In the modern age, meditation is often suggested as a way to help with anxiety, stress, and physical pain. In order to start meditating, it’s important to understand the different forms of meditation so you can begin your own practice of this ancient art.
Zen meditation or zazen is bringing your awareness to your breath and letting yourself settle into stillness. Rather than focusing on a specific mantra or idea, zazen is about focusing and deepening your awareness of self, thoughts, emotions, and energies around you.
I first learned about meditation through podcasts about people who have spent their whole life dedicated to this practice, such as Ram Dass and Sharon Salzberg. I was fascinated by their outlooks and divine wisdom and wanted to explore the practice of mediation myself. What held me back more than anything was my uncertainty on how to meditate, and how to do it correctly. If you feel similarly intimidated, then I hope this blog will give you more clarity and insight on how to begin your own zen meditation practice.
What is Zen Meditation?
Zen mediation is settling into a state of relaxation with a focus on the breath. It is usually done in a seated position on the floor with legs crossed in a specific way. These seated positions can vary depending on what is most comfortable. The key is keeping a straight back and having a firm, yet easeful, position. With the back straight, the body is able to maintain a steady, smooth breath.
The seated positions of zazen are the Burmese, Half-Lotus, Full Lotus, and Seiza. They differentiate in how one crosses their legs, such as having both feet crossed and placed on the opposite thighs, which is the Full Lotus. These positions provide stability, and one usually sits on a small cushion to raise the hips and bring the knees down to the Earth. One should feel the earth beneath them to keep them grounded.
These cross-legged positions can be difficult and uncomfortable for some. Maintaining one of these positions is not necessary in order to practice zen meditation, as the intent of the practice is to focus on the breathe. This can be done seated in a chair, standing up, laying down, or when out for a walk. The most important thing is to find the position that feels the most comfortable to you. If zazen positions are intriguing to you, check out this article that explains each position in depth.
Zen meditation isn’t about maintaining an absence of thoughts, rather it’s the ability to have awareness around the thoughts arising, and an ability to bring your focus back to the breath.
Part of the zazen posture is the placement of your hands. One of our energy centers is located in our lower abdomen, or right below the belly button. The hands should come to a soft placement there, with palms facing up. The fingers can be interlaced or placed with the dominant hand holding the other. The intent behind this hand placement is to focus on this point of energy within you and to feel the rise and fall of your lower abdomen as you breath.
How To Use Zen Meditation
Once you’re in a comfortable position, bring your attention to your breath – breathing in and out of your nose. Many zazen masters suggest beginning by counting your breath, with the first inhale being one, the exhale two, and so forth. Count up to a number that feels most fitting, such as 10 or 15. Repeat as needed. This simple exercise helps one focus on the breath and settle into the position.
The breath should be smooth and unforced. You don’t have to start with a deep breath, rather a breath that feels natural and easeful. As you continue, allow your breath to deepen. Feel it filling your lower belly as you inhale, and it let it release as cool flowing water as you exhale.
Many of us have shallow breaths that stay within our chests, so moving your breath down to your belly may be uncomfortable at first. It might also bring awareness to any tension that is being held in your chest, lungs, or stomach. If you feel this tension, allow it to relax and release with your breath.
Through this process, you will have thoughts and emotions arise. It may feel difficult to slow a busy or anxious mind, and that’s okay. Zen meditation isn’t about maintaining an absence of thoughts, rather it’s the ability to have awareness around the thoughts arising, and an ability to bring your focus back to the breath. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale.
Through this back and forth process, we can learn much about our thoughts. This is one of the benefits of meditation; you’re able to learn more about yourself and how you see the world. Instead of getting sucked into a thought and letting it drift you away, meditation allows you to view your thoughts as an observer. Try not to judge the thoughts, rather look at them with curiosity.
We are all students of life, and learning to view our thoughts as separate from our innate being is part of awakening. After noticing the thought that has arisen, you can take it back to the breath.
Along with the multitude of thoughts that will come sweeping in, it’s normal to experience a range of emotions. At first, you may feel anxious, frustrated, sad, and/or angry. Let them come, it’s okay. I believe we have frustration first come up because we are not used to stillness. Some may even feel like it is wrong for them to be still/not doing or accomplishing anything. This is the great medicine of stillness.
I also believe it is normal for us to hold these emotions in throughout the day, especially if one lives a hectic, stressful life. When we’re finally able to settle down and check in with ourselves, everything we’ve been holding at bay will come rising up. This can be scary and uncomfortable. Come back to the breath. Breath through the emotions, and let them ride the wave of each inhale and exhale. It will pass.
Through zazen and other forms of mediation, one can find great healing for their body and mind.
You can meditate for as long as you wish, but I would encourage sticking with the process. The first few sessions will be the hardest, but as you continue it will be easier to fall into stillness and the breath. Try committing to a short practice at first, such as 5 minutes a day for 7 days. See how it goes. Remember, this is an exploration, a path to awakening to your highest self. You don’t have to get it “right,” and you will learn as you go.
Zen Meditation Benefits
Zen mediation is a wonderful way to feel more relaxed and calm. This is because one is able to find a place of stillness within themselves and their environment. This state of peace is also brought on by deep breathing.
Research has shown that slow, deep breathing positively impacts our physical and psychological health. Many of us have a tense and worn-out nervous system due to stresses and constant stimulation from our phones, work, and busy lives. This means our sympathetic nervous system is constantly getting triggered, which causes our fight/flight reflexes to kick in.
When this occurs, the heart starts beating faster to circulate blood, our muscles tense, and we feel on alert. When this repeatedly occurs, we can end up staying in the sympathetic nervous system, which is hard on one’s body and mind.
A study published by the US National Library of Medicine shows that deep breathing is able to switch one back to the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows one’s heart rate and makes one feel safe and comfortable.
When practicing meditation, one is able to maintain a state of calm and presence. Through consistent practice, meditation can help heal a tense nervous system so it doesn’t become triggered as easily. Rather, the sympathetic nervous system takes over when it’s actually necessary and beneficial, such as during a life or death situation. This means that everyday stresses can become more manageable and not affect one’s life so much.
If you’re fascinated by how meditation affects the body and mind based on scientific research, then check out this article by NIH that is an in-depth study on the benefits of mediation.
Other benefits of zen mediation include increased focus, better sleep, and more awareness of one’s thoughts. I believe meditation also connects one with something greater than themselves, as well as reveals the spirit that lives within. Through zazen and other forms of mediation, one can find great healing for their body and mind.
Types of Zen Meditation
Zazen can be practiced in a formal seated position or any position that feels most comfortable. A straight back is encouraged as it promotes a steady, clear breath. There are many ways to practice zen meditation, as well as different types and programs to help you in your practice.
Walking Zen Meditation
When you think about meditation, you usually imagine having to close your eyes. With zazen, this isn’t the case, and keeping the eyes open is actually encouraged. Because of this, you can meditate when out for a walk. This can be done by focusing on your breath as you’re on your walk. Listen to the sounds of nature all around, and sink into the present moment. Find stillness in your mind and feel the sensations of what you experience and see.
Soto Zen Meditation
Another form or variation of zen meditation is soto meditation, which is the focus on the present moment and becoming fully aware of yourself. This type of meditation focuses on the simplicity of breath and presence, rather than a search for enlightenment. It is a way to fully experience your body and the world around you, without any goals or expectations.
Guided Zen Meditation
Following a guided meditation is a great way to begin a meditation practice, and helps take the pressure off of getting it “right.” You can find many guided zen meditations on youtube, meditation apps, programs, and in-person meditation retreats.
In this helpful video, learn examples of guided zen mediation.
Zen Meditation Supplies
Before beginning your practice, you’ll want to be set up to make it as comfortable as possible. This includes having all your supplies at hand before getting started. If you’re sitting on the floor, I would suggest having a cushion to sit on, or a folded up towel or blanket. You can also purchase specific zen meditation cushions that will help you sit in a formal, cross-legged position.
Having relaxing mediation music on can help you focus on your breath and sink into the experience. There are a handful of youtube videos that play hours of mediation music, as well as Spotify playlists made specifically for zazen. Check them out and see if they help you in your practice.
Zen Meditation Compared to Other Meditations
Each meditation practice focuses on a different intent. Some find that certain mediations are easier or more enjoyable for them than others. In order to have more understanding and create a practice that is best for you, it’s important to be aware of other methods and how they are different than zen mediation. There are many different meditation practices to discover, and I encourage you to look into each of them.
Zen Meditation and Mindfulness
The simplest way to differentiate zen meditation from mindfulness is that meditation is a practice/exercise, while mindfulness is a tool of awareness/way of life. You can meditate to become more mindful, but meditation isn’t necessary to practice mindfulness. You can be mindful of yourself and your surroundings as you go through your day.
Mindfulness is becoming aware of your thoughts, emotions, and reactions without judgment or expectation. It is a way to stay curious about who you are, and a way to move through life with more intention. Meditation is a great way to develop mindfulness.
Zen Meditation and Mantras
Mantra meditation is a practice of repetition. Whether that be a specific sound, a single word, or an entire phrase. This repetition can put you into a sort of trance state, so I’ve been told, and can help you focus on the experience. While I don’t have much personal experience with mantras, I know firsthand how beneficial and healing they can be for some.
For example, I have a friend who finds mantras to be extremely helpful for when she is experiencing severe anxiety or having a panic attack. By focusing on a specific encouraging word or phrase, she is able to move out of the intense experience.
Zen Meditation and Vipassana
Vipassana is a form of mediation that focuses on a specific intent, such as doing full-body scans. This form is done with more of a desire for a specific outcome, such as healing and how one relates to their circumstances. This makes it different than zazen, which is a focus on “what is” without any specific intentions other than following the breath.
Zen Meditation and Journeying Meditations
Zen mediation doesn’t have a specific purpose other than being present to the experience. With journeying, you follow a guided meditation or read it beforehand. Then, you literally go on a visual or sensory journey within your mind. This type of mediation is super beneficial for shadow work and healing trauma. It is also beneficial for spiritual practices. Journeying is also called shamanic journeying and is a transformative way to connect to yourself, the spirit, and the earth.
How do I start Zen?
You can start zen by setting some time aside for mediation, perhaps 5 minutes to start. Find a comfortable position, soften your gaze, and focus on your breath.
How do I meditate if I feel really tense or angry?
From firsthand experience, I know that breathing through a strong emotion sometimes isn’t enough to release it. If I’m feeling a lot of tense energy in my body, I may decide to do something else before I meditate to help the energy move, such as dancing, walking, or yoga. Then, I’m able to settle down and meditate.
Favorite Forms of Meditation That Real People Practice
I know that meditation is highly beneficial for my life, and I was curious if any of my friends and family practiced mediation. I reached out and asked them if they practiced it, and if so; what form was their favorite. Here’s what I discovered:
|Form of Meditation||Times Selected|
|Moving Meditation (yoga, stretching, walking)||40%|
- Alone Time – Its Value, Options, and How to Make Some
- Zen Buddhism – Special Benefits of Meditation and Intuition
- Solitude Vs Loneliness – Learn the Benefits and Balance
- Solitude – How to Benefit from Peace and Alone Time
- Zazen – A Meditation Practice for Mindfulness and Calm
Zen mediation is a tool to not only help you have a greater sense of peace but also help you to learn more about yourself and the world around you. It takes practice and commitment, but you’ll soon discover the beauty of your breath and the healing of stillness.