Zen meditation, also known as Zazen, is a meditation technique rooted in Buddhist psychology. The goal of Zen meditation is to regulate attention.1 It’s sometimes referred to as a practice that involves “thinking about not thinking.”
People usually sit in the lotus position—or sit with their legs crossed—during Zen meditation and focus their attention inward. While some practitioners say this step is accomplished by counting breaths—generally from one to 10—others say there is no counting involved.
What Happens During Zen Meditation
Zen meditation is considered an “open-monitoring meditation,” where monitoring skills are used. These monitoring skills are transformed into a state of reflexive awareness with a broad scope of attention and without focusing on one specific object.
Zen meditation is similar to mindfulness in that it's about focusing on the presence of mind. However, mindfulness focuses on a specific object, and Zen meditation involves a general awareness.
Unlike loving kindness and compassion meditation, which focuses on cultivating compassion, or mantra meditation, which involves the recitation of a mantra, Zen meditation involves increased awareness of the ongoing physical and self-referential processes.
Individuals who practice Zen meditation attempt to expand their attentional scope to incorporate the flow of perceptions, thoughts, emotions, and subjective awareness.
Zen meditation often involves keeping the eyes semi-open, which is different from most other forms of meditation that encourage closing the eyes. During Zen meditation, practitioners also dismiss any thoughts that pop into their minds and essentially think about nothing.
Over time, they learn how to keep their minds from wandering and may even be able to tap into their unconscious minds. Often, the goal is to become more aware of preconceived notions and gain insight into oneself.
Research clearly shows 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.
It’s likely that Zen meditation offers many of the same benefits as other types of meditation, but much of the research on meditation hasn’t differentiated between the different types.
There is early research that shows different types of meditation may affect the brain in slightly different ways. So, it’s possible that Zen meditation might offer some additional benefits beyond those seen in other types of meditation.
Impact on the Brain
For years, scientists have studied how meditation affects the mind and the body. There has been some particular interest in Zen meditation practice and how it affects the brain. In a 2008 study, researchers compared 12 people who had more than three years of daily practice in Zen meditation with 12 novices who had never practiced meditation.4
Everyone in the study was given a brain scan and asked to focus on their breathing. Occasionally, they were asked to distinguish a real word from a nonsense word on a computer screen. Then, they were instructed to focus on their breathing again.
The scans revealed that Zen training led to activity in a set of brain regions known as the “default network.” The default network is linked to wandering minds.
The volunteers who regularly practiced Zen meditation also were able to return to their breathing much faster than the novices after being interrupted.
The authors of the study concluded that meditation may enhance the capacity to stay focused, pay attention, and limit distractions—all of which can be a struggle for people in today’s digital world.4
Access to the Unconscious
There’s also been a lot of curiosity about whether Zen meditation can allow practitioners to better access their unconscious minds. It’s thought that the conscious mind can only focus on one thing at a time—like your grocery list or a book that you’re reading.
But, experts suspect the unconscious mind is vast. 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 reach their goals.
A 2012 study examined whether Zen meditation helped practitioners better access their unconscious minds. All of the participants were experienced Zen meditators. One group was asked to meditate for 20 minutes. The other group was asked to read magazines. Then, all of the participants were seated in cubicles with a computer.
They were instructed to link three words presented on the screen with a fourth, associated word. They also were asked to type the answer as fast as possible. The individuals who meditated prior to the test were able to complete the task faster, which demonstrated that they had better access to their unconscious minds.
The study authors report Zen meditation might be able to provide better insight into what’s going on in the background of the brain.
If Zen meditation allows you to better understand how you’re feeling, why you make certain decisions, and how you’re influenced by your environment, this could have a big impact on your life.