I'm an admirer of Zen, albeit from afar. Meaning, I enjoy Zen philosophy, but diving into Zen practice doesn't appeal to me.
Zen is unreligious compared to traditional faiths. However there's still too much bowing and scraping before Zen masters for my churchless non-soul. Also, Zen's disciplines seem needlessly rigid, rooted more in habit than in practicality.
That said, for a few days I've been trying out a meditation approach in James Austin's new book, "Meditating Selflessly: Practical Neural Zen." Austin, a clinical neurologist, is into the scientific side of Zen.
I like the approach. Nice and simple. It gives me a Just This taste of Zen without having to swallow a four-course meal. Give it a try yourself, if you're into meditating.
(WIth my iPhone I snapped some photos of images in Austin's book because I liked them, and they help to convey the essence of this mediation approach; my apologies to the illustrator for the off-color and off-focus photos).
A standard preliminary step in training your top-down form of attention is to label each part of the breathing cycle in a way that distinguishes the phase of breathing in from the phase of breathing out. A simple "just this" approach represents a variation of the usual silent, one-to-ten counting system.
For example, let its sequences begin by first prolonging the silent word "JUST..." throughout each in-breath. J-U-S-T signifies that your attention is now focusing on "Just" (on only) a single silent number -- from one to ten -- during each of your next ten expirations.
SImilarly, prolong each of these numbers throughout the entire out-breath. This enables each breathing cycle to resemble:
J-U-S-T W-O-O-N-N; J-U-S-T T-O-O-O; J-U-S-T T-H-R-E-E, etc.
After the next sets of these numbers (1 to 10) fade, change the first word. Now prolong the word "THIS..." throughout each in-breath, following it with the same series of ten numbers on the out-breath. T-H-I-S-S also takes on a specific meaning. It signifies that your attention will now be focusing on only this next particular number.
Because you have stretched out both the words and the numbers, each successive breathing cycle now fully occupies your entire mental field. No mental space remains at either edge into which any extraneous, discursive thoughts can intrude.
As your random thought energies slowly recede, the ordinary rising and falling movements down in your lower abdomen can increasingly occupy the perceptual foreground of your attention and awareness. The above sets of word-numbers will also fade.
At this point, introduce two more changes. First, let "J-U-S-T" return to be the silent beginning word that fully occupies each in-breath. Second, let "T-H-I-S" move over to replace each of the numbers. "T-H-I-S" becomes the new label for each out-breath, and closes each breathing cycle.
You may find it useful to reserve a particular meaning for JUST THIS. Let it signify that only this particular moment exists, right NOW, within a vast expanding awareness. This mental field is now free to open into the whole wide world. It's psychic contents have been reduced toward just this exquisite simplicity.
Likewise, awareness of almost all of your physical Self has also been fading because it has been reduced to just each faint rising and falling movement down at the distant site of your lower abdomen.
After a few rounds of J-U-S-T T-H-I-S, both words also tend to fade out by themselves into your general awareness of each present moment. Now your mental field can become relatively clear and thought-free to register just those faint movements down in your lower abdomen. There, let each in-and-out signify the universal life force as it happens to express itself in this one body's innate rhythm of breathing.
You simply allow the faint natural rhythm to blend into the open mental background. All of your temporary discursive stuff has dropped out of this field of awareness.
Ultimately, during deep meditation, even the sense of a breathing rhythm in your lower abdomen can drop off. At this point, "all" that remains is Awareness per se.