sit and calm our body and our breath — when we
calm the surface of our mind pond — we confront
what for many of us is the most challenging part: the
ripples and waves our mind is creating all the time.
It’s quite common when you first begin to
sit to become very aware of the busyness of your
As long as the body and mind are alive and functioning,
these kind of experiences are not at all unnatural
or wrong; they’re just what’s happening.
When we sit still, what we experience is what is
going on all the time in our minds— discursive
thinking and all sorts of ungoverned, uninvited mental
activity. And we not only experience what we do with
these thoughts and emotions — we get caught
up in them.
Much of what goes on is a matter of continuously
evaluating and commenting on whatever happens to
capture our attention. A thought arises and it turns
into a discursive conversation. A sound arises,
and instead of simply hearing it and letting it go,
we comment internally on the sound and perhaps enter
into an entire fantasy about it.
Why do we put so much energy into
our thoughts and emotions – either
elaborating on them and blowing them
up or suppressing them and stifling
Most of the time we carry a heavy burden—a
thick screen of self-consciousness. This continual
and acute awareness of “self” tends
to obscure experiences as they arise and substitutes
a focus on the experience. And this self-consciousness
through which everything is filtered is so familiar
that we don’t even notice it. Until we sit
and become still we may not even be aware
of the energy we devote to generating and sustaining
this illusion of self.
And it’s almost funny when you look deeply
and see that while we may feel a deep need for some
basic silence and clarity so that we can see without
distortion and confusion, we also hate to do without
all those entertaining thoughts that create the ripples
and waves on the surface of the pond. It really is hard
to sit still and stay alert and attentive without
a lot of thinking or entertainment going on. We really are habituated
to sitting back passively and identifying with the
images and thoughts which wash over us, keeping the
mind busy and alienating is from our true nature.
Zazen is an opportunity to simply experience your
thoughts and feelings, to let them arise and fade,
to neither magnify or censor them. To experience
them without sticking to them.
And so we attend to our breath…
. . . which is easier said than done. Because such
attention is difficult in the face of our habits
and the allure of discursive thought, we recommend
practicing mindfulness of your breathing.
And so to begin to build the kind of mental muscle
that’s needed to really enable you to pay attention,
start with one of these practices:
Counting the breath
Begin with an inhalation and mentally count that
as number one, and that one continues through the
inhalation and the exhalation. When you finish exhaling
and you begin to inhale again, that’s number
When you reach ten, return to one and start over
It sounds like a very simple process, and in fact
it is… Yet you may be surprised when you first
try it to see how difficult it is. You might get
to two or three, something shifts, and then you come
back and realize you’ve been daydreaming or
that your mind has wandered or your attention has
This is not a problem; it’s going to happen
and you might as well get used to the fact. If you
are a perfectionist, you may find this disturbing.
Please, just give yourself a break.
Just notice that you’ve lost your concentration
or that your mind has wandered or that you’ve
gotten drowsy or whatever form your mental awareness
has taken. And as soon as you recognize that that
has happened, just acknowledge it (please don’t
beat yourself up) and go back to one and resume counting
-- until the next time you lose it. That’s
all there is to it.
Be there, be aware.
Over time you’ll find you’re increasingly
able to maintain a fairly stable form of awareness
of your breathing. So even if at first it may
seem quite difficult, be patient with yourself and
It’s kind of like that when we’re training
our mind to really pay attention.
Following the breath
If you find counting the breath is a little too
mechanical for you, an alternative way is to follow
the same technique but without with the numbers.
Just follow the breath. Inhalation, exhalation.
may find this more challenging. If it works for
you, by all means practice this way. If you need
more structure, count your breaths. If you have
been following your breath for a while and suddenly
find you can’t
do it, return to counting for a while.