Just as every sitting is not a meditation, not every Zen meditation can be called Zazen. In fact, Zazen is more than a meditation. It is a state of mind and body that denotes a return to primordial nature. So, when we talk about Zen meditation, we actually talk about training, which will eventually lead to that state.
When you are trained in Zen meditation, you will receive instructions on postures, breathing patterns, and mental activities. But, only when your consciousness shifts beyond the separation of these three elements and when body and mind are perceived as unified, you begin to practice Zazen.
If you happen to be participating in an "Introduction to Zen meditation" class, you will notice that most of the class considers body posture. It begins with the introduction to a square pillow called a Zabutan, on which sits a round meditation cushion called a Zafu. And the rest deals with a clearly defined body posture and the abdominal control of the breath.
Newcomers are usually surprised at the posture-related instructions and wonder why the teacher spends so much time on seemingly peripheral things like the back and leg position, rather than explaining what to do with the overloaded mind. Questions like: “ Why not sit any way we want? “ , is often asked if not loud, then quietly.
This question is answered as soon as the practitioner engages in a formal Zen sitting that usually lasts 35 – 50 minutes per single session and in which one must sit absolutely still, without slightest movement. And absolutely still means really absolutely still! Pain, sweat running down the spine, cold feet and hands, mosquitoes or flies on the skin, none of this can be justification for even the slightest movement. Ideally, if one were to photograph meditation with time-laps, the photo would not even be a little hazy.
Why should you keep your body still? Because body and mind are one and the same, and when you sit down to calm the mind, you can only succeed if you do not move, because every body movement also moves the mind.
And yet, sitting without movement is not that easy. In modern times, people often experience various disorders of the back and spine, which impairs the circulation, causes pain, creates dysfunction of various organs, but also gives the impression that the crooked spine position is normal and natural. For this reason, it is not only important to correct the posture, but also to teach the untrained body what kind of posture that is.
By keeping the spine straight, we can also release tension in the neck and shoulders and improve blood flow to the head and brain. This not only frees us from headaches, mood swings or brain fog, but also makes a big difference in the overall meditation experience.
Therefore, in the Introductory class on Zen meditation, you will receive much more detailed guidance on the position of your back and legs than anything else.
You will be instructed that lotus has traditionally been considered as the best position for longer periods of sitting. Although there are physiological reasons why this is so, it is illusionary to expect that an average matured body can easily take this position, no matter how beneficial it may be. For this reason, you will be referred to “adjusted positions” that are good enough and show minimal back strain during extended sitting periods.
But you must be aware that, at the beginning, every sitting may turn into a painful torture for our inflexible body. Once we have understood and accepted this, it will be possible to work with aching body in finding the right posture and quieting the mind.
During this, habitual positions always seem “easier and more natural” to us, but sitting absolutely still for 35 minutes in the "wrong" position will be accompanied by unbearable pain. As a result, meditation turns from a challenge into suffering and with every second of sitting, our motivation melts away.
Unfortunately, the modern ego-dominated culture interprets instructions such "sitting absolutely still " and "keeping the right posture" as a violation of personal boundaries and free choice. This often leads Zen teachers to pass on knowledge to Western students in a " gentle manner " and with tolerance for “an easy approach” when it comes to posture and discipline. With this, the role of Zen training in the collapse of the ego-structures is poorly understood, leading people to break their practice prematurely and thus miss out opportunity for personal development.
We do not want to admit that we are conditioned by a "sedentary culture" that causes our bodies to be lazy and undisciplined. Complaints and painkillers are often a substitute for personal body maintenance. Due to the false perception that the body and mind are separate entities, we assume that long sleep is sufficient for adequate regeneration. We expect 10 relaxing minutes to create lasting happiness and a calm mind. We believe that affirmations and positive thinking are enough to improve our lives.
In fact, many people will attend Zen meditation courses just to learn how to relax and think positively. But that is not what they will find in Zen training: instead of relaxing, they will find an awakened attention to the present moment, an awareness of pain and discomfort, mental struggles, thoughts, emotional storms and irregular breathing patterns. Instead of positive thinking, they are trained to reject discrimination, judgements and classifications, and to let go of thoughts – even the positive ones.
All this can cause practitioners to perceive Zen sitting as too rigid and demanding. The point that does not always come across is that people do not really know how their body and mind function and cannot distinguish between the conditioned and the original state. As a consequence, even during Zen meditation, people initially apply familiar Ego strategies based on force: they use force to tighten their backs, resulting in even more tension and pain; they perform the abdominal breathing under force, whereby free flow of air is hindered; they try to stop the thought process by force, which creates additional mental discomfort.
But with patience, Zen meditation will raise your awareness and teach you that body and mind cannot be separated. You learn that the right sitting, standing, or walking trains not only your body, but your mind as well, and when you let go of thoughts, you not only clear your mind, but also your body. You begin to understand the principle of action and non-action through the mechanism of tension and relaxation. You learn to rely on your body to activate the appropriate muscle groups that allow you to keep your back strait without using extra strength and mental control. Finally, you understand the ability of pain and its role in reprogramming false body and mind formations.
Over time, you realise that you do not even need much physical and mental effort to maintain any posture; sitting becomes comfortable and feels like coming back home. This is the moment when Zazen begins.