“Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire,” writes Robert M. Pirsig in the literary classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. “...Then, when you’re no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn’t just a means to an end but a unique event in itself.”
That’s the essence of zen—a word whose meaning can easily seem esoteric. It is what it is. It’s a balancing act between doing and being. According to Larry Culliford, psychiatrist and author of The Psychology of Spirituality, it’s a fusion of logic and poetry. Ayurvedic Therapist Yogi Cameron says, “[Zen] is the state we reach beyond our senses and mind. In this mindless state, we find no duality and therefore no conflicts of the mind.”
At the core, zen can be described in simple terms as a relaxed state and a heightened sense of awareness. But in the midst of struggle and suffering, how the heck is anyone supposed to get to that calm place? It doesn’t have to be such an arcane practice. Here are 10 quick ways to zen.
Clutter can be overwhelming, so taking a few minutes to clear it out can help to relieve some anxiety. A mess in the physical world can be a reflection of the same thing in a person’s mental environment; cleaning can be a sort of catharsis. And there's no need to even get the job done in one sitting. Take a cue from Zen monks who practice soji—taking 20 minutes to clean, then stopping whether the task is completed or not.
Pick one thing at a time and focus
Trying to carry 10 things with two hands is not only frustrating—most likely, something’s gonna drop. In life and work, multi-tasking to the extreme eventually causes quality to suffer. Focusing on one thing at a time is an opportunity to stay present and forget about the future. It doesn’t exist yet, after all.
Write a gratitude list
In a sense, desiring more signifies living in fear—feeling afraid of not having, or being enough. Letting go of the feeling of wanting more, in favor of being grateful for what is, can be freeing. When feeling the lack of a better job, a better house, or a better partner, shift your focus and take a few minutes to write down 10 (or more) things to be grateful for in that moment.
In the same vein, sometimes a person can become convinced that happiness depends on an ideal circumstance, another person, or an object. If things were this way, if I was with this person, in this car, I’d be happy. When obsessive thinking creeps in, practice letting go—not just of stressed out feelings, but also, learn to hold lightly instead of clinging to ideas, people, or things for dear life. It won’t be easy, but letting go is a choice each person can make from moment to moment.
Our culture is hyper ambitious; everyone works hard and plays hard, too. Sometimes, basic self care goes out the window. That means sleep, eating healthily, or addressing symptoms of stress or inflammation, to name a few. When life gets heavy, take a moment to check in with yourself if you’re getting what you need.
“Things derive their being and nature by mutual dependence and are nothing in themselves,” said Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna. Basically, we’re all connected. By taking care of number one and then passing on that kindness to others, feeling good becomes second nature.
Watch a funny video
Go ahead and click on that hilarious video making the rounds on Facebook. Laughter occurs in a moment of understanding (like, relating to dog memes)—that’s zen in its pure form.
Stare into the abyss
A recent study found that the gentle sway of seaweed and fish in aquariums is extremely relaxing and can reduce stress. Similarly, watching the ebb and flow of ocean waves in real time can be more captivating than what’s going on in the noggin.
Recognize feelings and know they aren’t facts
Of course, emotions are essential and completely healthy. But when negative thought patterns take hold, think objectively. Joy, pain, and anger are very real in our heads, but they aren’t definitive. It’s tempting to assign a meaning to everything—some gesture could feel like a slight, or a setback can seem like a failure—but it’s not always the case. Be honest with yourself and others about your feelings, but try not to let these feelings dictate you to take action before the truth is revealed.
“Stuckness shouldn’t be avoided,” writes Pirsig. “It’s the psychic predecessor of all real understanding.” So, in search of a zen moment, observe the reality of the situation, and whatever that is, accept it as part of your journey.
Illustration by Karley Koenig