My mind is agitated and I am hypersensitive. One tiny thing can drag me into an ocean of intertwined thoughts and emotions until I am unable to think clearly. Being stuck at home for the last month left me with more time alone with my thoughts than I ever wanted. Meditation seemed like exactly what I needed to find some inner peace amidst the chaos.
That was until I tried it and failed.
It would usually go something like this:
“Focus on your breath,” they say. All right. “Inhale and exhale…”
“I have to plan…”
“Inhale, feel the air entering your nose… and exhale.”
“I’m pissed at my boss…”
“Oh no, I fell asleep!”
It wasn’t until I clicked with a Herb Yoga Intensive Meditation & Zen workshop in Tokyo that I finally got it.
My gateway to meditation in Japan
My first Herb Yoga workshop was completely nuts. After a friendly welcome from the co-founder, Imi-san, followed by two cuddly little dogs in a messy, smelly entrance, I stepped into a room hidden behind curtains. I was a little skeptical at first, but the aesthetics of the room put me at ease.
Woven bamboo yoga mats laid on the floor and paintings of the sun and enso covered the walls. Enso, a sacred symbol of Zen Buddhism, is a circle drawn in calligraphy with one swift brushstroke, symbolizing the beauty of imperfection.
Suddenly, in the middle of our meditation, one of the dogs started to snore from behind the curtain. I opened an eye to glance around the room. Nobody was moving.
For our first meditation, we chanted the Om mantra. Although I was embarrassed at first, I started to relax after a few repetitions. Our voices synchronized and I began to enjoy the harmony of our chanting.
Suddenly, in the middle of our meditation, one of the dogs started to snore from behind the curtain. I opened an eye to glance around the room. Nobody was moving. I closed my eyes again, but the snoring grew louder and more distracting. I opened my eyes again, but nobody seemed to care. It was terrific!
As I struggled with the urge to burst out laughing at each passing snore, I realized how easily my mind could be distracted. This was my very first lesson from meditation. As the scribe says in the movie Asterix and Obelix, “I don’t think there is good or a bad situation,” I would say “I don’t think there is a good or bad meditation.”
With practice, we can all stay composed, even when a dog is loudly snoring next to us.
Silencing your mind with the om mantra
The average person has between 50,000 and 70,000 thoughts per day. Becoming aware of how active my mind is was the first step to silencing it. Learning how to keep it quiet was the second. Om meditation was the perfect way to achieve this.
During my second session, Imi-san explained why many meditation styles use the Om mantra. If you focus on the sound and the vibration in your body, you can stop other thoughts.
Indeed, a study published in the International Journal of Yoga revealed that while chanting Om, the vibration it creates deactivates a part of the brain called the limbic system, or the emotional brain. As a result, you can concentrate and be in the moment.
It took me a while to stop feeling awkward while chanting Om, but believe me, being able to stop thinking and only focusing on the feeling of the vibration flowing from your head down to your belly feels great.
Recovering your senses with scent tune-in meditation
We moved on to scent tune-in meditation, my personal favorite, which is unique to Herb Yoga. It uses a combination of body scan meditation with the benefits of aromatherapy. Each of us held a piece of galanga (a root similar to ginger) and Imi-san guided us to focus our senses.
We first focused on our sense of touch. Then, while bringing the herb closer to our noses, we concentrated on the smell. Finally, we “scanned” our bodies by imagining the energy of the root entering the nose and spreading throughout the body.
The smell… took me to imaginary fields in Southeast Asia, and I saw myself—face bathed in sunlight, hair moving with the wind—caressing tall, fragrant plants.
Despite my trouble with concentrating, I felt a tingling in my hand the first time I tried this style of meditation. The smell of the galanga took me to imaginary fields in Southeast Asia, and I saw myself—face bathed in sunlight, hair moving with the wind—caressing tall, fragrant plants.
Smell is one of our strongest senses and utilizing it helps to deepen the meditation. Practitioners of this meditation style believe the aromatic essence of the plant helps balance the body, mind, and spirit.
While practicing scent tune-in daily, I have noticed the effects continue to influence my awareness not only during the actual meditation but in everyday life.
Moving onto Buddhist zazen meditation
Once I was more familiar with meditation, I decided to try the most famous method in Japan, zazen, the discipline most commonly connected with Zen Buddhists.
Zazen simply means “zen meditation” in Japanese. It is a form of seated meditation with the goal being to study the self. The instructions are simple. While seated upright in the lotus position, keep your eyes half-open, and follow your breathing.
If you notice thoughts stirring in your mind, simply let them pass without letting them take root. Strict respect of the zazen posture is emphasized, and when you meditate in a temple, if you allow your body to relax, a zen master will hit you gently with a stick as a reminder to sit upright. Sounds fun, right?
My back tensed up as I struggled to find a comfortable position. Little by little, I managed to isolate and then let go of thoughts associated with physical pain and my mind felt calm by the end.
After a few months of meditation, I am convinced that we should all meditate daily. Just like we brush our teeth, meditation should be a routine to keep our minds healthy.
Where to try meditation in Japan
Convinced and ready to try meditation for yourself? Scent tune-in is exclusive to Herb Yoga in Tokyo. Here’s a brief list of places in Japan where you can try zazen and other styles.
- Tokozen-ji Temple (Yokohama)
Practice zen meditation in person at Tokozen-ji Temple in Yokohama. After an explanation of zazen basics, you’ll be led by a zen master. Japanese tea and sweets are served afterward as a bonus. Tokozen-ji’s head monk, Daigo Ozawa, also organizes free online zazen sessions via Zoom.
Kencho-ji is the oldest Zen Buddhist temple in Kamakura, where Tokozen-ji’s head monk also joins to lead English meditations.
- Shunkoin Temple (Kyoto)
Outside of Kanto, Kyoto has hundreds of temples available for learning zen meditation. Shunkoin Temple opens its doors to anyone willing to deepen their understanding of zazen. Shunkoin’s priest has taught around the world and at TEDxKyoto!
Vipassana Silent Retreat
- Japan Vipassana Association (Kyoto and Chiba)
Vipassana is one of India’s most ancient Buddhist meditation techniques. The Japan Vipassana Association has two centers in Japan that offer a monthly silent retreat that lasts for 10 days. For the entire duration, you will observe a “noble silence,” meaning any form of communication with other participants, be it through gestures, sign language, written notes, etc., is not allowed.
My meditation journey will continue with a silent Vipassana retreat in Chiba. Stay tuned for my review of the experience!