At the core of the Zen Buddhist tradition is a formal practice called zazen, which is the name for Zen meditation or sitting Zen. It’s not just about crossing our legs and sitting on a cushion or mat, it’s about the quality of our state of mind—a quality of being connected with life. I define this practice in terms of aligning our body, our mind, our breath, and this moment. When we have aligned these four points—when we are present, here and now, meeting life as it is—this is zazen practice.
I want to stress the formal in “formal practice.” These days, we’re not used to formalities, and by that I mean, developing good habits. Meditation practice requires time. We want to relieve stress, we want to feel content and satisfied, but the first thing that we say when it comes to meditation practice is, “I don’t have time.” But that’s not true. We always have time to do this practice. We always have time to breathe, to connect with the breath, and to connect with the body. Every moment is an opportunity to reconnect with the practice. Thinking about our practice as a “formal practice” is simply a tool to help us to build this good habit into our lives and take our commitment seriously.
For most of us, making the time to take a shower is not a problem. Whatever we are doing, however busy we are, we always find time to take a shower. At the same level, as we build up our meditation practice, we are creating a habit. We will also make time to sit because we start noticing the benefits of this practice.
How do we practice? Your back should be straight and your shoulders relaxed. In zazen practice, we don’t close our eyes, but instead gaze out on the floor a few feet ahead of us. We tuck the chin in, keep the mouth closed, and have the tip of the tongue touching the roof of the mouth. We start focusing our attention on the breath in the lower abdomen. That is the first thing we learn when we start practicing zazen. This is where we begin until we develop our awareness further. In the end, we have just the awareness of sitting and being here. And that’s the basic guidance for the formal practice of zazen.
But we also need to be aware of three things when engaging in formal practice. I call them the three ‘P’s: practice, patience, and perseverance.
The first, naturally, is practice itself. Practice is our meditation method or technique. There are so many techniques in the spiritual marketplace. There are many kinds of meditations, and each has benefits. But I see people jump from one practice to another, and their practice doesn’t stick. I encourage you to stay with just one method and maintain it for a little while. When I say “a little while,” I don’t mean a month—I mean maybe a year or two. Find a practice that suits you, commit to do it, and stay with the method.
Your next step may be to find a teacher or a community to practice with. In Buddhist practice, this is what we call a sangha. Whether online or in person, sitting with other people really supports and inspires your practice.
When we have chosen the method or practice that we want to engage with, the next step in the three ‘P’s is patience. These days, patience is very rare. Many of us are so busy working fast that we don’t remember what it’s like to cultivate patience. Patience should start when we sit. When meditating, you learn how to cultivate patience by using the method, focusing on mindfulness of breathing or the body and coming back to the present moment, again and again. The body may start to feel quite restless—perhaps we have an itch and we start scratching. Right there is an opportunity to practice patience: see if you can wait for the itch to pass. One of my teachers says, “Never fight with your practice, your practice is your ally and your best friend. Don’t judge, just give it time and patience.”
The third P is perseverance. How many things have we started but not finished? This practice is a great opportunity to create the good habit of finishing things. Set a timer for your meditation session, and commit to sitting through the entire time. In Zen, we say, when you finish your meal, you wash your dishes. If you continue to sit with perseverance, you’ll reap the benefits of this practice as time passes.
Now here’s a practice to take with you: Try to sit quietly for just five minutes. It doesn’t matter what time of the day—just sit and try to connect with your body, your mind, and your breath. Take this time to pause. In each moment, try to be aware of what is going on. You don’t have to sit on the floor, you can sit in a chair.
If that’s too much at first, you can just pause for five minutes when you sit down to eat. Every time that you’re about to eat a meal, take your seat, pause, and connect with the moment, and then enjoy your meal.
If you have difficulty sitting in on a cushion or in a chair, you can also find an activity that you really love and just bring full awareness and mindfulness to that activity. For example, I enjoy drinking coffee in the morning. I’ve made a ceremony of having my coffee before I practice zazen. I brew the coffee, then I take a sip, and I really enjoy drinking my coffee. I appreciate every aspect of that cup of coffee: the flavor, the temperature, the acidity, and the shape of the cup that holds it.
Being fully aware of something you enjoy is one way you can start to build up practice, patience, and perseverance—the things you need for a formal practice. Try it this week and see what happens. Be curious about this practice, and try to fully immerse yourself in your awareness. You might surprise yourself.
Adapted from José Shinzan Palma’s Dharma Talk series, How to Selfless in a Selfish World
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