Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed or stressed by your thoughts? Do you wish you could simply enjoy this moment without thinking about everything that’s on your to-do list? Do you dream of learning an ancestral meditation that has been practiced by enlightened beings such as Buddha and Dogen? Well, maybe it’s time to start learning how to do zazen meditation…
Watch the video above to learn how to do zazen meditation or read the article below with full written instructions, or both!
What is zazen?
What does zazen mean and what is it for? It means “simply sitting”. When I first learned the zazen meditation, I asked “But why am I doing zazen?”. I wanted a reason, a goal to reach. But in zazen, you are simply sitting without any expectations, just letting go of any judgments you have and when your thoughts arise, you just let them pass by.
History of zazen
Zazen is part of zen buddhism. The zen practice originated from the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha (also known as Gautama) in India when he became enlightened with the posture called dhyana or later became known in Japan as the posture called zazen. These teachings traveled all the way to China and then were brought to Japan by Dogen.
Dogen Zenji (1200-1253) is famous for being the founder of the Soto Zen school in Japan! But how did Dogen bring zazen to Japan?
When he was just a child, he started to train to become a priest in the Tendai school, but unsatisfied by some of their teachings, he eventually left. Later on, he decided to go to China to study Chinese Buddhism. The Zen priest Nyojou (Tiāntóng Rújìng) taught him while he was there and Dôgen became enlightened while practicing shikantaza (zazen).
He brought this practice back to Japan. He even opened up his own zen school in Kyoto, but it was destroyed by priests of another temple. So, he ended up setting up the Eiheiji temple, in 1244, in the mountains. This temple became one of the two main temples of Soto Zen.
Before you start
Make sure you are somewhere where you won’t be disturbed. A place that is quiet and calm. Try to find a place where you can continue to do your sessions, it will be easier to get into the right state this way.
Wear clothes that aren’t too tight, you need to feel comfortable.
Face a wall that is the most neutral as possible, preferably a white wall (zazen from the Soto school), place yourself between 1meter and 1m50 or about 4 feet from the wall.
What are you going to need to do this practice?
- a zafu (best option) or a meditation cushion or a towel to fold, to sit on
- a carpet or a yoga mat or a towel or a zabuton to put under your cushion
Since you need to be sitting with a little height, you will be using a meditation cushion or preferably a zafu.
If you don’t own one of these, you can take a towel and fold it in half. If it’s a thin towel, you can fold it two times with the length, then roll it up. It will be basically about 10 cm or 4 inches in height. Try to not leave any folds or not it might be uncomfortable for your buttocks !
Also, try to not be directly in contact with the cold hard ground, yes even for you feet. If you don’t have a carpet underneath your cushion, you can put a yoga mat, a towel or a zabuton cushion!
Now that you are sitting on your cushion, let’s get into the correct zazen posture!
During the meditation, you will be keeping your back straight. Bring your shoulders down, but don’t let them slump forward. For your head, imagine a string pulling it up. You don’t want your head to be facing down. Then tuck your chin so that your head is above your spine.
- Back straight
- Shoulders down
- Head being pulled up
- Tuck chin in
Zazen sitting position
Since you want your knees to be able to touch the floor, you are going to be sitting near the front of your meditation cushion.
Half lotus position
For your legs, you can put them in half lotus pose, by placing your left foot on your right leg. Your left foot is facing upwards. While your right leg is on the ground and your right foot is against your cushion.
Full lotus position
If you want to be in the full lotus position, cross your legs, then put each foot on opposing leg with your feet facing upwards.
Now for my favorite option of sitting, it’s in the Burmese position. I find it the most comfortable and easiest to maintain for long sessions. For this one, you will simply bring one leg against your mediation cushion, then bring the other leg against the already folded one.
You still have the last option which is to do it in seiza, which means your legs are bent beneath you and you are sitting on your butt. To facilitate this posture, you can use a meditation bench. You can also use a cresent shaped zafu, just place between your legs and sit on it.
If you can’t sit on the ground
If for any reason, you can’t sit in these positions, you can use a chair. Make sure both of your feet are flat on the ground. Do not put your back against the back of the chair.
Reminder of the zazen sitting position options:
- Full lotus
- Half lotus
- Burmese position
- seiza on a cushion or meditation bench
- Sit in a chair
To do the right hand position for zazen, you will need to place your right fingers underneath your left fingers. Then, put your thumbs together, but they are just slightly touching, don’t press them together really hard! This will create an oval form with your hands.
Now place your hands on your upper thighs. Your hands are going to be in front of your tanden which is the japanese version of the chinese lower dantien. It’s about 3 fingers underneath your belly button. This is the source of your internal power.
If you want to learn to feel that inner energy, you can read or watch the guided video here!
Hand mudra reminder:
- Right hand underneath left hand
- Put your thumbs together
- Hands are on your upper thighs
- Hands in front of your tanden, about 3 fingers underneath your belly button
Your eyes are going to be half open and looking at a 45 degree angle in front of you or about 1 meter (39 inches). You don’t want to close them. Closing your eyes during your meditation can make you feel sleepy or daydream more easily.
Also, don’t look at a specific spot, like if there is a stain that makes you think about all kinds of things because it has a particular shape. So, remember to look in general in that area, right in front of you.
- Eyes half open, looking at a 45 degree angle in front or 1 meter
- Don’t look at anything specific but more in general in front of you
You are going to keep your mouth closed and you will breathe in and out through the nose. Have a relaxed and natural breath and breathe through the stomach. You will also need to place your tongue at the roof of your mouth.
Thoughts during meditation
Don’t examine and study every thought that comes to your mind. You will naturally have thoughts and images that will come but instead of analysing them, let them pass.
For example, if you thought: “Oh, I really want to eat lasagna”. Instead of examining this thought: “So if I want to eat lasagna, then I need to go to the grocery store to pick up the ingredients, what are all the ingredients that I need?…”. When that first thought popped up, you’re going to just let it pass like a cloud in the sky and reput your attention on your breath.
For me, reminding myself to focus on my breath is what really helps me the most to not have thoughts going all over the place. But don’t worry, if you notice 4 minutes later, after a whole line of thoughts, what matters is that you practice to notice these moments.
What to focus on in the beginning
When you start, you can focus on your breath coming in and out or put attention on your tanden, that area right below the belly button. Little by little, you will just be sitting through your practice and the thoughts will simply pass more easily and naturally.
Pain during meditation
You will most likely feel some uncomfortable sensations when you meditate. Very often the legs and back that aren’t used to staying in this position will feel some annoying or even painful feelings such as pins and needls, especially when you first start practicing sitting meditation. But try to avoid moving as much as possible during the practice. This is a moment of stillness.
Back pain during meditation
What should you do if you have back pain? Normally, if it’s only lasts during the practice and doesn’t continue afterwards, it can be caused by a bad posture like a rounded and hunched back. So, maybe you need to work on your posture (go back and check the instructions) or do some exercises to strengthen your back and also do some stretching exercises for it.
In case, you have pain from an old injury and you still want to sit on the floor instead of the ground. You may put a pillow behind your back against a wall, but make sure to not press your head against the wall.
However, if the pain persists after the session, every time, you might want to check with a doctor.
How to deal with the pain during meditation
If you get any pain in your legs, like pins and needles sensations or numbness, try to let them pass like with the toughts.
For me when I focus on “Ohh it’s uncomfortable, I can’t stand this sensation”, it would just get so much worse, but when I put back my attention on the breath coming in and out, the pain often goes away on its own or at least goes down.
If you want to practice meditation but the sitting position is too uncomfortable to start with, you can also try standing meditation!
How much time to meditate?
Start by doing short sessions. It’s not useful do to one or 2 sessions that last 3 hours once a month. It’s much more beneficial to do small sessions everyday. Try with just 10 minutes and see how it goes.
After a while, if you feel like you can do more then add on some time. Ideally, try to get up to at least 30 minutes for your session.
What to do after your zazen practice
After zazen, if you have the pins and needles pain or numbness in the legs, don’t try to stand up right away! Rub your legs first and stretch them in front of you!
If you also want to try a chinese meditation that I learned when I trained in a temple, click here to learn how to meditate like a powerful taoist master!
Start getting zen with zazen!
Zazen is an ancient and amazing practice that has been taught throughout the ages by many great spiritual masters and guides. If you’re looking to simply relax, then this isn’t for you. But if you want to simply sit and truly let pass any thoughts that keep you suffering on a daily basis, then maybe you should start a little zazen meditation practice each day!
Remember you can also watch my video on how to do zazen meditation by clicking here!
Have you tried zazen? Share your experience in the comments!
Book source about zazen and Dogen’s life
- Introduction to zen, by Soen Ozeki and Elizabeth Mills, (pp. 64 to 75, 160)