So what do we actually do when we are meditating? In our tradition, the core practice is called zazen. This is seated meditation practice that helps us settle the mind, experience whatever is happening intimately, and cultivate insight into the true nature of life. For beginning instructions on zazen, you can go here. We begin by counting our breaths, and may move on to shikantaza, or just sitting. Zazen is the practice of a lifetime, and the cornerstone to which we can return no matter the condition of our experience.
Many people find that they develop a palette of meditation practices, to work with particular circumstances and difficulties or to develop spiritual insight. It's part of our skillful means in practice to discern what meditation practice is most suited to a particular time in life (a teacher comes in handy here). While there are many such practices, I'll describe some that I have found most helpful here.
In times of great emotional difficulty, either our own or our experience of suffering with the world, the practice of tonglen. Tonglen doesn't get rid of our suffering, but rather helps us relate to it with less fear and aversion. The fundamental practice is that we breathe in what is difficult and painful; we breathe in the suffering . We breathe out spaciousness, ease, happiness—the things that help dispel suffering. In acting to dispel the sufferings of others, we also dispel our fear of our own suffering. For more instruction on tonglen practice, go here.
If you are feeling self-critical, depressed, or exhausted, lovingkindness (metta) practice might be just the right thing. In this practice, we direct love, safety, peace, and ease toward ourselves and others. Lovingkindness practice actively cultivates a generous, gentle presence and is a great practice for all of us who could use more of these qualities. In this practice we learn that we have to be able to direct loving care and acceptance toward ourselves before we will truly be able to offer these to others. For more instruction on metta, go here.
If you are somewhat stable in your meditation practice, you might consider taking up koan practice, either formally or informally. Koans help catalyze the spiritual imagination, and systematically cultivate insight into our true nature. Koans invite us to bring our whole selves into meditation practice, and offer a way of shaking up our usual way of seeing things. Koan practice is intrinsically relational, and formal koan study is done in intimate and ongoing relationship with a teacher. Form more information on koan practice, go here.
There are other practices that we take up in Zen. Walking meditation, chanting sutras, sangha service, and taking the precepts are traditional and profound arenas of practice. One of the benefits of becoming committed to a sangha and a practice over time is the opportunity to immerse ourselves in these teachings.
Many Zen students find that it is natural to extend the experience of zazen into a movement practice (yoga, tai chi, running, dancing, etc.), creative art practice (music, visual art, writing, etc.), or a professional or service practice (psychotherapy, community service, etc.). Indeed as our Zen practice develops we find it informs all of our activities. And, in every moment, we can always find our way back to our breath.
In my next post, I'll take up the intriguing topic of the benefits of meditation. Is it worth it, and what changes for people to take up this Way?
Megan Rundel is the resident teacher at the Crimson Gate Meditation Community in Oakland, CA..