Breath Awareness, Shikantaza & Koans

The foundation of all Zen practice is mindfulness and concentration of attention, and a dawning awareness of one’s connection to all things. Practice often starts with mindfulness of breathing – paying attention to each natural inhalation and exhalation of breath – and gradually extends into your whole life.

It’s usual, particularly at the start of practice, to find your attention repeatedly wandering to things other than the breath. That’s OK. The practice is not to get rid of thoughts, feelings and sensations, but rather to acknowledge them, without judgment (mindful awareness), and to gently bring your attention back to the breath (concentration of attention).

Some people find ‘counting breaths’ practice to be a useful way to bring their attention to the breath. Each exhalation is counted. Breathe in, breathe out, count ‘1′. Breathe in, breathe out, count ‘2’. And so on, up to 10. Then start over. Nothing is forced, nothing is judged. When your attention drifts, acknowledge the distraction, and gently return to the count – ‘1’, ‘2’, ‘3’ etc.

Steady, repeated practice of mindfulness of breathing provides an anchor for shikantaza (just sitting) practice. Shikantaza is an alive, expansive attention given to the unfolding of the present moment, and can be deepened and enriched by working with a teacher who is experienced in shikantaza.

Koan practice uses words, phrases and stories to focus inquiry into the nature of self. Koan practice is usually undertaken in partnership with a teacher who is experienced in koan practice.

Talk Audio: Silent Illumination, Subhana Barzaghi Roshi

Mindfulness of breathing can be practiced at any time or place – the breath is always with you – however regular zazen (sitting meditation) is the most common way to build and sustain a personal Zen practice over time.

Read more about zazen