What's in it for you? Well, in a recent study, 13 regular practitioners of Zen meditation were not only studied, but had MRIs taken of their brains regularly. What is particularly noteworthy about the findings was that the putamen, the area of our grey matter associated with attentional processing, grew. It is this very area that is normally seen wearing away with age, and is found to be particularly damaged due to Alzheimer's disease and in cases of dementia. What the scientific community deemed from this study is the exciting news that Zen meditation may help prevent conditions such as the aforementioned Alzheimer's and dementia. The word used in the study is "neuroprotective" -- in other words, it protects the function of the brain.
Zen can be traced back to China in the 6th century, but at that time it was called Chán. The term "Zen" is the Japanese pronunciation of Chán. Of course, going even farther back, it seems that the word Chán is the Chinese pronunciation of the Hindi word dhyāna, which is word to describe absorption in a meditative state. What is the self-proclaimed aim of the teachings of Zen? The ancients did not emphasize brain growth or protection in any of the texts I have encountered. What they do focus on is meditative practice with the aim of the experience of "enlightenment," a word which also contains, in the context of Zen, self-realization and wisdom.
Although Zen is a type of Buddhism, I do not consider it religious and this is why: The worship of the Buddha as an individual being with super powers is not part of the meditative practices. There are many different branches of Buddhism, some of which are worshipful and therefore religious. Zen, like many other non-religious types of Buddhism, may refer to the Buddha, but when they do, they are merely referring to the enlightened awareness possible in every being.
How to practice Zazen:
Zazen is traditionally practiced sitting on a zafu pillow or bench in cross-legged full lotus with erect posture of spine and zero slouching. Part of the traditional character of zen is that it can require mental and physical discipline. However, I encourage you to find a sitting position that is comfortable for you, either on the floor or seated in a chair with feet flat on the floor. In zen, the erect spine is emphasized, and this includes the neck and head remaining straight and long.
Place your non-dominant hand within your dominant hand in your lap comfortably, palms facing upward. Then, allow your thumbs to touch, making a little bridge above your palms at navel level. For a visual, enjoy the video embedded above.
Zazen begins with counting each breath up to the number 10. It is encouraged to focus only on the breath and the counting without letting your thoughts carry you away. For example, inhale and count, "One," exhale, "Two," inhale, "Three," exhale, "Four," and so on in this fashion. When you reach 10, begin again. Let go of all other thoughts and emotions, emptying yourself like a flute or chute of bamboo.
If you feel you have mastered this practice, you may move on to counting an inhale and exhale as one, the next inhale/exhale as two, and so forth.
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