaxed. Someone who is sitting well looks immovable—like a mountain. They look as if they’ve always sat in place, as if they will always sit unmoving. It’s a posture that is both solid and supple. Firm and soft.
Keep your mouth lightly closed during zazen, breathing naturally through your nose. If you have a cold or your nose is blocked, open your mouth slightly but keep your breath quiet. Softly press your tongue against the upper palate and swallow once to create a seal that will help reduce salivation. This will prevent you from having to swallow constantly.
Your eyes should be open but lowered, with your gaze resting on the ground about two or three feet in front of you. Let your eyelids cover your eyes halfway so you won’t have to blink repeatedly. If you’ve done other kinds of meditation and are used to keeping your eyes closed, it might take time to adjust to having your eyes open, but in zazen it’s helpful to do this in order to avoid falling asleep.
Rest your hands in your lap. The dominant hand is held palm up under the other hand, also palm up, so that your knuckles overlap. Your thumbs should be lightly touching, forming an oval which rests on your thighs about two or three fingers-breadth below your navel. This point is called the hara in Japanese and the dantian in Chinese. It is roughly the center of your body, and it is considered to be the reservoir of your vital energy or ki. Placing your attention on the hara during zazen will help to quiet down your mind and keep you focused.
Now begin counting your breath. With the inhalation, silently count one. Exhale and count two. Inhale, three. Exhale, four. When you get to ten, come back to one. Do this over and over again for as long as you’re sitting. In order to build concentration, notice every time your mind begins to wander. And whenever a thought takes you away from your breath, see it, deliberately let it go, and begin counting from one again. It really doesn’t matter what the thought is. It could be a profound thought or a mundane thought. It could be the beginning of a song or a reflection on your zazen. Either way, see it clearly, set it aside, and return to counting your breath.
Little by little, your mind will settle. You’ll notice you’re spending more time actually counting your breath and less time fantasizing or distracting yourself. Your restlessness or boredom or resistance will lessen, and you’ll expend less energy to remain present.
Our capacity to concentrate the mind is one of the most powerful traits we have as human beings, yet most of us overlook it. We spend our lives preoccupied with the past or anticipating the future and therefore rarely live in the present. But by deliberately following the three steps outlined above—seeing the thought, letting it go, and returning to the breath—we’re training ourselves to keep our attention focused and steady.
In addition to concentration, in zazen you’re also developing mindfulness—the ability to see what is in front of you. Gradually you’ll learn the difference between a thought that you need to pick up and a thought you should put down. Without the constant background buzz of your mind, the thoughts you had wittingly or unwittingly pushed aside or covered up will have space to arise, and it’s important not to use zazen to suppress them. If you find that a particular thought recurs no matter how many times you let it go, then shift your practice in order to acknowledge that thought completely. Consciously turn your attention from your breath to that thought and let it fill your mind. Let the thought be present in your awareness without judgment or criticism. You don’t have to change it, grab it, or push it away. If you can stay present with it, eventually you’ll be able to release it. This sounds simple, but it takes a lifetime of practice to truly let go.It’s said that it takes the mind about twenty minutes to quiet down, so if you can sit longer, it will give you a taste of the stillness that all of us have access to but so rarely let ourselves touch. If sitting that long seems daunting, then start with five minutes. You can always lengthen the time as you become more comfortable with the practice.
If you can, sit in the morning as you begin the day and then again before you go to bed at night. Once zazen becomes an integral part of your life, you’ll begin to see how much you normally miss as you rush from one thing to the next, how rarely you are actually present. I think this kind of insight is sobering, delightful, and humbling. Sobering because we realize how much we’ve missed over the years. Delightful because we no longer have to. Humbling because no matter how much we think we’ve seen, there is always more to see.
So learn how to move into stillness, since out of this still and fertile ground your ability to live wholeheartedly will grow.