The Highly Misunderstood Zen Meditation – Huge Benefits from a Simple Practice

Despite years of practicing meditation and a deep interest in experimenting with its many different forms, I completed avoided Zen Meditation or Zazen. I had dabbled I should say, but the truth is that I was turned off by presumed strictness and adherence to specific postures. On one hand, I wasn’t sure it matched my goals and on the other, a hip issue doesn’t enable me to sit cross-legged. So, I prematurely ruled it out. My mistake! Had I not gotten the right information, I would have missed out on the world of meditation’s best option to correct a rampant and uncontrollable mind.

Zen meditation, or “Zazen,” is a Zen Buddhism practice typically involving sitting in an erect posture and focusing on breath or an idea to cultivate deep mindfulness, self-awareness, and enlightenment.

So for anyone new to Zen meditation, I want to paint a picture of its uniqueness and how it differs from other forms of meditation. Yes, there is tradition and specificity, but I also want to share how easy it is to get started and how accommodating it is of the time you have and any physical limitations.

showing how to do zazen meditation

Significance of Zen Meditation in Modern Society

What good story doesn’t start with a strong opinion? There are many Zen practitioners who share a pretty devout and strict idea about how the art should be practiced, how you should be sitting, and for how much time. I can’t disagree with these tenants as they relate to the ultimate goals of the original teachings, but I also don’t think that the art’s originators had this in mind.

To profess that practicing Zazen has to be undertaken in a difficult posture for an excruciating amount of time alienates the majority of the population who could benefit from the practice. Would you say to a new runner, do 10 miles today or don’t bother? Knowing now what I know about Zen meditation, I think my error in avoiding Zen meditation for so long was mistaking the pride of some daily Zen meditation practitioners for how well they sit and meditate, with the real focus and purpose of the art. It’s not an all-or-none scenario. Start, and increase your time and improve your posture as the benefits accumulate.

Epiphany #1: Zen Meditation is Not Out-Dated.

Let’s start with the benefits of Zen meditation so you can see if it aligns with you goals and then jump into the history and how to get a practice started.

10 Modern-Day Benefits of Zen Meditation

  1. Mental Clarity and Focus: Zen meditation sharpens the mind, allowing for improved concentration and mental clarity in daily tasks.
  2. Reduce Stress: Regular Zen practice provides a sanctuary of calm, helping individuals reduce stress levels and find inner peace amidst life’s challenges.
  3. Manage Anxiety: Zen meditation equips practitioners with mindfulness tools to navigate anxiety, promoting a sense of serenity and control.
  4. Enhance Self-Awareness and Introspection: Through introspection, Zen meditation fosters a deep understanding of one’s thoughts, emotions, and motivations, leading to enhanced self-awareness.
  5. Cultivate Compassion and Equanimity: Zen’s emphasis on empathy and equanimity nurtures a compassionate heart, allowing individuals to respond to others and life’s circumstances with kindness and grace.
  6. Establishing Regular Routine: Zen meditation encourages the establishment of a structured routine, offering stability and a sense of purpose in daily life.
  7. Overcome Common Challenges: By teaching resilience and patience, Zen meditation empowers individuals to overcome common life challenges with greater ease.
  8. Reduce Restlessness and Impatience: Zen meditation helps individuals let go of restlessness and impatience, leading to a more peaceful and contented existence.
  9. Deal with a Wandering Mind: Zen practice teaches practitioners to gently guide a wandering mind back to the present moment, enhancing focus and presence.
  10. Find Stillness in Chaos: Amid life’s chaos, Zen meditation provides a sanctuary of stillness, allowing individuals to access tranquility and clarity within themselves.

A Quick Summary on the Origins and Philosophy of Zen Meditation

Zen meditation, with its deep philosophical roots and emphasis on direct experience, is a contemplative practice that has captivated minds for centuries. This brief overview will delve into its origins, its connection to Zen Buddhism meditation, and its unique approach to mindfulness and presence.

At the heart of Zen meditation lies a philosophy that transcends words and concepts. Zen, often called Chan in China, emerged as a distinct school of Buddhism around the 6th century CE. It sought to strip away the complexities of religious doctrine and language, advocating direct, unmediated experience of reality as the path to enlightenment. Think about this in terms of your (or my original) opinion of Zen. Should a system designed to “strip away religious complexities” be dogmatic?

Zen Buddhism originated in China and later flourished in Japan as a branch of Mahayana Buddhism. It places a premium on meditation and experiential insight. Zen masters, known as roshis, guide students on their spiritual journeys through dialogue, meditation, and koan study. The simplicity and directness of Zen teachings have made it a unique and influential tradition within Buddhism.

How Is Zen Buddhism Different Than Other Forms of Meditation?

Zen meditation is very unique for its emphasis on direct experience over intellectual understanding. In Zen, practitioners aim to go beyond mere conceptual thinking to experience reality as it is, unfiltered by preconceptions. This experiential approach often involves meditation, particularly Zazen (seated meditation), as a means to access intuitive insight.

Zen meditation is synonymous with mindfulness and presence. It encourages individuals to be fully engaged in the here and now, observing thoughts and sensations without judgment. This practice fosters a deep sense of awareness and clarity. Zen meditation isn’t just a formal practice; it’s a way of life. It teaches that enlightenment is not something to be attained in the distant future but is available in each moment of the present.

Think of how different this is from other forms of meditation. You are not focusing on energy centers in the body like in Chakra meditation or moving sequentially across body parts like in Body Scan meditation. You are also not using external stimuli like a vibrations of a sound bath or mantras.  You are meant to sit in stillness with the observation or discomfort to overcome it.

We wrote a separate article on 17 different meditation styles if you want to see a big overview of the meditation world.

Three Powerfully Different Approaches to Zen Meditation

In my own ignorance I thought Zen meditation to simply be sitting in contemplative thought to clear the mind. Of course, even the earliest practitioners would have difficulty from time to time or seek ways to deepen their practice. And they’ve developed ways to sit in meditation, walk, or use contemplative questions to improve their experience.

Epiphany #2: There are Different Ways To Accomplish the Goals of Zen Meditation

I am going to cover these three ideas how to Zen meditate but first I want to share this really great video from a Zen meditation organization which better explains the ways to alter your posture to account for any physical limitations.

How to Do Zen Meditation

H3 Zazen (Seated Meditation)

Zazen, also known as seated meditation, is one of the most iconic forms of Zen practice. To begin, find a quiet space and sit on a cushion or chair with your spine straight and your legs crossed. A straight spine in Zazen helps maintain alertness and comfort during the practice. Place your hands in a specific mudra (hand position) and focus on your breath. The breath is your anchor to the present moment. Inhale and exhale deeply and naturally, counting your breaths if it helps you stay focused.

In Zazen, the aim is to cultivate a state of pure awareness. Your mind may wander, but the key is to gently acknowledge your thoughts and bring your focus back to the breath. This constant redirection of attention to the present moment is the essence of Zazen. This can’t be overstated: Don’t beat yourself up for having a bad meditation session or not being able to “control your thoughts.” Monitoring this is the whole purpose of the meditation. Over time, you’ll become more adept at letting go of distractions inside your session and during your regular day.

And definitely think about using a cushion if this is not a comfortable posture for you. It’s not a copout if it enables you to meditate with great comfort and for a a longer period of time.

Koan Practice

Koans are enigmatic and paradoxical questions or statements used in Zen practice to challenge the logical mind and stimulate insight. The purpose of koans is to transcend ordinary thinking and access a deeper level of understanding. Koans often lack a straightforward answer, encouraging practitioners to explore the mysteries of existence.

Koan practice typically involves meditating on a specific koan, attempting to grasp its meaning beyond rational thought. For example, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” is a classic koan. Instead of seeking a verbal response, practitioners engage with the koan by immersing themselves in the question itself. By contemplating the unanswerable, they transcend conventional thinking and approach the profound.

Walking Meditation (Kinhin)

If sitting still for extended periods feels challenging, walking meditation, or Kinhin, offers a refreshing alternative. In Kinhin, you combine mindfulness with movement. Begin by standing with your hands in a specific position, then take a step with each breath. Inhale as you lift your foot, exhale as you place it down. This synchronized movement and breathing help you stay anchored in the present while in motion.

One of the beautiful aspects of Kinhin is its applicability to daily life. You can practice it while walking anywhere, turning an ordinary stroll into a meditation session. By integrating mindfulness into everyday activities, you’ll find that Zen isn’t confined to a specific time or place—it becomes a way of life.

In the realm of Zen meditation, diversity is key. Zazen offers a serene, seated path; koan practice dives deep into the realm of paradox; and Kinhin infuses mindfulness into movement. Whichever approach resonates with you, remember that the heart of Zen is not about achieving a particular goal, but the journey of self-discovery and the profound awakening that comes with it. So, find the method that speaks to you and embark on your unique Zen adventure.

showing how to do zen meditation

Three Zen Meditation Techniques That Get Results

For my next wake-up call, finding out that there are different Zen meditation techniques to practice during your sitting or walking is what really solidified my progress with this art. Zen is not just one thing, the originators used a variety of tools not only to get to a deeper level of meditation and clearer thinking, but also to acknowledge that the same tools don’t work on the same days, for every person, or at every point in life. I want to include short explanations of three primary Zen meditation techniques because they will give you a lot to focus on during your meditation and will help in understanding these concepts when they come in literature about Zen.

Epiphany #3: You Are Not Just Doing One Thing During Zen Meditation

Cultivating Awareness of Thoughts and Non-Attachment

Zen teaches us to observe our thoughts without clinging to them. Instead of getting entangled in the web of our thinking, we learn to let thoughts come and go like passing clouds. By developing non-attachment to thoughts, we free ourselves from the emotional rollercoaster often triggered by our inner dialogue. This practice fosters a sense of inner calm and detachment.

Zen also encourages us to become silent observers of our stream of consciousness. We sit in meditation, paying close attention to the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that arise. By impartially observing this inner flow, we gain insight into the impermanent and ever-changing nature of our mental landscape. This realization can lead to a greater sense of inner stability.

Embracing Impermanence

Zen meditation invites us to confront and let go of our attachments and desires. By recognizing that everything in life is impermanent, including our possessions, relationships, and even our own selves, we can begin to release our grip on these transient aspects of existence. Letting go of attachments allows us to find contentment in the present moment rather than constantly seeking fulfillment in external circumstances.

Through meditation, Zen practitioners come to intimately understand that everything is in a state of flux and not permanent. The seasons change, bodies age, and thoughts arise and vanish. This awareness of impermanence can be liberating, as it enables us to appreciate the beauty of the present without dwelling on the past or anxiously anticipating the future.

Silent Illumination

Allowing experiences to arise naturally, silent illumination or “Shikantaza,” is a form of Zen meditation that encourages us to sit in silent awareness without striving for any particular outcome. Instead of focusing on the breath or a specific object, we simply let experiences unfold naturally. By relinquishing the need to control or manipulate our meditation, we cultivate a state of pure presence.

Silent illumination leads to an experience of non-duality, where the boundaries between self and other, subject and object, dissolve. In this state, there is no separation between the observer and the observed. It’s a profound realization that transcends intellectual understanding and allows us to directly experience the interconnectedness of all things.

Silent illumination is the most difficult aspect for me in my attempts at deeper Zen meditation. At my current level of development, my mind typically strays after a short while. However, there is a profound (albeit brief!) sensation when seeing yourself as not being separate from everything around you. So I think it is a valuable practice but probably something that improves over time. If you are are Zen meditation beginner, know that there are many aspects of Zen to strive for but they take time.

Epiphany #4: Zen Meditation is Not Stuffy and Actually Makes Light of the Difficulty Process of Trying to Become More Aware.

Zen Meditation Quotes

There is a sense of humor that accompanies studying Zen meditation. Concentrating is hard, life can be hard, but you don’t have to be serious about it. Even some of the ideas behind the koans like “one hand clapping” allude to a little mental mischief. The fun sentiment of Zen I think is often captured in Zen meditation quotes like these:

“Before enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water. After enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water.”

Zen Proverb

“You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day unless you’re too busy. Then you should sit for an hour.”

Attributed to Lao Tzu (Taoism) but often associated with Zen

“The only Zen you find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.”

Zen Proverb

“Let go or be dragged.”

Robert M. Pirsig

“When you get to the top of the mountain, keep climbing.”

Zen Proverb

“The obstacle is the path.”

Zen Proverb

Zen Meditation Music            

This style of meditation can truly be enjoyable and to end I would like to share music for Zen meditation on YouTube that is free and makes the practice even better. There are tons of different ways to go so just find Zen meditation music that you like and that is about as long as you are currently practicing. You can find music targeting a specific state you want to achieve, a specific problem you want to address, or including specific instruments. Here are few examples:

Meditation Zen Music for Inner Peace

Zen Meditation Music with a Japanese Flute

Zen Meditation Music for Stress and Anxiety Relief – Detox Negative Emotions

Further Reading- Zen Meditation Books: 

Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness. Austin, James H (1999).

Zen Meditation in Plain English. Buksbazen, John Daishin (2002).

Beyond Thinking: A Guide to Zen Meditation. Tanahashi, Kazuaki (2004).

Scott Prath

Scott has been practicing and teaching tai chi and qigong since 2000. He is a lead instructor for the Austin Chen Tai Chi Association. His interest in the internal martial arts began after traveling in India and Nepal, and he has since traveled to China to train. Scott has published over 100 articles on tai chi with a focus on research showing the benefits of practicing.

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