zen meditation

Zen Meditation: Is it Right for You?

Zen meditation, also known as Zazen, is a Buddhist meditation practice that emphasizes sitting in stillness and focusing on the present moment without judgment or distraction.

It has a lot of similarities with mindfulness meditation practice, but where mindfulness focuses on general awareness in any position, Zazen meditation focuses on posture and breathing to realize awareness.

They often call Zen meditation the practice of “thinking about not thinking.”

In this article I’ll go over everything you need to know to decide if Zen meditation is right for you.

Origins of Zen Meditation

Zen meditation: a Buddhist monk praying

Zen meditation has its roots in ancient India, originally called Dhyana, where it was first developed as part of the Buddhist tradition.

It later spread to China, where it evolved into what is known as Ch’an Buddhism. In the 12th century, Ch’an Buddhism was introduced to Japan, where it was further refined into what is now known as Zen Buddhism.

The word zazen literally means “sitting meditation

Key Principles and Philosophy of Zen Meditation

Zen meditation is based on the principles of simplicity, directness, and spontaneity. Its philosophy emphasizes the importance of living in the present moment and experiencing reality as it is, without judgment or attachment.

One of the central concepts of Zen meditation is the idea of non-duality, which refers to the notion that everything in existence is interconnected and interdependent.

Zen meditation also emphasizes the importance of mindfulness, self-awareness, and self-reflection as a means of developing greater insight and understanding.

Posture, Breathing, and Focus in Zen Meditation

Posture, breathing, and focus are essential aspects of Zen meditation. As I said earlier, zazen translates to sitting or seated meditation.

A proper posture involves:

  • sitting upright with your spine straight

  • shoulders relaxed

  • hands resting in your lap

  • legs folded, usually in a half-lotus or full-lotus position.

Breathing should be:

  • slow and deep

  • your attention is focused on the sensation of the breath as it enters and exits your body

  • the breath should be quiet and through the nose

In terms of focus, Zen meditation involves either concentrating on your breath or a specific object, such as a candle flame or a mantra.

The goal is to maintain a state of awareness and alertness while also remaining relaxed and calm.

Mindfulness and Self-Awareness in Zen Meditation

Mindfulness and self-awareness are core elements of Zen meditation.

Mindfulness involves paying attention to the present moment without judgment or distraction, while self-awareness involves observing your thoughts, emotions, and sensations with a sense of detachment.

Through regular practice, Zen meditation can help you develop greater mindfulness and self-awareness, leading to greater clarity, insight, and understanding of yourself and the world around you.

How Zen Meditation Techniques Are Different From Other Forms of Meditation

Zen meditation is different from other forms of meditation in several ways.

While some forms of meditation focus on relaxation or stress reduction, Zen meditation is more focused on developing mindfulness and self-awareness.

Additionally, Zen practice emphasizes the importance of posture and breathing, which are not always emphasized in other forms of meditation. It is commonly known for being a sitting meditation technique.

Benefits of Zen Meditation on the Body and Mind

Zen meditation: Woman in a yoga outfit meditating and holding incense.

Zen meditation has been practiced for centuries, and recent studies have found many benefits to this ancient practice.

Reduced brain aging

One study in 2022 compared 30 long-term trained meditators with a control group. They found that the meditators had higher levels of the telomerase enzyme, a marker of aging, suggesting that regular meditation supports healthy aging.

Better emotional intelligence

Another study in 2020 compared 20 Zen practitioners with a control group and found that after meditation, the Zen practitioners showed faster processing of and less emotional response to negatively charged words. This suggests that long-term Zen meditation can improve concentration and emotional regulation.

Improved Sleep

Sleep is vital for good health, but many people struggle with falling asleep or staying asleep. Zen meditation has been shown to improve sleep quality by reducing stress and promoting relaxation.

One study found that participants who practiced mindful Zen meditation for just six weeks experienced significant improvements in both sleep quality and daytime functioning. They reported falling asleep faster, waking up less frequently during the night, and feeling more rested in the morning.

Lower Blood Pressure

High blood pressure is a risk factor for many health problems, including heart disease, stroke, and kidney disease. Zen meditation has been shown to help lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of these conditions.

A review of several studies found that regular meditation practice can lower both systolic and diastolic blood pressure by several points. This effect was seen in both healthy individuals and those with high blood pressure.

Improved Immune Function

The immune system plays a critical role in defending the body against infections and diseases. Zen meditation has been shown to boost immune function and enhance the body’s ability to fight off illness.

One study found that participants who practiced Zen meditation for eight weeks had higher levels of natural killer cells, which are essential for fighting viruses and cancer cells. Another study found that meditation can increase antibody production, improving the body’s ability to fight off infections.

Increased Brain Gray Matter

Gray matter is a type of brain tissue that contains the cell bodies of neurons. It is responsible for processing information and controlling movements.

Zen meditation has been shown to increase gray matter in several regions of the brain, including those involved in attention, sensory processing, and emotional regulation.

One study found that participants who practiced Zen meditation for several years had more gray matter in the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for higher-level thinking and decision-making.

This increase in gray matter may be linked to improvements in cognitive function and emotional regulation seen in individuals who practice Zen meditation regularly.

Reduced Anxiety and Depression

Zen meditation has been shown to have a calming effect on the mind and can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.

One study found that participants who practiced Zen meditation for eight weeks experienced significant reductions in symptoms of anxiety and depression compared to a control group.

This is consistent with other research on mindfulness-based therapies, which have been shown to be effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Another study found that Zen meditation can improve mood and decrease symptoms of depression in individuals with chronic pain.

This suggests that the benefits of Zen meditation extend beyond just mental health and can also help alleviate physical symptoms of pain.

How to Practice Zen Meditation

Zen meditation: A Buddha statue

The following is a more traditional guide to how to practice zazen meditation, but feel free to make some adaptations. Whether you follow these steps exactly is a personal preference.

The Space:

It’s best to find somewhere with as few distractions as possible.

The Posture:

In traditional zen training, the practitioner is made to sit quietly facing a wall. Traditionally, people used to sit in either the full or half lotus position. However, if you’re not very flexible, you can also practice by kneeling or sitting on a chair.

To practice Zazen, you’ll need a special cushion called a zafu, which is round and thick. You can sit on it in the full lotus (Kekkafuza) or the half-lotus (Hankafuza).

The zafu helps elevate your hips, which allows your knees to be firmly rooted to the floor, making your meditation more stable and comfortable. You’ll also need a rectangular mat called a zabuton to place under the zafu, which cushions your knees and legs.

Keep your eyes open

In the Zen tradition, it’s common to keep your eyes open during meditation. This helps prevent you from drifting off or feeling sleepy.

Instead of focusing on anything in particular, simply direct your gaze about one meter in front of you on the floor.

Your eyes will naturally settle into a position that’s halfway open and halfway closed.

If you’re meditating in a soto dojo (a meditation hall), you’ll typically be facing a wall to avoid getting distracted by external movements. It’s a good idea to do the same at home to create a similar environment for your practice.

Your hands

The hand position used in Zen meditation is called the Cosmic Mudra or Hokkaijoin in Japanese.

To do it, place your left hand on top of your right hand, with your palms facing upward. Then, touch the tips of your thumbs together to form an oval shape.

Make sure your thumbs are lightly touching each other and form a somewhat straight line.

Rest both of your wrists on your thighs, with the edge of your hands against your belly, and keep your shoulders relaxed.

There are two reasons why this hand position is important. First, the shape of your hands helps harmonize your mind and bring it to a state beyond duality.

Second, if your mind starts to wander during meditation, the shape of the oval can become distorted, which is a signal to both you and your teacher that something is off and needs correction.

Breathing

Breathing is a crucial aspect of Zen meditation. It’s an essential part of the Zazen practice, and it can only be done correctly if you have the right posture.

During Zazen, you should breathe quietly through your nose and keep your mouth closed.

To achieve the correct breathing, try to establish a calm, long, and deep natural rhythm. Focus on exhaling slowly and steadily, while inhaling should be done naturally without any extra effort.

By doing so, you’ll be able to deepen your meditation practice and calm your mind even further.

What goes on in your mind

The right state of mind is crucial in the practice of Zen meditation, just like breathing. It comes naturally from deep concentration on your posture and breathing. During Zazen, you may experience images, thoughts, and emotions coming up from your unconscious mind.

Don’t try to chase them away or get caught up in them. The more attention you give them, the stronger they become. Just let them go without any judgment, like clouds passing by in the sky.

If you become aware that you’re interacting or grasping onto thoughts, immediately bring your focus back to your posture and breathing.

Your mind will naturally settle down on its own. With more experience, you’ll have fewer and fewer thoughts during Zazen, and your mind will come to rest more easily and quickly.

Different Methods of Zen Meditation

Seated Meditation

Seated meditation is the most common form of Zazen meditation. It involves sitting in a comfortable position and focusing on your breath or a particular object.

Walking Meditation (Kinhin)

Walking meditation is another popular form of Zen meditation. It involves walking slowly and mindfully, focusing on each step and your breath.

Chanting

Chanting is a form of Zen meditation that involves repeating a mantra or a phrase. It can be done out loud or silently.

Finding a Suitable Meditation Space and Time

When it comes to finding a suitable space and time for your meditation sessions, here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • Choose a space that is quiet and free from distractions.

  • If possible, create a dedicated meditation space in your home.

  • Try to meditate at the same time every day to establish a routine.

Dealing with Common Distractions During Meditation

Distractions are a common challenge when it comes to meditation. Here are some tips to help you deal with them:

  • Acknowledge the distraction and then bring your attention back to your breath.

  • If the distraction persists, try to investigate it mindfully before returning to your breath.

  • If you are consistently distracted by a particular noise or sensation, try to incorporate it into your meditation practice.

The Role of a Zen Teacher and How to Find One

A Zen teacher, also known as a Sensei, can provide guidance and support as you deepen your meditation practice. Here’s how to find one:

  • Look for a Zen center or meditation group in your area.

  • Research Zen teachers online to find someone who resonates with you.

  • Attend a meditation retreat or workshop to learn from experienced Zen teachers.

Learn more about different types of meditation with these podcasts.

The Takeaway

Practicing Zen meditation can be a powerful tool for reducing stress, increasing mindfulness, and cultivating inner peace.

By following these simple steps and exploring different methods of meditation, you can start your own journey toward a more mindful and fulfilling life.

Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is intended for educational and informational purposes only. It should not be construed as professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you are experiencing symptoms of any mental health condition, we strongly advise consulting with a qualified healthcare professional.

FAQs

Zen meditation, also known as Zazen, is a practice central to Zen Buddhism. It involves focusing on breath and mindfully observing thoughts without judgment or engagement. The primary goal of Zen meditation is to enable practitioners to become fully present in the moment, which can lead to a profound sense of peace and clarity.

Zen meditation can be done in a few steps:

Find a Quiet Place: Choose a location where you can sit without being disturbed.

Sit Comfortably: You can sit cross-legged on a meditation cushion, on a chair, or kneel. The important thing is to maintain an upright posture with your spine straight.

Focus on Your Breath: Close your eyes and bring your attention to your breath. Feel it flow in and out.

Mindfully Observe: As thoughts arise, simply observe them without judgment or engagement, then return your focus to your breath.

Time your Practice: Beginners can start with 5-10 minutes per day, gradually increasing to 20-30 minutes or more.

Zen meditation can bring numerous benefits. It can help to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, improve focus and concentration, increase self-awareness and mindfulness, enhance emotional health, and promote a sense of peace and wellbeing.

The four principles of Zen are:

  • Shikan-taza (Just Sitting): This concept emphasizes the importance of being present in the moment and simply sitting with awareness.
  • Koan Introspection: This involves contemplating paradoxical statements or questions to transcend rational thought and experience enlightenment.
  • Teacher-Student Interaction: Zen places importance on the relationship between teacher and student for guidance and insights.
  • Mindfulness in Daily Life: This emphasizes carrying the awareness and mindfulness cultivated during meditation into everyday life.

Yes, Zen can be very beneficial for mental health. The practice of mindfulness and meditation, which are central to Zen, have been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, decrease stress, increase focus, and improve overall emotional wellbeing. However, if you are dealing with severe mental health issues, it’s important to seek professional help and use Zen practices as a complementary approach

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