“The basics of Zen meditation are very simple: sit down, shut up, and pay attention.”

Rev. James Ishmael Ford, Roshi

Start with the Body

The Buddha taught there were four postures for meditation: sitting down, standing up, lying down, and walking. Each has its place, and each of us will find a closer affinity with one or another, but for most of us, sitting down is the best option.

In the Zen world, sitting meditation is where we always start.

First we deal with the body, that is, what to do with your legs, your torso, hands, your head, and your eyes.

Zen traditionally uses two pillows, a small round pillow called a zafu and a larger mat underneath it called a zabuton. If you sit towards the front half of the zafu, your legs will naturally incline to the floor. It is important to work toward getting at least one knee to the ground for stability and comfort. Ideally, both knees would rest on the zabuton, making a tripod along with your bottom. You don’t need to run out and purchase special pillows, by the way. Folded blankets, yoga mats, or regular pillows can do just fine. 

The idealized position is called a full lotus where the feet rest on the thighs. With stretching and over time, some people can do this, but it isn’t necessary. There are many good alternatives that are more accessible. The half lotus, with one foot on the thigh, is slightly less stable but works just fine. Resting one foot on a calf is called the quarter lotus, or in some circles, the half-ass lotus. Setting one foreleg in front of the other with the knees both to the ground is called Burmese and works well for many people. Play around a bit and find what is most comfortable for you.

Some people prefer to kneel, either straddling the zafu or using a small bench instead. This is a traditional Japanese posture called seiza. It works for some, but can be hard on the knees. It is also perfectly fine to sit in a regular chair. The secret here, as with all these positions is to have your bottom slightly higher than the knees. This creates that stable, triangular base and allows the spine to find proper alignment.

The important consideration in finding a sitting posture is to provide support for your practice. There is no hierarchy of “right way to sit.” When the realities of body limitations are honored and physical discomfort reduced, practice is more likely to invite stillness and to be sustainable.  

Choose the posture(s) that encourage quieting of body and mind. Don’t hesitate to add support cushions to help remove physical discomfort as a barrier to sitting. Do take advantage of kinhin and times for posture adjustment and stretching the body.

Many of us, regardless of our preferred position, rock back and forth, side to side, or in small circles when we first sit down. This helps to settle in and find the proper alignment. If you tuck your chin in slightly and mentally align your ears over your shoulders, your head will rest comfortably upright. Put your hands in your lap, placing your left hand in your right, allowing the thumbs to touch lightly, creating an oval. Pull your elbows out slightly and roll your shoulders back a little. In Zen meditation, we sit with eyes open, the gaze falling forward to the floor a couple of feet ahead. In some schools, it is traditional to face a wall; others face inward. You will find both orientations in Empty Moon Sanghas.

What to do with the mind

If you’re just present, noticing, but not following your thoughts and feelings as they rise, this is called zazen, or shikantaza,  “just sitting.”

Of course, few of us just sit. We worry about the past or plan for the future. When beginning the practice, it can help to have something to help with concentration. There are a number of methods, and they are all perfectly good.

One of the simplest and most traditional in Zen is to count the breath. Start with “one” on the in breath, “two” on the out breath. Progress up to “ten,” then start over again. Just breathe naturally. The posture will encourage diaphragmatic breathing, filling the lungs from the bottom. Let this happen naturally, and if doesn’t, don’t worry about it.

You will probably soon notice that your mind still tends to wander. When you notice this or when you lose track of the count, just return to “one.” If you discover you’ve slipped into a robotic counting and are at “twenty-six,” just return to “one.”

Congratulations. You are meditating.

“When you notice your mind wandering,

just return to the cushion and your breath.”


That really is all there is to it. The catch is that we often feel a need to place blame somewhere when our attention slips. The two basic directions are inside and out. We notice we’ve lost count and we blame ourselves: Not good enough, not smart enough, too much bad karma from a previous life. Of course, what has just happened is that instead of noticing and returning we’ve entered a meta-distraction. Just come back to “one.” Others prefer to blame the environment: If it wasn’t for my neighbor’s grumbly tummy, if it wasn’t for the kids playing upstairs, if it wasn’t for the traffic outside… Same meta-distraction, just pointed in a different direction. Keep coming back to “one.”

Delicious, Delicious Ideas

There’s a third distraction that can be even more seductive: a good idea. There you are, counting your breaths, when the solution to some problem presents itself, or the plot for the great American novel, or maybe just a deeply satisfying train of thought. Notice and just come back to “one.” That is the commitment of this practice, this little piece of time you have set aside. Honor that and keep your promise to yourself. If the thought is really that important, it will return later. For now, just come back to “one.” Think of the practice as olly olly oxen free: Come home, come home. All is forgiven.

Just sitting.

Just this.

A baseline practice is probably about half an hour a day most every day, but start small and work up to this. Five minutes is fine when you are just starting out. Let it grow organically. If you are consistent and do a little every day, you will notice this practice touching your heart. Just getting your bottom on the pillow regularly is all that is required. If you hope to develop a real practice, regularity is vastly more important than duration. Five or ten minutes a day three days a week actually done is way more important than setting an intention to sit two hours a day and not doing it.

There are a number of strategies that help. Sit at the same time each day. They say the morning is golden and the evening silver, but in truth, whatever time of day you can do consistently is best. Sitting in the same place each day is helpful, too, if you can. And if you can reserve the space, create a small shrine or something that marks it out for this purpose, this can be helpful too. All these are strategies, and not to add to the burden, they are tools to help you. Do what you can, as you can.

Finding a spiritual director is important, but not at first. Finding a community of practice is much more important. Find a group and go regularly. There are many, all over the world, each with their own family style. Find one that feels right to you`