Living Zen: 9 ideas to help you ease into the Zen way of being

How to invite the Zen into your everyday life

Man meditating

Most of us live ‘one step removed from reality’. In other words, when an event happens, rather than experiencing it directly, we pop into our heads and describe the event to ourselves. We interpret the event, then decide how the event fits into our life story. We have stopped paying attention and are further from the moment itself.

Zen has no goal, other than to be present for life, it teaches us to show up for the real thing—the actual experience, devoid of embellishments. Being present means fewer accidents, more engagement, and a real life as opposed to an imagined one.

Here are some ideas for you, on ways to live a simple Zen life.


Buddhism changed drastically when it got to Japan. Zen master Dogen—founder of the Soto school—got his hands on it, and declared, “Shikantaza!” In other words, there is no need to search for enlightenment—it’s right here, right now—and best “felt” through zazen [seated meditation.]

So, the key to Zen living is carving out 20 minutes a day [or more] to just sit. We do not sit to accomplish something, nor are we merely putting in time. We sit, and in the sitting, find the present moment.

It’s not even about clearing your mind, because then having a clear mind becomes the goal. Rather, just sit, breathe, and watch yourself. Thoughts will arise, and if you let them be, they’ll drift along like clouds. If you latch on, you’ll drift into imagining. Then, as you notice, come back to just sitting.

Sit with a sense to challenge yourself. The only thing you have to work with is your life—or more specifically, the issues you confront. Have an intent to be ‘right here’ for all of it.

Zen living: Breathe, observe, drop the need to label or judge—just see each thing as one more thing—one more way to bring yourself into the Now.

Free your mind

Letting go of your mind’s dominance is the most difficult part of the Zen pathless path. The mind is sticky and slippery, and much of what it does is about maintaining the story you tell yourself.

Stories are the currency of the mind. We think we know who we are, and believe our own press releases about how the world is. Yet, there is nothing true about any of the stories you tell yourself. Out of all of it—out of everything that has happened—we choose specific scenes, string them together, and call the result “my life.” These story-selections are nothing other than what you’ve chosen to believe to support your preconceived notions.

Zen living: Know that things are as they are, until they aren’t. Freeing your mind really means freeing yourself from your mind’s grip. Life is as it is, and telling yourself stories about how really bad it all is, does nothing to help you deal with reality. As you let go of the story-telling, you simply make choices, act, and evaluate, then act again. Once your mind is freed to be present with “what is,” the rest just follows.

As you bring yourself, again and again, into presence, you see that mostly there is not much going on, and precious little to do, other than to just be there for your life. The drama falls away, and in its place is time—time to fully engage with life.

Take time to experience

Stepping back from the mind’s chatter can be quite disconcerting. Without all of that distracting noise, what’s left is sensation—the flow of Qi, the life-force. This can be anything from startling or scary to boring or interesting.

As you meditate, you open yourself to the endless flow of sensation. You suddenly hear, and see, and feel, and in this process, you come into the actual experience of yourself. Now, most of the time, your mind will pop in and start judging, labelling, or complaining. “Here’s what you ought to be doing, feeling, thinking!” And away you go [again] from the experience to the mental games.

Zen living: Use your breath to bring yourself back into your body as you feel and hear and see. Experience your feelings completely, and then… wait for it… go with the flow to the next thing.

If you find yourself reluctant to fully immerse yourself into the flow and feel of life, have another breath, and go with that. Soon, your tolerance for being fully alive and fully present will grow. You find yourself immersed in living as opposed to existing solely in your head.

Maintain a single focus

Multitasking is impossible. Watch yourself when you attempt it. What you are actually doing is turning your attention from one thing to another, rapidly. And, because changing your focus takes energy, nothing gets your full attention.

Zen living: Do one thing at a time. Bring your entire focus to what you are doing, and only stop when you reach a predetermined point of completion. Then, fully shift your attention. This is the meaning of the Zen expression, ‘Chop wood, carry water. Distraction is impossible if I am fully engaged with what is in front of me.

Speak only for yourself

Mostly, you use the pronoun “I,” recognising that all I can reliably talk about is what I am thinking, feeling, and doing.

Most people talk at people, and especially when things are wrong. Instead of saying, “You did this, you made me feel …” say “I feel that…” Meditation helps to see that the experience I am having is always and only about me. It’s honest to own what’s up for me.

Zen living: Speak only for yourself, by using “I think…”, “I imagine…”, “The story I’m telling myself…” and the like. Own your experience, and share it, as it’s all you can ever know.

Be grateful

Because of our endless mind-chatter, we view life through the ‘What’s in it for me?’ glasses—taking full credit for what we have, and casting full blame for what we hate. We miss the interconnectedness—how we are all in this together. Drop the ego, drop blaming, and express your gratitude for being a link in the chain of life.

Zen living: Awareness includes noticing that everything and everyone is a part of the same game. I only get to play because of you, and vice versa. For instance, just think of all of the people involved in putting food on your table.

Make no judgements

Our tendency is to judge. Something happens, and we label it as good or bad, right or wrong. We feel righteous in our finger pointing. But without action on our part, nothing changes.

The key is to realise that judgement itself is futile. If I say I believe in equality, for example, the real test is whether I treat everyone equally—and especially in situations that make me uncomfortable.

Zen living: You will label things until you die. But when in situations where you feel tempted to judge, notice and stop your mind for a moment, and then act in keeping with your feelings, interpretations, and intentions.

Most people say, “Isn’t it awful” and do nothing. Instead, say, “It is what it is,” then act to change what’s happening.

Be non-attached

Attachments are silly. They are based on the idea that you can grasp someone or something, and by the act of grasping, keep it the same, or ‘just keep it.’ We live with a belief that if all is going well, then the fantasy shouldn’t end. Guess what? It had already ended, and had to end, because nothing is static—all is in motion—all is change.

Zen living: Let go. Hold everything loosely. As you start to cling, have a breath and let go. It’s like trying to grasp the water of a fast-flowing stream, it’s impossible. And besides, attachments cause us to miss what’s happening right in front of us!

Don’t do it, be it

Zen living and being is not a new skill set to show-off. If you can’t figure out how to make time to meditate, I suggest think of your entire life as meditation. Different focus, different direction. Rather than having something more to do, Zen living becomes life itself.

Zen living: Live your life as an action that encompasses your entire being and essence. This is tricky, but it’s about a full, purposeful commitment to a way of being that includes thought, feeling and action. Take the other points, above, and see them as focusing points—ideas about what such being might look like, as you enact yourself in the here and now.

A version of this article was first published in the April 2012 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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