Z is for Zen
Updated: Oct 10, 2021
“Smile, breathe and go slowly.” Thich Nhat Hanh
Zen is a way of being. It is a state of focus that incorporates mind, body and spirit. It looks past illusions and is concerned with seeing things without any distortion added by your thoughts using techniques like defusion.
“Defusion is relating to your thoughts in a new way, so they have much less impact and influence over you. As you learn to defuse painful and unpleasant thoughts, they will lose their ability to frighten, disturb, worry, stress or depress you. And as you learn to defuse unhelpful thoughts, such as self-limiting beliefs and harsh self-criticisms, they will have much less influence over your behaviour.” Russ Harris
This state of Zen is something that already exists innately within each of us. When we were born, we were at peace with ourselves and our world but as we grew up we were affected by its stresses and strains and we lost touch with our inner Zen and natural state of being.
“Zen is not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine.” Shunryu Suzuki
You can’t avoid stress, but you can learn to slow down and find calm (Zen) amidst the chaos and enjoy the small things in life. A Zen state of mind allows you to be 100% present without guilt, enabling you to fully enjoy anything you are doing; from drinking a cup of tea, reading a book or sitting quietly taking a moment during a busy day for yourself, to being 100% present when you are walking in the countryside or when you are with others, via phone or in person, enabling you to give them your full attention.
How can we become more Zen?
“Before enlightenment chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.” Wu Li
Achieving a Zen state of mind doesn’t necessarily call for a complete overhaul of your life, house or career. It is not about avoidance, instead it is concerned with reframing your resistance and encouraging you to slow down and find calm amongst the chaos of your normal day to day activities.
“The first step in crafting the life you want is to get rid of everything you don’t.”
There are many practical things that we can do to create a sense of calm one of which is simplifying your life by removing the excess.
“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak” Hans Hofman
It is hard to be relaxed if there is dissonance caused by clutter, be it physical or mental. Clutter could be defined as anything that distracts you from creating permanent and productive change between the present moment and your immediate future.
“In the never-ending battle between order and chaos, clutter sides with chaos every time. Anything that you possess that does not add to your life or your happiness eventually becomes a burden.” John Robbins
By removing clutter from your daily life, you open up mental space and energy that can be redirected towards pursuing your goals or simply being 100% present in whatever you are doing without distractions.
“Out of clutter, find simplicity. From discord, find harmony. In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” Albert Einstein
Today’s consumerist environment creates material clutter. Tidying up the physical environment around you is the most obvious way to remove clutter from your daily life. Tidying doesn’t just mean hiding everything, but rationalising and getting rid of anything permanently that doesn’t serve your ‘ideal life’ or you will find that the clutter will simply creep back and you will be no further forward.
“I asked myself, “Who would I be if I weren’t busy? What would be left of my life and me after I removed excess stuff from my home and allowed my day to have unscheduled open spaces?” Lisa J. Shultz
You can also de-clutter your ‘to do’ list or diary by removing tasks or activities that don’t add any benefit or meaning to your life hindering you from building the life you want. Bank statements, emails and social media notifications can also be de-cluttered by cancelling unnecessary subscriptions, unsubscribing from newsletters or pages that are no longer relevant.
“Digital minimalism definitively does not reject the innovations of the internet age, but instead rejects the way so many people currently engage with these tools.” Cal Newport
Even if we manage to create a de-cluttered environment, we will still be affected by mental clutter. We are bombarded 24/7 with mental stimuli from every direction; sights, sounds, smells, people, everyday situations, advertising etc. It is often difficult to see mental clutter when it is so ingrained in our daily lifestyles, but when we experience habitual thoughts and actions, unless we pay attention, they tend to sacrifice attention for efficiency, cluttering and distorting our perspective.
In order to return to anything approaching a Zen-like mind we need to stop, take stock and then take a conscious step back from those things that either deliberately or unintentionally bring us down e.g. those who are sources of disrespectful gossip and other negativity or time-wasting activities like mindlessly scrolling through social media etc. Not only are both these things ‘time vampires’, but they fill up your brain with trivia, build stress and negatively affect your emotional state preventing clarity of thought and they deplete your energy.
“Clutter steals energy and joy.” Monika Kristofferson
De-cluttering doesn’t happen overnight, it’s a process that, as it unfolds, reveals increasing amounts of time, space and energy. De-cluttering requires action not just thought. We often don’t think about the choices we do have to restrict or change the information or things that we allow to enter and stay in our reality. We can choose to disconnect from social media for periods of time, spend less time with certain people, plan our time and social interactions more intentionally, change the content of the books we read, the television we watch etc and in so doing we can change our stress and energy levels, our perspective and our reality.
Emotional clutter affects us all to different degrees, but emotional de-cluttering is absolutely essential for personal well-being and better relationships. Assumptions, roles and expectations can become blurred with your own individual dreams the closer the bond. You should be able to live fully without feeling that you are burdening those that you love and without feeling that you owe something to someone else.
Thought before action is intrinsic to Zen principles because it allows you to evaluate a situation and your instinctive reactions to it, giving you time before reacting or saying something. We cannot think if we are trying to do too much at once. There is no such thing as multi tasking, just rapid task swapping. By focusing on one task at a time and creating a moment of space (a bit like the old adage count to 10) we don’t get caught up in distractive, knee-jerk responses or the heat of an argument and it allows us the choice to contribute positively and intentionally. There is a Zen proverb that says, “When eating, eat. When walking, walk,” which although simplistic sums up the essence of Zen i.e. bringing our full awareness and attention to whatever we are doing at the moment.
Regardless of what we do, taking regular breaks, being fully present in the here and now without anything else vying for our attention is important to retain a relaxed, Zen-like attitude. It is important to consciously create moments of calm (more so when we feel overwhelmed) as what we do with our time today will determine the quality of our life later. A bit like the Gandhi principle of “If we don’t think we have the time to stop for 5 minutes because we are too busy, then we should stop for 10”
Becoming more Zen-like won’t happen overnight. It is an incremental journey in two parts.
The first part is elimination. We need to work at removing clutter until we rediscover the true version of ourselves. The process is very much like a sculptor’s. The sculptor chips away at the parts of the stone that are not wanted or needed until he has created a masterpiece. Sculptors don’t create anything out of the stone, they find something in it. Likewise, we have to chip away all of the parts that don’t make up the biggest and best versions of us.
“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” Michelangelo
The second part is rebuilding. We need to rebuild better habits incrementally over time not by dramatic one-off changes. We can deliberately work to change our physical environment and de-clutter our lives and although we can’t control the things that happen to us every day or how other people act towards us, we can learn to control our response and this is key. We can choose to respond with stress and anger or with peace and calmness.
Some questions to think about/or discuss below:
What does a life well-lived mean for you?
What changes do you need to make to give yourself the best chance of living the life you want?
If you want to reflect more on this subject, here are a few links to get you started:
“Just because everything is crazy around you, it doesn’t have to be crazy within you” Courtney Carver