We live in a world that is more digitally connected and convenient than ever. But all this connection leaves many of us feeling overwhelmed, stressed and, ironically, more lonely. The Zen tradition grew up in troubled times in war-torn China and revolutionary Japan. The concept of Zen means to feel self-aware, at peace with your thoughts and content with your place in the universe. How can the traditional wisdom of Zen help us tackle the root causes of stress so that we can experience inner peace?
Julian Daizan Skinner, author and Rinzai Zen Buddhist, shares a few ways you can integrate Zen into your life to reduce your stress levels and feel happier and calmer.
Spend a few minutes per day thinking about what you’re grateful for in life. This will elevate your happiness levels. Psychology studies have proven practising gratitude on a regular basis is strongly associated with greater happiness so there’s no doubt being grateful and focusing on the blessings in our life helps to change our perspective about how we see life in general.
Disentangle yourself from overactive thinking
In Zen, you learn that simply worrying will not change the outcome of a given situation. You can learn to disentangle yourself from overactive thinking instead. The first step is awareness – realising that you have the choice whether to create heaven or hell in your own head. Next time you feel your mind clogged with worried thoughts, simply say to yourself ‘I am not my thoughts’. Simply watch the thoughts pass by.
Cleanse the hara and release stressful emotions
In Zen, it is believed that when the hara (the belly area) is strong and energized, you are powerful and grounded. When it is weak, we can feel overly emotional and susceptible to stress. There is a powerful breathing exercise you can do to cleanse the hara and immediately release stressful emotions (which are often stored in our gut area). Simply inhale deeply through the nose. and as you exhale, make a strong ‘ha’ sound, gradually opening your mouth as wide as it comfortably goes. Repeat this 10 times.
Be present and aware
Being present and aware helps to boost our happiness levels. We can start to move out of our head and into the world – away from any negative or doubtful thoughts swirling around. Zen places an emphasis on mindfulness, which helps you to be engaged in every situation. Focus on your breathing, and start to allow your breaths to get deeper and longer. This will instantly calm the nervous system and help pump out happy hormones around your body.
Listen to your body
In Zen, we learn that physical and emotional pain is part of life but like everything else, it is always temporary. It might come to us concealing a message or a lesson. Ask yourself this: what is this pain trying to teach me? Is it a wake-up call to change my lifestyle? Or to learn some coping strategies? In Zen, being aware is the first step, and then to bring about transformation, taking action is crucial. So listen to your body. If you are exhausted, put your focus on getting restful sleep. If your mind is racing with fear, slow down and make time for yourself. It’s important not to ignore physical symptoms – they are usually a warning sign that all is not well. Prioritize your health.
Make time for a daily Zen meditation practice
Meditation drastically reduces the stress hormone, cortisol and you can incorporate this practice first thing in the morning or before you go to bed. It also alleviates existential angst – feelings of separation and isolation. It’s best to learn zazen (sitting meditation) working with a Zen teacher but you can still begin on your own by sitting in a comfortable cross-legged position, kneeling or even on an upright chair. Keep your spine long and tall; centre your breathing and begin by counting your breath in and out up to ten. Later simply follow your breath. Let all the thoughts and feelings come and go without engaging with them. You will emerge feeling refreshed.
Don’t react to your emotions immediately
When you feel anger bubbling up inside you, don’t react immediately. Just sit quietly with your emotions for a minute or so. Learn to shift from a stress reaction to a positive stress response. Allow yourself to process what has happened rather than say or do something in haste that you may regret. Scan your body. There is always a physical location for every emotion. When you find the spot, simply rest your attention there with an attitude of acceptance. The physical symptoms will begin to easy and so will the emotions.
Rough Waking by Julian Daizan Skinner and Laszlo Mihaly is out now. All profits from the book are donated to Zenways’ charity work with St Giles Trust – offering Zen meditation and yoga to the homeless and imprisoned.