Zazen – Easy Steps to Practice Zen Meditation
In our busy lives, we always look for ways to release stress and seek comfort to rest the mind & body. One of the effective methods is the Zen meditation, or “zazen (坐禅)” that has been used in Japan for centuries.
Zazen means “seated meditation” which is a main practice of Zen Buddhism. Zazen’s origin can be traced back to an Indian monk in the 6th century, however, Dogen Zenji, a Japanese Buddhist priest/philosopher who lived in the 12th century, is considered to be the pioneer of the practice.
The Practice of Zazen:
The practice of zazen is simply sitting— lifting up all judgmental thinking and letting words, ideas, images and thoughts go by without getting distracted by them. In zazen, you would direct your attention to the act of breathing because breathing is intimately related to your awareness. When your mind is relaxed, your breathing is deep and effortless, whereas when you’re nervous, your breathing is quicker and shallow.
The goal of zazen is to set the mind, body, and breathing in harmony by maintaining a relaxed state. Do not be impatient, self-critical, or push yourself into doing something you cannot handle.
Steps of Zazen:
- Zazen is usually done barefoot. Wear comfortable clothes and remove heavy jewelry and watches.
- There may be slightly different ways to do zazen as there are various Zen sects.
If the lotus position is not possible, zazen can also be done by sitting in a chair or sitting on your heels with knees bent. When using a chair, choose a chair with a seat that is rather firm. Use a cushion or towel if you need to sit on them. The chair does not need back support.
Zazen using a chair:
1. Before starting zazen in a chair, loosen your muscles in your shoulders and neck. Sit naturally in the chair halfway with your back straight.
Place your feet on the floor shoulder length apart. It’s best to sit in a chair where your knees do not come higher than the height of the seat.
2. Follow steps #2 though #5 in “Steps of zazen” above for instructions on zazen.
3. After the session, stand up slowly from your chair.
Benefits of zazen:
01. Many studies show that zazen helps you improve concentration, the functions of the autonomic nervous system, and emotional regulation. It also helps with stress/anxiety reduction, and self-awareness. These benefits are more apparent when practiced long-term.
Zazen, which is mainly the practice of deep breathing, helps increase the concentration of carbon dioxide in the blood and has the effect of promoting serotonin secretion. Serotonin is related to physiological functions such as biorhythm, neuroendocrine, sleep, and thermoregulation, and controls emotional information such as dopamine and noradrenaline, which are excitatory substances, and stabilizes the mind.
Therefore, deep breathing helps your mind to calm down. When your mind is calm, you can self-reflect objectively with a fresh mind, and be able to make good decisions.
02. Zazen helps you keep a good posture. Sitting in front of your computer or using smartphones for hours tends to give you a hunchback, hurting your neck and lower back.
Burning incense for zazen:
Burning incense before zazen is usually recommended if you want fragrance or to purify the space. Make sure that the smoke of the incense does not interfere with your breathing. If incense is burned during zazen, check to see that the room is well-ventilated and that you’re not too close to the smoke.
In Japan, sandalwood incense is burned during zazen in most Buddhist temples. Smelling sandalwood fragrance helps secrete serotonin which calms down your mind and feel refreshed.
As a side note, the time it takes to go through one session of zazen is measured by the time it takes for one incense stick to burn off, which is about 45 minutes. Without using the clock, monks at temples keep track of time during zazen by the burning incense stick. They use the term “icchu” to describe the number of zazen practiced by counting how many incense sticks were used.
Take the time to practice zazen:
Many Zen masters advise to always look at your beliefs and actions objectively and improve what you need to improve. When you know what works best, keep doing it.
The goal for any religion or practice is your happiness as well as the happiness of society as a whole— so take a moment to practice zazen every day to find peace and happiness from within.