Zen meditation may increase focus and bring relief from the mind-body, self-other duality Buddhists suggest influences suffering, alienation, and addiction.
Zazen (aka Zen) meditation is informed by Buddhism and — like its offshoot, Western mindfulness meditation — teaches the in-the-now-awareness known to reduce stress.
It may even go deeper than this, though. Zazen can potentially reveal your true connection with everyone on the planet. This may provide an antidote to alienation and prejudices.
In recent years, researchers and participants in the recovery community, including Randall Hall, vice president of Recovery Dharma, see the potential of Buddhist-inspired meditation for lessening the effects of cravings, addictions, trauma, and loneliness.
Zazen, or Zen, is a form of sitting meditation. It evolved from the 463 BC teaching of Buddha, and in the 19th century, people from the Himalayas brought Zazen meditation to the West.
In the West, Zen meditation and mindfulness meditation have been understood almost interchangeably. These practices can teach you to detach from the swirling thoughts that create stress.
In the past few decades, both types of meditation have been used to help with mental health care and substance misuse interventions.
The relationship between Zen meditation and mindfulness meditation can be complicated, though. This is because Zazen is understood differently depending on the context.
In a 2002 article, for example, Zen teacher Isshō Fujita says that traditional Zazen is not the same thing as meditation at all.
Zazen, sometimes described as “sitting like a mountain,” is not a technique or tool to achieve something, like calmer thoughts or a meditative state. Instead, it’s a complete focus of both body and mind on only the act of sitting and nothing else.
Researchers in 2022 suggest that studies of mindfulness meditation may benefit from looking more closely at the effects of Buddhist philosophical teachings and moral concepts.
Beyond the positive effects of meditative breathing, there may be benefits of practicing an ethical mindset focused on right conduct, disciplined thought, and wisdom.
Purpose of Zazen
A main goal of Zen meditation is to ready the mind for effortless thinking and observing.
Hall, who practices Buddhist-inspired meditation in Recovery Dharma, finds that the discipline of wise concentration helps practitioners:
- develop a single-pointed focus instead of being distracted by unimportant matters
- remember that everything is temporary
- understand that there are karmic consequences for our actions
- learn to sit with pain instead of reacting to or escaping from it
- cultivate compassion, awareness, and balance
- awaken from codependent relationships or process compulsions such as:
There are five varieties of Zen, or sitting. From Bombu to Saijojo, they progress in difficulty and commitment level.
The five types are:
- Bombu. This quiet sitting practice is meant for everyone, including the untrained. Meditations that you practice through an app or a martial arts class might be examples.
- Gedo. This Zen is practiced in order to achieve difficult challenges — like walking over burning coals with bare feet. It is not considered a Buddhist meditation. (You may not want to practice this alone at home.)
- Shojo. This is in the Buddhist tradition, but is not the highest form of Zen. When practicing Shojo, you focus on your own peace of mind, but you’re not enlightened to the understanding that freedom from suffering is connected to the freedom from suffering of others.
- Daijo. In this form of Zen, you’re seeking enlightenment and awakening to your true nature. But because you’re still trying to awaken, you’re not in the highest, effortless form of sitting.
- Saijojo. This is the highest form of sitting. You know that you are sitting in your true nature, one within yourself and with everything.
They found higher telomerase levels in the skilled meditators than in the comparison group. This suggests that long-term meditative practice supports healthy aging.
Unlike the control group, the Zen practitioners showed faster processing of and less emotional response to negatively charged words post-meditation.
The study suggests that when practiced long-term, Zen meditation improves concentration and emotional regulation.
Other potential benefits of Zen meditation include:
- stress and anxiety reduction
- increased self-awareness
- reduction of cravings
A 2021 study explores Recovery Dharma as a promising resource for the treatment of substance use disorders and process addictions.
For the study, 209 participants completed an online survey to help paint a picture of whom this mutual help organization (MHO), or peer-led group, attracts and how it might be helpful.
Recovery Dharma is guided by the book “Recovery Dharma: How to Use Buddhist Practices and Principles to Heal the Suffering of Addictions.”
Buddhism teaches the four noble truths. The first three seem to speak to the trauma or pain frequently associated with addiction:
- Suffering is an inevitable part of life.
- Craving underlies all suffering.
- It’s possible to awake from suffering through the eightfold path, which includes:
- wise understanding
- wise action
- wise employment
- wise mind
- wise concentration
Recovery Dharma meetings typically open with a 20-minute guided meditation, a unique facet compared with other MHOs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
In the study, participants rated guided meditations as a helpful and broadly used feature, second only to the meetings themselves. Participants committed to daily meditation practice.
Assistant professor and lead researcher at The University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada, Dr. Onawa LaBelle said in a personal interview that she finds Recovery Dharma’s “integration of meditation exciting.”
The 11th step of Alcohol Anonymous: The Big Book reads, “we sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood him.” But, observes Onawa, folks are left to their own efforts when it comes to how to meditate.
LaBelle isn’t suggesting Recovery Dharma over other MHOs. In fact, many people in the program attend or have attended 12-step programs.
She does think that teaching people to meditate and then urging them to commit to an at-home practice improves their “recovery capital.” In other words, this meditation can be one of the personal and cultural factors that contribute to a person’s recovery.
Additionally, both Onawa and Hall feel encouraged that Recovery Dharma seems welcoming to:
- people in LGBTQIA2S+ communities
- those of different faiths
- people with diverse recovery focuses
An introduction to Zazen can be found here. Basic features of practice include the following:
Setting the stage
You might want to:
- Find a quiet place.
- Wear loose clothing.
- Sit on a square mat or pillow with the wall behind you.
- Cross your legs, assuming a Lotus Pose (feet on opposite thighs) if possible.
Zazen is effortless. Most practitioners don’t count breaths. A way of breathing might be to:
- Breathe once deeply, exhaling slowly through a slightly open mouth, getting rid of all the air.
- Continue breathing through your nose at a rate and depth that feels natural to you.
- Forget about your breath.
What to do with your eyes, hands, thoughts
- Effortless wakefulness might be maintained by keeping your eyes partially open, vision unfocused, looking downward.
- Per the Lotus Pose, your right hand might be palm up on your left foot, your left hand palm up on your right palm. Your thumbs can be in front of your belly button.
- Thoughts may be smooth, concentrated on preparing to think rather than on an object.
Practitioners differ in their level of commitment to and understanding of Zazen, the seated meditation that comes from Buddhism.
You may consider trying Zen meditation for stress reduction, recovery, or emotional regulation. Or you may meditate with dharma, immersing yourself in Buddhist principles of right living and thinking and focusing on awakening.
Want to find a Zen center in your state? You might check here. Interested in Recovery Dharma? More than 200 meetings can be found here.