Have you noticed that when you chase after something your stress level goes up?
Zen can help with the stressful gap between wanting things and how things actually are in your life. Zen can teach you how to live without much attachment to the outcome of your actions. This doesn't mean you are uncaring or don't plan for your life, or that you don't have some general intention or goal in mind. It means you become very interested in the quality of your mind when you do things.
If you become curious about your own stress, then your intention to understand it will teach you how to live with clarity and calmness. If you learn a few mindfulness practices like awareness of your breathing, living with alertness, and paying attention to your body, you can begin to fathom how you create your own stress.
One of the first problems we face is that we want to get rid of anxiety and stress! The 'wanting' is stress producing. Sometimes we try to change by pushing and shoving ourselves around, rather than by using understanding and kindness towards ourselves. The more you fight stress the more you create it. The first step is not making stress the enemy! It is more helpful to make stress your friend.
From a zen perspective, we can't transform our attitudes and experiences until we have some deep experience of them. The zen attitudes of attentiveness, curiosity, and kindness are helpful means of growth. As your stress comes into view it is important to avoid becoming judgmental and self-critical, which unfortunately can become quite easy to do in our performance and perfection driven culture. The best way to meet your own stress is to greet it like a friendly neighbor coming to visit for tea: 'Oh, hello, welcome to my house!'
It takes practice to learn to do nothing, to observe your stress without taking action. This can be hard, because our usual modus operandi is to fix things or to try quickly changing the things we don't like in our life. If you can accept and get to know your stress, it will begin to transform.
In zen we listen very sensitively to our body in meditation. Is the stress in your arms, your neck, or your chest? What happens to your breathing? Do you bunch up your shoulders, tighten your jaw, tense your bottom, or ball up your fist? If you watch your breathing you could also say to yourself 'Breathing in, I am aware of tension in my back'. Learning about stress doesn't mean making a catalog of when and how you experience it. It means getting really close to it so that you know it in your bones.
When we stop fixing ourselves and pay attention to what is actually happening we begin to relax! As we begin to live in the present moment we can experience calm in our activity. When you notice you are not breathing and you find out what muscles are tense in your belly, chest, or diaphragm,… you naturally let go. This letting go is not because you have a plan or self-improvement program or idea of what is good for you. It is just a natural response to your inner awareness. You can breathe more freely.
Zen meditation is noticing how things really are. We learn this in zazen, or zen meditation. This can sound rather easy, but it takes most people lots of practice to be aware of how your mind and body are working in each moment.
Also read Zen and Five Ways to be Happy.
Good luck in your encounter with stress, and I wish you peace and well being,
Tai Sheridan is a Zen teacher in Marin county, California. For information about Zen and his teachings please visit www.zenkettle.com. You can email Tai directly with any questions you may have about this article at