Sunday, April 20, 2008

Taking Zen meditation 'off the cushion'

By Brittany Benjamin
For many students, it may be difficult to envision meditation as anything but the ancient image of a round-stomached Buddha sitting cross-legged, surrounded by a fog of incense, with hands in the air with meeting thumbs and forefingers, and repeatedly chanting "ooommm."

But what students may not know is that meditation can be a great means to find clarity within on a daily basis.

In a frantic, schedule-based society, it's often difficult to slow down and pay attention to the world around us, while also focusing and understanding our own thoughts.

Meditation allows for an escape within ourselves to find peace and authenticity.

Among the practices of meditation, there are many that can allow students to focus on mind, body and soul while escaping the pressures and deadlines of school and activities.

Sarita Tamayo-Moraga, professor of religious studies and a Dharma teacher in training in the Suzuki Roshi School of Zen, introduced the practices of Zen to students, faculty and the community with Juan Velasco, Spanish professor and a senior Dharma teacher in the Kwan Um School of Zen.

Here are some methods from the Zen Meditation Retreat -- A Day of Mindfulness-- that you can try yourself.

Sitting Zen meditation

Zen meditation stems from the Buddhist tradition. It emphasizes awareness of the present moment and an acceptance of non-judgmental thinking.

Sitters rest comfortably in a chair with their feet placed firmly on the ground and a straight back. They then place their hands gently on each thigh.

Sitting with eyes open, they allow their mind to wander to any thoughts they may be having at that moment for about 15-30 minutes. Instead of getting wrapped up in each thought, they simply acknowledge that it exists and allow it to trail away as another one surfaces.

As it's common to let ourselves run away with thoughts, the practice of Zen emphasizes the breath as an escape from overwhelming thoughts.

In other words, if the mind gets too caught up on one particular branch of thinking, they are to return to their breath in order to let the thought pass.

"It's not about stopping or changing your thoughts. It's about learning compassion for your thoughts. Everything is information in Zen," said Tamayo-Moraga.

Walking Zen meditation

The walking Zen meditation allows for a sitter to focus on his or her body, as well as understand its movement and use.

In this practice, participants form a standing circle. Turning clockwise, they begin to walk in a circle at an extremely slow pace. This slow pace allows for sitters to focus on the movement of every aspect of the body as weight shifts from one foot to the other.

This allows sitters to recognize the feelings, pains or tensions within the body. Recognizing feelings, a sitter may note that the ground feels hard on his feet, soreness in his legs or that he is experiencing feelings of boredom or stress within his body.

The exercise encourages sitters to release tension and focus only on the movement of his or her body as they walk. Zen meditation can be a temporary outlet to deal with emotions before acting on them.

In a situation where a person is antagonized, it helps to momentarily get out of the emotional experience and return to the stability felt while standing. The stability provided by the feet is a good place to center the self before acting.

"Get out of the intellect," Tamayo-Moraga said. "It's dangerous to be in the intellect when your body is triggered -- go to your feet."

Mantra meditation

The primary purpose of mantra meditation is to release pain and tension from the body.

In the same position as a Zen sitting meditation, sitters focus on breathing, while silently repeating words as they inhale and exhale.

Inhaling, sitters think the words, "Breathing in, I recognize the soreness of my (insert various body parts)." Exhaling, sitters think the words, "Breathing out, I release the tension in my (insert same body part)."

As a result, sitters are supposed to ideally release tension and pain in the areas of the body they focus on. Being aware of the pain and accepting it allows them to take action in releasing pain.

Metta meditation

Metta meditations focus on centering emotions and sending and receiving energy. In particular, it creates the sending and receiving of love to yourself and others.

As Velasco said, the two largest emotions felt by humans are anger and fear. Both of these emotions stem from one source -- aversion to a person or idea.

"It's just raw energy that you're creating right now," Velasco said. "You don't really believe that this anger is me. It's just energy going through the body."

While Velasco said metta meditation must first be started with sending energy of love to the self, he also believes that metta meditation must take place in groups. He said that sitters should grow from participating in a metta meditation with their most intimate friends, to people whom they are neutral toward, to people they find the most difficult to interact with.

All of these practices can be taken out into the world on a daily basis. To do so, we must take Zen "off the cushion." By following the guidelines that Tamayo-Moraga calls "living from the perspective of the breath," anybody can use Zen to access the body. It only requires one to become attuned to the present moment and present thoughts.

Contact Brittany Benjamin at (408) 551-1918 or

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