Take a moment to think back over the past week of your life. How have you been using your time? How many emails clogged up your inbox?
The spaces that you’ve been in—were they clean and spacious, or were they dirty and cluttered? How much time did you spend running errands or tidying up the house? Did you have time and energy to prepare healthy meals, meditate, exercise, or invest in your self-care?
We live in a fast-paced, overburdened, overworked, and jam-packed culture. We work long hours to make more money to buy more things to clutter up our houses. We waste time with unnecessary correspondence, social media notifications, and getting stuck in traffic.
We feel like we’re on this never-ending treadmill to nowhere, feeling disconnected and frazzled each and every day. We’re sleep deprived, overweight, and stressed out. When all we really want is to get some zen!
So, what does living a life of zen look like?
Traditionally, the word “zen” has been associated with the quiet and austere Buddhist sect, which emphasizes silent meditation and personal inquiry. However, as the word has leached into modern, everyday life, it has evolved to mean something less esoteric and more practical.
You don’t have to become a monk to be zen, but it will probably require some major life changes, since we can all agree that today’s world is decidedly not zen. In essence, the art of zen is all about spaciousness, intention, and peace. And we can apply this wisdom to every aspect of our lives.
While it’s somewhat challenging to define exactly what zen is, it’s easy to notice when something isn’t zen. An overpacked schedule is not zen. A cluttered workspace is not zen. A phone or tablet that is constantly chirping and buzzing is definitely not zen.
Chances are good that you can recognize the things in your life that give you that calm, spacious feeling, and you can also feel when you lose sight of it.
You see, zen is something that already exists innately within us—we are born in perfect peace, at ease with our world and with ourselves. But as we grow up and take on the burdens of the world, we lose touch with our inner zen nature.
However, all is not lost—so don’t worry.
We can all make deliberate and mindful choices to get rid of some of the clutter, be that physical, mental, or emotional, and regain our zen. Just like with most intentional, spiritually-aligned ways of living, zen is an art form. It is fluid and forgiving, adaptable and personalized.
Your version of zen may look different from your friends’, but the important thing is to find your own center and way of living zen that gives you a peaceful, fulfilled existence that is aligned with your own talents, values, and priorities.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
1. Try single-tasking.
Before the age of technology and our obsession with productivity, people tended to focus their attention on one thing at a time. There was no eating, tweeting, and driving at the same time.
A zen proverb says, “When eating, eat. When walking, walk,” and while it sounds simplistic, it really sums up the essence of zen- to bring our full mindful awareness to whatever we are doing at the moment.
Even modern neuroscience has confirmed that single-tasking, also called monotasking, actually improves our productivity, boosts our self-esteem, and reduces mental stress. No matter what you’re doing, whether that’s washing dishes, or chatting with a friend, let the distractions go and enjoy the peace of being present.
2. Clear out the clutter.
There are entire books devoted to this topic, but I’ll try to sum it up here. Clutter comes in many forms, and they’re all stressful. The junk you have laying around your house/garage/attic is clutter. The hundreds of emails in your inbox are clutter. The multiples you have of the same item are clutter.
Even the repetitive thoughts that circle around your mind are clutter. Zen cannot exist where there is clutter, so now is the time to go through your life and clean up. Toss or donate things you don’t absolutely need or love, delete old files and make space on your electronics, and find other ways you can minimize and simplify!
3. Pay attention.
Most of us whiz through our days without noticing the details, but in the art of zen, we are called to bring our full attention to things that are happening in the present moment. This is similar to single-tasking, but goes one step further than removing distractions, and asks us to observe and experience everything.
Being mindful and engaging all of our senses are two aspects of a zen lifestyle, and there are multitudes of ways to practice these. You can pay attention to the feel of your feet on the ground and the air on your skin, you can observe the expressions on a loved one’s face, notice each individual sound around you, and so on.
4. Do less.
Yes, this flies in the face of our modern culture’s obsession with productivity and our collective worship of busyness. But this principle is truly the core of zen, and can manifest in a variety of ways.
When you are overscheduled and always running around from one thing to the next, you not only miss out on being fully present for those experiences, but you also miss out on the quiet in between them.
This so-called “white space” is where the magic happens, where you can hear the voice of the Universe, and where your mind and body can recharge. Try to schedule yourself blocks of time to simply be. Rest and relax, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Let go of your need to be busy all the time.
If you want to start practicing the art of zen, and yes, it is a practice, there’s never been a better time to begin. When you can sweep out the unneeded and unnecessary, you create space for reflection, spiritual growth, and deliberation in what you do and say.
There’s no right or wrong way on the path of zen, but the important thing to remember is to bring your entire being to this moment, this life. Clear out the clutter from your home, your office, your media, and your calendar.
Learn to be okay with doing less and being more. Experience life in every direction, and immerse yourself in a full-sensory version of this existence.
The art of zen can change your life, you just need to make space for it first.