10 Steps to Your First Zen Meditation

Written by Michael Apollo

The Zen approach is a great introductory experience to meditation. With this brief overview along with the simple 10 step process, you’ll be on your way to cultivating resilience, clarity and relaxation.

Enkyo Roshi from The Village Zendo in Manhattan is a Zen Master in the Soto and Rinzai traditions. Over three days in a Zen retreat, which is also known as "Sesshin," we trained together in sitting awareness techniques of meditation, theory and walking meditation.

Studies recently released show that Zen Meditation thickens the grey matter in your brain. Your brain grows in size after just 11 hours of cumulative practice. After just eight hours of practice (spread over a few months), you achieve the psychological benefits of a more positive outlook on life. This minimizes your self-defeating inner monologue or “rumination” as it is called. Recent studies also show that Zen Meditation treats chronic pain as effectively as medication.

Good posture and consistency are the most important elements of successful personal practice. Also, it is important to dedicate and “build in” a time and space where you can practice every day. Early morning practice is best as it brings a rested mind and a quiet household, both of which are very much needed for a resonant session.

Creating the time for quiet contemplation also opens up the opportunity to set an intention and visualize your perfect day before you start. This enhances your ability to achieve the kind of day you want.

As Harvard University’s Daniel Goleman describes, meditation heightens your self-awareness and you carry this state with you throughout your day with regular practice. You heighten your senses, memory, connection to yourself, the activity you are doing and the relationship to those around you.

Here’s how you can approach seated Zen Meditation, using Enkyo Roshi’s instructions:

Whatever position you choose—sitting on a chair, sitting or kneeling on a cushion or low bench—choose a posture you can hold comfortably for 10 minutes.

1. Once you’re seated, roll your hips slightly forward, allowing your belly to relax and your breath to move freely.

2. Center your spine by gently swaying from left to right in decreasing arcs.

3. Push the crown of your head toward the ceiling, straightening and extending your spine. Then relax your shoulders.

4. Your head should not tilt forward, backward or lean to the side. Your ears should be over your shoulders with your nose in line with the navel.

5. Lower your eyes to a 45-degree angle, looking about three feet in front of you without focusing your gaze. If there is a wall there, look as if you were seeing through the wall.

6. Keep your lips and teeth gently closed with the tip of your tongue against the roof of your mouth behind your front teeth. Swallow and suck the saliva from your mouth, creating a vacuum.

7. Rest your hands on your lap, thighs, or lower abdomen, where they do not create stress on your arms. Place your hands left hand on top of the right, palms up, tips of your thumbs lightly touching, forming a wide oval. This is called the “cosmic mudra” or resting bringing wisdom (left hand) together with compassion (right hand) to your practice and daily life.

8. The whole point is to find an alert, energetic posture that will allow you to sit very still. Check yourself each time you sit, forming the habit of careful attentiveness to your body posture before practice.

9. Breathe in through the nose, letting the air fill your lower abdomen as if it were a balloon, then gently release it with a slow, deep breath out… in and out, in and out.

10. Count one on the in-breath, two on the out-breath, three on the in-breath, four on the out-breath, and so on—up to ten. Then begin at one again. If it is more comfortable for you, you may count the out-breaths only and follow the in-breath without counting. If a thought causes you to stray from the counting, just take notice of that, return your focus to the breath, and begin counting again, starting at one.

Although written meditation instructions can get you off to a good start, it is helpful to follow a guided meditation online or from a CD or even better yet receive personal guidance from an experienced instructor.

A helpful tip I received early was “be playful and patient.” No need to judge the emotions, thoughts or feelings that arise, as simply noticing them is actually part of the practice. Everyday will be unique and revealing, and each experience will be more personal than anyone else will ever know.

Simply provide yourself the space to meet yourself where you are with acceptance, allowance, compassion and attention in this present moment.

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