Living with Harmony ~ A Blog for your Mind & Body


Breathing Meditations

Posted in How-To,Meditate,Meditation Bench,Zafus/Zabutons by Harmony on March 28, 2011

To practice meditation you don’t need any props, but if you find yourself meditating frequently you may find that meditation cushions or benches will make you more comfortable.  You could sit cross-legged on a zabuton cushion to cushion your sit bones and ankles, or you might prefer sitting higher on a meditation bench or a zafu so that your knees rest at or below hip level.  Our meditation bench and zafus also make it easier for you to sit erect.  No matter what, though, beginning simple breathing meditations will help bring some peace and calm into our otherwise busy lifestyles.

Breathing Meditations

by HowToMeditate.Org

Generally, the purpose of breathing meditation is to calm the mind and develop inner peace. We can use breathing meditations alone or as a preliminary practice to reduce our distractions before engaging in a Lamrim meditation

A Simple Breathing Meditation

The first stage of meditation is to stop distractions and make our mind clearer and more lucid. This can be accomplished by practising a simple breathing meditation. We choose a quiet place to meditate and sit in a comfortable position. We can sit in the traditional cross-legged posture or in any other position that is comfortable. If we wish, we can sit in a chair. The most important thing is to keep our back straight to prevent our mind from becoming sluggish or sleepy.

We sit with our eyes partially closed and turn our attention to our breathing. We breathe naturally, preferably through the nostrils, without attempting to control our breath, and we try to become aware of the sensation of the breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils. This sensation is our object of meditation. We should try to concentrate on it to the exclusion of everything else.

At first, our mind will be very busy, and we might even feel that the meditation is making our mind busier; but in reality we are just becoming more aware of how busy our mind actually is. There will be a great temptation to follow the different thoughts as they arise, but we should resist this and remain focused single-pointedly on the sensation of the breath. If we discover that our mind has wandered and is following our thoughts, we should immediately return it to the breath. We should repeat this as many times as necessary until the mind settles on the breath.

Benefits of Meditation

If we practice patiently in this way, gradually our distracting thoughts will subside and we will experience a sense of inner peace and relaxation. Our mind will feel lucid and spacious and we will feel refreshed. When the sea is rough, sediment is churned up and the water becomes murky, but when the wind dies down the mud gradually settles and the water becomes clear. In a similar way, when the otherwise incessant flow of our distracting thoughts is calmed through concentrating on the breath, our mind becomes unusually lucid and clear. We should stay with this state of mental calm for a while.

Even though breathing meditation is only a preliminary stage of meditation, it can be quite powerful. We can see from this practice that it is possible to experience inner peace and contentment just by controlling the mind, without having to depend at all upon external conditions.

When the turbulence of distracting thoughts subsides and our mind becomes still, a deep happiness and contentment naturally arises from within. This feeling of contentment and well-being helps us to cope with the busyness and difficulties of daily life. So much of the stress and tension we normally experience comes from our mind, and many of the problems we experience, including ill health, are caused or aggravated by this stress. Just by doing breathing meditation for ten or fifteen minutes each day, we will be able to reduce this stress. We will experience a calm, spacious feeling in the mind, and many of our usual problems will fall away. Difficult situations will become easier to deal with, we will naturally feel warm and well disposed towards other people, and our relationships with others will gradually improve.

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How to Play Tibetan Singing Bowls

Posted in How-To,Meditate,Meditation by Harmony on December 13, 2010

Curious how to get a singing bowl to sing?  Then watch the following video to learn how…

Mantra for Attracting Abundance

Posted in How-To,Meditate,Meditation by Harmony on October 25, 2010

The following video teaches us the benefit of repeating the Lakshmiyei Mantra Meditation.  Mindy Arbuckle, from Green Mountain Yoga Studio in Arvada, CO, recommends dedicating 40-days to repeating this mantra for results.

“Om Kleem Shreem Maha Lakshiyei Swaha”

Walking Meditation : Instruction

Posted in How-To,Meditate,Meditation by Harmony on October 18, 2010

Walking Meditation

On-line Instruction with Charles MacInerney

hatha yoga in Austin Texas

walking meditationWalking Meditation is a wonderful initiation for beginners into the art of Meditation. It is easy to practice, and enhances both physical, mental and spiritual well-being. It is especially effective for those who find it difficult to sit still for long periods of time. Some people enjoy practicing in a beautiful outdoor setting, like a park. Others prefer to practice indoors, due to poor weather, or desire for privacy.

Walking Meditation should generally be practiced for between 15 minutes to 1 hour. A 20 minute walking meditation can also be used as a break between two 20 minute sitting meditations, allowing 1 hour of meditation without placing undue demands on the practitioner.

You can practice indoors by walking around the perimeter of your largest room. If you practice outdoors choose a scenic and quiet setting. Walk without a destination. Wander aimlessly without arriving, being somewhere rather than going somewhere.

Start out walking a little faster than normal, and gradually slow down to a normal walking speed, and then continue to slow down until you start to feel artificial or off balance. Speed up just enough to feel comfortable, physically and psychologically. At first you may need to walk fairly fast to feel smooth in your gait, but with practice, as your balance improves, you should be able to walk more slowly.

Be mindful of your breathing, without trying to control it. Allow the breath to become diaphragmatic if possible, but always make sure your breathing feels natural, not artificial. Allow the breath to become circular, and fluid.

Walk with ‘soft vision’ allowing the eyes to relax and focus upon nothing, while aware of everything. Smile softly with your eyes (see Mirror Exercise in Vision Chapter for details). Gradually allow the smile to spread from your eyes to your face and throughout your body. This is called an “organic smile” or a “thalamus smile”. Imagine every cell of your body smiling softly. Let all worry and sadness fall away from you as you walk.

Walk in silence, both internal and external.

Be mindful of your walking, make each step a gesture, so that you move in a state of grace, and each footprint is an impression of the peace and love you feel for the universe. Walk with slow, small, deliberate, balanced, graceful foot steps.

After a while, when both the breath and the walking have slipped into a regular pattern of their own accord, become aware of the number of footsteps per breath. Make no effort to change the breath, rather lengthen or shorten the rhythm of your step just enough so that you have 2, 3 or 4 steps per inhalation and 2, 3 or 4 steps per exhalation. Once you have discovered your natural rhythm, lock into it, so that the rhythm of the walking sets the rhythm for the breath like a metronome.

After several weeks of regular practice you may experiment with the ratios adding a foot step to your exhalation and later to your inhalation as well. Whatever ratio of steps-to-breath that you settle on, it should feel comfortable, and you should be able to maintain it for the duration of the meditation comfortably. After several months you may find your lung capacity improving. If you are comfortable, lengthen your breath an extra step but avoid trying to slow the breath too much or you will do more harm than good.

Notice the beauty of your surroundings, both externally and internally. Smile with every cell in your body.

For more information about Walking Meditation read “Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life” By Thich Nhat Hanh Foreword by H.H. the Dalai Lama, published by Bantam Books. This wonderful book is available on-line at the Plum Village Sanga Home page.

Tratak: Gazing Meditation

Posted in How-To,Meditate,Meditation,Yoga by Harmony on September 6, 2010

Before sitting in any meditation, it is helpful to be physically comfortable.  In Tratak, or gazing meditation, you’ll be sitting in a chair or cross-legged on the floor.  The item that is your focus point, usually a candle, will be at eye-level and within arm distance.  If sitting on the floor, consider using a folded yoga mat, zafu or zabuton for cushioned comfort and set your focus point on a table or chair in front of you at the proper height.

For beginners, start by practicing for 1 or 2 minutes only (set a timer so you won’t need to change your gaze to look at a clock) and then work up to 10 minutes over time.

It also feels very nice after a round of gazing to close your eyes and rub the palms of your hands together rapidly warming the hands.  Then place your palms over your eyes and feel the heat radiate around your eyes and face.

TRATAK

by Eternity-yoga.com

During our waking hours, our minds are usually filled with thoughts, good and bad. The mind has a tendency to stay in a state of disturbance and we have a propensity for being distracted easily. This leaves us feeling scattered and fragmented and unable to cope with situations that need focus. We are constantly being bombarded by thoughts and may feel out of control. It comes as no surprise that, with all the thoughts that invade the mind, our minds drift and wander and cannot stay still for longer than a few moments. As a result, we experience stress, memory loss and lack of concentration. We are unable to feel and experience the PRESENT MOMENT.

We can enhance our power of concentration and strengthen our memory by an ancient meditation technique called Tratak. Its benefits bring an end to the mind’s distractions, enhances our ability to concentrate, increases the power of memory and brings the mind into a state of supreme awareness, attention and focus.

WHAT IS TRATAK

Tratak is an ideal meditation technique. With continuous practice, you will witness an increase in your alertness, confidence level, stability in thoughts, and an ability to control situations that were previously difficult. You may also notice an improvement in your eyesight. Tratak is very helpful in improving mental clarity and capacity. People of all ages will benefit, especially students who need to concentrate on their studies. Children in India are started with this meditation technique at an early age, but this method should not be practiced by children that are not supervised. Regular meditation techniques may be difficult to master if you are extremely stressed, worried or agitated. But Tratak is different in that you gaze at a focal point, usually a candle flame, that captures your sight. The eyes control the thought process, and focusing on a candle flame that is steady has tremendous and powerful benefits. Changes in our consciousness level occur through gazing steadily at the glowing flame. To attain a deep state of meditation, the level of energy in the mind must be elevated and single-pointed. Concentration is the first stage of meditation. Tratak induces and magnifies this single pointedness.

HOW DOES IT WORK?

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Mastering Your Own Mind

Posted in How-To,Meditate,Meditation by Harmony on July 19, 2010

A person meditating on compassion for others becomes the first beneficiary.   ~~ Dalai Lama

The power of meditation can affect every aspect of our daily lives and our relationships with ourselves and others.  In our current lives, filled with so many distractions, it is important to remember how to look inward for happiness and peace.


Published on Psychology Today (http://www.psychologytoday.com)


Mastering Your Own Mind

by
Created Aug 28 2006 – 12:00am

Back when my son was 8 years old, he called 911 after I took away his Game Boy. I wish I’d been studying Buddhism back then, because I probably could have handled it a lot better. I suspect I wouldn’t have yelled at him while the dispatcher was still listening. And I bet I wouldn’t have been quite so wracked by dread when the police were questioning us in separate rooms of the house—at least until I overheard the other officer ask, “She took away your what?

Most importantly, I know I would have forgiven my son much more quickly, and the whole thing wouldn’t have felt so traumatic. I might even have gazed upon him with compassion.

Looking back, I realize I was completely underutilizing my own brain. It is small comfort that so many otherwise sane mortals share this failing. Our attention flickers, our patience ebbs and—propelled by fear, malice, craving and other deeply inscribed passions—we lurch from impulse to action.

In contrast, practiced Buddhist meditators deploy their brains with exceptional skill. Drawing on 2,500 years of mental technology—techniques for paying careful attention to the workings of their own minds—they develop expertise in controlling the flow of their mental life, avoiding the emotional squalls that often compel us to take personal feelings oh, so personally, and clearing new channels for awareness, calm, compassion and joy. Their example holds the possibility that we can all choose to modulate our moods, regulate our emotions and increase cognitive capacity—that we can all become high-performance users of our own brains.

“What we’re talking about is a long-term strategy for cultivating the heart and mind to fully draw forth the beneficial capacities of the human mind,” says B. Alan Wallace, founder and president of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies. A Buddhist scholar who examines the interface between science and religion, he believes that much of human suffering is our own doing. Our feelings contract around threats to our sense of self and cloud our sense perceptions. We end up reacting, as if we had no other choice.

Meditation alters what we tend to think of as stable mental traits—anxiety, for example, or anger. Practitioners discover that feelings are events that rise in the psyche like bubbles off the bottom of a pot of boiling water. “They learn to de-identify with their emotions, making it easier to let them go,” says neuroscientist Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

As the result of an extraordinary convergence of scientific research into interior states and new understanding of an ancient spiritual tradition, says Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the pioneering Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, “Buddhist meditation is leading to an expansion of the science of what it means to be human.”

Ten Million Americans Can’t All Be Wrong

Some 10 million Americans say they practice some form of meditation. Buddhism is unique among spiritual traditions in its emphasis on psychology. Its core teachings encourage practitioners to shake off suffering and discover happiness. The very concept of self-improvement informs bhavana, the Sanskrit word commonly translated as “meditation,” though it literally means “cultivation.” “It has exactly the same connotation as when we say we ‘cultivate a garden,’ ” says Wallace.

It remains a radical notion in the West that benevolent states of mind such as concentration, kindness and happiness can be developed with practice. Apart from a growing “positive psychology” movement, many of whose leaders are in fact strongly influenced by Buddhism, Western scientists are still largely oriented toward healing the mentally ill, rather than improving the lives of the functionally OK. Recollect Freud’s humble goal: to transform hysterical misery into common unhappiness. Western science is content to believe that each of us has a more or less genetically determined set point for well-being—and that happiness and love happen to us.

The Buddha framed things differently. He taught that our default mode may be to suffer, but only because of ignorance. We can transcend our lot by learning to quiet the mind in meditation—not merely to relax and cope with stress, as the popular notion of Buddhism holds, but to rigorously train oneself to relinquish bad mental habits. Rather than being an end in itself, meditation becomes a tool to investigate your mind and change your worldview. You’re not tuning out so much as tuning up your brain, improving your self-monitoring skills.

“You stop being always projected outside. You start looking in and seeing how your mind works, and you change your mind, thought by thought,” explains Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk, scientist and French interpreter for the Dalai Lama. “The French intellectuals don’t like this. They say, ‘Let’s be spontaneous; passions are the beauty of life.’ They think that making an effort is not nice—a silly old discipline—and that’s why we’re such a mess. But many modern people understand the notion of getting fit with physical training.” So the idea of developing mental skills with meditation is gaining ground.

The Nod From Neuroscience

Encouragement for this new way of thinking comes from an unusual ally. Neuroscience is furnishing hard evidence that the brain is plastic, endowed with a lifelong capacity to reorganize itself with each new experience. “We now know that neural firing can lead to changes in neural connections, and experience leads to changes in neural firing,” explains UCLA psychiatrist Daniel Siegel. Violinists’ brains actually change as they refine their skill. So do the brains of London cabbies, whose livelihood depends on the sharpness of their memory. Likewise, through repeated practice in focusing attention, meditators may be strengthening the neural circuitry involved in the voluntary control of attention.

One Tibetan lama told Wallace that before training, his mind was like a stag with great antlers trying to make its way through a thick forest; the animal got snagged on branches time after time. But after many years of practice, his mind was more like a monkey in a jungle, swinging freely from vine to vine.

Such adepts are the Lance Armstrongs of meditation, says Davidson, whose pioneering brain scans of monks provide tantalizing evidence that emotions like love and compassion are in fact skills—and can be trained to a dramatic degree. Studies also suggest that the monastic life is not a requirement; even brief, regular meditation sessions can yield substantial benefits. Nor is a belief in Buddhism necessary. “I’m convinced that you can make a huge difference in your life if you start out with even 30 minutes a day,” Ricard says. “By maintaining the practice, there is a trickle of insights. Drop by drop, you fill a jar.”

One recent study at Massachusetts General Hospital found that 40 minutes of daily meditation appears to thicken parts of the cerebral cortex involved in attention and sensory processing. In a pilot study at the University of California at San Francisco, researchers found that schoolteachers briefly trained in Buddhist techniques who meditated less than 30 minutes a day improved their moods as much as if they had taken antidepressants.

There are many types of meditation, and they can be used to develop a number of mental skills. This attitude focuses on practices that address common emotional struggles. Through basic meditation techniques, it’s possible to cultivate a longer attention span, develop emotional stability, understand the feelings of others and release yourself from the constraints you place on your own happiness.

Attention: Stabilize the Mind

Computers, pagers, video games, telemarketing calls, nonstop e-mail—all blast our attention span to smithereens. Modern life does a swell job of distracting us. But perhaps the problem lies not in our cell phones but in ourselves. After all, we’re the ones constantly making choices about what to attend to and what to ignore.

The trouble is, most of us make these choices semiconsciously at best. We don’t even attempt to control our attention, perhaps because we don’t know how. Buddhists maintain that the capacity can be refined through a consistent practice of meditation: The mind is by nature unstable, inherently distractible, and meditation is a means of stabilizing it.

“Meditation is about paying attention,” says Kabat-Zinn. Cultivating concentration doesn’t just stabilize and clarify the mind, it can also improve creativity and productivity while enhancing relationships. Imagine if you actually paid attention 100 percent to your spouse!

The strategy that starts you on this road is mindfulness, which means both cultivating nonjudgmental awareness of a specific object and seeing deeply into things. A common approach is to focus on an object or on the sensations of your own breathing, noting every inhale and exhale, and patiently returning your attention to your breathing each time it wanders.

“You practice focusing on one object,” says Clifford Saron, a neuroscientist at the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California at Davis. “You begin to observe the flux of moment-to-moment perception. With practice you can detect patterns in those fluctuations.”

It’s like you’re flexing a muscle in the brain. University of Wisconsin’s Davidson contends that the mental exercise of meditation strengthens and stabilizes neural networks in the medial prefrontal cortex—the brain’s executive control center, involved in the regulation of attention. “People don’t recognize that there is lots of plasticity in the circuitry,” he adds. “More than previously thought.”

The effort in the exercise is to balance awareness between dullness and distraction. To do so, you use the self-monitoring process that psychologists call metacognition: awareness of awareness. It’s what lets you know when, on the one side, you’re starting to drift off and need to muster fresh interest and, on the other, you’re getting distracted and need to bring your attention back. As you gradually fine-tune your concentration, you notice the habitual chaos of your thoughts and, gradually, the calm that lies behind them. “Awareness trumps thoughts,” says Kabat-Zinn, “because you can be aware of your thoughts.”

In his book, The Attention Revolution: Unlocking the Power of the Focused Mind, Wallace describes a nine-stage program to achieve quiescence, a state the Buddhists call shamatha (pronounced sha-ma-ta). As one Buddhist scholar put it, attention becomes “an oil lamp unmoved by the air; wherever the awareness is directed, it is steady and sharply pointed.”

Even among novices, studies show, a brief meditation session can be more effective than a nap in improving performance on tests that require concentration. But its benefits don’t stop there. Meditation can radically transform emotion.

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Mindfulness Meditation

Posted in How-To,Meditate,Meditation by Harmony on July 12, 2010

Mindfulness Meditation for Stress Relief

by HelpGuide.org

Meditation that cultivates mindfulness is particularly effective at reducing stress, anxiety, depression, and other negative emotions. Mindfulness is the quality of being fully engaged in the present moment, without analyzing or otherwise “over-thinking” the experience. Rather than worrying about the future or dwelling on the past, mindfulness meditation switches the focus to what’s happening right now.

For stress relief, try the following mindfulness meditation techniques:

  • Body scan – Body scanning cultivates mindfulness by focusing your attention on various parts of your body. Like progressive muscle relaxation, you start with your feet and work your way up. However, instead of tensing and relaxing your muscles, you simply focus on the way each part of your body feels without labeling the sensations as either “good” or “bad”.
  • Walking meditation – You don’t have to be seated or still to meditate. In walking meditation, mindfulness involves being focused on the physicality of each step — the sensation of your feet touching the ground, the rhythm of your breath while moving, and feeling the wind against your face.
  • Mindful eating – If you reach for food when you’re under stress or gulp your meals down in a rush, try eating mindfully. Sit down at the table and focus your full attention on the meal (no TV, newspapers, or eating on the run). Eat slowly, taking the time to fully enjoy and concentrate on each bite.

Mindfulness meditation is not equal to zoning out. It takes effort to maintain your concentration and to bring it back to the present moment when your mind wanders or you start to drift off. But with regular practice, mindfulness meditation actually changes the brain – strengthening the areas associated with joy and relaxation, and weakening those involved in negativity and stress.

Starting a meditation practice

All you need to start meditating are:

  • A quiet environment.  Choose a secluded place in your home, office, garden, place of worship, or in the great outdoors where you can relax without distractions or interruptions.
  • A comfortable position. Get comfortable, but avoid lying down as this may lead to you falling asleep. Sit up with your spine straight, either in a chair or on the floor. You can also try a cross-legged or lotus position.
  • A point of focus. Pick a meaningful word or phrase and repeat it throughout your session. You may also choose to focus on an object in your surroundings to enhance your concentration, or alternately, you can close your eyes.
  • An observant, noncritical attitude.  Don’t worry about distracting thoughts that go through your mind or about how well you’re doing. If thoughts intrude during your relaxation session, don’t fight them. Instead, gently turn your attention back to your point of focus.

Meditation: Sitting and Breathing

Posted in How-To,Meditate,Meditation,Meditation Bench,Zafus/Zabutons by Harmony on July 5, 2010

As you may already know, we carry all of the meditation seating props you need to be comfortable.  At our store, you can find:

  • Zafus – small round or crescent shaped pillows to provide cushioning and support to maintain the correct alignment
  • Zabutons – large flat cushions that will soften any pressure on knees, ankles and feet
  • Benches – our current bamboo bench offers rounded feet to allow for all necessary adjustments to sit erect

Many of our items are available in a variety of colors, fabrics, and stuffing materials, allowing you to basically create a custom item that is perfect for you.

Here are some details on sitting in meditation and some proper breathing techniques:

Zen Meditation Instructions

~ from Zen Mountain Monastery in New York

Zazen is a particular kind of meditation, unique to Zen, that functions centrally as the very heart of the practice. In fact, Zen Buddhists are generally known as the “meditation Buddhists.” Basically, zazen is the study of the self.

The great Master Dogen said,

“To study the Buddha Way is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self, and to forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things.”

To be enlightened by the ten thousand things is to recognize the unity of the self and the ten thousand things. Upon his own enlightenment, Buddha was in seated meditation; Zen practice returns to the same seated meditation again and again. For two thousand five hundred years that meditation has continued, from generation to generation; it’s the most important thing that has been passed on. It spread from India to China, to Japan, to other parts of Asia, and then finally to the West. It’s a very simple practice. It’s very easy to describe and very easy to follow. But like all other practices, it takes doing in order for it to happen.

We tend to see body, breath, and mind separately, but in zazen they come together as one reality. The first thing to pay attention to is the position of the body in zazen. The body has a way of communicating outwardly to the world and inwardly to oneself. How you position your body has a lot to do with what happens with your mind and your breath. Throughout the years of the evolution of Buddhism, the most effective positioning of the body for the practice of zazen has been the pyramid structure of the seated Buddha. Sitting on the floor is recommended because it is very stable. We use a zafu – a small pillow – to raise the behind just a little, so that the knees can touch the ground. With your bottom on the pillow and two knees touching the ground, you form a tripod base that gives three hundred and sixty-degree stability.

There are several different leg positions that are possible while seated this way. The first and simplest is the Burmese position, in which the legs are crossed and both feet rest flat on the floor. The knees should also rest on the floor, though sometimes it takes a bit of exercise to be able to get the legs to drop that far. After awhile the muscles will loosen up and the knees will begin to drop. To help that happen, sit on the front third of the zafu, shifting your body forward a little bit. By imagining the top of your head pushing upward to the ceiling and by stretching your body that way, get your spine straight – then just let the muscles go soft and relax. With the buttocks up on the zafu and your stomach pushing out a little, there will be a slight curve in the lower region of the back. In this position, it takes very little effort to keep the body upright.

Burmese Position (front)

Burmese Position (front)

Burmese Position (side)

Burmese Position (side)

Another position is the half lotus, where the left foot is placed up onto the right thigh and the right leg is tucked under. This position is slightly asymmetrical and sometimes the upper body needs to compensate in order to keep itself absolutely straight.

Half Lotus (front)

Half Lotus (front)

Half Lotus (side)

Half Lotus (side)

By far the most stable of all the positions is the full lotus, where each foot is placed up on the opposite thigh. This is perfectly symmetrical and very solid. Stability and efficiency are the important reasons sitting cross-legged on the floor works so well. There is absolutely no esoteric significance to the different positions. What is most important in zazen is what you do with your mind, not what you do with your feet or legs.

Full Lotus (front)

Full Lotus (front)

Full Lotus (side)

Full Lotus (side)

There is also the seiza position. You can sit seiza without a pillow, kneeling, with the buttocks resting on the upturned feet which form an anatomical cushion. Or you can use a pillow to keep the weight off your ankles. A third way of sitting seiza is to use the seiza bench. It keeps all the weight off your feet and helps to keep your spine straight.

Seiza (front)

Seiza (front)

Seiza (side)

Seiza (side)

Finally, it’s fine to sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor. You can use the cushion, or zafu, the same way you would use it on the floor – sitting on the forward third of it. Alternatively, you can place the zafu at the small of the back. It’s very important to keep the spine straight with the lower part of the back curved. All of the aspects of the posture that are important when seated on the floor are just as important when sitting in a chair.

Chair Position (front)

Chair Position (front)

Chair Position (side)

Chair Position (side)

The importance of keeping the back straight is to allow the diaphragm to move freely. The breathing you will be doing in zazen becomes very, very deep. Your abdomen will rise and fall much the same way an infant’s belly rises and falls. In general, as we mature, our breathing becomes restricted, and less and less complete. We tend to take shallow breaths in the upper part of the chest. Usually, we’ve got our belts on very tight or we wear tight clothing around the waist. As a result, deep, complete breathing rarely occurs. In zazen it is important to loosen up anything that is tight around the waist and to wear clothing that is non-binding. For instance, material should not gather behind the knees when you cross the legs, inhibiting circulation. Allow the diaphragm to move freely so that the breathing can be deep, easy, and natural. You don’t have to control it. You don’t have to make it happen. It will happen by itself if you assume the right posture and position your body properly.

Once you’ve positioned yourself, there are a few other things you can check on. The mouth is kept closed. Unless you have some kind of a nasal blockage, breathe through your nose. The tongue is pressed lightly against the upper palate. This reduces the need to salivate and swallow. The eyes are kept lowered, with your gaze resting on the ground about two or three feet in front of you. Your eyes will be mostly covered by your eyelids, which eliminates the necessity to blink repeatedly. The chin is slightly tucked in. Although zazen looks very disciplined, the muscles should be soft. There should be no tension in the body. It doesn’t take strength to keep the body straight. The nose is centered in line with the navel, the upper torso leaning neither forward nor back.

The hands are folded in the cosmic mudra. The dominant hand is held palm up holding the other hand, also palm up, so that the knuckles of both hands overlap. If you’re right-handed, your right hand is holding the left hand; if you’re left-handed, your left hand is holding the right hand. The thumbs are lightly touching, thus the hands form an oval, which can rest on the upturned soles of your feet if you’re sitting full lotus. If you’re sitting Burmese, the mudra can rest on your thighs. The cosmic mudra tends to turn your attention inward. There are many different ways of focusing the mind. There are visual images called mandalas that are used in some traditions as a point of concentration. There are mantras, or vocal images. There are different kinds of mudras used in various Eastern religions. In zazen, we focus on the breath. The breath is life. The word “spirit” means breath. The words “ki” in Japanese and “chi” in Chinese, meaning power or energy, both derive from breath. Breath is the vital force; it’s the central activity of our bodies. Mind and breath are one reality: when your mind is agitated your breath is agitated; when you’re nervous you breathe quickly and shallowly; when your mind is at rest the breath is deep, easy, and effortless.

It is important to center your attention in the hara. The hara is a place within the body, located two inches below the navel. It’s the physical and spiritual center of the body. Put your attention there; put your mind there. As you develop your zazen, you’ll become more aware of the hara as the center of your attentiveness.

Breathing

Breathing

Breathing in Zazen

Begin rocking the body back and forth, slowly, in decreasing arcs, until you settle at your center of gravity. The mind is in the hara, hands are folded in the cosmic mudra, mouth is closed, tongue pressed on the upper palate. You’re breathing through the nose and you’re tasting the breath. Keep your attention on the hara and the breath. Imagine the breath coming down into the hara, the viscera, and returning from there. Make it part of the whole cycle of breathing.

We begin working on ourselves by counting the breath, counting each inhalation and each exhalation, beginning with one and counting up to ten. When you get to ten, come back to one and start all over. The only agreement that you make with yourself in this process is that if your mind begins to wander – if you become aware that what you’re doing is chasing thoughts – you will look at the thought, acknowledge it, and then deliberately and consciously let it go and begin the count again at one.

The counting is a feedback to help you know when your mind has drifted off. Each time you return to the breath you are empowering yourself with the ability to put your mind where you want it, when you want it there, for as long as you want it there. That simple fact is extremely important. We call this power of concentration joriki. Joriki manifests itself in many ways. It’s the center of the martial and visual arts in Zen. In fact, it’s the source of all the activity of our lives.

When you’ve been practicing this process for a while, your awareness will sharpen. You’ll begin to notice things that were always there but escaped your attention. Because of the preoccupation with the internal dialogue, you were too full to be able to see what was happening around you. The process of zazen begins to open that up.

When you’re able to stay with the counting and repeatedly get to ten without any effort and without thoughts interfering, it’s time to begin counting every cycle of the breath. Inhalation and exhalation will count as one, the next inhalation and exhalation as two. This provides less feedback, but with time you will need less feedback.

Eventually, you’ll want to just follow the breath and abandon the counting altogether. Just be with the breath. Just be the breath. Let the breath breathe itself. That’s the beginning of the falling away of body and mind. It takes some time and you shouldn’t rush it; you shouldn’t move too fast from counting every breath to counting every other breath and on to following the breath. If you move ahead prematurely, you’ll end up not developing strong joriki. And it’s that power of concentration that ultimately leads to what we call samadhi, or single-pointedness of mind.

In the process of working with the breath, the thoughts that come up, for the most part, will be just noise, just random thoughts. Sometimes, however, when you’re in a crisis or involved in something important in your life, you’ll find that the thought, when you let it go, will recur. You let it go again but it comes back, you let it go and it still comes back. Sometimes that needs to happen. Don’t treat that as a failure; treat it as another way of practicing. This is the time to let the thought happen, engage it, let it run its full course. But watch it, be aware of it. Allow it to do what it’s got to do, let it exhaust itself. Then release it, let it go. Come back again to the breath. Start at one and continue the process. Don’t use zazen to suppress thoughts or issues that need to come up.

Scattered mental activity and energy keeps us separated from each other, from our environment, and from ourselves. In the process of sitting, the surface activity of our minds begins to slow down. The mind is like the surface of a pond – when the wind is blowing, the surface is disturbed and there are ripples. Nothing can be seen clearly because of the ripples; the reflected image of the sun or the moon is broken up into many fragments.

Out of that stillness, our whole life arises. If we don’t get in touch with it at some time in our life, we will never get the opportunity to come to a point of rest. In deep zazen, deep samadhi, a person breathes at a rate of only two or three breaths a minute. Normally, at rest, a person will breathe about fifteen breaths a minute – even when we’re relaxing, we don’t quite relax. The more completely your mind is at rest, the more deeply your body is at rest. Respiration, heart rate, circulation, and metabolism slow down in deep zazen. The whole body comes to a point of stillness that it doesn’t reach even in deep sleep. This is a very important and very natural aspect of being human. It is not something particularly unusual. All creatures of the earth have learned this and practice this. It’s a very important part of being alive and staying alive: the ability to be completely awake.

Once the counting of the breath has been really learned, and concentration, true one-pointedness of mind, has developed, we usually go on to other practices such as koan study or shikantaza (“just sitting”). This progression should not be thought of in terms of “gain” or “promotion”; that would imply that counting the breath was just a preparation for the “real” thing. Each step is the real thing. Whatever our practice is, the important thing is to put ourselves into it completely. When counting the breath, we just count the breath.

It is also important to be patient and persistent, to not be constantly thinking of a goal, of how the sitting practice may help us. We just put ourselves into it and let go of our thoughts, opinions, positions – everything our minds hold onto. The human mind is basically free, not clinging. In zazen we learn to uncover that mind, to see who we really are.

So Hum Mantra Practice

Posted in How-To,Meditate,Meditation by Harmony on June 21, 2010

The first two minutes of this video discusses the So Hum Mantra, and the last six minutes allows you to practice along with Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati.

To read more about practicing the So Hum meditation, please visit their website page.

13 Tips on Mantras

Posted in How-To,Meditate,Meditation by Harmony on April 19, 2010

The following video teaches us 13 tips on how to use a Mantra. The video is 10 minutes long, so do block off some time to listen to Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati.

If you’d prefer to read the transcript of this video, visit his site at:    SwamiJ – How to Use a Mantra

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