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The Practice of Zazen: Its Health Benefits

Updated on May 26, 2019

The term Zen is derived from the Japanese pronunciation of the Middle Chinese word Chán, which traces its roots to the Indian practice of dhyāna (meditation). Zazen, which literally means seated meditation, is a meditative discipline that is typically the primary practice of the Zen Buddhist tradition. Alternatively, Zazen is also called Zen meditation by many.

At the heart of Zen, there lies the regular practice of zazen. Unlike many meditation practices, the purpose of zazen is to investigate what’s true in this moment and open up to our inherent reflective nature. It requires the practitioner to let go of all judgments and goals, and be simply aware of all sensations and thoughts that arise and pass by. The practice of zazen is seeing things as they really are and being aware that everything is temporary. It allows us to do this by focusing on the present moment.

Zazen is a regular practice that requires commitment, discipline and patience. Its practice is recommended first thing in the morning for 10 to 15 minutes, building up to 30 minutes.

Another meditation that bears similarity to zazen is vipassana meditation, which also involves mindfulness of breathing, and of thoughts, feelings and actions to gain an insight into the true nature of reality. The mindfulness of breathing has gained further popularity in the west as mindfulness meditation.

There is little difference between the two as both are based on mindfulness of breathing and thoughts that arise and pass by. According to some expert practitioners of both, the real difference between the practice of zazen and the typical vipassana is that zazen tends to be practiced in short sessions of about 20 - 30 minutes, whereas the vipassana is recommend for 1 hour sessions. But the goal of both is to be completely aware of yourself and analyze the results of your actions.

The entrance into Zen is the grasping of one's essential nature. It is absolutely impossible, however, to come to a clear understanding of our essential nature by any intellectual or philosophical method. It is accomplished only by the experience of self-realization through zazen.

- Koun Yamada

The following steps are mandatory for performing the practice of zazen:

Place - To practice Zazen you need to find a quiet place where you can sit without disturbance. It should be neither too dark nor too bright and warm in the winter and cool in the summer. The sitting place should be neat and clean.

Posture - The upright posture, which can be done on a cushion, a bench, or in a chair, promotes both concentrated stillness and insight.

If possible, one should sit facing a wall. Half lotus and full lotus are ideal postures for zazen. Keeping your back straight, sit upright, leaning neither to the left nor right, neither forward nor backward. It helps keep one’s awareness on the body and the present moment.

Clothing – One should avoid wearing soiled clothes. The clothes should be neat and clean. It is also advisable to avoid heavy garments. In Japanese Zen monasteries, socks are not worn in the zendo.

Mouth - Keep your mouth closed, placing your tongue against the roof of your mouth just behind your teeth.

Eyes - Keep your eyes open, looking downward at about a 45-degree angle. Without focusing on any particular thing, let everything have its place in your field of vision. If your eyes are closed, you will easily drift into drowsiness or daydreaming. So it’s better to keep them open.

Breathing - Quietly make a deep exhalation and inhalation. Slightly open the mouth and exhale smoothly and slowly. In order to expel all the air from your lungs, exhale from the abdomen. Then close your mouth and continue to breathe through your nose naturally. This is called kanki-issoku.

Swaying of the body - Placing the hands palms-up on your knees, sway the upper half of your body from left to right a few times. Without moving the hips, move the trunk as if it were a pole leaning to one side then the other. You may also sway forward and backward. At first, this movement should be large, gradually becoming smaller and smaller and ceasing with your body centered in an upright position. Once again assume an unmoving upright posture.

Awareness - Do not concentrate on any particular object or control your thoughts. When you maintain a proper posture and your breathing settles down, your mind will naturally become tranquil.

When various thoughts arise in your mind, do not become caught up by them or struggle with them. You should neither pursue nor try to escape from them. Just leave thoughts alone, allowing them to come up and go away freely. The essential thing in doing zazen is to awaken awareness (kakusoku) from distraction and dullness and return to the right state moment by moment.

Getting up from zazen - When you finish zazen, bow in gassho, which is a gesture of reverence, respect or supplication. It can be done by holding both hands together, with arms slightly away from chest and fingertips aligned with end of nose; fingertips should be held at about same height as nose.

By placing your hands palms-up on your thighs, sway your body a few times, first a little, and then more extensively. Take a deep breath. Unfold your legs. Move slowly, especially when your legs are asleep. Do not stand up abruptly. Try not to talk for a few minutes after completing zazen.

Zazen is like water in a glass. Leave the water to sit quietly and soon the dirt will sink down.

- Taisen Deshimaru

Health Benefits of Zazen –

By the regular practice of zazen, we can reap many health benefits, which have been enumerated below:

Increases the clarity of mind - Zazen 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.

Improves mood - Since zazen develops mindfulness through concentration, it also latently decreases occurrence of depression. It increases the secretion of serotonin and dopamine, which are called “happy hormones” and are the key players in preventing depressing thoughts.

Reduces stress and anxiety – Experts have found that regular practice of zazen reduces the density of grey-matter in the brain, which helps reduce stress and anxiety.

Increases tolerance to pain - People who practice zazen have higher tolerance to pain than those who do not. As a matter of fact, practicing zazen daily is way better than morphine when it comes to pain tolerance. Naturally secreted morphine works faster when there is attention to pain. This means that the person has the capacity to route morphine to the painful area. Since zazen enables us to move our attention and focus on the pain, pain resilience ensues as an effect.

Improves emotional intelligence – It improves emotional intelligence. People who practice it regularly have more capacity for good decision-making even under pressure. This also means that they will be able to construct the appropriate words even in the midst of anger.

Improves sleep - Doing zazen meditation everyday clears our mind of stressful thoughts that may seriously affect our psychomotor response. Mindfulness also allows our memory and thoughts to be organized, thus preventing sleep disorders.

The Bottom Line –

Zazen is an ancient meditative discipline, which requires its practitioners to focus on things as they really are and being aware that everything is temporary. It allows them to do this by focusing on the present moment. By its regular practice, the practitioners can derive many health related benefits.


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