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Preserving your Sanity: Zen Meditation for Beginners

Updated on November 25, 2013

Is Meditation Good for You?

Though meditation has been practiced for thousands of years and in numerous cultures, today it is widely practiced as an exercise in stress management, relaxation, and even physical health. Some studies indicate that meditation may be helpful for a number of conditions ranging from insomnia to allergies.

I've chosen Zen meditation technique in particular here because I find it easy to simplify the practice and apply it in a completely non-religious context. Also, those who keep up with my work will know that I just recently did a fair bit of research on the subject, so why let it go to waste? Call me lazy.

Meditation Position

When using a zafu or a reasonable facsimile thereof, you'll want to sit cross-legged. As a beginner, I suggest the Burmese position or a comfortable adaptation thereof. This consists of sitting "indian-style" with your feet flat on the floor, soles upward. The knees should also be on the floor, but this might require a bit of loosening up first. Once you can sit that way, you'll find that keeping the back straight and head up is extremely easy and fairly stable. With just a slight curve in your lower back, you'll be able to relax your muscles and remain in a proper, upright posture with your torso centered over your hips.

Now, rest your forearms on your thighs, and place your non-dominant hand palm-up inside your dominant hand, thumbs together, forming sort of an oval which should be centered about 2 inches below your belly button.

Japanese Zafu cushion for meditation
Japanese Zafu cushion for meditation

How to Start Meditating

The first step is to decide where you should meditate. The goal is to achieve a state of mental serenity, so logic dictates that you'll want a quiet place, as free of distraction as possible. That, I know, can be difficult these days but it can be done. Start by turning off your phone, or at least putting it on silent for a while. As for background noise, there are innumerable sources for free "meditation music" online, and even smartphone apps. Personally, if I find the day-to-day noise outside my house to be too offensive, good old fashioned classical music does the trick just fine. Use your judgement, this is about you and your peace of mind, after all, not "doing it right". What works for you is the right way.

If you're going to be sitting on the floor, you'll need a cushion. Since we don't all have a zafu (a small round cushion used by in traditional Zen practice) lying around the house, a rolled-up blanket or a good, thick pillow will work just fine. Sitting in a chair is also perfectly acceptable, just keep your feet flat on the floor and maintain proper posture with your chin up and your back straight but relaxed. To center properly, it can be helpful to rock back and forth a bit and find your center of gravity, then settle into it. This will place you in a position allowing for good posture and stability without straining your muscles in trying to stay upright. Relaxation is the goal, right?

For those wondering where the diaphragm is and why it matters in depth of breathing.
For those wondering where the diaphragm is and why it matters in depth of breathing. | Source

The Hard Part - Breathing in Meditation

In a proper sitting position, with non-restrictive clothing, you'll find yourself able to breathe more deeply. I won't go into a bunch of stuff about the diaphragm, just leave it at when you inhale, the rise should be in your abdomen, not your chest. Breathing through your nose is the prescribed method, with your tongue lightly pressed against the roof of your mouth (this reduces salivation, which meals less interrupting your breathing pattern with swallowing spit). Breathing through your mouth is perfectly acceptable if you've got a cold or other nasal issue, of course, but it'll dry your mouth out. Now, slow down.

Now that all the technicalities are out of the way, take a moment to settle into a comfortable rhythm, breathing deeply and slowly without straining yourself. It's said that a Zen master only completes an inhale/exhale cycle two or three times a minute. That will not be you, trust me, unless your goal is to wind up unconscious.

Okay, before we move on, lets take a moment to review.

Meditation position and breathing

Crossed, knees and feet flat on the floor
With a cushion, creates a stable tripod, allowing you to relax.
Dominant hand holding opposite, thumbs touching
Called the "cosmic mudra", said to focus your mind inward.
Upright and centered
Comfortable and allows for a stable position without muscle tension.

Benefits of Meditation

So, now that you know how to meditate, what's the point? Well, meditation has long been praised as a fantastic way to simply calm the day-to-day anxieties that plague us all and bring the mind back to a calm, relaxed state. This has obvious implications for insomnia, pain management, and even anxiety-related heart conditions, among other possible health conditions.

Long story short, if 15 minutes of your time can calm you down and help you to relax and think more clearly, isn't it worth your while?

Meditation Technique

So, now that you're sitting and breathing (yes, it took that long to get there) you simply count. Count each inhalation and exhalation as one (in other words, each full breath is two), and continue until you reach ten, then start again at one. This is a simple way to keep your mind on-track and monitor whether or not your focused or if your mind is drifting. If you do find yourself losing count, simply start again at one. Don't dwell on it, just bring your mind back to the breathing and resume.

Generally, it is suggested that you do this for perhaps five minutes to start, just to get settled into it. Before long, you'll be able to extend the sessions without getting tired, and ten to fifteen minutes is more than enough to calm your mind. After a few months, you may well find yourself able to do away with the counting entirely and just focus on the breathing itself. This is perfectly acceptable.

Author's Note

Same as always, if you enjoyed reading please leave a comment, have a look through my other work, and feel free to find me on Twitter and Facebook.


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    • JG11Bravo profile image

      JG11Bravo 3 years ago

      Thank you! I'm glad you liked it! I'll have to check that app out sometime, though admittedly I haven't done the meditation thing in quite some time.

    • Dreamhowl profile image

      Jessica Marello 3 years ago from United States

      I am aiming to get back into meditation ever since I took a seminar on it in college. We did zen meditation, much like you covered here, from the zafu use to breathing techniques. I need to learn how to get comfortable on that zafu again! The app I use for "background" noise is Relax Melodies - there are several natural sounds to choose from, along with repeating melodies. And there are numerous apps since the original with more sounds. Voted up, great hub!

    • JG11Bravo profile image

      JG11Bravo 4 years ago

      Well, the discrepancy probably lies in the fact that yoga and Zen are two different disciplines entirely. The breath counting tends to come up as a practice for beginners in a number of Chinese and Japanese meditative methods and philosophical doctrines, such as Zen and Ninpo (the "spiritual" element of Ninjutsu.)

      As for the imagery thing, I'm sure that could be of some use to some people, but for me it's entirely useless, so I can't really comment too much on it. I can't focus to that level on a mental image, I need a tangible phenomenon with physical characteristics or it's just... fuzzy.

      You do bring up one good point that I neglected, being frequency and timing. As for the topic of the article, zazen is typically practiced early in the morning after a daily series of chants. The mind is said to be more refreshed and clearer, leading to more success, but there isn't any real restriction on when or how often someone employing the practice for mental and physical health benefits could use it. The idea behind this is applying Zen practice to the many medically-accepted health benefits of meditation for people unfamiliar with meditating, not to attain enlightenment.

    • Marie Flint profile image

      Marie Flint 4 years ago from Jacksonville, Florida USA

      My yoga instructor advised not to count the breaths. Also, I remember a very good little book called CONCENTRATION, AN APPROACH TO MEDITATION by Ernest Wood. With our Western minds, we have a tendency to prefer mental "busy-ness." So, the method has the person begin with an image, placing it in a circle, and then exploring aspects of that image, such as description, sense awareness, associations, etc. This exercise is designed to discipline the mind. The book is still in print.

      While listening to videos through the Radiant Rose Academy (, an interesting explanation of the carnal mind's duality thinking was given. The recommendation was to attempt meditation several times a day for shorter periods until the length of the meditation could be extended for a goal of about 20 minutes, but the short, frequent meditation attempts were important. Eventually, according to the lesson, the mind becomes quiet. Then, by exercising free will, the individual can begin to work with the Universal Mind to create the reality he chooses, one of beauty and abundance. ***

    • JG11Bravo profile image

      JG11Bravo 4 years ago

      The right setting goes a long way toward helping with that, and with practice it becomes less of a problem. The important thing is you do get distracted is to simply acknowledge it and start again, not dwell on it.

    • jpcmc profile image

      JP Carlos 4 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      One problem I encounter is keeping my focus. I'm easily distracted.

    • JG11Bravo profile image

      JG11Bravo 4 years ago

      Undoubtedly, and I think a lot of people are intimidated by the scope of Zen practice. However, meditation itself is really quite simple.

    • jpcmc profile image

      JP Carlos 4 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      What a great resource for people starting on zen meditation. Life is too fast nowadays. Nurturing ourselves requires a little bit more time.

    • JG11Bravo profile image

      JG11Bravo 4 years ago

      Another thank you! I'm glad you're enjoying my work.

    • Bishop55 profile image

      Rebecca 4 years ago from USA

      Another great hub.