A few weeks ago I wrote about the very first time I sat in Zen meditation. To be honest, if it wasn’t because it was mandatory during my time at Tenshinkan Dojo, I wouldn’t have gone back to the cushion after such experience.
Because of how I was introduced to Zen practice, I can’t recommend to sit on a cushion without proper instruction. I eventually received instruction and guidance, but it was after many sitting sessions had passed.
I didn’t go to Zen because I wanted to practice Buddhism. Zen was given to me because I wanted to learn Aikido. I was there, specifically, to learn Toyoda Sensei’s Aikido. Sensei offered Aikido and Zen training at his dojo, but he didn’t force Zen upon his students. He was very clear that students did not need Zen in order to learn Aikido. However, for his uchideshi (live-in students) and anyone else interested in learning his Aikido, Zen training was required. That’s how he was trained. He used Zen stories and metaphors in Aikido classes all the time.
Toyoda Sensei’s Zen lineage comes from Omori Sogen Roshi of Chozen-ji in Hawaii. Omori Roshi approached Zen from a martial point of view. Even the proper attire for Zen practice at Chozen-ji is a martial art’s GI (uniform).
For me, Aikido was always first; Zen came in second. Throughout the years, however, I became aware of the benefits of meditation. In the beginning I sat in Zen meditation strictly to improve my Aikido. I used zazen as a vehicle to calm my mind, develop KI, become aware and to develop stronger, more powerful technique.
I know many people interested in Zen meditation do not have a martial arts background. That’s ok! In fact, the majority of Zen practitioners do not train in the martial arts. To the extend of my knowledge, Omori Roshi’s Zen lineage is the only one in the west that deeply integrates martial and Zen training.
The proper way to begin Zen training is to join a Zen center, or temple, and learn how to sit in meditation from a reputable teacher. A teacher will show you how to sit, how to hold your posture, how to breathe, and what to do during meditation. A teacher will help you through all your physical and mental challenges. A center’s sitting schedule will also help you maintain a consitent training.
If you don’t have access to a Zen center, it is totally possible to sit at home. I sit at home. In fact, most of my Zen practice throughout the years have been at home. I’ve participated in weekend Zen trainings with a Zen Roshi (master). I have also meditated in Zen centers and dojos. But the bulk of my training have been through consistent sitting practice at home.
There are numerous books and online resources where you can learn how to meditate by yourself. It’s important to keep in mind the following when meditating at home:
1 – Time yourself -When you meditate at a center there is someone leading the sitting. This person is in charge of timing the sitting. You know when meditation starts and ends when you hear the bell. When meditating by yourself, you don’t want to interrupt your session to look at the clock and figure out how long you’ve been sitting. Set an alarm and put it behind you so you can’t see it. When the alarm goes off, finish your meditation.
2 – Find a quiet place – At home, it may not be as easy to find a quite place where no one will bother you, specially if you don’t live alone. Tell everyone where and when you are meditating and ask them to please not disturb you until you’re done. Make sure not to bring your phone with you, or any other device that will cause distraction. It’s ideal to have a dedicated meditation space. If you have to re-arrange a room every time you’re going to sit, this can be an obstacle to maintaining a consistent practice.
3 – Proper gear – If you plan on meditating at home you need to invest in a good cushion (zafu) and mat (zabuton). These are essential to maintain a proper posture and to be comfortable while sitting on the floor. A pillow and and a blanket do not cut it, you need the real thing. Clothing is important as well. Changing into meditation clothes has a psychological effect; it helps you enter the correct mind set for meditation. You can order yourself a set of meditation clothes or a simple martial art’s uniform.
4 – Consistency – When you’re meditating at home you are doing it by yourself. There is no one telling you that it is time to meditate. There is no peer pressure. No one is holding you accountable. There is no one to impress nor let down except yourself. You need to have a tremendous amount of self motivation to get your ass on the cushion on a consistent basis.
I recommend meditating 30 minutes three times a week to start. Eventually, you will want to work yourself up to a daily practice.
Again, there is no real substitute to practice under a teacher who can help you along the way with the many struggles you will face.
I am encouraging you to consider a home practice because not being able to train formally at a center should not be an excuse to pursue the practice of Zen mediation and benefit from it.