Counting the Breath
This is the practice that usually gets recommended for beginners. It’s so common that some meditators only do this practice and never do any others. We bring attention to each breath and this helps us to still the mind and increase our focus. We can count on either the inhale or the exhale. We spend the time of the sitting mentally counting. Every time something distracts us, we bring the mind back to one. There are two options for how to focus this. Some people like to focus on the breath entering the nose. Others like to focus on the rise and fall of the abdomen as each breath occurs.
This is the practice of “just sitting” It involves sitting and being aware of what is going on in this moment. This is generally not a technique for beginners. It’s where we just see where the mind goes and pay very close attention to it, rather than trying to influence it or take control. Why would this be hard? Because our goal is to just observe what the mind does, not let it take us somewhere. Our training in the other practices is what makes this practice possible. is often simply called Sitting Zen. This isn’t limited to the cushion. It refers to of being rooted in whatever happens and practicing harmony in whatever we do.
This is a meditation practice that uses sound as our point of focus. This practice involves training in concentration through focusing and returning to the sounds we’re hearing. We can do this in several ways. One is simply sitting and paying attention to the sounds around you. This works especially well if you meditate outdoors. Birds singing and the blowing of the wind are wonderful things to bring our attention to. And then we may start to notice after sitting in silence for a while that we can bring our attention to things that are very far away. Another method for this is to bring your attention to music. If this is your method I’d suggest some kind of chanting or kirtan music. I’d advise against using something that is likely to make you dance or sing along.
The great question, or Hua tou, is the Zen practice that a lot of people don’t talk about much. Questions used include things like “What am I?” and “What is this?” Master Hsu Yun used the question, “Who is dragging this corpse around?” which is really just a more hardcore way of asking “who am I?” We want to let go of all of our thoughts and feelings and bring all of our attention to the questioning. The practice usually includes the breath. During each inhale, repeat the question to yourself. There are several versions of this. One is that we mentally repeat the question and don’t try to answer it. Another is that we mentally repeat the question, try to come up with an answer, and realize we can’t. A third, and my favorite, is we ask the question on our inhale and on the exhale mentally say, “I don’t know.”