The following contains excerpts and paraphrasing from Robert Aitken's Taking The Path Of Zen. There are many great meditation guides. This one has been around since 1982, was written by a well-known zen teacher, has great reviews no matter where you look, and I find that it is thorough, but not too thorough. Also, the book is much more than this little bit about how to sit. I highly recommend you purchase and read this book if you are interested in Zen.
What's the point?
Our childish pursuit of gratification palls and we too sense that something we do not understand lies within all our hectic coming and going. Our selfish ways become unsatisfying. 1
As you read Taking The Path Of Zen and many other Buddhist meditation books, the author will mention our "monkey minds." In other words, our minds are all over the place and attracted to anything that's shiny. Now more than ever, within this high-tech society which we live, we are typically going from one thing to the next as quickly as possible without really thinking about what we're doing. We're driving around and can never remember how we actually got from point A to point B because we were thinking about so many different things. Zen meditation trains your brain to sit and focus on one thing like your breathing. By doing this, overtime, you start to take control of your monkey mind. You become less selfish. You become more present. You are no longer some scared kid walking to the store. Or, you are no longer some "perfect" beauty walking to the store. You are simply a person walking to the store.
At the very least, sitting calmly and counting your breathing calms you.
There are other ways to meditate but there's a reason breath counting is so popular. Even in Western cultures where meditation may be thought of as some hippie, new age nonsense, people still know that taking deep breaths is helpful.
The breath is both a spontaneous part of our physical system and, to some degree, under our control. 2
It's convenient to count, natural, and you can control it. The breath truly is the easiest phenomenon to focus on. Although the word easy is being used here, even people who have meditated for many years can have trouble counting their breaths. You will fail. But, don't be hard on yourself. Once you realize that you stopped counting several minutes ago and have been thinking about what to get for lunch, go back to counting the breaths.
How to Sit
With some articles or books, especially when the focus is not totally meditation and it is just being mentioned, the author will gloss over this part. They may simply say to sit comfortably. I think it is important to follow a more structured approach to sitting. It makes the session more special and comfortable. Having said that, there is one part, when Aitken's book talks about the legs, which I will heavily paraphrase and I'll explain why when we get there.
When you take your seat on your cushions, or on a chair if your legs don't bend easily, your spine should curve forward slightly at the waist like the baby's. Your belt should be loose, and your stomach allowed to hang out naturally, while your posterior is thrust back for solid support. 3
You need to sit comfortably. Usually any chair works. But, a solid chair where you can sit up straight towards the front of the chair is best. In other words, sitting on the couch may not be best. But, could work in a pinch. As far as "floor sitting" which I will call it from here on out, you need a zafu and a zabuton. I recommend these. The zabuton goes down first, then the zafu on top. You sit on the zafu, and then the zabuton cushions the legs, ankles, and feet.
This is the part which I think is good to read, so get this book I've been referencing and read it. It is also good to aspire to get to the point where you can sit in one of the floor sitting styles recommended. But, some simply can't. Currently as of typing this, I cannot comfortable sit in Full Lotus or Half Lotus. I hope to continue to stretch my legs and get to that point one day.
I think that this part could easily discourage someone. Although Aitken does mention that sitting in a chair is fine, still, if you are someone who wants to meditate like the pros so to speak, you could get stuck on trying to sit Full or Half Lotus. Do not do this. First, you could injure yourself if your are not very flexible. Second, it could be very uncomfortable and make you hate meditation before you even begin. So, I will stress:
Sitting in a chair is fine. Even great zen masters meditate in chairs.
The floor sitting positions are Full Lotus (both feet up high on thighs), Half Lotus (one foot high on thigh), Seize (kneeling on a mat with posterior on zafu), and Burmese (one leg in front of the other; both ankles resting on pad - not to be confused with the conventional cross-legged - do not sit cross-legged).
The Zen Mountain Monastery has one of the best web pages on the different sitting positions.
This part is easy and extremely difficult all at the same time. Even the "pros" find their mind drifting and they have to bring their mind back to the breath; sometimes over and over again. Don't get frustrated. As my son has said (and he was just 3 at the time - so cute), "Don't be frustrated, be calm."
Begin your session by taking a couple deep breaths. Breathe in deep, hold it, and slowly exhale. And, unless your nose is plugged up due to a cold or something, breathe in through your nose, and out of your mouth. Then, start breathing normally. Try not to make your breathing artificial. Let your body breath as it normally would. And, it is during this normal breathing that you should do all breathing (inhale and exhale) through your nose. Again, unless you have a cold or something.
Finally, as you breathe in count in your head, "one." As you breathe out count, "two," and so on up to ten. Do not go above ten; this must be extremely easy for your monkey brain. Which is why we don't go above ten.
As you start out you could also take baby steps and just count to two or three. This may be easier and you may be less likely to drift off into thought. In other words breathe in and, "one," then breathe out and, "two." Breathe in, "one," breathe out, "two." You can start counting higher once you feel like your brain gets it and will be good. But, remember, it doesn't matter how often you drift off. Don't be mean to yourself. Just go back to breathing and counting once you realize it.
Why do this? Well, I talked about this at the beginning of this post, but I think the following quote will wrap this up nicely.
If your monkey-mind will not let you examine each step in a simple sequence of breaths, then how can you sustain the attention necessary to see into your own nature? 4
You will need a timer. You do not need to pay hundreds on a meditation app. You just need a simple timer. When you set the timer add a minute or so to the length of time you are choosing. This gives you time to get settled and take a couple deep breaths. To start, only meditate for a few minutes, maybe up to five. That's it. Do this every day until it is a habit. Then, you can add some time. But, again in this book I've been referencing, it is said that you shouldn't meditate for more than 25 minutes at a time. I love this. Before I read this book, no one had ever mentioned this part to me. It makes so much sense. Even if you have the time to meditate for an hour or more, you should go for 25 minutes at a time. Take a break, stand up, stretch, then you can go another 25 minutes.
The key to meditation being helpful in your life is to make it a habit. Forming habits isn't easy. To help, do this every day (many prefer mornings - but after you've had some coffee maybe and are alert). Do not meditate after eating a big meal. And remember, don't be frustrated, be calm.
Do you have better instructions or personal tips? Start a new discussion, tag it meditation, and share!
Page numbers correspond to Kindle Cloud Reader version of book.
- Robert Aitken, Taking The Path Of Zen (New York: North Point Press, 1982), 3-4.
- Aitken, Taking The Path Of Zen, 10.
- Aitken, Taking The Path Of Zen, 14.
- Aitken, Taking The Path Of Zen, 27.