Zazen includes a minutely precise study of our body/mind phenomena. We open to our intimate experience without judgment by staying centered and receptive, returning to “now” by releasing attachment to thought, moment after moment. At first, most of us need to engage some concentration practice to gather the attention as well as find inspiration in our intention through our rituals of bowing and chanting. When I was first practicing, I had no idea what other people were doing on the cushion. My inner critic imagined everyone in deep samadhi while I was struggling with anxiety or a troubled relationship. Below are real accounts of the dynamic and ever-shifting inner landscape from formal Zen students regarding their first and last 5 minutes of zazen. May these candid accounts encourage your own curiosity about the world this body/mind called “me” is always creating on its own, and what is beyond that creating.
Q: What is your zazen like the first and last 5 minutes?
For me the first five minutes are pretty chaotic. I bow three times, chant some things, read a precept, and then settle in. I move my legs first and take a deep breath. I start my timer. Usually in the first two breaths, I feel some dread and doubt that I can sit here for 40 minutes but I just sit through that and it relaxes. I usually let go of what is happening by noticing it and then letting it pass. I then just start to use my breath as an object and follow it. The last five minutes can be restless but in a different way. Usually, I feel the spaciousness of zazen and can watch the restlessness with a little more ease. Sometimes, I do zazen in the middle of the day I am pretty antsy about starting work so this time can be more restless.
When I first sit down I allow the stage Storyland to run its course. Lately, Storyland doesn’t last very long because I’m not doing anything interesting. I then slip into Objective where I am aware of the air around me, sounds, physical sensations, etc. I softly recite the Sino-Japanese version of the Robe Verse.
The last five minutes I start to think about the session being over. My mind drifts back to Storyland and what is on the agenda for the day. My rule is that I can stop whenever I want, but I can’t bolt. I cannot end on a knee-jerk impulse to quit. I have to do at least eight more breaths before stopping.
I begin with a bow. I am saddened by the emotional impact Covid-19 is having on healthcare practitioners, so I begin with Tonglen. My breathing is relaxed and steady when I begin formal zazen. Today thoughts drift through my mind lightly — what cookie am I going to bake today, my Jizo statue which I placed before me when doing Tonglen, the beginning lines of a poem. Toward the end I am relaxed and present. There is no desire to be someplace else. I still have some occasional thoughts, but they come and go easily. Even birds come and go and I am not distracted. When I end my sitting time, I hang out with the green backyard. Very much a “being with” time. No rush to be anywhere. I bow.
This is today and not always my experience. Sometimes I am restless. Sometimes I feel resistance. Sometimes something more specific is on my mind. Recently it was “present moment.” The above is today.
I have different experiences depending on the circumstances. Lately, the first five minutes, I really sink down in — in part in relief from distractions and anxiety, in part from sensing the dark place to be. My brain seems to want those brain waves of meditation. I meditate in front of a window so after awhile, my eyes open and my senses feast and give thanks.
When I get distracted, or on those days when I can’t settle in at the beginning, I often go to the chakras and breathe up through each one, welcome in its energy. It opens me up.
I often have distracted periods in the midst of meditating; I also have creative interaction with consciousness working on problems in life.
Last five minutes: If I am distracted towards the end of sitting, I sometimes chant the Heart Sutra or another sutra. Sometimes, the distraction that came in the middle has gone by the end, and I am caught by surprise as the bell rings.
I do three standing bows down to the earth at the end. Feels very good for body to bow.
I sit down and light my candles and incense. If I remember, I take a few deep breaths and do a quick body scan to make sure I can settle in. And then I settle in. How to describe that? I rest my mind in a bigger mind, in awareness, in emptiness, in the infinite, in presence. It’s like taking a deep dive into warm water and dissolving a little. And I practice self emptying —letting go of anything that is not essential. And I rest.
I’m not usually aware of the last five minutes, but if I find myself wondering when the timer will go off, it’s another nonessential thought.
Nothing special. A lot that can’t be put in words.
I almost always spend the first five minutes or so working with my posture, breathing and settling in. As I sit this becomes less of what I’m working with. Usually I spend the next 10 minutes sort of thinking. My internal clock will tell me I’m half way through the 30 minutes, and I get more serious about sitting and not just sitting there. The second part is more of a settling down, clearing out, easy steady breathing of body and mind. It’s also a good time to check in with how I am in my body, emotions, and consciousness. It’s one of the most important things I do all day, even though I don’t have anything to show for it.
When I begin zazen, I try to get my posture upright and still comfortable. Usually I begin counting my breaths but only for a few minutes while scanning my body, getting in touch with how it is feeling. Often there is arthritis, and I have to crack my fingers and move my wrist to release the tension there. Once I’ve taken a quick scan physically, I try to become still because moving my body creates more thinking about my body and being still keeps my mind quieter. Lately, I’ve been using the image of the incense brazier as my base and my upper body being the incense stick that is held. This brings my energy down so my body and mind settle into open stillness. In my last few minutes of zazen I’m sometimes just wanting to stay in the deep ocean, or I’ve already resurface and feel ready for zazen to be over.
Physically, when I first sit down on the cushion I start by finding my posture and focusing on the breath. Most of the time, I have to consciously relax my shoulders down and back. I watch the breath slow over time and notice any sensations, aches and pains, or recurring thoughts. Mentally, the first five minutes are kind of a mess. It takes a while to bridle my wild-horse mind. It gallops off, forgetting about the breath, making plans and lists, remembering the breath again. After five minutes I’ve (usually) settled in and focused on a point in front of me, paying attention to my breathing.
The last five minutes are the same as the rest of the zazen session —acknowledging thoughts (including, “Isn’t it time for the bell to ring?”), trying to let them go, and coming back over and over until the bell does ring.