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Specific questions about zazen
February 18, 2014 3:27 PM   Subscribe

So I've been doing some zazen following the instructions of Master Shodo Harada from this Youtube video. There he explains proper posture, focusing on breathing, counting your exhalations, keeping your eyes open while looking 1 m ahead on the ground, etc. I have (quite) a few questions that for experienced zazen meditators!

1) In the video, from 6:35 - 7:45, he explains that there are 2 places where we can place our (center of) awareness. "Our awareness may be put in our left palm." "We can also our awareness about five centimeters below the navel."

But what he means by putting our awareness there... exactly? I guess in general my awareness is whatever attracts my attention. Like what is happening on the screen if I'm watching a movie, or a thought if I'm following one, etc. So is he saying to focus on how it FEELS there? Or, similar to how my brain seems to be at the center of my awareness because my eyes, nose, ears and mouth are there, so to fake as if that center is down there? In short, what does it entail exactly to place our awareness there?

2) My 2nd question is linked to the first. It is about breathing. He asks us to count our exhalations. But are we supposed to focus on it? To concentrate on the breaths? If so there we would be aware of BOTH our breath and our center of awareness (palm or navel). A bit confused there. So are we supposed to stay at our center of awareness WHILE focusing on our breaths? And more specifically, if we are to focus on our breath, on what exactly? On the sensation at our abdomen and nose and perhaps even the smell that we breathe if there is any?

3) What about all the sensations that we have. Things we hear, see, feel, thoughts, basically anything that comes in contact with our awareness. What do we do with those? Do we just observe them for a sec perhaps then come back to our center of awareness?

4) Sitting in full lotus position puts strain on the outside of my feet. Does it get better with time? lol ;)

5) I tried doing 10 min. zazen then 5 min. walking to relax my feet then 15 more minutes of zazen for a total of 30 minutes. Is that a good plan? Any good video for walking meditation which I think they call kinhin in Zen.

6) Is it ok to do zazen at night? E.g. 30 min. morning then 30 min. at night?

7) Should one limit the amount of zazen one does per day? Or the more the better?
posted by iliketothinknu to Health & Fitness (5 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I only did zazen for a while, but I found the Shunryu Suzuki book pretty helpful. The book says it's better to do a little bit consistently than to start doing a whole bunch. (My opinion is it's more sustainable to set little goals). Good luck! To be honest, I abandoned my zazen practice for yoga because of time constraints. I get to simultaneously exercise and meditate when I do yoga!
posted by zscore at 6:54 PM on February 18

You really need to ask a roshi about this. Seek out a Zen circle in your community that is led by an experienced and acknowledged roshi.

While I think the practice you are doing is super in terms of getting used to physically practicing zazen, you cannot do it alone, and wondering about this correct way or that correct way is a distraction.

You can't do it alone, you need a roshi, and you need to be part of a community.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:49 PM on February 18 [2 favorites]

Another vote for find a teacher. You don't need to be with your teacher a lot, but it's not really possible to learn without someone actually SHOWING you the way. Books and videos are ok as introductions, motivators, and refreshers, but there's much that cannot be done except by person-to-person communication.
posted by anadem at 7:59 PM on February 18

I concur with the advice to find a teacher at a Zen group, which is also a nice way to meet some people. Aside for the concrete usefulness of real-time advice and inspiration, sitting with others is easier, even for a very introverted person like myself, partly for the simple reason that it'd be embarrassing to get up in the middle of a sitting. Sitting in a zendo is wonderful. And the opportunity to eventually do retreats and such is great.

That said, here are some answers to your questions, perhaps to be taken with a grain of salt. I answer to the best of my ability, but I am not a Zen teacher, or even a very experienced practitioner; I don't know how to explain these things in the best way, but this is what I might tell myself a few years ago:

(1) Good question. I don't have a great answer. You're probably on the right track. Use your intuition! Awareness may not ultimately have a solid, real, tangible "location," but that doesn't really matter to this kind of "hara practice." You don't have to "move" your mind from one place to another; just let the hara be as it is, and let it come to the foreground of your attention. As you practice like that, you are also practicing "letting go" of everything else, which leads to stronger concentration.

(2) This is an introductory practice, and not "the ultimate truth." It's a good exercise, but as you say, there is something slightly confusing about it, which is okay. The actual arithmetic is trivial, of course, and it's interesting how hard it can be to keep the count. The purpose of the exercise is to give you a kind of barometer that makes it obvious when you are distracted. Without something like this, it's easy to come to approach zazen as only a kind of relaxation, forgetting to practice the aspect of clarity, wakeness, etc. The tradition I'm familiar with recommends focusing on the action of the breath in the hara. Often one can feel divided, like one is inside of one's head trying to "look at" the breath and the hara; this is natural, but illusory, and with deeper concentration comes a more relaxed and steady sense of simply "being" the breath.

(3) The answer is somewhat different in different styles or stages of zazen. That's why the most straightforward thing is to ask a teacher in person, because otherwise you'll find different answers from different perspectives suitable for different stages and so on. I think a decent general answer is to just avoid becoming tangled up in those sensations. This is especially difficult with unwanted sensations like itches and pains. If a sensation is so strong that it distracts you in a major way, it can be helpful to give it your full attention, maybe especially noticing how it is always shifting, wavering, pulsating. Even so, maintain your presence with the core exercise; the breath doesn't go away.

(4) If you're straining your body too much, it might get worse with time. I've been doing zazen for years and I can barely get into full lotus; I sit half lotus most of the time, sometimes kneeling (aka seiza). With the lotus positions, you should be careful not to bend joints that should be relaxed. For example, you shouldn't bend your knees when you enter the position; the rotating action should be mostly in the hips. There are also nuances related to the position of the feet on the hips, and so on; this is all much easier to demonstrate in person.

(5) Sure, that sounds great!

(6) Absolutely!

(7) Don't burn yourself out. If you can do 30 minutes or one hour per day, that's wonderful. Sitting with others in a zendo is a great way to do longer sittings. The zendo I go to usually does 3x30 minutes with kinhin in between. Occasionally we do a Saturday when we sit more. And of course then there are retreats (sesshins) for intensive sitting through several days.
posted by mbrock at 2:38 AM on February 19

Thanks all for the help! There is actually a zazen session at my university every Friday however the woman who does it does not check us out to see if we are doing it correctly. I might try to find other groups too.
posted by iliketothinknu at 8:31 PM on February 19

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