For the Love of Nothing

The word "Zen" originates from the Chinese word "Chan"- a derivative from the Sanskrit word for meditation.

It is a form of Buddhism which focuses on simplicity, practicality and living for the moment based on the premise that the world is impermanent. The link between what is to come, and what once was, is to be fully aware of the present moment.

One way to practice this concept is to be "mindful," an act in which we are not only aware of what we are doing at the moment, but the ways that moment came to be. For instance, if we were eating a slice of toast for breakfast, the experience of mindfulness would transcend to thinking about the grains in the food that we are eating, the rains that nourished the plants, and enjoying the simplicity of the nourishment and flavor. Being mindful can take an often-overlooked activity and make it into a beautiful and delightful moment.

Mindfulness can be practiced in any arena, from the office to the home. One can be mindful of the trees that grew in the forest that were cut down to create the paperwork on our desks. One can be mindful of the laborers who cultivated the coffee that we drink each morning, and the soothing tropical rains that enabled those plants to grow and create their bounty. Being mindful allows us to enjoy the present moment for what it is, before the imminent change occurs.

Acceptance is also a large part of Zen. Some things just are. No matter what you want to feel about it, there is winter every year. Flowers die. Some days are cloudy and bleak. Fires burn out and lives end. It is best to enjoy the unique beauty of situations before they are no longer.

Zen is about lessons – lessons passed on from scholars and monks, some of which are over two thousand years old. Learning and embracing Zen can help one's mind stay balanced, sharp, and insightful in today's busy world. There are many excellent books to get one started on the Zen path. Everyday Zen by Stephanie Russell is a great place to start, with many simple and deeply philosophical insights to ponder. Another good book is 365 Zen by Jean Smith, which lends you a Zen thought for each day of the year. Anything by Thich Nhat Hahn is also a tremendous source of wonderful thoughts and writings. These writings will reflect thoughts and perspectives you may never have thought before.

Meditation is a common practice in other cultures, but many Westerners do not know how. There are many ways and places to start learning. Perhaps the best way to begin is to sit somewhere comfortable. The Zen ancients preferred the zazen position, which is much like sitting "Indian-style" with a pillow tucked beneath your bottom in the back so that the pelvis is slightly bent forward, the back and head straight. The fingers of the left hand are resting on the fingers of the right hand, palms upward with the tip of the thumbs touching each other. Focus on your breathing, posture and state of mind. The mind will calm down during meditation. Concentrating on the posture and breathing, allow extraneous thoughts to slightly slip away.

If you are easily distracted, you might prefer to meditate while thinking about a Zen verse or saying. One of my favorites is "The eyes that see do not see themselves." You can think about that one for a long time, pulling it apart, just trying to figure out what is all means, while you sit quietly enjoying your breathing and posture.

Zen gardens are also a tool used for meditation. A box full of sand, a small rake and some decorative tumbled stones are all that is needed to create a simple garden. Originally, the Zen garden was used as a microcosm of the land, with certain trees and lakes and mountains being represented by stones. Some Zen gardens come with figurines or pagodas. Zen gardens are helpful to clear your mind of anything other than what you are doing in the present, whether it be raking the sand or rearranging the rocks in a tower or other formation.

Zen is a journey of the mind and the heart. It is a well-worn path, but one must travel it alone. Zen is the emptying of preconceived notions and allowing nothingness to fill you. Conversely, it is the nothingness that makes one whole again. Morehei Ueshiba writes in The Art of Peace, "The more you train, the fewer lessons there will be. The great path is ultimately no path."

Modern medicine has researched Zen and meditation and found that the peace and tranquility help people in dealing with stress, anxiety, depression, nightmares and other mental or emotional issues. The relaxation also helps with regulating blood pressure, and research has studied the long-term effects of meditation on the brain in hopes of helping people with Parkinson's disease, ADHD, and other neurological disorders.

Meditation doesn't have to be a long session, just a few minutes here and there. It will likely not be perfect for quite some time, but with practice you will find peace in what you are doing. The world will seem different to you, and you will appreciate the mental and physical benefits, as well as the contemplative ways of the Zen leaders. Your mind will be clearer, and your days will seem nicer and more relaxing. Walk this old path. It is full of brambles and flowers, of beauty and of truth. Feel free to stop along the way and reflect upon the thought of the ancients. When you reach the end of the path, you will see that you are really only at the beginning.

Jennie Ann Stroiney is the author of a children's mystery series and a freelance writer in Connecticut.