Meditation in Japan, led by a well known guru: “Breathe in. Then breathe out. Make your outward breath longer than the inward. This way, your body’s parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems will balance each other and you will relax.”
Rev Taka Kawakami is a Zen Buddhist monk who is a leading advocate for mindfulness. He’s even done a TED talk on it. He says the trick with all meditation is not to seek to quiet your mind. It is merely to let go of your attachment to your thoughts. Let them come, then let them go. Breathe. Relax.
To experience some of the tranquility meditation can bring, we stayed inside the Shunkoin Temple Guest House in Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital, where Zen Buddhism and angular temples are thick on the ground.
Meditation in Japan is all about stillness. For our morning meditation class, Kawakami ushered is into a quiet room with tatami mats on the floor, sliding doors and comfortable cushions arranged in three neat rows. We took our seats at the back and settled in with our fellow novices.
Kawakami ran us through the basics of meditation – how to breathe, how to sit, what to expect – and then we got stuck in with a 20 minute session.
Zen meditation in Japan isn’t so easy
Okay. This is easy. Just breathe in and out. And relax. Try to relax. Oh god. My foot’s going numb. Extend the leg. That’s better. Now clear away these thoughts. Let them come. Lose the attachment. No! Not that song again. What do you call it when a song gets stuck in your head? An earworm. Oh bloody hell, shut up. Na na na nan a nan a, getting’ jiggy with it. Sssshhhhhh! Breathe. Now my other foot’s asleep. Breathe in. Breathe out…
There was no moment of clarity for me where a gong pealed and the mysteries of the universe were revealed as I soared above the clouds. That’s not what meditation in Japan is for, according to Kawakami.
“Meditation is for calming the mind and taking away stress and attachment. If you can do that, then there is a path that can be cleared for solving your problems. But it’s not like you just do 20 hours of meditation and all is okay. You have to get up from the floor and take action.”
His smile lit up the room as he told us to be wary of thinking he is a guru. “People sometimes come to me asking if they should meditate as a way to solve things like their money problems. I say I don’t know – I’m a monk, not a financial planner!”
I came away from the class impressed. The twenty minutes went incredibly quickly, and even though I found it hard to relax and let go of my thoughts, I held onto the breathing technique – breathe in for five seconds, breathe out for ten. Still, I was a bit baffled.
Everything I’ve heard about meditation is related to improving your concentration or performance at work or in sport. To be honest, I didn’t quite get it. But all that was to change when I visited one of Kyoto’s most famous sites– the Fushimi Inari Shrine.
The beauty of a shrine
The orange painted structures are called torii gates and they stretch together like a colossal labyrinthine tunnel across and around the peak of a beautifully forested hill. It’s incredibly popular with tourists but we decided to go right before sunset when the crowds are a lot thinner.
Amazingly, we had the place almost to ourselves. The hike up is steep and long and I found the going a bit tough – my body was pretty tired from all of the walking and bicycling we had done over the previous week, and my mind was grumbling and moaning all the way up.
On the way down I tried meditating while I walked. I half closed my eyes and started the slow breathing, letting my thoughts come and go. And in a few moments I found myself gliding down the steps, my shoes making crisp notes on the rock steps, cool night air sharpening the sweat on my forehead. I was absolutely present in the moment, calm and still inside.
Finding my Zen meditation in Japan
The details emerged from the background – cracks in paint, dappling light, rushing wind in Japanese maples, the smell of rainwater and crushed pine needles. I felt the quiet all around and listened to my breath go in and out, paired with the clip clop tread of my shoes.
My thoughts came and went. What remained were quiet orange gates watched over by trees swaying in the wind.