Practical advice about mindful sitting (zazen)

What is mindfulness? It is an extremely simple process of paying attention to what arises in our embodied mind from moment-to-moment, without judgment, commentary or attachment – becoming aware of the coming and going of experiences, free of the automatic mental and emotional reactions that tend to happen, and without daydreaming.

Often we live on auto-pilot, only half-aware or not aware at all, of what we are thinking, feeling and doing. We spend our time only half-awake – reacting to what happens in ways that have become deeply ingrained, habitual responses built up over a lifetime and over which we seem to have little control.  To be mindful is to gently turn off the auto-pilot and to become more fully awake.

 OBSERVE – SUSPEND JUDGMENT – ACCEPT – LET GO

The practice of zazen or mindful meditation requires patience. It involves a slow and gentle process of changing how we experience, and how we relate to our experiences.

We can be mindful in any situation, no matter what we are doing. However, it is helpful to have a regular practice of mindful sitting, free of the demands (and distractions) of more complex activities.

When sitting mindfully we need to be in an upright, stable and relaxed posture – whether sitting on a chair, cushion or meditation bench. Back straight, rather than stooped. Chin tucked in very slightly, with the top of the head feeling as if it is being pulled gently upwards by an invisible string. If sitting on a chair: feet firmly on the ground with hands together on the lap or placed on each thigh. If on a cushion or bench: hands can be held loosely together in the hollow of the legs.

Eyes can be open or shut. If open, the focus should come to rest on a point on the ground about 70- 100 cms in front of the body. When open, all kinds of changes will occur in the field of vision: colour changes; apparent movement; lightening and darkening; shifting patterns and textures; and so on. These are natural, given the way in which our perceptual systems constantly seek fresh input. Just observe the ‘light show’ or ‘kaleidoscope’ and let it go. If eyes are kept closed, there is a more pronounced tendency toward daydreaming and, often, sleepiness. Again, this is natural. Just observe and let go.

As far as possible be still, relaxed but alert. Rocking slightly from side to side can help the body find its own resting place. The aim is to be attentive and awake. If we need to move a limb or flex a muscle to relieve pain or discomfort, we do this and then settle down again. We aren’t involved in an endurance test, or battling against pain in order to prove something to ourselves or others. While we need to be kind to ourselves, we should also notice if we have a tendency to fidget or to imagine an ache every couple of minutes. If this happens, keep still and watch the aches come and go!

As a Zen teacher puts it:

when sitting, just sit

when standing, just stand

above all, don’t wobble

As the body settles we can settle our attention on the breath as it gently comes in and out through the nose. Watch the breath. Feel the air entering the lungs, stomach muscles expanding low down in the diaphragm as the air fills the cavity. In the west we often place emphasis on taking a deep in-breath, as a way of preparing for action or decision-making. In contrast, I was taught by a Soto Zen monk to make sure that the out-breath is steady and relaxed, in order that the lungs are emptied and tension is released. Breathing fully yet naturally is what is required.

Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out. Breathing in, breathing out.” The rhythm of the breath, like the heart-beat, is the signature pattern of our lives, a rhythm we can attend to at any time. Focusing on the breath is an important mode of mindfulness.

Once we are sitting in a stable, relaxed posture we begin to pay attention to what is going on in and around us. We notice the sounds that arise: the birdsong or traffic, the murmur of voices, the gurgling of the central heating system, the roar of a plane overhead or the hissing of rain on the street outside. Whatever sound arises, we sit with it, hearing it as if for the first time. Each sound has a unique quality, form and duration. We listen to it without adding anything to it. The sound is what it is, nothing more, nothing less. If we find ourselves making up stories about the sound, or saying to ourselves, this is horrible, funny, grating, beautiful or boring, we need to come back to the sound itself, just at it is – not as we wrap it up in our thinking, commenting or judging. We hear the pulse of the sound, and experience its coming and going. And as it dies away we let it go, as another sound arises and engages our attention. Letting go is as important as paying attention. No matter what the sound is like, we hear it as it is and say goodbye to it without clinging on to it (in memory) or wishing it was still around. This is how we experience what is, rather than what we think should be. It is how we come to terms with the reality of life, the impermanence of all things, the fleeting nature of all experiences.

In the same way that we pay attention to sounds we can take notice of other sensations, the changing light, the colour of the carpet, the scent of daffodils in a vase nearby, the dusty aroma of an old chair, and the hard pressure of the bench upon which we sit. We notice how aches and pains come and go. How an itch on our ear seems to become more and more intense, only to die away as mysteriously as it began. Our stomach rumbles and gurgles and seems to fill the space with sound. Instead of twisting and turning as we try to stop it, or beginning to feel embarrassed, or wishing it would go away, or wondering if other people in the room are listening to my stomach, or hoping that lunch will soon arrive – instead of responding in these ways, the ways in which we habitually react to our stomach and its sounds – we can simply observe what is happening. We can feel the gurgling and rumbling, hear the sound, but not add to it. We let it be. And as we do this, our experience becomes clearer, more direct, less burdensome. Without the weight of our commentary and judgments, the experience of our stomach, becomes more vivid, yet lighter, and often more enjoyable. We smile at the feeling and the sound, and at our tendency to ruminate about it. We accept the experience for what it is, give thanks for another moment of our lives and let it go.

As we sit we can expand the field of attention beyond the breath to the stream of phenomena which make up our everyday experiences – the feelings, perceptions, thoughts, imaginings, flitting ideas and evolving stories that occupy our minds as we sit quietly. We notice how everything changes – sights and sounds, ideas and feelings, come and go. Nothing stays the same for long. This is impermanence in action! As we sit and observe we may be surprised and possibly alarmed at how little apparent control we have over what is happening, and how most of the time we don’t seem to notice this ceaseless activity – as if we have wandered off someplace else. But as we become more mindful, less mindless, we are here rather than somewhere else – living in this moment, rather than trying to re-live a past we can never bring back, or daydreaming about a future we will never reach.

Even a few minutes of mindful sitting can enable us to come back to the breath and be present in the here and now.  However I have found that sitting for between ten and twenty minutes – which is feasible for even the busiest of individuals – enables us to gain a deeper insight into ourselves and to be less harried by the day’s events, becoming calmer, more relaxed and more compassionate towards ourselves and others. We become more open to the flow of experience, enjoying each moment and are less troubled by life’s ups and downs.

there is only this breath

this moment

this life 

accept, enjoy, give thanks, let go