A Beginner's Guide to Meditation: The Zazen Method
Zazen (座禅) is a form of Buddhist meditation originating from Japanese Buddhism. It combines mindfulness with spiritual awareness and gratefulness for existence itself.
For me, it is the method of meditation or mindfulness that comes easiest. It really allows me to be mindful of the present moment and let go of any anxieties I am experiencing, plus it comes without the distractions of guided meditation.
I love zazen for all the reasons I hate guided meditation; the freedom to make it as you want, without input from anybody else - virtual or otherwise. It is deeply personal, your own moment. No distractions.
If you're like me and didn't get along with guided meditation but are still interested in meditating, carry on reading!
In this article, I will tell you how to practice zazen meditation. I'm neither a professional practitioner nor a Buddhist guru, however I hope that my year or so of practicing zazen can inspire more people to try it out!
Advantages of Zazen Meditation
First of all, why try zazen meditation?
Practising zazen mediation at home is very simple. You don't need a subscription to a mindfulness or guided meditation app for starters. You don't even need to play mood music if you don't want to. All you need is somewhere quiet and calm, and the determined focus to deny your racing thoughts any provocation for a few minutes.
Practicing zazen is useful for people regardless of their faith. Whether Buddhist, religious or atheist, zazen's philosophy of appreciating the moment and clearing the mind of racing thoughts can provide many benefits.
Like mindfulness, zazen can reduce anxiety by not giving anxious thoughts validation. The thoughts are there, but they're unimportant. By letting them pass like leaves in the wind, you're not giving anxiety the attention it craves.
I'm not saying that it's easy. It takes practice and determination. You need to work on your focus and self-discipline to really benefit from zazen, making it by no means an overnight miracle cure. However, the increasing mental calm and positivity that zazen brings is worth the hard work. Plus, self-discipline is an important skill - not just in zazen, but the world at large too!
First of all, you need to find a place where you feel comfortable to practice zazen. Find somewhere quiet, comfortable and private. I recommend your garden or somewhere in nature where you won’t be disturbed by walkers.
Meditating in nature is preferable as you really get to experience the nature of existence. However, your home or bedroom will suffice if you are unable to meditate outdoors, for example if you live in an apartment or an urban area.
Finding the Right Ambience
If you are out in nature, usually the sounds around you will suffice in creating the perfect atmosphere for meditation. However, you may decide to add ambience yourself, especially if you are practising meditation indoors.
You can play some calm instrumental background music if you like, listening through noise cancelling headphones if possible. I recommend the music of Steven Halpern, specifically his crystal bowl albums, as I find they really calm me down and immerse me in the moment of meditation.
Getting Into Position
Getting into the right position is very important for zazen meditation. You should feel comfortable above all, as discomfort can distract from the serenity of a meditative state.
You should be free from tension in your body, letting your shoulders and back relax while keeping a good upright posture. You should also be somewhere that is neither too cold nor too hot; sit in the shade if it's the height of summer, or stay indoors and turn up the heating if it's snowy outside.
Zazen meditation mainly uses the lotus position, where the legs are crossed and the feet are placed upon the knees. This may not be comfortable or possible for everyone, so the half lotus position is also acceptable. I personally use the half lotus position.
To sit in the half lotus position:
- Sit on a flat, firm surface, such as the floor or a yoga mat.
- Sit with your legs crossed.
- Bring one foot so it is upon its opposite knee.
- Bring the other foot so that it is below its opposite knee.
What to do with your hands?
A traditional pose in zazen is to rest your hands gently in front of you, forearms placed on your thighs. Place one hand over the other, with palms facing skyward. The backs of your hands should make contact with your lower leg or ankle.
If you would like, you can also rest your hands on your knees with fingers positioned in a mudra pose. This is one of the stereotypical sights associated with Buddhist meditation, with the thumb-tip meeting a fingertip.
The key is to do whichever position you feel most comfortable with!
Set a Timer
Before you start meditating, ask yourself how long you would like to do it for.
Of course, don't expect to start off at 10 or 20 minutes from the get go. A good starting post for absolute beginners is 3 minutes. Set your phone timer for 3 minutes - adding 5 seconds on top to get into position - set the phone aside out of arm's reach and in do-not-disturb mode.
Gradually increase your time as you become able to hold your focus for longer. If your 3 minutes is up and you still feel in the zone, set your timer for 5 minutes next time, then to 7, then to 10! Anywhere between 10 and 20 minutes is a good time for most people, although you are free to meditate for even longer if you have more free time!
Starting slowly and gradually is essential, especially if you have an overactive or anxious mind. Over time, you should find it easier to focus, so don't feel discouraged if you find it hard at first! Perseverance and determination are required for zazen, especially in the early days.
Focus Your Mind
Now comes the tricky bit: focusing your mind.
Like mindfulness, zazen isn't about blocking out all thoughts. It's more about allowing them to pass by, but paying them no attention. Just like walking past strangers in the street; let them pass by without engaging in conversation.
A thought about an upcoming exam or meeting floats by? It's there. Zazen doesn't mean that you should ignore it completely. The thought is there and it's reasonable to notice that. You just don't acknowledge it further. Stop yourself from engaging with it and devolving into anxious rumination.
This is where self-discipline comes into play. When a thought comes along, remind yourself that you are meditating. Tell yourself that the thought is there, but you're not going to interact with it. Focus on deep breathing, the sounds of nature around you, the music and ambience if you have that playing. Focus on the sensations you feel, rather than the thoughts you think about.
Above all, meditation is about finding yourself. Don't feel pressured to convert to the zazen method if you've already found your niche. However, I hope that some of you will consider trying it out and further explore the world of meditative practices!
Update: For Arabic-speaking readers, this article has been translated by Sarah on her blog The Speedwells Blog.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.