April 24, 2014

3 Steps to Starting a Zazen Meditation Practice. ~ Angel Kalafatis

meditate morning yoga mat window

We always want to believe that somewhere there’s a perfect situation, if only we weren’t barred from it. But that’s not the reality—It’s as if we’re afraid to really commit to this moment because a better one might come along later—You will discover upon reaching it that, whatever it is, it’s not what you expected and nothing is any more perfect than it ever was.

~ Brad Warner, Hardcore Zen: punk rock, monster movies, and the truth about reality.

Meditation, mindfulness, and yoga (Spoiler Alert: meditation is yoga) all have some very important common themes—which is why you probably hear them together a lot.

Arguably, the most important of these is the notion of the here and now. We spend so much of our lives in a constant state of disconnect. Often, no matter what we’re doing, our minds are somewhere else until we look back–or maybe we don’t—and realize that our lives are just a constant stream of going from one motion to the next.

In the midst of every here-and-now, we are usually waiting for the next big thing or rehashing the details of some moment that’s already happened.

You know what I mean. You’re out to dinner with your girlfriend and she’s telling you about a fight she had with her mother, but you’re thinking about that huge meeting you have with a potential new client tomorrow morning, which reminds you that Jim from sales will be there and before you even know what hit you, you’re paying the check and walking to your car. You have no idea what you just ate, let alone what your girlfriend talked about for the last hour and a half, but now you can’t stop thinking about the time that Jim screwed you out of that big commission check and you know you’ll finally be happy when you land this big account tomorrow so you can wipe that smug ass grin off ol’ Jim’s face…

The problem with this is that there’s no such thing as tomorrow.

The future hasn’t happened yet and no matter how much planning you put in, how careful (or careless) you are, no matter what you think it will look like, you can’t control it. You can’t know. You can land that big account, but if your sense of satisfaction is hanging on Jim’s look of put-in-his-placeness, you’ll be disappointed to discover that he’s on vacation in Hawaii with that hot chick from accounts payable. Besides, even if all your what—if’s go exactly as planned, when you do get to that moment, it won’t be Tomorrow anymore, so it really never looks the way you think it will.

Dreaming about Tomorrow is like watching life through Photoshop: the colors are vibrant, the special effects are spectacular, the dialog is flawless and nobody has any pores. It’s really entertaining, but it’s not really real.

There’s also no such thing as the past. The moments you have already lived through don’t exist anymore. That story you’re rehashing about what a witless kiss-ass Jim is, is just that: a story. It’s all muddled up with your impressions of it, your feelings about it, your baggage surrounding it.

Our perceptions are not reality, so our memories are great ways of reliving our perceptions (the not-so-glory days) but they’re lousy indicators of anything that really happened. Living in the past is like watching your life through a soap opera filter. The lighting is off, the edges are blurry, the dialogue is painful and over exaggerated, and the acting is sad. It’s really dramatic, but it’s not really real.

No tomorrow, no yesterday, just now. The eternal now. That’s it. That’s all you’ve got. Zen Meditation, or zazen, is about coming in to the here and now, learning to recognize it, and learning to be happy with it.

In practice it’s actually quite simple.

Step 1: Sit down.

Try to find a quiet place. It doesn’t have to be quiet, but when you’re first starting out a quiet place with as little distraction as possible will be easier. While dim lighting can be calming, bright lighting or lots of sunlight are great because they keep you from getting sleepy. Stay open and experiment with what works best for you (If you find yourself falling asleep during meditation, it probably means you need more sleep).

You’ll want to sit with a straight spine, stack your joints, let your shoulders relax away from your ears and draw your thoracic spine in (no slouching, bud!). You can sit on a chair or on your sofa, but it’s ideal if you can sit on the floor. In a chair you are getting support from the chair back and the raised seat.

Zazen is about tuning into you, which, in part, means supporting your own body and bringing awareness to your physical self. So while you’re first getting started, if you’re recovering from an injury, or if you have hip/back/knee pain that prevents you from sitting on the floor, go ahead and sit in a chair. Over time, though, work towards sitting on the floor (sitting on the floor with your back against a wall is a good transition).

Do some yoga! It helps. That’s why the physical asanas of yoga first became a thing—to help people sit comfortably in meditation for longer periods of time! As you grow through your daily yoga and meditation practice you’ll notice the same is true for you. (And, technically, sitting zazen is a physical asana and IS yoga. Anytime you focus on your breath and tune in to your alignment, you’re doing yoga.)


Sit on a cushion. You can buy special cushions for this called a zafu (the round one on top) and zabuton (the square one for your knees and ankles), and if you’re seriously committed to daily meditation you may think about making that investment down the road. For now, though, a pillow from your couch, a stack of folded blankets, or even a yoga block works. The idea is to get your hips elevated a little bit. It’s more comfortable, and it allows your ankles and knees to touch the floor more easily. Then cross your legs in front of you.

The Ultimate Position in zazen is Padmasana, or full lotus, because it’s the most stable for your hips and spine. If you can’t get into a full lotus (don’t worry, I can’t either) you can sit Ardha Padmasana (half lotus), Sukhasana (easy cross-legged pose), or up on your knees in supported Virasana (hero pose).

Work on hip openers as you build your yoga practice and eventually you will find ease in poses that you once thought were not there for you, lotus (and half lotus) included. If you find that your ankles or knees hurt because you’re doing this on hardwood or tile, put a yoga mat, blanket or towel underneath you.

Fold your hands in front of you so that your palms face up. Lay the fingers from one hand on top of the other and bring your thumbs to touch (so your hands look like a closed circle). This is called the Universal Mudra.

Step two: Be Still.

Once you’re in a comfortable position, find stillness. If you feel an ache in your knees or your feet are falling asleep then make a small adjustment if you want to and come back to stillness. Don’t judge it, just do what needs doing, but be mindful that you don’t become fidgety and distracted. You can also play around with breathing through that feeling of discomfort. After all, that’s all it is. (Nobody’s legs have ever fallen off after a zazen session. I promise.) If your legs do fall asleep, just rise carefully when you’re done and shake it off. A few Sun Salutations will help get the blood flowing and you’ll be good as new.

Step Three: Just breathe.

Find quiet. This doesn’t just mean that you should stop speaking (although, you really should), it also means trying to quiet your mind. This is the heart of the thing. Come in to your breath. Breathe normally in and out through your nose, and let your tongue rest on the roof of your mouth. Don’t bring your water or coffee to the cushion with you; try to minimize all movement, even swallowing. Bring awareness to the feeling of your fingers touching, then slowly bring awareness to just the sound of your breathing and then, eventually, to nothing at all.

If thoughts arise, notice them and then let them go. Don’t dwell on them or chase them. If you find your mind wandering, adjust your spine. In Hardcore Zen, Brad Warner says, “In all my years of sitting, I’ve never found myself drifting off without my spine going correspondingly slack or out of alignment. When your posture is right, thoughts slow by themselves. Or they don’t. And if they don’t, don’t worry too much. Just keep sitting.”

Start with maybe five minutes at a time. Set a timer and commit, then let go of the practice when it’s through. Do this at least once a day, but work towards two times a day for as long as you can stand it (but no longer than about 45 minutes at any one time). It matters more that you do it every day, even for a few minutes, than that you do it for a really long stretch at any one time. Morning is a great time, because it sets the tone for a fantastic day. Before bed is good as well, so you can clear your mind from the day’s events. Truly, though, there’s not a bad time to take 5 minutes and sit still with yourself, so no excuses.

That’s it.

Sit down. Be still. Just breathe.

Oh my gosh, that sounds boring.

It is. Sometimes it’s not, but usually, it is. There are lots of different types of meditation that are much more interesting, like little adventures for you mind. Zazen isn’t like that. Zazen is usually really, really boring. But it works.

As you quiet your mind you create space.

That space you start to notice, in between your thoughts and feelings and reactions… that’s reality.

That’s who YOU really are.

When you’re off your mat and done with your meditation, that space becomes the place where you live your life to its fullest expression. Instead of waiting for a future moment to be happy, you see that you can be happy now, in this space.

That space is where you reside. Space you carve out for yourself in meditation becomes space you create between situations and your reaction to them; it becomes space you create between what you fear and how you will overcome it. That’s the space where you become proactive instead of reactive, the space where you take action and live your life instead of letting life happen to you.

You see that right now, this moment, is all you have and you learn to be present with it.

“…Adventures are fun. But after any adventure you’ve always got to come back home, back to the drab, dull, ordinary work-a-day world.

Why is that? This is a very important question: Why is your lame-ass, ordinary work-a-day life the one you keep coming back to? Why is it you always, always, always end up right back here no matter how far out or how high up you get?

The fact is, the universe has chosen you as the vehicle through which to experience the uncanny thrill of cutting up cabbage for dinner, the wonder that is inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide, the fabulous spectacle of watching your clothes dry at a coin-op Laundromat where the radio is stuck on an EZ-listening station and an old lady keeps staring at you for no discernible reason. The universe has demanded that you be you. Ain’t no avoidnin’ it.” (Brad Warner, Hardcore Zen, 2003)

Real life isn’t a high-budget blockbuster movie, and it isn’t a gauzy soap opera drama. Real life is emptying your dishwasher and getting your kid to eat green beans. Real life is pajamas on the couch reading a book.

Sometimes real life is really interesting, but usually, it’s boring. It’s boring and it’s beautiful and it’s yours.

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Apprentice Editor: Jessica Sandhu / Editor: Renée Picard

Photo: kahala at Flickr

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