There are many meditation practices out there, each teaching different methods for controlling the mind. If, like many of us, you are a type A, plan-ahead, workaholic, then the idea of shutting out unwanted thoughts may seem not only intimidating, but also undesirable or impossible. The good news is that there is a type of meditation that works well for your disposition. As long as you maintain the physical posture of the practice, you are doing it right, no matter what your mind is thinking. It also happens to be one of the most popular traditions: Zen.
Zen helps you become intimate with what the mind is doing, whether it’s planning your promotion, indulging in a fantasy, or feeling ashamed of a recently made stupid remark. Daily practice decreases stress levels, improves the immune system, and notably heightens concentration. Yes, it’s really good for you.
To help get you started with Zen meditation, we suggest Shunryu Suzuki’s “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.” Published in 1970, this slim volume is a compilation of the famous Zen master’s most cherished talks. Clear, rational, and beautifully simple, Suzuki walks you through zazen, or, Zen sitting meditation, without leaving any excuse to wiggle out.
At its root , Zen focuses on the form of the body. Our thoughts ripple through us constantly, defining how we look at the world and how we feel in each moment, but Suzuki asserts that simply sitting in the Zen posture allows the practitioner to recognize them for what they are, like seeing waves on water. Zen isn’t about rationalizing your way to freedom, but about training you to experientially identify the nature of your mind, about training you to see the rippling of these thoughts the way you might see the curves of a sculpture or the texture of a painting. With practice, you can literally see yourself planning your to-do list as if you are watching a movie. Of course, explaining the experience of this is challenging, and is best understood through practice.
Sit cross-legged with a straight body, “as if you are supporting the sky with your head,” Suzuki writes. With half-lidded eyes, focus on a point on the ground eight feet in front of you. Lay your left hand, palm up, on top of your right palm. Allow the thumbs to meet, forming an oval shape with the hands. Hold that shape a few inches out in front of your navel. Simply maintain this posture, while paying attention to the air entering and exiting your nose. If it is noisy outside your apartment, or if something is distracting you, recognize your frustration, and return your attention to your posture and breath. Start with eight minutes of sitting every day. Each week add one or two more minutes until you’re sitting at least 20 minutes a day.
The best time to meditate is in the morning, right after you wake up. Getting out of bed 20 minutes early to meditate will change the way you approach your day, leaving you calm and composed to take on whatever comes your way. You don’t need to become a Buddhist, or radically alter your lifestyle. The goal is for meditation to become “no big deal,” for it to become a practice like brushing your teeth, – that is, until you realize that there is no difference between your teeth and the brush.