Instructions from Healing Zen, Roshi Ellen Birx, White Plum Teacher
You may want to try Zen practice by following the instructions that follow or by attending an introductory session. Through a long tradition extending back to Buddha and beyond, postures and methods have evolved that help a person wake up and remain alert. Zen meditation or zazen is a process of letting go of your usual preoccupation and distractions while opening up to what is right here now. The point of zen is to wake up and live your life fully. We encourage you to experience it for yourself.
First, a stable posture, an erect posture is an essential element. It allows you to be alert with your whole body as well as your mind. Sit on the front third of a cushion, in half lotus, or on a bench, or in a chair with feet firmly on the ground. Your pelvis is slightly tilted forward, your shoulders of slightly back to keep your chest open for natural breathing. If in a chair, do not lean back in the chair. Your chin is tucked in slightly, your head is straight over your shoulders. Your eyes are half open or with a“soft gaze” and you look down at about 45 degrees. Your hands are placed in your lap, palms up with your little fingers resting on your belly. Your left hand rests in the right hand, tips of thumbs lightly touching each other and hands forming a horizontal oval. Alert yet restful. Other hand positions may also be used.
Although this posture may seem difficult at first, gradually you will find the right balance and will be able to sit straight and also relaxed at the same time. During zen meditation you sit still and do not move, stretch, or fidget. In the stillness and silence your mind and body settle and yet remain awake, alert and attentive.
Second, a good beginning practice is to count your breath. Sit breathing naturally and count each exhalation silently until you reach ten. Then start over with “one.” Continue until you notice the mind has wandered off in thought, which is normal. At that point, bring your attention back to counting your breath, starting at “one.” It may take weeks or months to get to “ten” most of the time. This is fine and will help build concentration. While these instructions are simple, they are no means easy and even those who are not beginners often return to counting the breath or paying attention to the breath. Relaxing in the practice with “effort that is no effort” is important.
After a while, when you have gotten used to regular periods of meditation, your teacher may suggest practice of “just sitting” (called shikantaza)—where you sit alert and awake, paying attention to the present moment. When you notice your mind wandering, you bring your attention back to the “just sitting” right here and now. You do not strain to stop your mind from thinking, but you don’t let you mind pursue usual thoughts, plans, fantasies, worries. You don’t give them energy or attention and just “drop off body and mind.” Your thinking and planning mind is fine for when you are off the cushion, but for right now, during meditation, “just sit.”
Third, we recommend you start regular daily practice starting with 10-15 minutes and build up to 20-25 minutes. Short periods of practice are more beneficial than long periods of sporadic practice. Soon, you will find yourself enjoying the time sitting more and more. Soon you will find zen practice becomes your life and is beneficial to yourself and others.