Zen meditation, also known as Zazen, is a meditation technique with roots in Buddhist psychology. The goal of Zen meditation is to regulate attention.
It is sometimes referred to as a practice that involves “thinking about not thinking.”
People usually sit in the lotus position – or cross-legged – during Zen meditation and focus their attention inward. Although some practitioners say this step is done by counting breaths-usually one to ten-others say there is no counting involved.
What happens during Zen meditation
Zen meditation is considered an“open monitoring meditation,” in which monitoring skills are used. These monitoring skills are transformed into a state of reflective awareness with a broad scope of attention and no focus on a specific object.
Zen meditation is similar to mindfulness in the sense that it is about focusing on the presence of mind. However, mindfulness focuses on a specific object, and Zen meditation involves general awareness.
Unlike kindness and compassion meditation, which focuses on cultivating compassion, or mantra meditation, which involves reciting a mantra, Zen meditation involves a heightened awareness of ongoing physical and self-referential processes.
People who practice Zen meditation attempt to broaden their scope of attention to incorporate the flow of perceptions, thoughts, emotions, and subjective awareness.
Zen meditation often involves keeping the eyes half-open, which differs from most other forms of meditation that encourage closing the eyes. During Zen meditation, practitioners also dismiss any thoughts that come to mind and basically think of nothing.
Over time, they learn to keep their minds from wandering and may even be able to access their unconscious minds. Often, the goal is to become more aware of preconceived notions and gain a greater understanding of oneself.
Benefits of Zen meditation
Research clearly shows that meditation has a wide range of physical, cognitive, social, spiritual and emotional health benefits. And, of course, meditation can be a great stress reliever, which is why many people turn to it in the first place.
Zen meditation likely offers many of the same benefits as other types of meditation, but much of the research on meditation has not differentiated between the different types.
Early research shows that different types of meditation may affect the brain slightly differently. Therefore, it is possible that Zen meditation may offer some additional benefits to those seen in other types of meditation.
Effects of Zen meditation on the brain
For years, scientists have studied how meditation affects the mind and body. The practice of Zen meditation and its effect on the brain have attracted particular interest. In a 2008 study, researchers compared 12 people who had been practicing Zen meditation daily for more than three years with 12 novices who had never practiced meditation.
All participants in the study were given a brain scan and asked to concentrate on their breathing. From time to time, they were asked to distinguish a real word from a nonsense word on the computer screen. They were then asked to concentrate on their breathing again.
The scans revealed that the Zen training triggered activity in a set of brain regions known as the “default network.” The default network is related to wandering minds.
Volunteers who regularly practiced Zen meditation were also able to return to their breathing much faster than novices after being interrupted.
The study authors concluded that meditation can improve the ability to maintain focus, pay attention and limit distractions, all of which can be a struggle for people in today’s digital world.
Accessing the unconscious
There has also been much curiosity about whether Zen meditation can allow practitioners to better access their unconscious minds. It is believed that the conscious mind can only focus on one thing at a time, such as the grocery list or a book being read.
But experts suspect that the unconscious mind is very broad. Many researchers believe that knowing how to access unconscious processes could foster greater creativity and help people become more aware of what they need to do to achieve their goals.
A 2012 study examined whether Zen meditation helped practitioners better access their unconscious mind. All participants were experienced Zen meditators. One group was asked to meditate for 20 minutes. The other group was asked to read magazines. Next, all participants sat in cubicles with a computer.
They were asked to match three words presented on the screen with an associated fourth word. They were also asked to type in the answer as quickly as possible. Individuals who meditated before the test were able to complete the task more quickly, which showed that they had better access to their unconscious minds.
In another study, one group was again asked to meditate for 20 minutes, while the control group was simply told to relax. All volunteers were then asked 20 questions, each with three or four correct answers. For example, they were asked to name one of the four seasons of the year. However, just before seeing the question on the computer screen, a possible answer such as “Spring” flashed for 16 milliseconds.
On average, the meditation group gave 6.8 answers that matched the subliminal words. The control group only got an average of 4.9 words right. The researchers concluded that the meditators were better able to access what the brain paid attention to than the non-meditators.
The authors of the study report that Zen meditation may provide a better understanding of what is going on in the background of the brain.
If Zen meditation allows you to better understand how you feel, why you make certain decisions, and how you are influenced by your environment, this could have a big impact on your life.
Treatment of drug addiction
Zen meditation is often used in drug abuse treatment programs in Taiwan because it slows the heart rate and breathing, while improving the functioning of the autonomic nervous system. In fact, the authors of a 2018 study published in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine found that Zen meditation affects interactions between the brain and heart
According to the authors, Zen practitioners dedicate their practice to revealing the spiritual heart within the heart of the organ. They state, “Through years of Zen meditation practice, practitioners have their brain functions totally reformed into a so-called detached brain dominated by the spiritual heart.”
People recovering from substance abuse may also experience problems with their autonomic nervous system, the system responsible for controlling bodily functions that are not consciously directed, such as breathing, heartbeat and digestive processes.
Researchers have found that 10-minute Zen meditation sessions have shown significant improvement in autonomic nervous system function in patients.
Zen meditation also improves mood; and a better mood may be key to helping people with a drug addiction resist the temptation to return to using. The researchers also found that Zen meditation“improves hypothalamic and frontal lobe functioning,” which improves self-control and helps people overcome addiction.
Sixteen of the 18 participants in the study reported experiencing “cleansing and rejuvenation of the body and mind” after a 10-minute Zen meditation session. Participants also reported a tingling of the scalp, warmth throughout the body, and a feeling of coolness.
Researchers who use Zen meditation as a treatment claim that it influences regions of the brain that help people successfully get through the detoxification and recovery process.
How to learn Zen-style meditation
There are many ways to learn more about zen meditation, including audio programs, online videos, online learning programs and books dedicated to the topic. You can also find a Zen meditation class to learn from an instructor. In addition, there are a variety of meditation retreats that last from a weekend to a month or more.
Zen meditation retreats are especially popular with tourists in China who want to learn the practice in a Buddhist temple. So, depending on your interests, needs and budget, there are many ways to find a program that will help you learn Zen meditation techniques.
is Zen Buddhist meditation right for you?
When it comes to meditation, it’s important to find the type that’s right for you. Research shows that Zen meditation doesn’t always turn out to be a favorite. In fact, sometimes, it’s near the bottom of the list.
In a 2012 study, college students spent seven days practicing a specific type of meditation over the course of four weeks. At the end of the study, they were asked to rank the meditation practices in order of personal preference. Significantly more participants ranked Vipassana (mindfulness) meditation and Mantra meditation higher than Zen and Qigong Visualization.