In "Fake Frameworks for Zen Meditation" I offered some models for how Zen meditation works, but not really much in the way of practice instructions. Similarly, I've talked a bunch about the intersection of Zen and Rationality, but again mainly from showing how things connect rather than giving you new things you might do.

So, let's say you want to practice meditation, specifically Zen meditation (zazen), and even more specifically shikantaza. How do you do it?

Well, a correct but not very helpful answer is to sit down, stare at a wall, don't move, and you'll eventually figure it out. Eventually might take a really long time and you might get lost, so here's my best attempt to explain what I do and maybe that'll be helpful for someone else trying to do the same or similar.

First, I bow to the cushion, then bow out to the room/world.

Second, I sit on the cushion. I normally sit seiza because there's something about my leg anatomy that prevents sitting easy Burmese style or full lotus. I sit on two buckwheat hull filled cushions called zafus stacked on top of each other and placed on a padded mat called a zabuton. This gives me enough height to rotate my pelvis in a way that keeps my back upright and straight without effort.

Third, I do a little something to start the meditation. If I'm with a group, this is probably someone ringing a bell. If I'm alone, I typically recite a short "prayer" (it's not really a "prayer" as that word is used in most religious contexts, but I don't know what else to call a short poem expressing aspirations for meditation practice; maybe a "dedication") then clap three times.

Fourth, I put my hands down into cosmic mudra and invite my mind to rest.

Fifth, I do the actual meditating. Here's what this looks like: I do a mental motion that's like opening your hands as if to allow a bird or butterfly to hand on them, although my actual experience of it is more like coming to a stop and landing on the ground. Then I wait. As I'm waiting, thoughts arise, and often at the start these thoughts catch the gear of what I think of as the flywheel of attention and I get lost in thinking about some thing. Then, I notice I've done this and, without any kind of judgement, simply perform the hand opening mental motion again.

During all of this some experience that's not quite getting caught on a thought and isn't quite just sitting still with hands open happens. It's more like something "lands" in my hands, although generally it's more like some bodily sensation shows up. I might gently invite these to hang out or not. I might gently gaze on them or not. Look too hard and they fly away. Get too excited and they fly away. It's like being an excited toddler trying to pet a cat: it's only going to work if you let go of all of your excitement and desire and just let the cat pet itself against you.

Finally, the meditation period ends, either becomes someone sounds a bell or a timer tells me it's over. I clap once, bow, stand up, bow to my cushion and then out to the room/world.

This is just one way to meditate, much of my description above is idiosyncratic, and you probably can't directly replicate it. But my hope is that it gives some flavor of what meditation can look like and might help you notice if you're doing something that might be helpful if you try. As always, I'm not a meditation teachers, just a friend sharing my experience in the hopes that it does you more good than harm.


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I don't do all the ceremony, but my experience of doing the actual meditating when I tried it for a while was similar. Isn't something more interesting supposed to happen though? People I take seriously take meditation seriously, for reasons they seem to have trouble articulating, but seem to think the practice is worth it somehow, for reasons I still don't fully understand, so I tried it. I had hoped to at least get a glimpse of these reasons, but after a month or so of practice, I didn't notice any progress beyond what you're describing and kind of moved on.

The Zen answer is that there's nothing special that necessarily happens. That said, sometimes weird, exciting, etc. things do happen while meditating, but to just let them come and go as they please. Some kinds of practices in other traditions do more to cultivate these sorts of experiences, whereas the method I've described doesn't and instead sees meditation as a kind of evidence gathering operation that will cause updates in your mind below the level of consciousness that will later result in insight, such as at the hearing of a "turning" word.

I think it's hard to express the value of it because sometimes the recognition of its value takes a long time to be realized. Other methods give you something sooner that you'll be excited about and come back to.

To make an analogy, these other methods I'm gesturing at might be like planting a field with a crop that sprouts after a few days, grows quickly, and fruits after a few weeks. Shikantaza is more like planting a field with seeds, water for weeks, eventually seeing some sprouts, and then continuing to care for it for months while the plant grows beneath the soil, only growing and fruiting suddenly after months of effort.

Of course, this analogy sort of leaves out why this might be a good idea, but hopefully that gives some flavor or why I choose to stick with it.

I've always been interested in meditating, and quite like it, but have never really had it click. Would you say that the ritual that you do for meditation helps solidify to your brain that you're in the "process" of meditation in any way? Also, when you described the "opening of the hands" motion in your mind, is that a concrete thing (for lack of a better word) that you think, or more of a phase transition from the not-meditating state to the meditating state?

Would you say that the ritual that you do for meditation helps solidify to your brain that you're in the "process" of meditation in any way?

I think so. Having a ritual around it helps with conditioning yourself that when you perform the ritual it's time to meditate. As I think of it, the ritual creates the space in which meditation can arise.

Also, when you described the "opening of the hands" motion in your mind, is that a concrete thing (for lack of a better word) that you think, or more of a phase transition from the not-meditating state to the meditating state?

So it's both a concrete thing I'm doing with my brain and something like a phase transition. Like, it both feels like a specific mental action that has a particular shape and feel to it, and it seems to precipitate a change into meditation away from regular patterns of thought. I don't know that it's of one type more than the other, but my guess, primed by this question, is that it's something like a concrete activity that, given the right conditions, catalyzes me into meditation.