Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Zen Mindset

Acquiring the mindset of a master.

A Zen mindset can be described as the mind that sees all things for the first time, like a newborn baby exploring the world through fresh lenses that haven’t been tinted by language, emotions, or labels. Neuroscience research shows that practicing a Zen mindset may actually calm the mind, bring more clarity, and allow us to act with more kindness.

With a Zen mindset, you can allow your thoughts, feelings, and perceptions to be what they are without judgment. Circumstances and situations are just occurrences that mean nothing until we place our own subjective ideas and emotions onto them.

How we choose to focus our attention shapes how we experience a given situation. We must invite our thoughts and feelings to the forefront so we can learn from their wisdom. This is very different from suppressing them or impulsively reacting to them.

Many people turn to things like drugs, gambling, food, work, sex, or people-pleasing to suppress whatever feelings and thoughts they want to ignore. As soon as a negative emotion stirs up, they react emotionally rather than respond thoughtfully. However, mindlessly going into action allows the negative feelings to continue; over time, the accumulation of these feelings can become overwhelming, and the addictive behaviors that you may turn to for comfort may actually make the situation worse.

When acting from a Zen mindset, you relax the negative thoughts and feelings by listening closely to them. Ultimately, this reduces your anxiety, because instead of being fearful of pain, you accept it as part of life. This then allows you to be more focused, relaxed, and attentive to yourself.

This practice isn't about trying to get rid of anything; it's about accepting whatever is there. Following are five tips on acquiring the mindset of a master.

  1. Be Mindful. Mindfulness is the ability to focus and train your mind to become aware of awareness itself so that you can pay attention to your own purpose and meaning. As researchers have defined it, mindfulness requires paying attention to the present moment from a stance that is nonjudgmental and nonreactive. Mindfulness informs us about being an observer of ourselves, watching our actions and feelings as they’re occurring. As Daniel J. Siegal, M.D. puts it, "At the heart of this process is a form of internal "tuning in" to oneself that enables people to become "their own best friend."
  2. Become an Objective Observer. There is a part of all of us that is an objective observer. That part of us is open and free from emotional reactiveness. As Siegal says in his book Mindsight, "This is the receptive hub of the mind, the tranquil depth of the mental sea." In order to develop a Zen mindset, we have to tune into that aspect of ourselves. We do that by paying attention to our actions and responding to life instead of impulsively reacting to it. That creates lifelong changes in our brain that let us be thoughtful in our responses.
  3. Exercise Regularly. With weekly exercise, a healthy diet, and a good night’s sleep, you could lay the foundation for important changes to take place in your brain. The more your brain changes in these important ways, the healthier it becomes; this ultimately leads to a happier life. Exercise is an undervalued treatment intervention. It releases endorphins, which fight off negative emotions and promote the further development of a mindful brain.
  4. Don't Try to Change Your True Feelings. Just let things be: Trying to force yourself to feel differently than you do is an approach that goes nowhere fast. A Zen mindset involves accepting what is and not being held up by judging yourself for feeling a certain kind of way. Astonishingly, people find that letting things be also allows them to change. We should look at our inner selves with openness and acceptance rather than judgment. This entails being kind and cutting yourself some slack.
  5. Stay Present in What You’re Doing. To stay present with whatever you're doing in this moment, you just need to acknowledge when your thinking goes astray and pulls you into the past or future. It can seem very difficult at first, but eventually, it becomes easier.

If your best friend came to you with a problem she was having, would you try to ignore and judge her for her feeling upset about a difficult situation? I would hope not. You’d probably listen to her struggles, let her speak freely, and offer a shoulder to cry on. That is what it means to be open and attuned to another person's feelings.

Wouldn't it make sense to extend this same kindness to yourself? Working towards a Zen mindset means exactly that. Being supportive of yourself and others means letting pain just be there in the moment, being sympathetic instead of combative. You have to learn to trust your mind and thoughts so they don't become estranged. You do this by bringing them into focus and loving all of them as you would someone you care about.

More from Ilene Strauss Cohen Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today