You may have encountered moments of ‘Zen’ in your life – like a particularly peaceful walk in nature, or while lying down, eyes closed, at the end of a yoga session – and we all know that in today’s fast-paced world, we need to make efforts to cultivate more of it.
But what exactly is the concept of Zen and what does it mean?
For Zen Buddhists like Julian Daizan Skinner, putting the practice into words can be difficult. Skinner is one of London’s leading meditation teachers, author of Practical Zen For Health, Wealth And Mindfulness (£9.99, Singing Dragon) and, he tells me, the first Englishman to go to Japan and become a Zen Master in the ancient Japanese art of Zen.
Unlike other types of modern meditation, which may centre around relieving stress by focusing on a specific object or mantra, Skinner says finding Zen is all about learning to recognise and dismiss the everyday thoughts that pop into your mind. Rather than achieving a state of calmness, the idea is to reach a state of ‘nothingness’.
Also known as ‘Zazen’, the meditation technique involves observing and letting go of your thoughts and feelings as they pass; for this reason it’s sometimes referred to as “thinking about not thinking”. It’s a technique that can take years of practice to fully achieve.
Before it became a trendy buzzword in the West, the traditional Buddhist discipline dates back to the Tang Dynasty in 7th century China, where it then spread to Japan.
Unlike other strands of Buddhism, Zen isn’t based on religious teachings and it doesn’t involve prayer or studying texts. Instead, it’s an internal investigation which helps to give insight into your mind and how it works.
Skinner says the practice came into his life at just the right time. “I was living in Newcastle upon Tyne and looking for a meditation practice and stumbled on a Zen meditation group,” he recalls. “I was immediately taken by the simplicity and rigour of the practice and within a year or two, I was selling my house, quitting my job in the pharmaceuticals industry and moving to a Zen monastery.”
He continues: “I became a monk and trained over roughly a 20-year period in the UK, the United States and five years in Japan. Then I came back and began teaching in the UK in 2007.”
Schools of Zen usually teach sitting meditations that involve following the movement of your breath over a long period of time. During meditation, students keep their eyes semi-open, rather than closing them fully, and they can often be presented with ‘koans’; a type of unusual riddle.
The self-paradoxical koans, which have no obvious logical answer, are designed to provoke enlightenment and challenge you to unravel greater truths. One of the most famous Zen koans is: “When both hands are clapped a sound is produced; listen to the sound of one hand clapping.”
As with other forms of Buddhist meditation, Skinner believes that a regular Zen practice can benefit people in many ways, particularly when it comes to things like anxiety.
“Once you’ve built the habit, I’d strongly recommend finding fellow Zen students and teachers,” says Skinner. “Companionship definitely helps.”
Whether it’s thousands of emails piling up your inbox, a hectic schedule, or simply the on-the-go nature of your job, the answer might not lie in distracting yourself from the thoughts – but in learning to let go of them completely.