Guest Blog by Cassandra Tribe, Master Instructor, the Zen Studies Program
The health and wellness benefits of Zen Studies
Meditation is becoming the buzzword in health and wellness circles for a lot of reasons. There are the solid points provided by a host of clinical studies that show it has a dramatic and immediate effect on reducing physical reactions to stress. Now, more and more evidence is building that the practices in which meditation sit are an even stronger form of preventative and restorative medicine. It is even helpful that so many health insurance companies are encouraging businesses to promote meditation to their employees because of the noticeable decrease in severe illness, absence and employee turnover that is a direct result of meditation programs. Meditation would appear to be a growing phenomenon and yet it is often hard to find a basic explanation of why it works and what it is.
Zazen, the Common Meditation
Zazen is perhaps the most well-known of the meditation practices. Show someone a picture of a person seated on a cushion (zafu) with their legs crossed and hands held in their lap and ten to one they would guess correctly that the person was meditating. At the core of all Zen is seated meditation, or Zazen. It is alternately understood as a silent form of meditation and a seated form of silent meditation. Some schools of Zen only practice the seated meditation and others use a mixture of moving, seated and practical meditation. That alone can be confusing, more for the fact that many Westerners are unaware of that there are different schools and traditions of Zen then that they are not aware of the differences that separate them.
No matter how they differ, they all agree on one thing – that the purpose of practicing meditation is to enable you to stop suffering and to become able to help others to stop suffering as well.
What are you doing when you are just sitting there?
Zazen is the practice of Zen, no matter what the tradition. While it is often said that there are “no words or text” involved with sitting Zazen, there is actually a deeply involved learning process that leads the practitioner to being able to sit silently. Otherwise, as an old Zen saying goes, “A person sitting in silence is just not speaking.” A lot of people get turned off from the practice of meditation because they are told they are supposed to be “emptying” their minds and when after several weeks, there are still thoughts there – they feel a sense of failure and give up. They haven’t failed, the process has just been poorly explained.
In the beginning, the practitioner is taught several methods of breathing and of letting go of thoughts. Not “letting go” as in they no longer exist, but letting go as in choosing not to become trapped on one track of thinking. This is what “emptying the mind” means in the beginning. Part of the intitial experience of Zazen is the discovery of just how much you are thinking and what you are thinking about.
This core, introductory practice can be understood spiritually, psychologically and physiologically. Spiritually, you are learning to calm yourself and reconnect with a larger world than what exists within you. Psychologically, you are giving yourself permission to think and feel without judgment – which is powerfully validating. Physiologically it has been proven that the breathing methods and thought quieting that people learn in Zazen immediately lowers their heart rate and begins to build an entire chain of physical events in the body that allow the body to begin healing itself to a great degree.
The longer you meditate and the more consistent and regular your practice, the more the cumulative effects of these three aspects begin to shape and change your life. Spiritually, you begin to act in ways more in keeping with your moral beliefs and to develop a stronger compassionate relationship to the world that is active, and not just a passive thought. Psychologically they found that meditation can help people with ADD/ADHD, OCD, PTSD, grief, depression, anxiety and chemical dependencies gain ground faster in their recovery and give them more control over managing their conditions and symptoms. Physically, meditation does a body good. It is surprising the way that the body reacts to this still and silent process. Once you have meditated a few days in a row, it is almost as if your body becomes trained to the breath. All you have to do in a stressful situation is to begin to breathe in that pattern and your body will automatically respond as if you were doing a 20 minute sit.
Meditation is used to help terminally ill and chronically ill patients not only manage their pain, but come to a place within the reality of their illness that is something quite different than the acceptance most counseling strives for. Meditative practices allow them to move to a place where they are free of the suffering caused by the illness. This freedom may not be 24/7, but they can access it at will to gain relief. Better still, it gives them a renewed compassion towards themselves and those around them that can illuminate an otherwise difficult lives.
Anger, resentment, loss, envy and jealousy all are recast in a new perspective with practice as are compassion, love and hope. Meditation does not so much bring one up and one down, but allows you to explore the natural balance between all of these emotions and all the events that happen to us during our lives. There are few other places where we can go and safely explore what scares us and what moves with its beauty.
Zazen is the core practice of Zen. There are numerous traditions and schools of Zen, each with their own slight differences, but all with similar practices that strive towards the same goal. The purpose of engaging in Zen Studies is to learn and discover, question and challenge, guide and be guided towards this goal: to end suffering in the individual life and in the world and to allow someone the gift of learning who they are and to make it possible for them to offer compassion to themselves and others. This is done through the reading and study of the sutras, the discovery of all the practices that have proven helpful in the past to developing compassion, and to choose to strive to live well by a creed that could be shorten to just – “do no harm, do good, live well.”
Getting started is easy, and that makes it incredibly hard for most. All you have to do is sit, breathe evenly and let everything inside you come as it may. Hold on to none of it. It is recommended that if you wish to learn to meditate that you find a teacher. Meditating alone and trying to learn it yourself can backfire because it’s easy to remain at the mercy of old tapes and bad memories. Finding someone who is both teacher and friend, who can be your sounding board, challenge you, and help you find the way that works for you is important. But don’t seek the teacher first and put off the meditation, dare to start the practice, risk not doing it perfectly while you also start looking for a teacher and community.
After all, the first thing they will want to do with you is – sit. Sit, be silent and share the world in way that is far deeper than any words would allow.
Cassandra Tribe, Master Instructor, the Zen Studies Program
Cassandra Tribe is a Certified Meditation Instructor, Level 3 Reiki Master and 6th descendent of Mikao Usui Rōshi. She was granted Inka Shomei by Master Adele Malone of the Kaigen Sangha, UK in 2005(Kaigon/Rinzai). She studied at the Omega Institute during the 80s, received private instruction from Seosga Hyeung Kim in Korea from 1998-2001 and is in community with the Miccosukee, Mi’kmaq and Zia of the First Nations. She holds a Masters of Divinity, is an ordained Chaplain certified by Hague Apostille and has additional certifications in Sociology, Social Work, Psychology, Grief Counseling, Alzheimer’s and Thanatology. She is also a poet, artist and human rights activist.
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