Meditation FAQ

People have a lot of questions about meditation in general and zazen in particular. Before we launch into a full-fledged explanation of zazen and other forms of Zen meditation, let’s address a few “Frequently Asked Questions.”

how to meditate

What Is Zazen, Exactly? Do You Do It in a Certain Way?

Zazen, or Zen sitting meditation, is the most well known form of Zen meditation. It involves sitting in one of several specific positions in total, open awareness. While many books give you lots of guidelines for exactly how to sit, in the true spirit of Zen, while zazen has certain guidelines to it, whatever works for you is your zazen. We aren’t going to say that if you don’t sit in this particular way or center your mind on this or that, it isn’t zazen. Zazen is simply you, sitting with full awareness.

But getting to this point, as we’ve mentioned, isn’t easy. Zazen has a method because …

1. People like to know how to do something in a way that will work, rather than just guessing at it.
2. People try to sit the way they believe Buddha sat when he became enlightened.
3. Over the centuries, certain ways of sitting have proved to be more effective— that is, more conducive to meditation and more helpful in cultivating the selfdiscipline that makes mindfulness possible.

Do You Have to Meditate to Practice Zen?

Zazen really is the heart of a traditional Zen practice. Depending on whom you ask, zazen is either the best way or the only way to really understand the nature of reality, including your own true nature. Some argue that mindfulness in daily life is the heart of Zen, rather than sitting in meditation. But the fact remains that without the sitting, you probably won’t really master the mindfulness. You may get it here and there, now and then, but without the personal discipline you cultivate through zazen, you probably won’t develop your Zen living skills very well. Remember, even the Buddha had to sit under that fig tree for a good 12 hours before he finally figured it all out, and he had been practicing sitting meditation regularly for six years.

How Does Zazen Develop Self-Discipline?

By being difficult! You won’t want to sit there, being aware. Your mind is used to action, activity, stimulation, entertainment, and movement. Sitting is hard work and takes effort, as does the cultivation of any productive new habit. Finding the inner will and perseverance to develop this new habit is certainly a matter of self-discipline.

To Practice Zazen, Do You Have to Follow a Lot of Rules?

If you choose to meditate in a zendo (a Zen meditation hall), you may need to learn certain rules of form and practice based in whatever tradition (Soto, Rinzai) that particular zendo follows. But the rules aren’t the point of zazen. Rules of form and practice help to cultivate that personal discipline, maintain a conducive meditation environment in the zendo, and make the meditation experience as successful and productive as possible. In your at-home meditation practice, you will need far fewer “rules” such as facing the wall or walking in a certain direction around the room, but maintaining certain guidelines of form that have been time-tested over the centuries will, again, make the experience as successful and productive as possible.

Why Would You Face a Wall While Meditating?

In Soto Zen, meditators typically face a wall, just as Bodhidharma (according to legend) meditated facing the wall of a cave. Facing a wall minimizes distractions. In Rinzai Zen, meditators typically sit in a circle and face center. At home, you can face where you like, as long as it helps minimize distractions (in other words, don’t face the television!).

Is Zazen Better Practiced Alone or in a Group?

Either way can be effective, but group zazen has a quality all its own that many Zen practitioners find invaluable. Zen meditation retreats, called sesshins, and zendos where people meet on a regular basis to meditate, help to remind you that you are part of a sangha, and that is one of the three treasures of Buddhism: the community of people you meditate with, who are essentially representatives of the world community. Meditating with others reminds you that you are part of a larger whole and also helps to engender compassion toward all other beings.

Is It Sacrilegious to Meditate?

Certainly not! We’ve already mentioned how Zen works in concert with any religious belief or system. All religious traditions employ some form of meditation. Zazen simply helps to clear out your muddled mind so you can think more clearly and act with more perspective, compassion, and conviction (and with less attachment, grasping, and desire). Some might say true Zen is the absence of all beliefs, but we think that is fairly unrealistic. Humans have beliefs, opinions, thoughts, feelings, values, philosophies, even creeds. The point is to see them, to acknowledge them, but not to cling to them because they are all things of the world. Hold them lightly and be open to whatever life brings you. (We can’t help thinking a higher power would approve of such an approach.)

What Is the Best Time of Day to Meditate?

That depends on you, your schedule, and your particular inclinations. Some people prefer morning, some midday, some evening. Meditate when you can. If you think you should only meditate in the morning but you aren’t a morning person, you’ll probably never do it. If you meditate when you are particularly tired, you’ll probably just fall asleep. Early morning, however, is probably the most typical time to practice zazen. It is quieter, more peaceful, and more naturally serene. It seems to be a more optimistic time of day because the day is just beginning. Because “Zen mind” means approaching everything as if it is new, morning also seems appropriate. Sleepiness can be dispelled by a brisk walk, jog, and/or a cool shower before zazen.


Is Meditation Uncomfortable? Do You Have to Sit on the Floor?

No and no. Sometimes, physical discomfort is something you can work through in meditation, but the point is not “no pain, no gain.” Remember, the Buddha discovered asceticism wasn’t the way, but moderation was. That means don’t recline in a cushy armchair with your feet up (you’d soon fall asleep), but don’t sit on a bed of nails, either.

Although the floor often provides the best place to meditate (with the proper cushions), some people can’t sit on the floor for whatever reason and a chair works just fine, too. Even lying down can work, particularly for the yoga style of relaxation/meditation called shavasana. Technically, lying down to meditate isn’t zazen, since zazen means sitting meditation. However, as we said before, if lying down is the only thing that works for you, then that is your zazen.

Is a Meditation or Zen Teacher Necessary?

That depends on who you are and how you work. Some people find much more success with a teacher. Others who would never seek out a teacher (or wouldn’t at first) can make great strides meditating on their own. If you like the idea of a teacher, go for it! You’ll probably learn a lot. If you don’t, no problem. Read everything you can about zazen, and give it a try. Maybe you will eventually seek out a teacher, and maybe you won’t. It’s your path.

Are You Supposed to Meditate with Your Eyes Open or Closed?

That depends on your personal preference. Although the traditional zazen technique is to keep eyes unfocused, directed slightly downward, and only partially closed, some people keep them all the way open and others like to close them.

Can Anybody Meditate?

Absolutely. That is, anybody can meditate if he or she is willing to make the effort to meditate. You can’t expect to meditate for three minutes and immediately incur all the benefits, but if you are willing to do the work and persevere, no matter who you are or what you perceive your limitations to be, you can meditate.