Practicing the Breath
Begin rocking the body back and forth, slowly, in decreasing arcs, until you settle at your center of gravity. The mind is in the hara, hands are folded in the cosmic mudra, mouth is closed, tongue pressed on the upper palate. You’re breathing through the nose and you’re completely experiencing the breath. Keep your attention on the hara and the breath.
We begin to steady and stabilize the mind by counting the breath. We practice by counting each inhalation and each exhalation, beginning with one and counting up to ten. Inhale—at the end of the inhalation, count one. Exhale—at the end of the exhalation, count two. When you get to ten, come back to one and start all over. The only agreement that you make with yourself in this process is that if your mind begins to wander—if you become aware that what you’re doing is chasing thoughts – you will look at the thought, acknowledge it, and then deliberately and consciously let it go and begin the count again at one.
The counting is a feedback to help you know when your mind has drifted off. Each time you return to the breath you are empowering yourself with the ability to put your mind where you want it, when you want it there, for as long as you want it there. That simple fact is extremely important. We call this power of concentration joriki, or spiritual power.
When you’ve been practicing counting the breath for a while, your awareness will sharpen. You’ll begin to notice things that were always there but escaped your attention. Because of the preoccupation with the internal dialogue, you were too full to be able to see what was happening around you. The process of zazen begins to open that up.
When you’re able to stay with the counting and repeatedly get to ten without any effort and without thoughts interfering, it’s time to begin counting every cycle of the breath. Inhalation and exhalation will count as one, the next inhalation and exhalation as two. This provides less feedback, but with time you will need less feedback.
Eventually, you’ll want to just follow the breath and abandon the counting altogether. Just be with the breath. Just be the breath. Let the breath breathe itself. That’s the beginning of the falling away of body and mind. It takes some time and you shouldn’t rush it; you shouldn’t move too fast from counting every breath to counting every other breath and on to following the breath. If you move ahead prematurely, you’ll end up not developing strong joriki. And it’s that power of concentration that ultimately leads to what we call samadhi, or single-pointedness of mind.
In the process of working with the breath, the thoughts that come up, for the most part, will be just noise, just random thoughts. Sometimes, however, when you’re in a crisis or involved in something important in your life, you’ll find that the thought, when you let it go, will recur. You let it go again but it comes back, you let it go and it still comes back. Sometimes that needs to happen. Don’t treat that as a failure; treat it as another way of practicing. This is the time to let the thought happen, engage it, let it run its full course. But watch it, be aware of it. Allow it to do what it’s got to do, let it exhaust itself. Then release it, let it go. Come back again to the breath. Start at one and continue the process. Don’t use zazen to suppress thoughts or issues that need to come up.
Scattered mental activity and energy keeps us separated from each other, from our environment, and from ourselves. In the process of sitting, the surface activity of our minds begins to slow down. The mind is like the surface of a pond—when the wind is blowing, the surface is disturbed and there are ripples. Nothing can be seen clearly because of the ripples; the reflected image of the sun or the moon is broken up into many fragments.
Out of that stillness, our whole life arises. If we don’t get in touch with it at some time in our life, we will never get the opportunity to come to a point of rest. In deep zazen, deep samadhi, a person breathes at a rate of only two or three breaths a minute. Normally, at rest, a person will breathe about fifteen breaths a minute—even when we’re relaxing, we don’t quite relax. The more completely your mind is at rest, the more deeply your body is at rest. Respiration, heart rate, circulation, and metabolism slow down in deep zazen. The whole body comes to a point of stillness that it doesn’t reach even in deep sleep. This is a very important and very natural aspect of being human. It is not something particularly unusual. All creatures of the earth have learned this and practice this. It’s a very important part of being alive and staying alive: the ability to be completely awake.
It is also important to be patient and persistent, to not be constantly thinking of a goal, of how the sitting practice may help us. We just put ourselves into it and let go of our thoughts, opinions, positions—everything our minds hold onto. The human mind is basically free, not clinging. In zazen we learn to uncover that mind, to see who we really are.
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