Associate Professor of Economics Carol Scotton holds Zazen meditation in the Old Jail every Wednesday, but she meditated in different jail settings before even coming to Knox. She sought out the location more out of logistics than familiarity but still feels the Old Jail holds significance.
“Sitting in an … old cell block [that] is imbued with all of the things that have ever happened in [there] is just another aspect of any place that we [practice Zazen],” Scotton said.
Zazen meditation is an aspect of Zen Buddhism, and the goal is simply to sit — letting any thoughts that surface drift through the mind without fully contemplating them.
“There’s some really amazing power that we get from slowing down and just seeing what is [present] before we’ve started labeling and judging and putting all this stuff on top of things,” Scotton said.
It is with this philosophy in mind that one begins the process of Zazen, and it is indeed something of a slow process.
Scotton provides newcomers with informational materials that they may peruse before beginning meditation. She also gives an informational session on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. before the hour-long meditation begins at 5:30 p.m.
Participants remove their shoes, pause before entering the meditation space and bow to it. Each person then stands facing a floor pillow with a zafu on top (a smaller, round pillow specifically for Zazen meditation) and bows a second time.
Different practitioners recommend different ways of sitting, such as the lotus pose, with each foot resting on the opposite thigh. No matter which position one adopts, though, Scotton was clear that feet should not be resting on top of one another. For taller people, she suggested turning the zafu on its edge and sitting on it with the knees, shins and feet against the ground and toes pointing the opposite direction.
Hands should be placed against the lower abdomen, with the dominant hand cradling the other and the thumbs gently touching at the tips. Once all participants were seated on zafus (though some can choose to sit in a straight-backed chair or directly on the floor), meditation began with Scotton ringing a bell.
All throughout meditation on Sept. 19, a Chihuahua yipped relentlessly outside. This, like Galesburg’s frequent train whistles, is an example of the external stimuli that one should acknowledge but not submit to during meditation. Eyes stay open during the practice, as well. Essentially, focusing on not focusing is important.
Senior Sean Nolan was inspired to try Zazen after reading a book on Tibetan Buddhism and that made him want learn more about Eastern practices.
“It was definitely positive,” Nolan said. “I wasn’t really focusing on any problems in particular … [but] when I came out [of meditation] I felt a lot more clear-headed. I felt like I knew what I was supposed to be doing, and … able to deal with things without really getting stressed out.”
In the middle of the practice, Scotton rang the bell again and announced that one could continue to sit or participate in “kinhin,” or walking meditation. For about a five-minute period, participants walked in a clockwise circle around the meditation space and took small steps with hands held steadily or in a prayer position, and the meditative thought process continued. Afterwards, everyone returned to their pillows for another zazen meditation session. When the ending bell rang, each person bowed to his or her pillow, then to the meditation space before exiting.
When asked why students should consider trying Zazen, Scotton was quite matter-of-fact:
“Really, the most that you could possibly ever do is experience your own life, so why not?” she said.