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What is Zen? One way to answer this question is with another question: What are you doing right now? Zen is the practice of returning to this present moment–returning to whatever you are doing or experiencing right now. This essay describes some techniques to help you return to the present moment at any given time.

In Zen meditation, there are three main things to pay attention to: body, breath, and mind. In terms of bodily posture, you should sit comfortably on the floor or in a chair; if you sit on the floor, you might try using a cushion under your buttocks to promote the natural curve of your back. If you sit in a chair, place your feet flat on the floor and sit away from the back of the chair. Keep your back straight, but do not strain. Try imagining the top of your head touching the ceiling; this image will naturally straighten your back without undue muscular effort.

Ji Jang Bosal

Now place your right hand, palm up, against your belly, slightly below your belly button. Next place your left hand, palm up, in the palm of your right hand, and then bring your thumbs together to form a relaxed oval between your thumbs and fingers. Keep your eyes open slightly—this helps keep your mind from daydreaming. Keeping your eyes open and paying attention to your hand position will help you stay awake and alert: when your thumbs or fingers start to sag, for example, you are in danger of falling asleep.

Begin to focus your attention on your breath. If you are able, allow your breath to flow freely through your nostrils. Your breathing should be deep—centered roughly where your hands are now positioned. Do not control your breathing; if it is fast, then be aware that it is fast. Eventually your breathing will slow down and become more regular, centered in the belly. The breath is your connection to the present moment: every moment of our lives, we breath in and out, and every breath we take is taken in the present moment.

Garden buddha

As you keep this awareness of body and breath, pay attention to your mind. Let your thoughts come and go–don’t cling to any thought, and don’t push any thought away. Instead of fighting your mind, use a short phrase to bring yourself back to the present. One phrase is “Clear mind, clear mind, clear mind–don’t know”: this refers to clear, unfettered consciousness. To use this phrase, silently repeat “clear mind, clear mind, clear mind” as you inhale and silently repeat “don’t know” as you exhale. If you come from a religious background, you may wish to use a spiritual phrase: a Christian, for example, might say “Jesus Christ” on the inhalation and “have mercy” on the exhalation. The words themselves aren’t important; what is important is the practice of using them over and over to bring you back to awareness of the breath.

The most important thing in Zen meditation is simply to do it: practicing for yourself is better than reading a book about Zen. If you are curious about Zen, try to establish a daily practice—try the above techniques for five minutes a day, every day. If you give yourself the time to slow down and return to the present moment, you will find that moment to be a precious gift, one that comes your way only once in a lifetime. Cultivating such an awareness of the here and now will awaken you to your true compassionate self, and then you can truly help yourself and this world.

Copyright 1998 Lorianne DiSabato (formerly Schaub)