History: Buddhism was created around 2500 years ago following the 50 years long teaching of The Buddha (meaning the “awakened one”). Zen, a branch of Buddhism, was born in China 500 years later. Zen is the Japanese word for meditation. The Buddha meditated 6 years almost continuously before being “awaken” meaning 1) He realized the origins of human suffering, unhappiness and dissatisfaction. 2) How to reduce/ control them.
Meditation is the core training and practice of Zen Buddhism. Nothing even the readings, Buddhist rituals and even teaching (see Zen Tips: “Is Zen teaching necessary?”) are more important than daily solo and weekly group meditation. Meditation will help you to discover what we call your True self or True Nature, to experience inner peace, enjoy the beauty of life and appreciate the value of being patient, generous compassionate with people, surroundings and Nature. Finally and not the least meditation is also the only way to learn how to control our ego-centered mind main source of our dissatisfaction and unhappiness caused by our negative thoughts and feelings such as anger, frustration, resentment, anxiety, jealousy, illusion, expectations and many more.
If you hold a bottle of muddy water with shaky hands the water will remain muddy and you will not be able to see through. If your hands are still the water becomes clear.
In this metaphor the bottle is your mind, the mud is your thoughts and your still hands is meditation. This will help you to understand meditation. The words medicine and meditation come from the same Latin root “meditatio” meaning “physical and mental exercise of concentration”. Brain and mind are one single entity a bit like a computer where the brain is the hardware and the mind the software.
Mindfulness Meditation: To meditate is to focus your mind and body with the purpose of relaxing then controlling our ego-centered thoughts. Nothing wimpy, esoteric or mythical. There are many types of meditation based on their specific focusing techniques and postures. The simplest form – Mindfulness Meditation – is the oldest and probably the most effective one. Its Buddhist origin goes back 2,500 years ago. (More information about Buddhism and Zen Buddhism is available on this site.)
Mindfulness: To be mindful is to be aware/pay attention moment to moment to our thoughts, emotions and behaviors and surroundings using a non-judgmental, non-decisional and non-emotional mental state. Simply put: to be mindful is to be aware of What?, When?, Where?, Who?, How? Moment-to-moment with a non-judgmental thinking approach. This is a key element of Zen Buddhism practice and Zen meditation.
Zen meditation: It has been used for more than 20,000 years as spiritual and therapeutic tool in Eastern countries. Zen meditation does not use any audiovisual tricks and is not guided. There are four stages of Meditation in Mindfulness Meditation.
- Physical concentration by focusing on a still body in a specific posture: sitting (cross-leg or on a chair) or walking.
- Mental concentration by focusing our attention on our exhale as mind anchor.
- Mental concentration by focusing on our incoming thoughts (they will always come) and let them go before
- Refocusing on our mind anchor.
After few weeks of daily practice + weekly group practice your mind will become more relax, peaceful and easier to control. Mindfulness meditation is the key to open the door to mental quietness and clarity. Meditation brings “still Mind” = clear/quit Mind = peaceful mental state = mental wellness. Without first a clear and quiet mind it is impossible to control our thoughts. Think about a wild horse: he must be calm before someone is able to ride him. Because of the link mind-body wellness body will also achieved.
How does meditation works?
We do not have yet enough scientific data to explain exactly how meditation works. Based on 24h monitoring PET brain metabolic analysis it is estimated that our mind generates and processes between 50,000 and 90,000 thoughts every 24 hours. Strangely enough we are unaware of most our thoughts as we are neither conscious of our breathing nor aware of our steps when we walk. Zen talks about “day sleep walking” or thinking zombies. But if you become conscious of your breathing you can control it. Same thing with your thoughts. If you are able to be mindful to them you will be able to control them.
Thinking is obviously necessary in our day-to-day activity to analyze, assess and make decisions but in fact very few thoughts – less than 5% – are generated for a specific purpose or for a decision. In fact most of our thoughts come up without any purpose. Besides controlling our body our mind/brain is a machine to think continuously 24/7.
Despite its enormous power (over 100 billions brain cells, > 1000 trillions connections, > 5,000 impulses received by each neuron our brain/mind cannot deal with 2 thoughts at the same time. One has to go. This fundamental discovery is the basis of mindfulness. By focusing mindfully on our exhale as mental anchor we then achieve the following:
- Being mindful/aware of our incoming and recurrent thoughts when they pop-in
- Let them go by returning to our focusing point.
After appropriate practice our mind becomes almost still since, during meditation, we let go our thoughts and emotions. It is like applying powerful reins on a wild horse: our mind becomes tamed.
What are the basic requirements to learn Zen Meditation?
Learning meditation and succeeding requires the following:
- Understanding the process of meditation, which is body/mind concentration.
- Daily solo and weekly group practice.
- Coaching: guided step-by-step training with a Zen instructor.
- Having and keeping a non-judgmental attitude regarding process, result and self. This point is absolutely fundamental.
- Trust, patience, commitment, discipline, confidence.
- Finding time, quiet location and same routine schedule.
- Proper posture, equipment and dressing.
Why learning Zen Meditation can be frustrating?
Learning how to focus for several minutes during meditation training will be new and frustrating since our mind will react and will fight strongly against the process. Like a wild horse our Mind is very resilient and independent, it does not like to be trained or controlled by the way of mental focusing. In fact, during our day-to-day activities we are, most of the time, under the total control of our emotional mind without even knowing it. Zen talks about “sleep walking, mind auto-pilot or zombie behavior”.
Our mind can be our best tool for our intellect, creativity and body functions but being so ego-centered our mind is also our worst deceptive enemy being the main source of our dissatisfaction and unhappiness in creating negative thoughts and feelings such as desires, anger, frustration, fear, illusions, delusions and anxiety which have, in fact, no reality and no purposes. Emotional mind is mostly perceptive and perceptions are too often delusions and illusions rather than reality. Learning how to control our deceptive mind and its negative thoughts is the key point in Zen teaching. Such control will be achieved only by practicing meditation.
To focus means to “fall awake” (in control) and to be mindful rather than to “fall asleep” (being controlled). Mental concentration is to pay attention moment to moment to our emotions and feelings and bring them to concrete reality.
What are the benefits of Zen Meditation?
If you practice meditation daily with weekly group meditation that is twice as effective you will reap its benefits. However it will take few weeks of daily practice to appreciate them.
- Intellectual: Enhancing Concentration, analytic/cognitive skills, creativity, memorization, judgments.
- Psychological: Enhancing positive emotions such as self-actualization, self-esteem, well being & feeling, self-control, patience, empathy, compassion, love, sense of purpose, gratitude. Reducing negative emotions such as anxiety, anger, tension, helplessness, resentment, fear, confusion, jealousy.
- Physical: Enhancing energy, muscle relaxation, physical performance, and sexual well-being. Post-injury rehabilitation & recovery time. Weight control. Reducing stress impact, blood pressure, heart rate, headache, chronic pain, cholesterol level, allergy, mild depression
- Societal: Enhancing interpersonal skills, productivity, efficiency, time control, Compassion, patience, empathy, etc.
What are the hindrances to Zen Meditation?
They are many:
- Our misconceptions: “only for Guru”,
- Judging the process, its results and…yourself.
- Excuses: I have no time for it “, “I have better things to do “,
- “Cannot stop thinking”,
- “A waste of time”, “I am not a Zen Master”
- Physical discomforts: back and leg pains, physical sensations,
- Doubt: “I’ll not make it”, “not for me”, “feel useless”
- Giving-up, fear, poor self judgment“ I’m bad at it”
- Pride, ecstasy.
What should I wear and what posture should I use? Wear loose clothing: sweater is the best. No bright color. No tight jeans. No shoes. Proper posture is a very important aspect of meditation since by imposing straight and still posture to your Body, your Mind will, eventually, follow the Body and become “still” also. Zen teaching says: “If you achieve still body you will achieve still mind”.
- Seating on a meditation cushion (called zafu) on a mat is the best way; if not, a chair is just fine as long as you keep your knees below your hips in order to achieve a straight back. Lying down is not recommended since falling asleep and daydreaming are frequent in this position. Our full body must remain stable, still and relax all the time. Legs are crossed in comfortable position. The classic Lotus position is very difficult to achieve. Hands form a cup (mudra) in front of the belly (right hand supporting the left one for right handed people). Tips of the thumbs are touching slightly. Any positions of the hands are OK.
- Back is straight: Zen says ” Straight back straight mind”
- Shoulders are down and relaxed.
- Chin is horizontal and parallel to the floor to keep neck straight.
- Eyes are half open, “glazing” down on the floor around 3 to 4 feet away. No staring.
- Closed eyes is OK as long you don’t day dream or become somnolent
- Mouth is closed and relaxed. Tip of the tongue behind the front upper teeth to minimize salivation.
At the end of the session move slowly your body and stretch all your muscles.
Physical discomfort during meditation is very frequent if not common among beginners especially when seating cross legs on a cushion. Our body is not used to stay absolutely still for several minutes especially when seating cross legs. Do not be upset. Move a little bit, relax and reposition yourself before starting again. After few sessions discomfort will disappear.
How should I breathe? Do not change your breathing cycle. Get your posture, be comfortable, relax, take a couple of deep breath and remain still. Start breathing slowly through the nose and with your abdomen.
I-N-H-A-L-E …..short pause…. E–X–H–A–L–E– (slower)
I-N-H-A-L-E …..short pause…. E–X–H–A–L–E– (slower)
If thoughts occur – they always do – don’t be upset: be mindful to them and return back to your focusing point. Nobody so far has been able to stop incoming thoughts including those who meditate 10 hours/day for years.
Benefits of Zen Meditation. Summary.
- Develop, maintain and control a quiet and clear mind free of your ego-centered thoughts main source of our unhappiness and dissatisfaction.
- Discover the wonders of your inner self to achieve peace within and to help others.
- Become mindful to the present moment, to your thoughts, 5 senses, activities and environment.
- Use your mind as a mirror that is reflecting things as they are and not as you want them to be. Judging everything all the time feeds your ego but is useless, pretentious and a waste of time and energy. In fact, in life, the only thing you control is yourself (body & mind) since Life does not have an agenda for you.
Where, when, how long and how often should I practice?
- Practicing with a group and a teacher at least once a week is paramount since group meditation is at least twice as effective as the solo one.
- At home: choose a quiet place and try to practice always in the same location. Use a meditation cushion, bench or a chair to sit comfortably (see posture).
- Lightning: moderate, use of a dimmer is recommended.
- No distractions: family members, friends, pets and turn off all electronic devices.
- Use a silent digital countdown timer to set-up duration and do not look at the clock all the time it is too distracting!
2. When: Pick a good time that will fit your agenda and try to stick with it. Morning is the best since we are rested; others prefer evening.
3. How long? Start with 10 min/daily and increase it by 5 to 10 min every week to reach 30 to 45 min daily. Find the time. We always find time for priorities and never for non-priorities.
4. How often? Daily. The more you practice Zen meditation the sooner you will see the benefits. Benefits are cumulative with duration of meditation and frequency of practice. It will become easier with time. Beginners should start with around 10min. of meditation daily + the crucial weekly group meditation.
Role of the coach? You need a coach initially since Zen meditation is new, intriguing, frustrating and very often perceived as too difficult and a waste of time. Your Zen teacher will motivate you and will guide you step by step in a methodical way. You will learn faster and more efficiently the mental skills and the different stages of meditation. Results will come sooner than expected (within 3-4weeks), with less efforts and frustration. A good coach is also a friend providing moral support and ongoing feedback regarding your progress.
How to assess progress? Here are few clues:
- You are not looking for excuses for not doing your daily meditation such as “no time”.
- You practice daily and increase the duration over time.
- You do not judge the quality of your meditation i.e. bad or good.
- Feedback from the teacher if requested.
- You become more mindful to what you think and do during the day.
The keys for success are:
- Use a “ Beginner’s mind”: Do not get trapped with preconceived ideas about meditation, its process and expected results.
- Don’t get too excited nor too much goal oriented since it will create an attachment source of potential frustration and disappointment.
- Don’t judge the progress, result and yourself. This is critical.
- Don’t strive for quick results.
- Trust, commitment, patience, consistency, perseverance and discipline will do the trick.
- Right kind of effort: not too much, not too little.
- Get a “Letting go” attitude without being too casual.
- Don’t get frustrated if you cannot focus for more than few seconds and when your mind is wandering too much; it happens to all of us.
- Ask your Zen teacher for questions and guidance.
Practicing meditation is working against your mind that wants to keep control and independence.
Ven. Ji Gong Sunim.