To assemble a chair we look to the instructions rather than to an esoteric discourse on its qualities once fully assembled. With this in mind I would like to provide a detailed explanation of sitting mindfully in Zazen (literally, “sitting in Zen”). Please note, for our introductory purpose some of these techniques have been simplified or expanded.
Find a quiet room and choose a seat on the floor facing a blank wall. Fold one to two bath towels to use as a seat and sit as close to the wall as you can. Fold your legs in front of you, either one in front of the other or cross-legged. The towels should provide enough elevation of your pelvis to allow both knees to make contact with the floor. This will create a stable tripod position.
Next, rest your hands in your lap making the Cosmic Mudra: place the back of one hand in the palm of the other and link the two thumbs together above to create a circle. Create a larger circle with your arms so that your upper arms do not contact your armpits; this will allow for full inhalation.
Straighten your spine by visualizing a rope drawing you up towards the ceiling from the crown of your head. With a straight spine rock side to side and front to back until you settle into a centered, relaxed position. Drop your chin approximately 15 degrees below the horizontal.
Bring your tongue to the roof of your mouth, swallow once, and inhale through your nose to create suction. Keep your mouth closed during the practice and breathe through your nose. This will reduce the production of saliva during practice.
Rest your eyes in a downward 45 degree angle gaze. Close your eyes about halfway and allow your vision to blur. Different traditions suggest closing one’s eyes completely but in Zazen the eyes remain open.
And now for the details.
Set a timer. This is important because in the beginning even five minutes will seem like an eternity, and the last thing you want to be doing during meditation is glancing at a clock every few seconds.
Begin to observe your breath. As you breathe gently focus on breathing with your abdomen. Your abdomen should expand with every inhalation and fall with every exhalation. This method of breathing utilizes the diaphragm to stimulate the Vagus nerve which triggers a parasympathetic response that slows your heart rate.
Count silently, “one,” on the in breath, and “two” on the out breath. “Three,” in, “four,” out. And so on until you reach “ten” and then just start again at “one.” As mentioned in previous posts, when, not if, you get distracted and lose count just start over at “one” again. Your goal in Zazen is not to get to “ten” over and over again. Your goal is the process itself.
Allow your breaths to deepen. Focus on lengthening your exhale in particular.
There are many techniques to deepen one’s focus during meditation, but my favorite is to focus on the sensation at the tip of your nose. Focus on the cool sensation at the tip of your nose as you inhale. Focus on the warm sensation during while you exhale. Try to pay special attention to the transition from cool to warm at the end of your inhale and warm to cool at the end of your exhale. See if you can appreciate the neutral point where there is no sensation of temperature at the tip of your nose.
Begin by trying this practice for five minutes. And after a week lengthen the practice to ten minutes. Continue to lengthen the practice as you see fit. The important thing is to establish a daily exercise that you can maintain. So don’t be too overzealous and risk burning out early.
For more details on posture see Zen Mountain Monastery’s excellent instructional website.
In the photos I am sitting on a “zafu” which is a meditation cushion filled with a non-compressible plant fiber known as “kapok.” Once you are committed to your practice this is a worthy purchase and represents a significant improvement over folded towels.