As a spiritually minded psychotherapist, peace proponent, and student of Buddhism, I love watching the West wake up to the wisdom of ancient Eastern traditions. It thrills me to know that people are getting intentional about creating more harmony and stillness in their lives, because I’m fully convinced that what the world needs now, above all else, is a more intentional, more finely attuned sense of awareness and presence among all human beings. When I see any indication that we’re moving in that direction, I feel gratified and hopeful. But here’s the thing: Owning a yoga mat doesn’t make you a yogi, telling people you meditate isn’t the same thing as meditating, and being Zen isn’t the same thing as saying you are. That might sound harsh, but I’m making this point for an important reason. In the instant-gratification-based culture we live in, it’s easy to confuse exposure with understanding. To truly understand something, you must immerse yourself in it, exploring it from multiple angles and seeking to gain as much knowledge about it as possible. And so it is with spiritual traditions and practices like Zen.
The most direct translation of the word Zen is meditation, but the true meaning of Zen can’t fully be expressed in words. Perhaps the closest we can come is to say that Zen is a state of being that involves a sense of connection to a power greater than oneself. It’s a way of living in the present moment and fully experiencing reality as it’s unfolding, with no preference for what happens. It means being aware of the interconnectedness of all living things, and flowing with the universe. Put simply, Zen is an orientation toward life that generates a sense of peace, equanimity, acceptance, and contentment. To be Zen is to be committed to maintaining clarity and remaining grounded in the present moment, no matter how challenging it is to do so.
In our culture, when people talk about “getting Zen” or “being Zen,” they’re usually referring to something along the lines of relaxing, reducing stress, slowing down, or finding peace. And that’s a wonderful thing. But calming down isn’t necessarily the same thing as finding Zen. The reason this distinction matters is that often, our efforts to relax and calm down involve checking out or numbing ourselves to what’s happening—and that isn’t Zen at all! To adopt a Zen mentality is to be at one with whatever we’re experiencing, without trying to manipulate or change it so we can feel better. When we experience Zen, we’re acknowledging and accepting what is, rather than attempting to make it something else.
Although there isn’t an explicit goal in Zen practice, the purpose is to generate greater awareness and appreciation for what’s happening in the present moment. When we confuse zoning out for Zen, we sell ourselves short of experiencing everything that can unfold and open up for us when we accept what we’re feeling instead of trying to "OM" it away. There’s a commonly used expression among therapists and healers that says, “The only way out is through.” This simple statement speaks to the difference between numbing out and knowing Zen. It’s easy to check out of the present moment by turning on a meditation CD or lighting some candles; but I challenge you to make your practice deeper than that. Don’t settle for artificial peace. Practice loving and staying present with whatever is occurring in the present moment—no matter how unpleasant it may be—and know that true peace awaits you on the other side.