Some Practical Solutions to Problems That Can Arise in Zazen
I have difficulty following the breath. What can I do?
Don’t think of following your breath but rather follow your belly- the muscles and physical sensations of your belly as it moves out and in. It is your belly that breathes and it is in the belly that the breath should begin. Don’t breathe in your chest but train yourself to slightly push the belly forward as it takes in breath, then wait for it to release and wait again for it to take up the new breath, keeping your chest still. If this is still too vague, place a count of 1 to 10 on the breath, returning to the 1 whenever you get lost in thought or drift away.
I keep trying to conquer my thoughts. Why can’t I seem to do this?
Don’t get into the trap of battling with your thoughts. Let them be there. They have a right to exist. The more you battle your thoughts, the stronger they get. Allow them to be there while choosing to return, over and over, to the rise and fall of the belly breath.
When I try to come back, it rarely seems to be total – I seem to be still partly with my thoughts. Am I doing it wrong?
Don’t expect the return to your belly breath to be perfect. Most of the time it will probably be muddled. Don’t worry about this. It’s a normal part of practice. It is what one could call the experience of ‘bothness’ –both belly/breath attention and thoughts at the same time. Sometimes the breath wins out, sometimes it loses to the stronger thoughts. But as long as your intention is to keep bringing the awareness back to the breath and you keep striving to do this, you are doing perfect practice.
If you stop believing the illusion that you have to come back cleanly and purely, that your enormously seductive thoughts should somehow roll over and go away; if you allow ‘bothness’ to be present, slowly your strengthening awareness will make its way back to the belly and its breath, your thought will fade away by itself and your practice will be developing naturally, as it should.
I always seem to be criticizing myself. It’s very discouraging to keep wandering off.
Don’t criticize. Don’t criticize that moment when you discover that you have wandered off into thought or day dreams or drift once again. You wandered off unconsciously. You didn’t want to wander off- it just happened. To criticize this unconscious action is a complete and utter waste of time. It will get you nowhere. Everyone has thoughts. Why shouldn’t you? Just strive to return to the belly as best you can. This is true practice.
Can I listen to sounds around me to keep me in the moment if following the breath proves too hard at times?
Absolutely. Just hear the sounds but don’t name or follow them. Keep moving to the next sound. Return to breath awareness practice as soon as you can.
What should I do when I’m tired or in pain?
Again, don’t fight it. If you’re tired, that’s your ‘just this’. Just find your ‘not-tired’. You do this first by straightening your spine and regaining your posture and then keeping it straight. The spine holds substantial energy. Then find your belly. When you lose this again (for you will) just repeat. If you are tired before a sitting, drink water to get oxygen into your blood. You do the same for pain, if it is normal, “I’ve never used those muscles” pain. If you are straining something or having severe difficulty, please speak with a teacher, the jitsu or your practice leader.
Can I move during zazen?
Try not to. It is part of the discipline. Itching and needing to move are simply distractions brought on by your mind. However, if you are in pain, it’s fine to adjust yourself discretely. If you feel that sitting on the floor for 3 periods is too hard – which it can be for all who begin Zen – please don’t hesitate to switch to a stool. Just bring it into the zendo with you and fold it flat against the wall. Switch to the stool after kin-hin.
My legs fall asleep. What can I do?
This often happens to people as they begin sitting on the floor, either on a zafu or even on a seiza bench. It means that you are sitting in a way that impedes the flow of blood in your legs. Try doing stretching exercises before sitting to develop your muscles. Also, you may need to sit a bit HIGHER on the zafu or bench. You can turn the zafu on its side for extra height or add a small pillow (pillows can be purchased from catalogs found in our library section). If the problem persists, please speak to one of the practice leaders or to a teacher.
All in all, remember that Zen can seem muddled. We must be willing to be in the flux of such ‘awareness’ development until it sorts itself out by itself and then, by itself, holds us in the reality of ‘just this’.