A while back, we explored the notion of walking meditation as a healthy practice for daily living. We covered the benefits of such meditation and three different approaches that one might take, ending with a few assorted tips to remember. But walking meditation is somewhat unique. We’d now like to cover a type of meditation with which you might be a little more familiar, even if you aren’t sure how it’s done. The type of meditation in question is, of course, Zen sitting meditation.
Zen sitting meditation is somewhat iconic, and tends to account for most common images of meditative behavior. The specific image with which many are familiar is that of a person practicing zazen, a practice in Zen Buddhism which literally translates to “seated meditation.” Some may think that this practice is simple—you just sit around cross-legged, chant Om a few times, and cap it all off by achieving inner peace and enlightenment. But it obviously isn’t that easy. Zen sitting meditation can be done in a few ways, each of which is slightly different. Before getting into the methods, however, we’ll start with the benefits. Much like a healthy and nutritious diet, Zen sitting meditation yields both physical and mental benefits.
Benefits of Zen Sitting Meditation
Our article on walking meditation focused quite a bit on the physical benefits, and some of those same benefits are shared by Zen sitting meditation. For now, however, let’s focus on the mental benefits. A trendy list-based article by Oregon native Jessica Grover covers the major talking points pretty well. Not only does Zen sitting meditation help to clear the mind of all judgments and other negative ways of thinking, but it also improves positive ways of thinking. After all, when we say “judgments,” we do not just mean those which are passed on others. By clearing one’s mind of self-debasing judgments as well, it is easier to boost one’s confidence and achieve newfound strength in personal relationships.
You newfound clarity of mind and increased self-confidence will do a lot of great things for you. Those who practice Zen sitting meditation will find a growing faith not only in themselves, but in the world at large. It is amazing how much more beautiful the world can look when we are at peace. When we are stressed, the world can seem dreary and oppressive. But the many mental and emotional benefits of Zen sitting meditation will help to alleviate stress immensely. This leads into some of the physical benefits, as well.
The physical benefits of Zen sitting meditation are explored in a short page hosted by the Mayo Clinic. With lowered stress comes reduced blood pressure, which in turn helps to decrease the risks of heart disease. Reduced stress also results in better sleep, which is important for those who suffer from sleep disorders such as insomnia. It is even believed that regular meditative activities can help to reduce the symptoms of asthma, or even cancer.
You might be wondering at this point whether or not Zen sitting meditation will yield any results that are specifically beneficial to those who suffer from addiction. And the answer is a resounding “yes.” Among the issues mentioned by the Mayo Clinic are depression and anxiety disorders, which you might recognize as two of the most common co-occurring disorders that turn up in dual diagnosis patients. Even more severe mental disorders such as schizophrenia may result in stress-related episodes. More importantly than these co-occurring disorders, however, is the fact that reduced stress can help the addict to gain control over their triggers. With the looming threat of relapse taking more and more lives each day, this makes meditation one of the most important facets of the recovering addict’s daily regimen.
Method #1: Transcendental Meditation
Transcendental meditation is probably the most familiar form of Zen sitting meditation. This is the form that revolves around trying to block out distracting thoughts. Now, it should be stated that some have actually perceived differences between the common transcendental meditation technique and true zazen, but for our purposes we will not be dissecting the semantics to such a degree. Zen sitting meditation requires a certain amount of controlled focus, and it is here that we feel you will find the appropriate mindset associated with meditative transcendence.
The simplest form of Zen sitting meditation requires you to sit in the half-lotus position (pictured above), and breath slowly in and out. Try to focus on each breath, and nothing more. Other thoughts and concerns may float through your mind while doing so. This is to be expected, especially when you are first starting out. All that matters is that, while these thoughts may arise, you do not let any of them linger. Your actual focus should be centered solely on your breath. Try to actually feel the air as it enters and exits your lungs. This may not sound like much, but the previously discussed benefits are so tangibly associated with this type of meditation that it has actually been embraced by a number of Silicon Valley professionals.
It should be noted that, while transcendental meditation and mantra meditation are technically unique practices, they can both be incorporated into traditional Zen sitting meditation. When breathing out, try incorporating Om or some other simple mantra into your outward breath. This will actually make it easier to control your focus and block out distracting thoughts. Being able to meditate in silence might technically be more ideal, but those who are attempting this type of meditation for the first time will be grateful for this simple boost to their controlled focus.
Actually, incorporating mantras into your transcendental meditation might help the very purpose of transcendence. Om is one of the most ancient (not to mention easiest) mantras around, and has been scientifically proven to bring you closer to the world around you due to the fact that the frequency of the sound you’re making is identical to the natural frequency of the world itself. This is a lower frequency than that of modern music, a fact to which we might attribute its generally accepted calming effects.
Method #2: Mindfulness Meditation
Zen Buddhism also encourages the practice of mindfulness. As such, it makes sense to replace the transcendental notion of Zen sitting meditation with one that takes a more mindful approach every once in a while. Mindfulness meditation could also be dubbed as “awareness meditation,” since we are now trying to pay attention to our thoughts rather than attempting to block them. You will still sit in a comfortable position and try to breathe calmly, but this time you will take note of which thoughts are flowing in and out of your mind.
While mindfulness meditation may sound somewhat different from transcendental meditation, the general benefits of Zen sitting meditation can still be experienced. In fact, there are many cases in which the practice of mindfulness might be directly responsible for the reduced stress and increased confidence which was earlier associated with the practice of transcendence. The key is that, much as with transcendence, mindfulness meditation requires us to free our minds of judgments. We will allow our thoughts to flow freely, but we will not label them as “good” or “bad.” We will only accept what is true, no matter how we may feel about it.
The practice of mindfulness allows us to take a real and honest look at what is going on in our lives. When practicing Zen sitting meditation with such goals in mind, you will not shy away from any problematic thoughts that may arise. After all, hiding the truth from ourselves is one of the main goals that we often try to achieve when succumbing to addiction. Instead, you will accept all troubles with rigorous honesty. Then, you will accept that you are strong enough to deal with these problems one day at a time. You might even incorporate a type of mantra into your meditation, although in this case you will consider it more of an affirmation. It isn’t hard to do. As the more troublesome thoughts enter your mind, simply replace them with positive affirmations. Remind yourself that you are still alive. Things can always be worse.
Affirmations are not strictly a part of traditional Zen sitting meditation, or even the most common forms of mindfulness meditation. However, they do fit into the type of daily meditation practiced by many addicts and alcoholics. If you look at NA’s daily meditations or AA’s daily reflections, you will see that each reading is filled to the brim with positive messages and reassuring thoughts. You might consider taking a look at such readings before practicing your mindfulness meditation. It might help you to align your thoughts with the type of supportive messages you need in your life right now.
Method #3: Guided Meditation
Guided meditation is the most unique form of meditation on this list. It isn’t necessarily a form of Zen sitting meditation, but it can still be used to achieve either transcendence or mindfulness. One might practice guided meditation with an addiction counselor, or with tapes that can be purchased online. There are even some great ones available for free on YouTube.
Not all guided meditations fit into the background of Zen Buddhism, but many of them do. For a wonderful guided meditation that incorporates music and positive messages to promote a mindful message of transcendence (as well as recovery from our troubles), you might want to look at Thich Nhat Hanh’s “The End of Suffering.” This meditation is not necessarily centered on addiction, but rather suffering in general. Nonetheless, many addicts will likely find a positive meaning in the spoken words.
Most guided meditations can be performed in the same position as traditional Zen sitting meditation. The true benefit of guided meditations, however, is that a number of them are geared toward specific purposes. Some are meant to aid those with sleep disorders, while others target those who suffer from anxiety. Some are meant to increase mindfulness and clarity of thinking, while others focus on imagery, breathing, and transcendence. Guided meditations are a way of finding something beautiful that speaks to you, and using it to better yourself. The links we’ve provided will give you a few different options, but there are numerous others that are available for free online. Feel free to poke around a bit and see what works for you.
One last word of advice on guided meditations: try to mix it up a little bit. You might find your favorite guided meditation early on, but you do not want to overuse it to the point that it begins to lose all meaning. That’s not to say that you should follow a meditation once and then discard it. If it has meaning to you, then keep it in your arsenal. Just never be afraid to try new things. The more guided meditations you use, the more benefits you stand to reap.
Other Tips and Things to Remember
Don’t get too caught up in the formal definition of zazen, or any variation of Zen sitting meditation that we have given you. If what you’re doing is working for you, then there’s no reason to worry that you might be doing it “wrong.” The only thing about which you should be relatively strict is posture. Sit with folded legs, and your hands either resting on your knees or folded over your stomach. Try to keep your back straight, but not to the point of discomfort. Some recommend keeping your eyes half-shut so as to maintain some awareness of the outside world, although it technically doesn’t hurt anything if you close them all the way.
You want to be comfortable, but remember that you aren’t trying to go to sleep. The overall sense of calm that Zen sitting meditation brings you should be enough to help regulate any sleep disorders you might have, but it is not actually a tool for reaching a state of slumber. You want to be awake, so that you can fully experience the benefits of your meditative exercises.
What we have provided you with is not necessarily a scholastic approach to zazen, nor is it a strictly Buddhist one. Many of these methods have been influenced by Western approaches to meditation, in part so that they would be more accessible to the average person. We hope that these approaches to Zen sitting meditation will benefit you in numerous ways, especially if you are using them to supplement the daily meditations prescribed by a program such as AA or NA. Meditation is but one key to better mental and physical health. Make the most of it.
Zen meditation can limit the number of intrusive thoughts that filter in during meditation. It can also allow mental clarity to replace the fogginess of our thoughts.