Zen Shikantaza - Breath Counting Meditation (Seated Meditation)
(An Interview with Grace Schireson, Part 1)
Meditation How: What form of meditation do you practice?
Grace: My home base for meditation practice is 45 years of experience in Soto Zen shikantaza, or the school of silent illumination. Many times throughout the day I will find my breath for a minute or two of practice. I meditate every day (20-30 minutes) with this method, once or twice a day. I also lead regularly scheduled meditation retreats, classes and workshops where I teach this practice and point out the way it changes your life from the inside out.
I have determined that this specific practice is most reliable for me and my students and does not require close supervision from a teacher. While I believe it is essential for meditation students to have a teacher for guidance, some practices are more risky in my view—that is they can create energetic imbalances and require closer supervision. For example, koan practice from the Chinese, Korean and Japanese traditions may require a kind of forceful effort that may leave a student off balance or depleted.
I have studied this method with my own teacher in Kyoto, Fukushima Keido Roshi of Tofukuji monastery, but I only teach it to students who are committed to working closely with me, and who are of a steady and mature temperament. I have also studied Tibetan practices and visualizations, but I believe that these more elaborate trainings require closer supervision and ongoing and extensive trainings.
Meditation How: Thank you. I am excited to hear more. I am a bit confused. You mention that you "find your breath" for a minute or two, and then you write that you meditate for a 20-30 minute period once or twice a day. Are these separate practices, and what do they entail exactly. Perhaps you can describe the process of each.
Grace: Finding the breath is informal meditation wherever you may be, sitting for 20-30 minutes is formal meditation. One needs to practice both ways.
Meditation How: Can you describe to me how "finding the breath" works?
Grace: My teacher always said that a good Zen student always knows where her breath is. So even though we breathe automatically, we can become conscious of the subtle qualities of the breath—where it is in the body, is it long or short, tight or loose— and work to develop a softer, more refined and healing breath. We can notice where our bodies are tight, breathe into the tension and let go.
Seated meditation involves taking a meditation posture, as is customary in a particular tradition, and focusing on the breath, especially counting the exhale at the beginning. One counts from one to ten, exhales only and returns to one again. The attention is focused on the breath, and the mind is like a big sky, where thoughts cross, but are not engaged as a thinking activity. As concentration deepens subtle signs appear—peacefulness, bliss and a quality of engaged and tangible presence.
Meditation How: Is it your personal experience that these practices of breath counting meditation and sitting meditation carry over something of their quality into those moments when you are not in meditation?
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