It happens every year on January 1—the runners appear. People ready to make a new start, to finally do the thing they’ve been meaning to do for so long, lace up their shoes and venture out into the cold, determined to start the year off on the right foot. If meditation were a more public activity, I’ll bet I could go to the park and see people sitting there in silence, doing the same thing. How wonderful would that be?
But how to start? If you have access to a teacher, start there. There are lots of good books; YouTube is perfect for this sort of thing. But the basics don’t require a lot of explanation.
If you were to visit a Zen temple in Japan and ask for meditation instructions, you might be a little surprised at what you get. You may even be disappointed. It starts how you might expect: sit like this, hold your hands like this. Fine. And then a few words about the breath. So far, so good. But that’s it. After the breath part, someone will hit a bell, or maybe sit down next to you, or maybe walk away—not a single word about the mind, about how this is supposed to feel, about what to think about (or not think about).
It can be jarring, but it comes from a place of faith in the practice—and respect for the practitioner. Zazen (Zen meditation) is taught according to “tune body, tune breath, tune mind”; in other words, if you get the posture, that establishes the breath, and if you have the breath, that establishes the mind. So it’s mostly about the body, and a belief that if you figure that out, the rest clicks into place. But it also reflects a caution about keeping the practice spacious. If I tell you it should feel a particular way, then you’ll measure your experience against that, maybe even unconsciously manufacture the feeling I described. Meditation—this kind, anyway—is wide open, more a place for discovery than for cultivation.
With that in mind, I thought I’d start out the year with an outline of some basics. If you’re just getting started, I hope they point you in the right direction.
Sit up straight. How do you sit when you’re watching something riveting, or when someone is saying something important directly to you? Start with that. If you’re on a cushion, sit on the front edge, letting the pelvis tilt down, knees on the ground. Don’t worry about full lotus or half lotus (unless you want to); but if your body allows it, try to get both knees on the ground (or maybe one on a pillow) so you feel stable. Don’t hold yourself up with your back—if you’re needing to contract your abs to have a straight back, lean forward a bit more, let gravity do more of the work. If you’re on a chair, again, sit on the front edge; if you’re tall, add a pillow so that your knees are a little lower than your hips. That will help. Pull your shoulders back—not a lot, but enough to remind yourself to be sitting up straight. Pull the top of your head toward the sky.
Choose a stable place for your hands. In Zen, we form a little oval: one hand palm up, just below the navel, the other hand on top, also palm up, and thumb tips lightly touching. Another option is hands palm down on the thighs. Or you could sit with palms up, open to the sky. Whatever you choose, make it deliberate, part of the pose, and notice how, when your mind starts to wander, your hands do too: your thumbs separate, or your hands fall into your lap, or you start picking at that hangnail. Your hands matter.
Open your eyes. There are plenty of types of meditation that involve closing the eyes, but they require a mental exercise—when we close our eyes, we start to create things to look at, things to think about, things to pull us away from where we are. If that isn’t part of the plan, keep them open, all the time. Half open is fine, but if your eyelids get heavy, you might want to open them even more. One teacher told me to imagine I’m looking three miles in the distance (even though I’m looking at a wall); another said to imagine I’m on a mountaintop, looking down at the entire valley below, taking it all in. It’s a soft gaze, a steady one, one that takes in the whole room.
Breathe. I shouldn’t have to say that—we just do it anyway, right? But for some reason, when we sit in this way, with this intention, breathing feels complicated. Am I doing it correctly? Is this how it should feel? Don’t worry about that. How you breathe is connected to your posture, yes, but it’s also about what you ate for breakfast and the elevation of the city you’re in and how much stress you’re feeling. There’s no right way to breathe. That said, breathing deeply feels good. So start out with a few really exaggerated deep abdominal breaths—make a big noise if you can, a whole show of it—just to send the message to your body that you’d like to do today. Maybe it will help, maybe it won’t. It’s okay. But if you find breathing really difficult, first look to how you’re sitting. It might be a matter of scooting forward a little, or sitting up a little straighter. Explore a little.
That’s it—way more than I was taught, in fact, for years. Try it. Try being still in this way, being quiet in this way, being intentional in this way. Notice how it feels. Adjust. See again the next day. This is an exploration—of the moment, of you, of what it means to be alive—and it’s different every single day. Sometimes it’s so easy; other times, just to stay there is the hardest thing you can do. Just keep it simple. Keep it open. That’s more than enough.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the their podcast.
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