When most people think of being Zen, they think of a calm, meditative state of peaceful repose. I also have a sense of envy when I think of this kind of Zen. Some peace would be really nice right about now. I’d also love to have the time to actually meditate. What a luxury! But, no. Too busy.
Plus… meditation is such a challenge. Let me take you through a meditation scenario that’s frighteningly typical for me (thank you Universe!):
It’s a calm, beautiful morning. I’ve woken up early so actually have a moment to myself. Perfect time to meditate. I put on some gentle meditation music. Open the curtains to let the natural sunlight and beautiful view in. Light some incense. Sit. Eyes closed. Breathe innnnnnnn……annnnnnnnnd…..
Cue the leaf blower. I was going to name this article “Leaf Blower Meditation” because it happens every… single… time. I try random days and random times but it doesn’t seem to matter. Make ten minutes to meditate and it is leaf blower time. I’m not exaggerating, the Universe is definitely conspiring against me.
Okay, so I give in to fate and give up on finding a time to meditate without the leaf blower. I’m stubborn enough. I was a well-practiced meditator, once. I can do it. Here we go.
Meditaaaaaaaate… meditaaaaaate… There is no leaf blower. I mean there is but I don’t mind. It’s okay. It’s fine. It’s not about the leaf blower. I don’t hate the leaf blower. Yes I do. I definitely do. Wait, I can’t because I’m trying to be Zen here. There’s absolutely no frustration, anger or impatience here. Nope. None at all. I’m totally calm. Calm, calm, calm. This is a great meditation. Meeeedddddiiiittaaaaattioonnnnnn. Leaf blower leaf blower leaf blower leaf blower leaf blower leaf blower leaf blower leaf blower leaf blower leaf blower leaf blower leaf blower leaf blower leaf blower leaf blower leaf blower leaf blower leaf blower leaf blower leaf blower leaf blower.
Whether there’s a leaf blower in your meditation or just your own mind, this is pretty representative for many people. Meditation is not as relaxing as we would hope. Our mind races. Our anxieties bubble up to the surface. Meditation can often be the opposite of relaxing, it’s actually a lot of work!! No wonder we avoid it.
And yet, we desire that peace and calm. We desire joy. Not just in meditation but in life. Part of us knows it is possible. So how do we actually achieve it? How do we be Zen?
For starters, let’s look at the truth about the Zen lifestyle. True Zen practitioners don’t just stroll through a Japanese garden all day meditating peacefully, munching berries and bowing to squirrels. A true Zen practice is actually quite rigorous. Meditation isn’t just meditation. Imagine waking up at 4am, meditating for twelve hours with only two small meals throughout the day. You’re tired. Hungry. Cranky. And your legs have gone from pain, to numb, to something so far beyond pain, there are no words to describe it.
Now try a tired, hungry, twelve-hour meditation in the bitter cold. Try it after an immense and rigorous hike. After just one of these you’d probably be wishing for your normal life back. No, Zen isn’t for the weak-minded or faint-hearted. It isn’t about experiencing peace 24/7. Practicing Zen means pushing your boundaries mentally, emotionally and physically. When we look at it this way, we realize that peace is actually a “muscle,” a skill that strengthens or weakens depending on how we exercise and train it.
Being “Zen” doesn’t have to mean living in a monastery, it means having the perpetual mindset of living Zen. We must choose peace despite the leaf blower. We don’t have to meditate for twelve hours in the freezing rain to stretch and challenge our peace muscles. Life brings plenty of obstacles to us.
What are the leaf blowers of your life? Work dynamics? Failing relationships? Self- or other-destructive habits? Family? Chronic pain, anger or depression? Finding peace in life doesn’t come from eradicating the leaf blowers of our lives. If it did, I wouldn’t be writing this article right now, I’d be off smashing leaf blower number 489,362 to smithereens. But, once I rid the world of leaf blowers there would be some other annoyance. So it is with life. Finding peace means finding the courage to deal with our problems head-on, with wisdom and awareness. To do that, we must implement another element to peace.
There’s no time like the present. More truthfully stated, “There is no time: Only the present.” Being present is a crucial ingredient of practicing Zen and of finding peace. We tend to think of time linearly, as if there was a past or future tied to every moment, but this idea of time is only conceptual. We don’t experience the past or the future — only the present moment. What we call the past is only a string of moments recorded in our brains or in history books. What we call the future is merely the practice of speculation and anticipation.
About a decade ago, I did a two-week meditation retreat like described above. Being present is difficult when your legs ache, your stomach is rumbling and your eyes are drooping to the floor. You want to stand up and stretch your legs. You want to curl up and take a nap. You want to spend a week at the buffet. You want to complain to the meditator next to you. As soon as your mind wanders into these want, want, want’s, you’re not at peace. You’re in your head somewhere rolling around in worlds of unpeace.
During my meditations I didn’t just want, I worried. I worried about how bad it would hurt when I stood up in a couple hours. I worried how people would judge me if I left the retreat early. That’s what we do with our present moment. We waste it wanting things we don’t have, obsessing about the past, worrying about the future and whining about the present. Looking at it this way, we realize that being present is a skill, just like peace. We have to practice it despite any circumstance.
Being present means acknowledging all the things we don’t like in life. It means being completely honest. This kind of honesty means peeling away the story we tend to live. The story that we’re a good or bad person. The story that we have to achieve some goal or live a certain role. The story that we have obligations that must be met. The story that the world owes us something. The stories that say we’re supposed to think, feel, believe or behave in any specific way. Our stories remove us from the present and are the greatest source of suffering in our lives.
Peace is a really nice story, but our story of peace is usually tied to some past or future place. We have great memories of better times. Weren’t those the days? We have beautiful dreams of future accomplishments. We’ll be happy when we live in the cottage on the lake. We’ll be happy when we retire early. We’ll be happy when our business finally makes it or our kids go off to college.
But what about being happy, Now?
Now and Zen
When I say “Zen” I mean “happy” or “at peace.” Being Now and Zen means being present and having the mindset of peace and joy. It means that having peace and happiness depends on what we do right now. Will we worry about our problems, or will we be solution-focused? Will we wish and want for something, or will we use that energy to live our best life? Will we do what we’ve always done thinking things will improve, or will we make wiser choices, now?
Achieving peace right here and now, regardless of circumstances, is the ultimate accomplishment in life. The first step is to find peace in the idea that we are going to be practicing peace for the rest of our lives. We aren’t going to “arrive” at some permanently peaceful, happy place, because it doesn’t exist. That’s just a story. All we have is this moment, right now, so our goal is to make Now the best one possible. Again and again until our last breath.
Being Now and Zen means embracing the journey of life, good and bad, and celebrating the fact that you’re alive. It means not letting your emotions, urges and knee-jerk reactions rule your life. It’s about reaching for a part of you that is beyond emotion, beyond basic desires of fight or flight. Peace and joy lie beyond our judgments, expectations, assumptions and attachments, so part of our practice is becoming aware of them and shedding them from our lives.
Being Now and Zen means tuning in to your inner observer. Rather than getting caught up in emotions, you can see that they are temporary. Rather than getting washed away by them, you can let them wash past you. Rather than believing everything you think, you can realize that thinking is just what your brain does. Thoughts aren’t reality, they are just brain activity. Thoughts are our story. Being the observer is the practice of being present and aware, discerning differences between truth and story.
As the observer you can view life and your experience of it without letting it control you. Some mistake this as being detached from reality. The truth is that being the observer gives you the freedom and the power to choose. Being Now and Zen means freeing yourself from the drama and deception of ego so you can harness the true power of the present moment.
The Ultimate Practice
There are many skills we can and should practice in achieving inner peace: Forgiveness, gratitude, honesty, patience, persistence, compassion, compassion and more compassion. Every time we exercise these skills we are strengthening our peace muscles. The ultimate practice in peace is Love.
Love everything. Love yourself, no matter what. Love others. Love your fears. Love your enemies. Love your faults and weaknesses. Love your mistakes. Love your disappointments and frustrations in life. Love all the leaf blowers in your life. Love helps us heal all the things that disturb our peace.
When a new life challenge or difficult emotion arises, ask: Do you love it? No? Then how can you? How can you love your painful past? How can you love your inner demons? How can you love the people who annoy or hurt you most? How can you love your life, even if it is completely sideways? If it’s bothering you, find a way to give it all your love. The ultimate question is…
How can you love this moment, right now?