Zazen: The art of just sitting

To open yourself with Zazen, all you need to do is sit


We are of the opinion that balance is required so that our lifestyle doesn’t lead us to burnout. We want to find the means to shift our way of being so that every aspect of our living works together. And we prefer all of this to happen ‘organically’—not through force of effort, but with focus and calm. Being Zen folk, we balance the charge of daily living with moment-by-moment presence, and the key to doing this is meditation.

Zazen is the Japanese name for seated meditation—the term roughly means, ‘sitting still, like a mountain.’ It is the one common practice that unites virtually all Eastern philosophies.

In the West, meditation has been adapted for Western sensibilities. Jon Kabat-Zinn, for example, has developed Mindfulness Meditation for use in hospitals. He’s taken Zazen out of Buddhism, [or the Buddhism out of Zazen!] and is getting great results with people recovering from heart attacks, surgeries, stress-related illnesses, et al.

This Western approach has its emphasis on using meditation as a ‘relaxation tool.’ It is thus an ‘add on,’ used to counteract an illness [a dis-ease]. Mindfulness Meditation is a bit like a ‘pill for what ails you,’ and is doled out to help hyper active people run even faster.

Our perspective is certainly more ‘traditional.’ We see the issue as ‘imbalance’.

Our view is that ‘quick fixes’ do not address the depth of the issue–our tendency to ignore ourselves, and to bend ourselves into knots—in order to fit some pre-conceived notion of how adults should behave. We get caught in a loop of excess, and then look for ways to counter the damage.

We consider Zazen to be the foundation from which whole, present, engaged, and passionate living springs. From this perspective, balance is key, and being centred takes precedence over excess.

In order to grasp balance, let’s talk Qi [energy]

Qi comes in two flavours—Yin and Yang. Here are few characteristics:

  • Yin is feminine, passive, dark and deep.
  • Yang is masculine, active, light and shallow.

Qi is like a coin. It can’t help but have two sides. A coin is ‘balanced.’ Each side is exactly the same ‘size’ as its opposite, and each represents one ‘dynamic’ of the whole. It is impossible to think of [or have!] a one-sided or imbalanced coin. Qi is always seeking balance.

The difference between us and a coin is that we have the choice of what we emphasise, and because of this, are often un-balanced. In the 21st century, the norm is Yang-ness. The emphasis is on thinking, doing, power, aggression. Yin-ness—intuiting, reflecting, and depth is often perceived of as weakness.

Initial explorations of Qi came from the Taoists

The name Qi was chosen for the ‘unnameable, unknowable force’ that brings the Universe into being. When Qi is in balance, all is well. Awareness and focus is required so that balance is maintained.

From this perspective, each characteristic ‘flavour’ of Qi finds its balance in the other, i.e. dark/light. As for energy itself, the activity of yang is always supported by the depth and fluidity of yin. Yin, in the background, provides the framework for all action, much as a whiteboard [yin] holds what is written [yang]. Not a very Western idea at all. The passive ‘whiteboard’ is seen as ‘just a tool’ for the important stuff. Yet, because of a decided lack of emphasis on depth and stillness, people operating from this ‘modern’ understanding are often candidates for stress related illnesses.

The solution is NOT to slap on the ‘Band-Aid’ of a bit of meditation. We believe it’s to re-balance our priorities by getting in touch with the flow of our energy itself—to intuit its nature and to ease it through any blockages. Zazen is a fine way to do this. We sit to establish a harmonious body/mind/spirit. Zazen is not goal oriented—it’s not really an activity per se—it’s a way of being.

Two misunderstandings about Zazen

Zazen is not about stopping thinking: That’s impossible. Besides, our thought processes in and of themselves do not get us into trouble. Think of it this way. The activity of our mind is to generate thoughts, just like the activity of our pancreas is to create insulin. Thinking is a natural activity. Trouble comes when:

  • We confuse our thoughts with reality, and
  • When we cling to our thoughts.

Zazen, then, is about sitting with our thoughts, without either judging them, or clinging to them. Thoughts become like clouds floating in front of a blue sky.

Zazen has no point: We don’t sit to accomplish something. There’s an old Zen story about the student who says, with pride, “I have let go of thinking!” His master replies, “No let go of thinking that you have let go of thinking!”

We sit in order to sit. We breathe to breathe. As thoughts arise, we watch them float by. If we find ourselves distracted, we return to ‘just sitting.’

There is no goal. It’s not about finding an ‘answer,’ and Zazen is not a contest.  Any time we set up a goal, [how long we sit for, how ‘advanced’ we are, how ‘deep’ our thoughts are, etc.] our entire focus becomes thinking about our ‘score.’ We get lost in the act of comparison, even if we are only comparing ourselves to ourselves.

Here’s how to do Zazen

Briefly, there are 4 ways to sit, plus sitting on a chair—however, chair sitting, to my way of thinking, is only for the infirm.

The rest of us sit on cushions or benches. In an article of this length, I really can’t describe the postures adequately, or show you how to use cushions or a bench.

So here’s a video explanation featuring me!

What I can tell you is what all of the ‘postures’ have in common

Zazen is a discipline, and to accomplish what it accomplishes, you do the following:

  • You sit upright. Not ramrod straight, but with a ‘stacked spine.’ Your shoulders are over your hips, and you are not tipped from side to side or front to back. In the video, I show you an easy way to accomplish this.
  • Your head is slightly down, eyes open, looking four feet in front of you.
  • Your right hand is palm up in your lap, your left hand is palm up in your right hand, and your thumbs are touching lightly.
  • You are breathing through your nose, quietly.
  • Your attention is ‘just there.’ As you sit, you are aware of sounds, temperature, physical sensations, etc. You are aware as thoughts arise. The key: as you bring your attention to any one thing, just have a breath, and let go of thinking about it.
  • you fixate on something [you will!], bring your attention back to ‘just sitting.’

If you wish, you can count breaths. Start counting each out and in breath. As you notice you are thinking instead of counting, return to counting, starting at “1.” You can then start counting just the out breaths.

Walking meditation

Simply walk slowly, in an upright stance, carefully placing one foot, then shifting your weight, and placing another. Hands are folded across your heart. The idea is to turn your attention to each step, and come back to this as your mind wanders.

Living meditation

Meditating on a mat is one thing. Living your meditation is another, and taking your meditation into the world is what Zazen is all about.

Once you have practised a bit, you will notice that your body/mind/spirit resonates with sitting. This resonance can be deepened by bringing presence into day to day activities.

Cook: You might, for example, prepare a meal mindfully. When chopping veggies, chop veggies. As your mind wanders, bring it back to the action of ‘knife through vegetable.’ Keep your mind focussed only on the step of the process that you are doing.

Eat the same way. Shift to eating a meal a day with chopsticks. Or, if you normally use chopsticks, switch to one meal with knife and fork. Slow down. Chew. Taste.

Do your work this way. When doing what you are doing, stop pretending you can multi-task and do one thing. With full attention, with calm breath.

Eat an orange

  • Select an orange. Set the orange down in front of you. Look at it. See how the light reflects off of it. Look at the colour, texture, and all the little pores. Really look.
  • Now, scrape your fingernail along the skin, and listen to the sound. Pierce the skin, and start peeling, and direct your attention to the sound of peeling, then to the sound of separating the segments.
  • Go back to looking—seeing how the orange pieces look.
  • Bring the skin to your nose, and smell it. Set it down. Bring a segment to your nose, and smell it. Give it a little squeeze and smell again.
  • Squish one of the segments in your fingers, and really feel the pulp, juice, and any seeds or pith.
  • Pop a segment into your mouth, and chew it slowly. See if you can take five minutes to eat one segment. Really taste it!
  • Take another segment, and rub it on your arm or leg, or just get creative, and use your body to feel the orange section.
  • Now, stop, and go either wash or hose off. [I’ll wait until you get back…]

Think about your experience

These simple games call us to presence—they help us to be in our bodies, engaging our energy, and feeling intimately what it is like to be alive.

From this place of presence, living is not something we do, but rather is who we are.

This wholeness changes everything.

This was first published in the December 2012 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

Magnifying lens over an exclamation markSpot an error in this article? A typo maybe? Or an incorrect source? Let us know!

Wayne Allen
A retired psychotherapist, and the author of 5 books, Wayne's approach to writing, life, and living comes from his love of Zen. He teaches living in the now, and taking full responsibility for "how everything goes." Wayne emphasizes wholeness, peace, and clarity of thought. His books, resources and other writings are available at


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