Zazen – Sitting Meditation & Why I Do It

woman meditating in the outdoors
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Meditation was always something that I wanted to be good at. I never was very good at it and even now after over two years of daily meditation practices I am still floundering in the shallow end.

You see, wanting to be good at meditation is kind of missing the point of it. Saying you want to be good at meditation is like saying you want to be good at holding a pencil, when what you really mean is you want to be good at drawing.

So why DO we meditate?

Well that is a big question with many possible answers. For me, as for many others, the answer is to be better at life in general.

Holding a pencil well is vital for being able to draw, but just holding the pencil is only the start, not the end result.

So if we meditate to be better at life, and the mere act of meditating is a means to help with this endeavour, then is there such a thing as a ‘bad’ meditation session?

I would argue no.

The mere acknowledgement of the fact that your meditation session was ‘less than ideal’ shows that it was, in fact, a total success.

You see with mindfulness meditation, the more times we ‘fail’, in this case being invaded by our thoughts, the more opportunities for mindfulness we have.

Every time you notice your focus drifting and bring it back to your mantra, your breath, your focal point or whatever, you are in a state of mindfulness, in the present, in the right here, right now. And that’s the fundamental point of meditating. All the cosmic transcendence, astral travel, enlightenment, or whatever else you are secretly longing for is irrelevant without these nano second flashes of mindfulness.

The simple act of being still with oneself in the act of meditation is very easy to disregard as a ‘nothing practice’. I felt this way for a long time. If I didn’t reach some kind of spiritual awakening by the end of a session, then what was the point, I pondered.

Several years into my meditation practice and I still haven’t had that flash of enlightenment. No blinding opening on my third eye, no serene glow of total realisation of the cosmos.

Despite this, the changes in me have been profound. Just like the fact that you don’t notice your own hair growing day by day, until one day you wake up a realise that people are staring at you funnily due to your 80s-esque mullet, so do the benefits of meditation creep up on you subtly.

Business at the front, party at the back

Meditation for me has had the effect of making me calmer; far more able to weather to stormy seas that life brings. My thoughts are clearer and I am able to settle myself down much more quickly.

These may seem like paltry wins to you, but to anyone who has ever suffered with anxiety these things are game changing. For some they could even be life saving.

So how has sitting still whilst having a mind like a monkey on amphetamines had such a dramatic effect? I don’t know for sure, but the benefits seem to be widely experienced.

My theory is our minds are a bit like a muscle/tendon. In our standard modern settings it is constantly under strain or load. Between deciding what cereal to eat, doing our tax returns, checking in on the Kardashians, and the endless amount of Doom-scrolling we do, our mind rarely, if ever, has a moment to relax.

And this is what meditation gives us. Even it’s only for a split second every couple of minutes during our meditation/mindfulness practice.

I liken it to my Achilles Tendon. When I made the transition to barefoot-style running I made the classic mistake of only running on my mid-foot/fore-foot area, never letting my heels touch the ground. This left me with hugely sore calves and tender Achilles tendons. By letting the heels lightly kiss the ground even for a fraction of a second with each footfall we allow the tendons to relax enough to keep us pounding the streets.

Meditation works like this for my mind. Those split second moments of realising that I’ve let my focus wander and then bringing it back to the now allows my brain to stop stretching, decompress and get just enough rest to keep me pounding the streets of my mind. And the more I do it, the better I get at it and the more often these mental pauses occur. This keeps my mind moving further, faster, and stronger.

In short, it makes me a little better at life.

And like the act of drawing, there are many ways to hold a pencil.

The gateway to meditation for me came with breathwork. From there I went on to use mantra based ‘Vedic’ meditation for a good year or more. You can read how I finally learnt to meditate here.

Both have worked well for me but I found that I missed combining the breathwork with the deep meditation. In mantra based meditation we are focusing solely on the mantra, not the breath at all.

I have long been interested in the Zen traditions so finally gave Zazen, simply meaning seated meditation, a go.

Zazen meditation is deceptively simple, and whilst there are many layers to it, and many traditions with subtle differences, for the beginner it revolves around sitting and focusing on the breath in a relaxed but wakeful posture.

There are many postures used in Zazen; Full Lotus, Half Lotus, Burmese and Seiza being the most common.

If like me you lack the Pretzel gene or the willpower to develop it, then Burmese and Seiza positions may be your best options.

Zafu cushion

Ideally your hips are higher than your knees to allow for a bit of extra blood flow (always nice) and to plant your knees directly on the ground for a stable base. To achieve this I use a traditional Zafu Cushion. These are great to have in different places around the house and we use them often when transitioning from standing to seated to ground living. It all adds up to more healthy nutritious movement. If you don’t have a zafu, then any cushion, yoga block, or thick folded blanket will do.

Burmese position

With Burmese style the legs are folded one foot in front of the other. With Seiza you are in a kneeling position with your bum resting on either your feet, a cushion (I put the zafu on it’s side to achieve a bit more height) or on a special meditation stool. The one pictured is one that I made out of a couple of bits of scrap timber in about 10 minutes.

meditation stool

I tend to jump between the 2 positions for different sessions depending how I feel or how creaky my knees are.

If these positions are not for you then you can also do Zazen in a chair. Again you want to be relaxed yet wakeful, so a good upright chair is ideal. Ideally you’d put a cushion or zafu under your bum to raise your hips up and to put you in a nice spinal position. If you need a bit of back support you can pop a cushion behind your lower back, leaving the upper back and neck unsupported.

Now that we are in position, it’s time to begin.

Zazen is typically done with the eyes open. This can feel a bit weird at first and you’ll be scanning around the room. To help me I like to have a lighted candle on the floor in front of me to focus on. Some Zen schools face a blank walk instead.

When we are ready, with a nice straight back (try to avoid slouching) we can focus on our breath. Ideally all breathing is done through the nose, but if you have a cold etc you may need to breathe through the mouth. When breathing in feel the breath being drawn down deep into your diaphragm, so that your belly pushes out slightly. One old coach of mine continually shouted at me to “Breathe into your balls!”. If that visualisation works for you, use it.

Once you feel comfortable in your position and with your breath you can start to focus more on it. You are going to count both your in breath and your out breath. Breathe in, 1; breathe out, 2; breathe in 3; breathe out, 4, etc. Continue until you reach 10 breaths (5 in/out cycles).

Every time a thought enters your mind, notice it. Don’t get annoyed with it, don’t fight it, just accept that it’s there, just note it. Now return your focus to your breath. Start back at 1 and work back up. The goal is not to get a perfect 10 score. The goal is just to notice when your focus wanders and to bring it back.

That’s it. That is the sole goal. This means that there is no way you can fail. Every session is a success.

A tool that I use instead of counting is to use a Gatha. A Gatha is a verse or poem that is used to aid meditation. In this way it is very similar to a mantra but in the Zen tradition it is used to aid the focus onto the breath (or whatever else is being used as a focal point eg. walking). This technique was popularised in the Zen tradition by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hahn, who we sadly lost this week.

A Gatha is generally recited silently in the mind in time with our breath in and out. In honour of Thich Nhat Hanh I will share his excellent breathing meditation Gatha:

Breathe in, Breathe out

Deep, Slow

Calm, Ease

Smile, Release

Present Moment, Wonderful Moment

Thich Nhat Hanh

Remember, you cannot do it wrong. One more peace of golden advice from one of the greatest sages of our time:

Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits

Winnie the Pooh

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