Zen / Mindfulness

You hear the terms “Zen” and “mindfulness” tossed around a lot these days, usually in the context of self-improvement, stress relief and better lifestyles. But sometimes it feels like they’re being reduced to media buzz terms. Many times you don’t get the historical or religious background to the terms and they look like they were thrown in to look trendy and deep. I want to avoid that, so here is a background on the true concepts of Zen and mindfulness and how they can apply to this site.

First of all, Zen is a type of Buddhism that is primarily divided into 2 main branches: Rinzai and Soto.

Rinzai focuses on Zazen Meditation, a type of meditation that calls for sitting and clearing the mind completely (for a primer on meditation types, go here). In addition, it has the mind focus on koans, or riddles that ask the mind to defy logic and everyday consciousness, thus getting to the intuitive, cleared state beyond. You’ve probably heard koans in terms of, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

Soto puts a stronger emphasis on Zazen Meditation, teaching that it is the very act of enlightenment itself (enlightenment being the state where one ultimately transcends the notion of the self and fully recognizes it as an illusion).

There, now you know the basics. Next time you hear someone say, “Wow, she’s so Zen,” now you know where that came from. It’s not just a hipster adjective for the self-possessed. Don’t worry if you didn’t know that, I didn’t fully realize that for a long time myself.

Mindfulness is a concept that dates back to the Noble Eightfold Path set down by the Buddha himself (a child of a royal family living in the Himalayan foothills in the 500s B.C.E., named Siddhartha). One of the items of the Noble Eightfold Path is “right mindfulness,” mindfulness being defined by Jack Maguire in his book Essential Buddhism: A Complete Guide of Beliefs and Practices as, “the ability to be completely present in each and every moment, aware of all that one is doing, thinking and feeling. Among other things, it requires engaging in matters wholeheartedly, rather than reluctantly and superficially, and not brooding unconstructively over the past or future.”

That’s all well and good, but you may be wondering why I would include a whole section on something from a specific religion with a complete historical and cultural context in a site that seeks to bring general natural wisdom to the masses.

First of all, I use the concept of meditation a lot. I want that term to have meaning and context.

Second, one of the points of this site is to focus on the natural world so wholly and completely that it feels like your mind and soul are warping for the better. The best way to hone that concentration is to take a leaf out of the Buddhists’ book and work on mindfulness. Zen happens to be the purest form of that, especially in Soto, where there is the strongest emphasis of learning to just sit in the moment. Want to learn how to do it?

  1. Cross your legs and sit straight.
  2. Stare forward.
  3. Breathe.
  4. Don’t let your thoughts distract you, just sit.
  5. That’s it.

It’s deceptively simple, may seem boring even. But sit for a moment and you’ll realize just how much your nose itches, how many useless worries you have in your head and how annoying the refrigerator noises are. The point is to bypass all of that and reach a point of utter peace.

If you can engage in Zazen, you’ll know concentration. If you know concentration, then the rest of these exercises will feel easy. Mindfulness also means being completely in the moment, stable and grounded. Sound a little like earth qualities? (To explore earth qualities, go here.)

But there’s such a rich history of practice, I felt mindfulness and Zen needed their own section.