Zazen is intensive, formal sitting. What a terrible definition! It makes Zazen sound neither difficult nor interesting. But if you try it, you will find it is both.
Why try it? Experienced practitioners say they sit because they sit; they have no orientation to outcomes or results. You may feel that way too, eventually. But in the meantime, don't be ashamed to practice Zazen for self-improvement. Early payoffs are almost guaranteed. If you later decide to adopt zazen as a way of life, fine, and if not, that's OK too.
Zazen will improve your performance in athletics or martial art, and your concentration and effectiveness at work. It is an effective tool for relaxation. As you practice, you will deal with people and complex situations in new and better ways. Practice farther, and you will find a new balance in your life.
People from all philosophical and religious backgrounds sit zazen, which stems from Zen Buddhist tradition. While no preaching or proselytizing is involved in zazen, I won't pretend to you that sitting will never challenge your beliefs. But if you are secure in your home tradition, and don't mind some challenges to your ego, you and zazen will go together like fish and chips.
Sit on one or more cushions that you have placed on a soft rug or mat. Adjust the number of cushions so you can sit up straight without undue discomfort. You may sit in "full lotus" (each outside ankle resting on the opposite thigh), half lotus (one ankle on the rug and the other resting on your thigh), or simply cross-legged with both ankles on the rug. Rest your hands on your thighs.
Your aim in the first exercise is just to sit still for five minutes. You may think about anything (food, girlfriend, boyfriend, kids, work) or about nothing at all. But don't move. If you get an itch, don't scratch. If you become uncomfortable or feel some pain, don't squirm. You'll only have to withstand it for a maximum of five minutes! Notice whether the itch or pain persists or goes away by itself.
Repeat this exercise once or twice a day for as many days as you wish before reading the more advanced instruction below. While you are not yet doing true zazen, you have begun to travel a valuable path: You are playing with your consciousness, in a safe, drug-free way. You are learning to slow down, to be less reactive to minor irritations, to distinguish perceived threats from real threats, and to observe how your body and mind react to all this.
And if you don't play with your consciousness, how can you find out who you are?
You may have read that zazen is "no-mind" (mushin), and also that meditation is a "mindful path." How you can set your mind to achieving no-mind? Does the seeming contradiction of mindfulness and no-mind turn you off of the whole idea of meditating?
When people say meditation, they usually mean contemplation. That is, contemplating a work of art, the grandeur and mystery of the universe, or one's navel. But zazen is not contemplation! And so, zazen is not meditation. It is not even "introspection." Do you remember the poster from the 1960s that said, "Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits"? Zazen is just sitting. You'll find that awareness (perhaps a more fitting word than mindfulness, as it doesn't suggest self-consciousness) will grow from just sitting.
So despite what you've heard about contemplating nothingness, zazen is something else. It is less than contemplation, and more. Naturally, thinking about nothing is different from not thinking about anything. As you become experienced with zazen, you will find yourself not thinking about anything. But that is never forced. Some parents cruelly punish their child's misbehavior by telling him or her to stand in the corner and "don't think about elephants." Imagine the children's guilt when they can't keep themselves from visualizing elephants! Zazen is not punishment. No teacher will tell you not to think about anything. We can just predict that eventually you will experience not thinking about anything.
In the meantime, as you sit, thoughts will come and go. Let them come and go. If you have enough self-discipline to begin zazen, you will not let your thoughts carry you away. Thoughts have no mass, and unless put into action (you are sitting still, so there is no action), no force. So how can they carry you away? When you realize they cannot, you have begun to develop the center that Suzuki Roshi likened to a swinging door that remains in one place while letting thoughts pass.
Guilt about your thoughts is, of course, pointless. There is harm only when you are the prisoner of your destructive thoughts. By cultivating your swinging door, you can make sure you are never the slave of your thoughts.
Some zazen practitioners like to count their breaths as a way of calming body and mind. Do this as long as it helps you; abandon it when it doesn't help you any longer. Remember that counting to large numbers keeps higher rational centers of the brain active, and also tempts to you set irrelevant goals, like "I will sit for 150 breaths." To avoid these effects, count up to five breaths, then start over each time you reach five.
Don't drive yourself crazy by constantly checking all these minutiae about posture. Be aware of them, and if your posture feels wrong, mentally run down the list to figure out how to correct it.
I like the description of zazen as "calm expectancy." When we expect something important to happen in the next few seconds, we don't start any complicated trains of thought. We wait with an empty mind. At rest but ready for anything, our minds and bodies are efficient and flexible.
If you're a Westerner, your own religious tradition may include waiting for the Messiah. I might suggest, without intending disrespect, that these traditions have not dealt too well with reputed arrivals of an actual messiah. We're all better at waiting. And indeed it is the waiting that is the important thing. Nowhere is it written that the awaited event will happen in a hundred years, or next Tuesday; it may happen any moment now!
Zazen makes waiting into a science. I'm intrigued by the Zen injunction "Sit as if your hair were on fire." Zen emphasizes good sense, so if your hair were on fire, I hope you would get up and put it out. It's a metaphor, of course. If your hair were on fire, it would focus your concentration wonderfully. So when you sit, pay attention fiercely. What's fierce about sitting in calm expectancy? Only the sharp-edged focus of your concentration.
As Shihan Fumio Toyoda has said, martial art is about enlightenment. Aikido students at Jinshinkan Dojo (Oregon Graduate Institute's Aikido Club) sit zazen regularly, for this reason. While Toyoda Sensei speaks of enlightenment in the Buddhist sense, you may find aikido clarifies your relationship with the universe in other ways. If you find you wish to pursue the Zen tradition more deeply, we will refer you to renowned teachers outside our Dojo.
To learn more about zazen posture and procedure in the Rinzai Zen tradition, order the brief handbook published by Chozenji/International Zen Dojo. It is available from the Japanese Cultural Center, 1016 W. Belmont, Chicago IL 60657, phone (773)525-3141.