Now and Zen: discover this ancient meditation practice in 2021

By Geoff Harris

Meditation may be one of your key resolutions for 2021, along with doing more exercise and eating more healthily.

There are a lot of meditation schools out there competing for your attention, however, and it’s easy to get distracted, overwhelmed and not get started at all.

Some meditation schools require the careful guidance of a teacher or involve quite formal ‘guided’ meditation, but if you are seeking a simple, straightforward practice that you can easily incorporate into your daily life, then Zen could be the answer.

Don’t worry if you can’t make full or half lotus and never force it – sitting on a chair is fine so long as you keep your back and head straight, without tensing up.

Forget any preconceptions about having to join a mountain-top monastery or retire from the world, Zen can be practiced almost anywhere - and the result can be a greater mental calmness, focus, and insight. There are no mystical elements or faraway elevated states of mind to strive for, either. The instructions are to ‘just sit.’

Before going forward, a bit of background. The main Zen schools, Soto and Rinzai, came to Japan from India and then China. Unlike other forms of Buddhism, the emphasis is very much on formal seated meditation, or Zazen, instead of chanting rituals. Zen master Dogen, who set up the Soto school in the 13th century, told students to “think of not thinking. Nonthinking. This is the essential art of Zazen.” Despite its foundations in Buddhism, many people don’t regard Zen as a religion at all; a good example is singer songwriter Leonard Cohen, who practiced for many years it alongside Judaism. Another of my favourite Zen teachers is Hugo Enomiya Lasalle, who was a Jesuit priest.

All you need to get started with seated Zen meditation (known as Zazen) is a quiet room, without any distractions, comfortable clothes and a chair. Here’s what to do:

1) Sit on a chair or stool, with your back and head straight but shoulders relaxed. If you are reasonably flexible you can also try sitting in a half-lotus position, with your left leg crossed over your right, or vice versa. If so you will need a Zafu, or meditation cushion, and these are widely available online.

2) Place your hands in a mudra position (thumb tips together) or lightly resting in your lap. Place the tip of your tongue on the roof of the mouth, to reduce salivation and gulping.

3) Focus on a spot about a metre in front of you, with your eyes half-closed.

4) Then, simply breathe in and out naturally. Zen students sometimes count their breaths to give their mind something to focus on, or focus on the air coming in through their nose and out again.

5) It’s really important to never try to fight or stop thoughts. Observe them, and let them pass, like clouds in the sky, without hanging on to them. You can also visualise yourself standing by a busy road, and the thoughts are like cars whizzing past – you just watch them going by without chasing them or trying to engage with them or indeed stop them. It’s not about being good or bad at Zazen!

Kodo Sawaki, a great Japanese Zen master, displays classic Zazen posture

And really, that is simple Zazen meditation in a nutshell. As you sit there, on a cushion or chair, focus on your breath, don’t worry about your mind getting distracted, and keep checking your posture.

The important thing to remember is that the posture itself is an expression of the inner balance and harmony that you are achieving through this practice of meditation – you are emulating the posture of the historical Buddha when he achieved enlightenment under the Bodhi tree back in the 5th century BC. Indeed, some Zen teachers say that just sitting is the expression of enlightenment, rather than some sudden mystical breakthrough and subsequent personality transformation.

Traditionally, Japanese Zen teachers shun lots of discussion and intellectualisation about the practice of Zazen; much of this is to do with cultural factors, as students in Japan tend to just follow a practice rather than questioning its whys and wherefores.

When Zen become popular in the west, however, teachers had to find a way of engaging with westerners, and a few wrote some great books – Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki is a great example. “If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything,” he wisely observes. “In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's mind there are few.” Another great quote on Zen mediation comes from Katagiri roshi (‘roshi’ is the Japanese word for Zen teacher). “In Zazen, stepping aside from the story, the space between your story and your life is the place where you can discover the real nature of human life… Tuning into the deeper life force lets us see ourselves in a different way: we already belong to the flow of life! It brings relief and joy- it changes our way of life and living.”

Studying Zen also reminds you of how it this school of Buddhism permeated many aspects of Japanese culture, from calligraphy, rock gardens and the tea-ceremony, through to martial arts. Right up to the present day, Marie Kondo’s “tidying up” book and TV shows also has roots in Japan’s Zen culture.

Shunryu Suzuki (1904-1971) was one of the greatest teachers to come to the West and his classic work Zen Mind, Beginners Mind is an excellent starter guide

“I love how Zen is grounded in reality – sweeping the floor, washing dishes, chopping vegetables – as opposed to an escape into an altered state,” Daniel Bachrach, a Zen student from New York observes. “Although Zen is ancient, I don’t find any of this to be traditional or outdated.”

If you are interested in learning more about Zen after reading this blog, there are Zen-based meditation groups all over the UK and indeed the world. Check out the International Zen Association and the Western Chan Fellowship, but there are lots of smaller local groups too. To finish, here is one of our favourite Zen quotes, which, although it sounds humorous, really strikes to the heart of the practice: “don’t just do something - sit there!”

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) - the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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