Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Mindful Parakeet

The Mindful Parakeet
The Mindful Parakeet

Physical therapy for zazen will be Friday's post.

As I described previously I have had 2 injuries that effected my posture (click here to read the 1st injury and click here if you want to read about the second injury.)

On Friday I will share how I use a Bodyblade to help correct some of the effects of those injuries while doing sitting meditation.

In the meantime stay mindful as a parakeet!

Friendly Bows _/|\_

Friday, February 22, 2013

Review of The Mountain Zabuton - Zen Meditation Mat


 It is designed and produced by Dharma Communications which is the non-profit store of the Zen Mountain Monastery and the Mountains and Rivers Order in New York.

Quick Summary:  I love this meditation mat and use it daily with my zafu (meditation cushion) and my seiza (meditation bench.)  It is the most comfortable zabuton I have ever used.

The Review

The Mountain Zabuton Meditation Mat
The Mountain Zabuton
Meditation Mat
When practicing zazen I work to achieve a physical starting point that I think of as "finding neutral".  Neutral is the physical posture that develops a strong 3 point base (your knees/legs and your bum) and balances your frame evenly on the base.

If you lean too far forward then extra weight is applied to the legs and knees.  This leads to what feels like "the exploding kneecap syndrome" or "my ankles are killing me syndrome."  Either way, all you can think about is - "when the heck is the bell going to ring?"

If you lean too far back then typically you strain your back muscles.  This can also become quite painful and you're back to - "when the heck is the bell going to ring?"

Neutral is that awesome spot in-between.  I can sit comfortably in neutral for hours and only need to swap leg positions about every 30 minutes.  This is where the zabuton comes to play.

Once you are well balanced the zabuton cushions 2 points of the 3 point base.  If the zabuton is too worn or thin then your knees or ankles start screaming.  At my sangha's Dharma Hall the zabutons are all pretty well used (which is a good thing.)  They are fine for 2 half-hour sits with walking meditation in between but that is the outer limit.  Occasionally I will stack 2 on top of each other if one was particularly thin.

I had always assumed that was just the way zabutons were...enter The Mountain Zabuton.  The materials and craftsmenship of this meditation mat are fantastic.  Instead of being square this zabuton is  rectangular, approximately 34"x29".  However the important measurement is the thickness - which is approximately 4 inches.
Construction of The Mountain Zabuton Meditation Mat
Construction of The Mountain Zabuton
Meditation Mat

The core of this zabuton is viscoelastic foam which is sandwiched between cotton batting and a black cotton/poly outer shell.  The result is a very, very comfortable meditation mat.  The foam makes a huge difference.  I have never sat on another zabuton that comes close to The Mountain Zabuton for comfort.  If you are in the market for a meditation mat this is the one to get and find your neutral.

Here is one maintenance note that I'm finding helpful.  I stand the zabuton up on the long edge between sits and alternate which long edge is up.  It just leans against my file cabinet; this also has the benefit of taking up less space.  Orientation is ease because of the sewn on tag.  This tends to keep the meditation mat nice and fluffy for the next sit.

Friendly Bows _/|\_

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A few Poems before the Zabuton Review

Happy baby - Try not to smile!
Please check out the new poems.  I'll be reviewing the Zen Mountain Monastery zabuton (meditation mat) later this week.

Friendly Bows _/|\_

Friday, February 15, 2013

Meditation Cushion Review of The Mountain Seat Zafu

The Mountain Seat Zafu is a unique meditation cushion.

 It is designed and produced by Dharma Communications which is the non-profit store of the Zen Mountain Monastery and the Mountains and Rivers Order in New York.

Quick Summary:  I love this meditation cushion and use it regularly (every other day - I alternate with my meditation bench.)  It is the most comfortable zafu I have used; however, it took some experimentation and adjustments to get there (see below.)

The Review

The Mountain Seat Zafu Meditation Cushion
The Mountain Seat Zafu
Meditation Cushion
I was attracted to this meditation cushion because the Zen Mountain Monastery description sounded like a good fit for dealing with the back pain I experience while sitting zazen.

What makes this zafu unique?

It is a 2 layer design.  The top layer is 3 inches of viscoelastic foam.  The bottom of the cushion is buckwheat hulls.  The design concept is for the top layer to provide a conformable cushion for long sits while the bottom layer provides height and firm support.

The Mountain Seat Zafu comes in 2 sizes  7.5 inches and 8.5 inches high.  I wasn't sure which size would be the best fit for me but I decided to order the 8.5 inch model assuming I could adjust the height by removing some of the buckwheat hulls.  The Monastery store could help customers by providing more insight into how to choose the correct size.  Guidance like - you should consider the smaller size if you are less than "x" inches tall.  Or, if height isn't the best guide then weight or physical condition or whatever allows the online purchaser to know how to select the best match would be great.

Side View of The Mountain Seat Zafu
Side View of The Mountain
Seat Zafu
I actually ordered the zafu/zabuton combination - their marketing worked well:)  I'll review the zabuton in the future but I've already provided the spoiler in a previous post that it is the best zabuton I have ever used.

The package came beautifully and safely wrapped in a vacuum sealed bag.  They want you to return the bag I found out later when I looked at my invoice.  Unfortunately the bag was long gone by the time I saw this and I didn't see a return mailer in the box, as mentioned on the invoice, which would have clued me in.

The workmanship and quality of the materials are fantastic.  It was a pleasure to see and touch.  I anxiously got up the next morning to test it out with an hour long sit.

Since our bodies are like snowflakes (everyone being unique) the following was my experience.  By the way, I'm 5' 10" tall and weigh 170.  My zafu sitting style is to sit cross-legged (not in a lotus) and alternate the top leg about every 30 minutes.  I also deal with back pain as mentioned in earlier posts and use a pillow to support my arms.

I placed the meditation cushion on the zabuton and settled into the the 3 inches of viscoelastic foam.  It felt great!  About 15 to 20 minutes into the sit I started to have some discomfort in my lower back.  The discomfort continued to strengthen throughout the session and by the end of the hour I was quite uncomfortable.  Also the pain was lower in my back than I usually deal with.

10 handfuls of buckwheat hulls
10 handfuls of buckwheat hulls
30 handfuls of buckwheat hulls
30 handfuls of buckwheat hulls
No problem, I thought, tomorrow I'll remove some of the buckwheat hulls and adjust the height.

Removing buckwheat hulls from  meditation cushion
Removing buckwheat hulls from
meditation cushion
This is trickier and messier than it sounds.  The zipper on the muslin bag is behind a cloth handle which aesthetically is perfect except when you want to add or subtract buckwheat hulls.  Also, I have pretty typical hands for a guy and the zipper opening was small and very difficult to grab handfuls to extract.  Hulls tend to go everywhere.  I ultimately took out about 10 handfuls and tried again the next day.

It was clearly an improvement but, in the end, day 2 was still pretty uncomfortable.  I also started to notice the boundary between the foam and the hulls which dug into my leg.  I took out another 20 handfuls for the next sit.

Again I experienced an improvement but it was still uncomfortable and the foam/hull boundary was very noticeable.  Hmmmm.  I really wanted to like this zafu but I think that I will have to send it back.

That night it hit me...try flipping the zafu over...sit on the buckwheat hull side and see how that works.

Side view sittting on The Mountain Seat Zafu
Side view sittting on
The Mountain Seat Zafu
It was like magic.  I have never had such a comfortable session on a meditation cushion.  The foam provides a very stable base to the cushion and some of the height.  When I sit on the cushion my weight is also slightly skewed to the front of the zafu so the foam compresses more in the front to create a wedge similar but less exaggerated than the angle of my meditation bench.

The buckwheat hulls conform very nicely to my bum and with the cushion upside down I don't experience the foam/hull boundary problem.  All the body parts are happy.  With the zafu, arm pillow, zabuton combination I've had no back pain for sits of up to 90 minutes with just alternating my legs every 30 minutes.

Back View sitting on The Mountain Seat Zafu
Back View sitting on
The Mountain Seat Zafu
I used to prefer my mediation bench but now I find myself torn...they are both very effective at letting me find a physically neutral position for extended sits.

It is quite possible that without my back injuries, using the cushion as originally designed would also be fantastic.  It is easy to see how my right shoulder is lower than my left shoulder when viewed from behind.  The bottom line is...keep experimenting until you find your neutral.

Friendly Bows _/|\_

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Moments Inbetween

I'm working on the review of my meditation cushion. A number of life moments have occurred that delayed the review as described below.

The Experiences

New Water Heater
Standing on the bathroom toilet experiencing scrubbing the ceiling.
Standing on the bathroom toilet experiencing patching the ceiling.
Standing on the bathroom toilet experiencing priming the ceiling.
Standing on the bathroom toilet experiencing painting the ceiling.
Standing on the bathroom toilet wiring in a new light.
Standing on the bathroom toilet labeling the thought "I'm sick of standing on the toilet".
Standing in the basement working on the hot water heater.
Standing in the basement working on the dryer vent.
On hold with Verizon replacing the phone the puppy ate.
At the store finding a valentine card for my sweetie.
And then there is sitting...

The review should occur tomorrow.

 Friendly Bows _/|\_

Monday, February 4, 2013

How to Select a Meditation Cushion (Zafu)

First the caveats...this discussion will cover Zen meditation cushions which are called zafus.

 Other forms of Buddhism and other meditation practices have developed their own sitting cushion designs and aesthetics.

Traditional Zen Zafu  Meditation Cushion
Traditional Black Zen Zafu
Meditation Cushion

Colorful Tibetan Meditation Cushions
Colorful Tibetan
Meditation Cushions

In Zen the traditional zafu is round with a diameter of approximately 12 to 14 inches.  They are stuffed with kapok which is a seed pod fiber that comes from trees that grow in Asia.  These cushions are nice and firm providing good support.  The biggest downside is that they tend to compact over time.  If you fluff them after each sitting they will work well for a long time.

Kapok in Seed Pod
Kapok in Seed Pod
The other downside to a kapok zafu is that they aren't really adjustable.  You can't easily add or subtract the stuffing to meet individual requirements or to refurbish a well used cushion.  Without the proper equipment and technique you get a lumpy cushion which will definitely give you something to meditate on.  I've also noticed a high degree of variability in firmness from different zafus I've used at our zendo.  I believe this is due both to the amount of use and the amount of material used in the original fill.

Another material that has grown in popularity is buckwheat hulls.  These hulls are a non-edible byproduct from refining buckwheat.  I think of these hulls as the natural alternative to stuffing used in beanbag chairs; though it is quite a bit heavier than beanbag stuffing or kapok.

Buckwheat Hulls can be used in Zafus
Buckwheat Hulls can be
used in Zafus
Buckwheat hulls conform to you bum quite nicely and they provide a firmer support than kapok. They do make some noise as you settle into position.  Over time they tend to breakdown and need to be replaced with new hulls.  Unlike kapok this is easy to do.  Since they always adjust to your form you don't have the "lumpy" problem of kapok.  There are also many places that sell buckwheat hulls.  If you buy or make a buckwheat cushion make sure it has a zipper to allow for the easy addition or replacement of new hulls.

Other materials can be used as well such as bamboo fiber, polyester (which doesn't have a very Zen aura - not that I'm judging), or cotton.  These fiber based fillers are all similar to kapok in most respects; however, each of them has some slight variation.  For instance, while I sort of snubbed polyester earlier it does have the benefits of low allergic response, lightweight, and quick drying should it get wet.  By the way, water can do a serious number on natural fiber zafus.

Other non-traditional fillers include different types of foam or hybrid combinations.  I will review my zafu in a future post which is a combination buckwheat hull and viscoelastic foam.  There are also inflatable cushions which I've never had success with but others swear by them.

A Zen zafu is traditionally black or maybe navy...nice empty colors.

Ideally the cushion should provide between 6.5 and 8.5 inches of elevation.  Please see my earlier post about posture and elevation.  If you get too much elevation it shifts too much weight to your legs and knees.  Early or intense knee or leg pain can be a sign of too much elevation.  If you don't get enough elevation you typically start to feel it in your back, usually your lower back.  Each of our bodies is unique so these descriptions are averages.  It's important to find what works for you.

If you've read my other posts you know I'm an experimenter.  I keep testing until I find the solution that is the best fit.  So...what is my favorite?

I am most comfortable on my sitting bench but I have found it's important to have some variety of sitting positions when sitting for lengthy periods (anything more than an hour or two) to share the stresses as well as the vitalization with different parts of the body.  I tend to alternate between bench and cushion.

I like kapok cushions but only when they are firm and provide the correct elevation - nothing is permanent.

I prefer buckwheat because it adjusts to your form and it's easy to maintain the right support firmness and elevation.

My main suggestion is to try lots of different cushions to find what works best in your situation.  Zazen will create it's own physical and mental discomfort.  Starting as close to neutral as possible for the physical can make zazen an incredible joy.

(Also click here to read my post on How to Select a Meditation Bench.)

UPDATE:  Please see my newer post "How to Select a Meditation Cushion - Revisited"

Friendly bows _/|\_

Friday, February 1, 2013

Easy Solution to Reduce Some Forms of Back Pain During Zazen

Reducing Back Pain by Supporting
Arms with a Cushion

What causes back pain while sitting?

  • Old injuries (part of my problem)
  • Physical condition
  • Bad posture
There are many others I'm sure but there is one "hidden" problem that I believe is more common than we recognize.

For many people the length of our upper arm is shorter than our torso.  When sitting this "dangling" problem puts stresses on back muscles and muscle attachments that just aren't use to the extended stress of a long sit.

I've been testing effective ways to both support my arms and strengthen my back muscles.  Just like we can't instantly be a pro-tennis player or an Olympic runner we can't expect to have a physiology that is instantly prepared to cope with the extended stress of sitting zazen.

Some of my methods are very "non-conventional" but help due to prior injuries.  I'll be discussing sitting with a BodyBlade in a future blog.

One very easy tip is to support your arms at the wrist on a pillow. Some people use a standard zafu resting in their laps for this purpose.  I prefer using a more traditional "throw pillow" that is 12 inches square.  Zafus were designed for sitting; they are just the wrong shape for this purpose.  If I place a zafu flat in my lap it doesn't have enough elevation and it sticks out too much in front so it feels like it wants to slide off.  If I place it on end my arms want to slide off the rounded sides.

For the square pillow solution, I set one of the edges resting on my feet and then rest my wrists on the top of the pillow (see picture.)  In this position I can easily sit for an hour with no back pain.  I realize that this looks like it shouldn't be comfortable but give it a try and see if it helps.  I think the reason this works is that if you note in the picture, my forearm is basically horizontal.  My multi-purpose, incredibly ugly, orange pillow does a reasonable job.  I will be making a pillow that is stiffer (and Zen black:) so that it doesn't tend to collapse over an hour sit.

I'm still testing the Zen Mountain Monastery zafu and zabuton and will share my findings next week.

Friendly bows _/|\_