One of the ways to start sanzen (private interview with the teacher) is to state what your zazen practice is. There are several techniques one can employ during zazen. Your teacher will often suggest a particular technique based on what she knows about you and the state of your Zen practice. Some of the most common zazen methods are: opening awareness to sound, performing body scans, doing metta (loving-kindness), and following the breath in the body. My practice is the latter-most technique: I follow my breath in my body.
When I sit down to meditate, I first work to find a comfortable position. Usually I sit on a zafu (round cushion) in Burmese style: legs crossed in front of me, but both flat on the floor. At times I will also sit in half-lotus position, but I find that harder to do for longer periods of time. I check that my posture is upright, but not stiff. I make sure I can breathe freely, that my stomach is unencumbered and can move easily as my diaphragm expands and contracts with each breath. Then start to breath deeply and deliberately. I try to maintain my attention with my breath as it moves through my body. I notice how my ribs expand as I breathe in, starting with the top most ribs and extending towards the bottom-most ones. I notice how my stomach expands and moves outward. I notice how my arms move outward ever so slightly. And then I do the same in reverse as I follow the breath as it leaves my body. I note, without judgment, any tight spots in the path of my breath. Sometimes I find that my breath is shallow and difficult as if I simply can’t get oxygen to the bottom of my lungs. Sometimes my chest grows heavy and starts to burn. Other times I feel like the air itself: light, almost as if I could float right off the the zafu.
While I’m doing this I try to think of nothing else but the sensations of the present. If I notice my mind wander, I try to simply notice this wandering and once again return my attention back to the sensations of breath in my body. I do this over and over again and without judgment. Okay, sometimes I have judgment about how well or poorly I’m doing zazen. But then I notice this too and return my focus to my breath.
My ability to concentrate in this manner varies. At times my mind wanders incessantly and I will be lucky if I am able to count three breaths before I start revising my todo lists, having practice conversations in my head, or working out a programming problem. Or sometimes I realize the monkey-mind has been running wild for who-knows-how-many minutes and I’ve not even been aware of it. But every now and then I will have several moments of sustained concentration, of simply being present to my life.
It sounds so easy, yet anyone who has tried it knows how truly difficult it is to just sit with yourself and breathe. It sounds so simple, and yet the depths of this technique I feel I’m only beginning to experience.