Zazen has been practiced for 2,500 years. It traveled from India, China and Japan to arrive in the West around the middle of the last century. The practice of zazen is neither a means of introspection nor of contemplation. It is a means by which we come to experience the unity with our selves and the Universe. As a technique, it is easy to learn and simple to practice. As with most valuable techniques, what matters is
not trying to understand it, for there is nothing in it to be understood. What matters is doing it. As you do it day by day, it transforms your health and your life.
A powerful technique for re-establishing life-giving balance at every level, zazen is a simple, yet almost infinitely transformative practice. Zazen deepens our connection with the innate self simply by becoming aware of our breathing. Practice it daily, and it can relieve fear, release anxieties and clear away internal monologues where the mind chases its tail like an obsessive dog, getting nowhere. Zazen also strengthens vitality, and teaches us the art of being present in the eternal NOW.
STILL WATERS RUN DEEP
In essence, the human mind is meant to be like the still water of a lake at dawn. But, when the rains fall or the winds blow, its natural glass-like surface, which is meant to reflect the sun and the moon, gets disturbed with eddies and waves, distorting our perception of our bodies, ourselves and the world around us. As we practice zazen, our mind returns to its mirror-like state. Then it can reflect the world around us without becoming obstructed or distorted by anything in it. Gradually we learn that we do not have to hold on to anything to be able to create the life for which we long. We become free. This experience of freedom becomes contagious—a blessing not only for ourselves but for others. Marianne Williamson said it well: ‘As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.’
The word ‘spirit’ means breath—that is, life force. In Japanese they call it ki, in Chinese chi. In English we refer to it as energy or power. It is the electrical energy that fuels the living matrix of your body. Practice zazen and you learn how closely the way your breath is connected with the kind of thoughts you have and the emotions you feel. Working with the breath, you inadvertently work with body and mind. For these three are different aspects of a single reality.
As we develop awareness of the breath, as it enters and leaves our body, and of all the sensations this brings, we come to touch the ‘still point’ and gradually develop a natural ability to focus the mind. We start by sitting in a comfortable but straight posture and counting the breath: inhale . . . ‘one’, exhale . . . ‘two’, and so on, up to ten. Then we begin again back at ‘one’. The point of the counting has nothing to do with trying to get to ten—it is just a simple tool for focusing attention. If you lose count and your mind begins to wander, notice this, bless your thoughts, whatever they are, then let them go by gently returning your concentration to the breath and starting again at ‘one’. Each time you choose consciously to let a thought go and bring yourself back to your breathing, you increase your ability to place your mind where you want it to be. It’s an incredibly powerful experience. After a while, you begin to break free of the limiting thoughts, worries and obsessions that rule most people’s lives.
Connection with your innate being grows stronger, as does your capacity to experience bliss, pleasure and the sense that you have the right to be who you are without having to conform to other people’s imperatives. Your spiritual power grows, as do your intuitive skills. Creativity, which is closely allied to intuition, blossoms. We lose the sense of isolation which so many have, where we feel alone and alienated from the Universe. Want to try it? Let’s get started.
POSITION YOUR BODY
The way you hold your body—your posture—helps create your state of consciousness. There are many choices. You can sit tailor-fashion on the floor, using a small firm pillow, or zafu, which raises your bottom slightly off the floor. Sit on the front third of your zafu, tipping the body slightly forward. This creates the strongest feeling of stability. You can also use a chair. When sitting on a chair it is important also to use a cushion so that you can sit on the front third of the cushion and keep your back away from its back. Make sure your feet are flat on the floor. However you choose to sit, your back needs to be straight. Imagine that your head is pressing against the ceiling. Now allow your muscles to soften so the natural curve of the back appears and the abdomen pushes slightly forward so that the diaphragm moves freely—rising and falling with each breath.
POSITION YOUR HANDS
Place your hands in what is known as a cosmic mudra, where your active hand (right if you are right-handed, left if you are left-handed) lies palm up in your lap. Nestle the other hand gently on to the palm of the active hand so that the knuckles overlap and your thumb tips just touch, forming a kind of oval. This connects your body’s right and left energy fields. It also acts as a symbol for the unity of the breath, your life, and the Universe. This also helps turn you inwards away from the confusion and chaos of daily life.
Allow your body to settle into a comfortable posture. Your back is erect but never stiff; your chin is tucked in slightly; the tip of your tongue rests easily against the roof of your mouth, just behind your upper teeth, which keeps you from salivating too much. Breathe through your nose. Lower your eyes so that you are looking at the ground 2 or 3 feet in front of you. After a while you may be surprised to find that, although your eyes are open, you are no longer ‘seeing’ what you are looking at, since the focus of your attention will have shifted within.
GO TO THE CENTER
This is the hara—the physical and spiritual centre of the body. It is a place of power from which all the martial arts are performed. Located in the pelvis, 2½ to 3 inches below the navel, it is also the centre of gravity in the body. Allowing your focus of attention to rest at the hara creates a sense of balance for body and mind. As you breathe in, imagine your breath going down to the hara, then returning from the hara as you breathe out. Of course, on a physical level the breath is really filling the lungs, but imagining this helps centre you.
Pay attention to your breath without trying to change anything. Be aware of the tactile feelings that come with breathing. Notice the cool air entering your body as you inhale through your nose and what it feels like as it travels down the back of your throat. Feel the warmth of the out-breath as you exhale. When you stay in touch with this tactile sensation of breathing, you are less likely to be distracted by thoughts.
COUNT THE INS AND OUTS
Inhalation is ‘one’. Exhalation is ‘two’. Inhalation is ‘three’ and so on until you get to ten. Then start all over again. The simple agreement you make with yourself is only that when the mind begins to distract you, you notice this and consciously choose to let it go, then go back to watching the breath, and begin counting again from one.
Zazen is as simple as that. Practicing it for 15 minutes twice a day—preferably at the beginning of the day and the end of the day—we touch the still point within us again and again. In the process we begin to build up joriki—the power of focus and concentration so that, in time, instead of becoming caught up in the endless mental machinations that draw us away from living our lives fully whatever we are doing, we become able to choose consciously to let go and turn our mind towards whatever we wish. The connection with our innate being strengthens so that our inner world and our day-to-day life come together in harmony. The more you practice, the easier it becomes eventually, at will, to move into your still point even in highly stressful situations that once had you frantic.
Practicing zazen day after day brings many other gifts from the Universe as well. The practice of zazen is highly experiential. Trying to understand or rationalize it is a waste of time. Like most transformative practices, it can never be fully understood; it is meant to be lived.