Meditation is something that plays a part in virtually all religions, although some of them don't use the word meditation. And meditation is something that can be done with no religious element at all.
Meditation involves both the body and the mind. For Buddhists this is particularly important as they want to avoid what they call "duality", and so their way of meditating must involve the body and the mind as a single entity.
In the most general definition, meditation is a way of taking control of the mind so that it becomes peaceful and focused, and the meditator becomes more aware.
In Zen Buddhism the purpose of meditation is to stop the mind rushing about in an aimless (or even a purposeful) stream of thoughts. People often say that the aim of meditation is "to still the mind".
Zen Buddhism offers a number of methods of meditation to people - methods which have been used for a long time, and which have been shown to work.
Zen Buddhists can meditate on their own or in groups.
Meditating in a group - perhaps at a retreat called a "sesshin" or in a meditation room or "zendo" has the benefit of reminding a person that they are both part of a larger Buddhist community, and part of the larger community of beings of every species.
What is meditation?
Meditation is a mental and physical course of action that a person uses to
separate themselves from their thoughts and feelings in order to become fully
Meditation has no supernatural side, nor is the person meditation trying to get into a hypnotic state, or to get in touch with angels or anything like that.
A successful meditator is just simply being; not judging, not thinking, just simply being aware and at peace; living each moment as it comes as fully as possible.
Many different courses of actions can be meditation.
The key Zen practice is "zazen". This involves sitting in one of several available positions and meditating so that you become fully in touch with the true nature of reality.
Different schools of Zen do zazen in different ways: Soto meditators face a wall, Rinzai meditators sit in a circle facing each other.
Meditation is possible in any stable posture that keeps the spine fairly straight. Sitting quietly in a chair is perfectly acceptable.
The Lotus Position
The classic posture for Zen meditation is called the Lotus Position. This involves sitting cross-legged with the left foot on top of the right thigh and the right foot on top of the left thigh.
The lotus position is difficult and uncomfortable for beginners, and there are other sitting positions that are a lot easier to achieve, such as the half lotus (in which only one foot is put on top of the opposite thigh) or simply sitting cross-legged or sitting on a cushion with knees bent and lower legs tucked under upper legs.
Methods of meditation
Some classic meditation methods use the meditator's own breathing. They may just sit and concentrate on their breathing not doing anything to alter the way they breath, not worrying about whether they're doing it right or wrong, not even thinking about breathing; just "following" the breathing and "becoming one" with the breathing.
It's important not to think "I am breathing" - when a person does that they separate themselves from the breathing and start thinking of themselves as separate from what they are doing - the aim is just to be aware of breathing.
This is more difficult than it sounds, so some meditators prefer to count breaths, trying to count up to ten without any distraction at all, and then starting again at one. If they get distracted they notice the distraction and go back to counting.
But there are many methods of meditation - some involve chanting mantras, some involve concentrating on a particular thing (such as a candle flame or a flower). Nor does meditation have to involve keeping still; walking meditation is a popular Zen way of doing it, and repetitive movements using beads or prayer wheels are used in other faiths.
Meditation teaches self-discipline because it's boring, and because the body
gets uncomfortable. The meditator learns to keep going regardless of how bored
they are, or how much they want to scratch their nose.