What is Zen meditation?
What an extraordinary question. And what an extraordinary gift. Meditation is the channel we have to talk to God. It is that place within ourselves where we find deepest peace. It is to bathe in an ocean of soothing tranquillity. Meditation is to come home to oneself.
There are many forms of meditation, Zen being just one. In fact the word itself has, curiously, many variants of meaning. It can mean concentration, where we meditate deeply on one particular subject, for example peace. Or it can also mean contemplation, in this case we turn a matter over in our minds, inspecting it from all angles, pouring over the minutia as it were. However, Zen meditation takes the very opposite path, it is the emptying of the mind of all its contents, it is the unthinking of thinking.
My definition of meditation (Zen or otherwise) is thus:
an allowing of that part of us that is greater than us into our lives. I mean the part of us that is connected to universal mind, which knows us intimately, and which loves us beyond measure. The purpose of Zen meditation is to create inner peace and mindfulness.
Zen meditation is often seen as a way of bypassing the ‘monkey mind’, that part of the mind that chatters away even when we want it to be still, and leads us nowhere. Meditation is not confined to sitting, it can be done while walking, for example, by entering into a deep state of calmness. It can be applied to any activity.
Really it is about creating presence.
There is a notion abroad that there is some ‘right’ way to do meditation, and that if you don’t follow these instructions to the letter you will not reap the many benefits it offers, or worse you may get harmful results.
Nothing could be further from the truth. But sadly, the prevalence of this myth has prevented many otherwise enthusiasts from taking up meditation.
Other common misunderstandings about meditation are that it is ‘difficult’, that it takes years to master, that it’s somehow tied up with religion, or only suitable for certain types of people. And the old chestnut, that it’s a form of hypnosis.
There is nothing at all difficult about meditation. In fact you simply sit and relax and it does the work. There is no ‘doing’ in meditation. The only thing required is that you practice it on some kind of regular basis. Daily is best, but if you can’t manage this at least a few times a week. Set a regular time in which to do it, and stick to this. This creates habit and minimises the risk of lapse.
As for it taking years to master, this is often the boast of seasoned practitioners. Being a meditator it seems does not make one immune to showing off!
Meditation of itself, is not a religion, although most religions include it in some form or variety. Nor is it for ‘certain types’, presumably by that is meant very serious or introspective people. Many high profile people in the business, political and entertainment industries meditate and claim it helps them keep a sense of balance in their otherwise hectic lives.
Lastly, it’s got nothing to do with hypnosis, which is concerned with putting one into a trance. Meditation is the very opposite. It is about trance breaking. About waking up.
Meditation is not the same as relaxation. The latter is what we do when we’re watching television. Of course you will relax too when you meditate, but there are many subtle differences. Meditation, specifically Zen meditation, is about watching within.
That’s easy. Begin by sitting or lying down and gently closing the eyes. It is best to keep the spine straight (I go into the reasons for this in kundalini awaking in more detail) but if you can’t do that or if you have a physical disability then don’t worry. Don’t let it put you off practicing.
Simply assume a position that is comfortable for you. Allow the body to relax naturally. Do a quick scan of your body, starting with the head and going all the way down to the feet, checking that each part is nice and relaxed. This is just to ensure that some muscles aren’t still ‘working’, which they often do even after we sit or lie down. Check that your eyes are not screwed up, or your jaw is not clammed shut, or that there isn’t unconscious tension in the neck area. Certain spots can often continue to hold tension that we are not aware of. Just let the jaw drop open slightly.
Don’t obsess either about whether or not you’re fully relaxed. This can be another block when people start meditation. They feel that unless they’re as floppy as a deflated airbed they must be doing it wrong. I sometimes think meditation and relaxation tapes can unwittingly instil this fear into people. We feel that we have to ‘get it right’ about most things we do, and that includes meditation. Obsessing about getting it right only gets in the way. Here a relaxed body simply means one is not making any effort.
Contrary to popular belief you don’t have to sit in the lotus position. This is one of the persistent myths about meditation, it goes all the way back to Theravada Buddhism and arises from images we see of the Buddha. Its origins probably lie in the fact that in most ancient cultures (and in a few modern ones) this was the preferred way to sit. Those people would find chairs uncomfortable. So when it came to meditation they naturally assumed the position most comfortable for them. But some insist this is how it ‘should’ be done. The idea that unless you’re suffering through spiritual growth then you can’t be doing it right still holds sway. Of course there is nothing wrong with the lotus position if that’s your choice. It’s an excellent way to keep the spine erect (another reason why it has persisted). However, unless you’ve been sitting like this since you were a child you’ll probably find it painful. Cutting off the circulation does not aid meditation!
God, you were obviously doing it wrong!!
Well, no you weren’t, but this can be a big obstacle for many when they start out. It’s the monkey mind syndrome we talked about earlier. But often battling with these thoughts only adds to the problem. You’ve probably noticed that you have a gazillion thoughts running through your mind all at the same time.
That’s called being alive!
So, then how do we deal with these wretched thoughts?
Well, various techniques have been developed over the years for this very purpose. The most commonly taught one is to watch the breath. To do this simply breathe smoothly and evenly through the nose, observing each breath as you inhale and as you exhale. Some find it helpful to picture the tip of their nose while doing this. Another technique is to repeat a mantra, which is a single word or phrase, for example om, over and over until it fills your mind and there is no room for anything else.
Ok. Let’s cut to the chase. Some find these exercises very calming. Others find them very boring!! And therein lies the reason why many give up. They think it’s just plain too hard, ‘I’ll never be able to control my thoughts’, they say.
But control is not the point of meditation.
Now there’s a really cool way around this which you might want to try. And it doesn’t involve mantras or watching the end of your nose. It’s an ancient Zen method that bypasses this need to ‘get rid of our thoughts’. Zen meditation teaches that you picture your thoughts as though they were clouds drifting across the sky. See them come and then see them fade into nothing, without engaging with them. This last bit is important and why I emphasised it, as we know thoughts love to lure us away and pull us into their story.
For example, a thought will pop in about something urgent you need to do today, or maybe of a pleasant memory from the past. Often it’s something mundane, like the shopping. You go, ‘yea I have to get carrots, and broccoli, and I think I need bread, I’m not sure, better check when I get up’. This is adding to the thought, and making it real in your mind. The Zen meditation method is to silently acknowledge, ‘that’s a shopping-thought cloud’, and watch it drift away. This is a great technique because it doesn’t make your thoughts wrong. And, over time, it teaches that thoughts are only thoughts, that’s all, and we don’t need to get involved in the drama of them, whether we’re meditating or not.
If we struggle with the problem of how to get rid of thoughts this itself can become an issue. It’s like when you stop worrying about an itch it will just go away, but give it attention and it will persist. Same with your thoughts, just let them be, don’t try to push them away.
Visualising your goals into reality is a form of meditation. Here you actively engage with your thoughts. As I said there is no correct way to meditate. What I usually do is retreat into a kind of nothingness. I sort of ‘feel’ myself become invisible and I allow the empty space to move through me. It’s difficult to explain, it’s something I just do inside (see Encounterment).
Studies now show that meditation seems to help reduce high blood pressure and the risk of heart attack or diabetes. Also that it strengthens the cortical circuitry in the limbic region of the brain, even in relative beginners. In other words it makes you smarter!
Zen meditation does not have to be a chore. You can start with as little as five minutes a day, and progress at your own pace. It’s up to you. Give it a try.
There is a voice that doesn’t use words - listen!
Reality is merely an illusion - albeit a persistent one.