13 STEPS TO A MORE ZEN LIFE
When we feel stressed and overwhelmed by work, family life, or social obligations, we tend to look for ways to do or be more. Better, faster, more of everything. However, the answer is often at the opposite extreme. It is a matter of slowing down, doing less, and returning to our fundamentals in order to find the essential, namely a serene and peaceful inner space. To do this, we can inject a good dose of Zen into our lives.
The only Zen you will find at the top of the mountain is the Zen you bring with you. (Zen proverb)
Who has never admired the serenity that emanates from a Buddhist monk in a meditative posture in his magnificent ochre kesa? On paper, the idea of devoting one’s life to the search for wholeness may seem appealing. In reality, retreating to a monastery or hermitage to embrace a frugal and interiorized way of life is another story. This withdrawal from life as we know it requires will, discipline and sacrifice. Good news for those who do not wish to become a monk (or nun), it is possible to be inspired by it and live a more Zen lifestyle by following a few simple rules.
Back to basics
The word “Zen” is a Japanese derivative of the Sanskrit word dhyana, which means “ultimate meditation.” Zen is a Japanese branch of Buddhism whose practice is essentially based on seated meditation called zazen and the fundamental dynamics of nature, strongly influenced by Taoism.
Today, the term “Zen” in its broadest sense refers to a notion of well-being and simplified life. It leads us to question our values and our needs. It emphasizes self-control and self-discipline, meditation, compassion, benevolence, understanding of nature, and the personal expression of this understanding in daily life, especially for the benefit of others. In Zen, the priority is always given to balance.
When we try to find every possible way to save time, speed up and become more productive, Zen suggests slowing down. When we run after recognition, power, and money, Zen teaches us humility and simplicity. It is a space of still, vibrant, fully alive, and silent energy.
Being Zen suggests slowing down, questions our deepest desires and invites the practice of compassion and caring. It is about finding clarity in things that are difficult to resolve and achieving balance. To be Zen is to embrace simplicity.
Becoming Zen does not necessarily mean attaining enlightenment. It is more of a journey and a practice of living in the present moment and in peace every day. You can practice Zen by focusing on a task, maintaining a positive attitude, and meditating. Here are 13 ways to do this:
There are different methods of meditation. However, they can be divided into two main categories: focused attention and open attention.
– Focused attention, as its name suggests, focuses on one thing. It stabilizes the mind by focusing it on a specific point such as the breath, a mantra, a part of the body, a visualization, etc. It also stabilizes the mind by fixing it on a specific point.
– Open attention places the person in the present moment. It observes thoughts without judgment and lets them go as they come.
The two methods are complementary and can be mixed.
The purpose of meditation is simple. Contrary to what many people imagine, it is not about not thinking or emptying the mind. Nor is it about silencing thoughts or emotions. It brings attention back to the present and brings clarity, calm, and kindness, both to ourselves and to others. It helps us to anchor ourselves in the here and now, regardless of what is going on around and within us.
A few tips to get started
- In a seated position, take an upright and balanced posture. Imagine a plumb line over your head straightening you up.
- Find a natural position between slackness and stiffness. If you use a cushion, cross your legs gently. If you are sitting in a chair, keep your legs straight and your feet flat on the floor.
- Place your hands on your thighs.
- They should rest without pulling your shoulders down or up. Relax your jaw and tongue. Close your eyes or keep them closed.
- Concentrate on your breath and come back to it every time your mind goes for a walk. If you have trouble staying focused, you can count your breaths from 1 to 10. If you lose the count — it will happen for sure — start again from 1.
- Keep in mind that losing your concentration doesn’t mean failure. Don’t judge yourself, practice sympathetically.
- Once you get used to following your breath, you can give up counting.
- Thoughts and emotions will distract you. When you notice something, acknowledge it. Identify it as a “thought” and then take a breath.
- By recognizing your thoughts, you recognize the movements of your mind. Meditation trains your mind to stay focused and fully present.
- Start with short sessions (2 or 5 minutes) and gradually increase. Meditate regularly to make it a well-established habit.
2. Practicing mindfulness
Mindfulness is a form of meditation in action. For Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, mindfulness keeps consciousness alive in today’s reality. It usually involves following the breath.
Our breath is always with us. Whatever we do, it functions as an ideal anchor. By staying focused on it, no matter what we do, we remain in the present moment. Mindfulness is above all a renewable peace that is independent of external circumstances.
No matter what is happening outside, you can always take a moment to stop and follow your breathing. You can also practice mindfulness during an activity, such as walking, cooking, or even cleaning, to regain your sense of peace and regain control of your emotions. It’s all about being fully present in what is being done.
3. Cultivate compassion
Compassion is often thought to resemble pity, but while pity can be condescending, compassion is rooted in respect for the inherent dignity of life and stems from a sense of equality.
While pity can neither relieve suffering nor give joy, compassion refers to a sense of solidarity and a desire for mutual happiness and growth.
Through compassion, we recognize the interdependence of all life on this earth, as well as the need for each person to be happy and to be free from all unhappiness and suffering.
We are all born with the potential to be compassionate and want others to be free from suffering and its causes. To cultivate compassion, we can use meditation as a skillful means. Training to develop compassion generates it in stages of intensity. We can focus first on the suffering of those we love, then on those who are neutral and those we do not love. Ultimately, we can focus on the suffering of everyone, everywhere, equally.
Aspiring to live with compassion changes our lives and the lives of those around us in meaningful and measurable ways. Practicing compassion is probably one of the hardest things to do.
4. Discovering the true path to happiness
For Zen, everything we do is about being happy and at peace. This includes the pursuit of success, power, and money. These things are not a problem in themselves if they are seen as tools (to make life better) and not an end.
But even though some of these things can bring more happiness, joy, and general well-being, true happiness does not exist outside of you. If you can adopt the practices of living the present moment fully through mindfulness, immersing yourself deeply in meditation and seeking to understand those around you, and treating everyone, including yourself, with compassion, then you will be able to achieve true peace and happiness that is unlike anything else you have ever felt.
This happiness is renewable. It is available to you at all times and under your total control.
5. Learning conscious consumption
This includes not only what we eat and drink, but also what we watch, read and listen to. Everything that enters your body through the 5 senses falls into this category: the conversations you have or listen to, the TV shows and movies (and advertisements) you watch, the books, magazines and sites or blogs you read, as well as the substances you introduce into your body, including food, drinks and any form of drugs.
If you’re looking for significant change that can have profound results, focus on what you’re using. With a little practice, it is relatively easy to change harmful habits. Focus on what adds real value to your life. The rest is of little importance.
6. Turning a mundane activity into a form of meditation
In addition to meditation, cooking and cleaning are special moments in a Zen monk’s day. They are the subject of precise rituals and are two ideal occasions to practice mindfulness. If cooking and cleaning are boring chores for you, try to think of them as forms of meditation. Put your whole mind into these tasks, concentrate and perform them slowly and completely.
7. Simplify your life.
Being Zen necessarily means simplifying your life. To do this, you must distinguish between what is essential and what is not. Adopting a practice of meditation and mindfulness will naturally lead you to simplify your life by revealing to you, not only illusions. It will free you from your desire for material objects. This means that you will stop desiring material objects for your long-term happiness.
8. Doing one thing at a time, deliberately and completely
Being Zen involves living in the present moment and concentrating properly on our daily lives. Avoid multitasking whenever possible. For example, when you pour water, concentrate only on the water. When you eat, concentrate on your meal and experience the intense experience of your food.
Take time to focus on the task at hand, whether it is large or small. This means not looking at your phone while you are at the table, or trying to do several things at once during the day.
Don’t try to do more than one activity at a time to save time. Be present at what you are doing. Do it all. Use the opportunity to be fully aware.
9. Do less. (but better)
A monk does not lead a lazy life. He gets up early and has a busy day. However, he also does not have an endless list of tasks to accomplish. If you do fewer things, you can do them more slowly, more completely, and with more concentration. With a succession of tasks, you will rush from one to the other without stopping to think about what you are doing. Distinguish the important from the urgent and concentrate on the essential.
10. Allow time for everything.
A logical complement to the “Do Less” rule, allowing time is a practical way to complete each task. Don’t plan things together, rather leave room between them. Putting space between things makes for a more relaxed schedule and gives you room in case a task takes longer than expected.
11. Develop rituals.
Zen monks have rituals for practically everything they do: eating, cleaning, meditating, etc. Rituals give meaning to everything. And if something is important enough to have a ritual, it is also important enough to receive your full attention and to be done slowly and correctly. You don’t have to learn Zen monks’ rituals. Create your own rituals for meal preparation, for cleaning, for what you do before you start your day before you go to bed, and so on.
12. Think about what is needed
In the life of a Zen monk, few things are useless. His closet is not overflowing with clothes. He doesn’t have the latest gadgets. His possessions are limited to the bare necessities, simple and functional things. For us mere consumerist mortals, this basic lifestyle reminds us that many things are not necessary to live a meaningful life. It is, therefore, useful to think about what we really need. The goal is not to separate ourselves from everything, but to get rid of the superfluous in order to keep only the essential.
13. To live simply
The corollary of Rule 12 is that if something is not necessary, you can probably do without it. And so, to live simply is to rid your life of as many unnecessary things as possible in order to make room for the essential. Now, the essentials differ depending on the person: family, friends, an activity… It’s up to each person to sort out and see what really matters.