10 Easy Mental Wellbeing Lessons From Zen Monk Shunmyo Masuno

You don’t have to live like a monk to benefit from the life-affirming, mindful art of zen, but it does pay to know some of the tactics they use.

Everyday hacks, from creating a micro zen garden to a five-minute chair zazen take minimal effort, but could transform your life by reducing stress levels and increasing your sense of purpose.

Follow RSNG’s ten-step guide to becoming more zen, taken from Japanese Zen Monk Shunmyo Masuno’s best selling book ‘Zen: The Art Of Simple Living’ to live a calmer, happier life…

1. Find ‘Seclusion In The City’ You probably live in an urban, or suburban, environment subject to constant bustle and noise, where you’re always sharing space with somebody. This can present a problem if you’re trying to be more Zen – as Shunmyo Masuno says: ‘The word ‘Zen’ comes from the Sanskrit word dhyana, which means quiet “contemplation.”’

If you want to let a little Zen into your life then the most important thing is to be able to sit quietly, and think. So, Masuno recommends finding a pool of quiet in your city or town; that curiously empty corner of a park, for instance. ‘A place where you can disconnect from other people and spend time with yourself. A place in nature where you can regain mental freedom. A few moments of seclusion can illuminate the path forward.’

Once you’ve achieved that you can ‘sit Zazen’. ‘For Zazen, first we assume the correct posture, next we focus on our breathing, and finally we steady our mind. Once we arrange all three of these things, then we begin to practise Zazen.’

2. ‘Feel Instead Of Think’ If your mind feels like is stuffed with competing thoughts which give you no rest, then re-focussing on your five senses can provide some relief. Masuno gives the example of fishermen who become adept at predicting the approach of storms, through watching the clouds and sensing the wind.

‘When resourcefulness like this yields results, it can be very satisfying. I believe in the importance of honing the five senses to experience such satisfaction. It is one of life’s pleasures,’ he says.

If you’re wondering how to do this, then start by noticing the details in your environment that you walk past every day, and how they change. It can be the leaves on the trees, or the smell of the air, but the more you take notice, the more you become attuned and can spot the slightest changes.

When something bad happens and you are feeling down, try clapping your hands in front of you

3. ‘Be Here Now’ Zen thinking recognises that we only really ‘live’ in the moment. The past is over and the future is yet to be. ‘So we must train our minds to be present in this very instant,’ says Masuno. ‘The you of a moment ago is the past you.’

This idea is both self-evident and also hard to comprehend when we are so used to constructing a continuity and narrative for our lives, which help us to make sense of things, but can also be a trap, locking us into negative thoughts and patterns.

Masuno uses breathing as a way to access this thinking: ‘We inhale, and then we exhale, The moment when we inhale is the present, but once we exhale, it has already become the past.’

He says you can use this concept to move on from negative experiences. ‘When something bad happens and you are feeling down, try clapping your hands in front of you – in an instant, you can feel better, having been put in a new frame of mind.’

4. Persevere But Don’t Sweat It We all recognise that to master something we need to stick at it, but this can become the hardest thing to do when the end goal seems so distant – so, come back to the moment. ‘By fixating solely on the end point, you will forgo the pleasures of the journey,’ says Masuno.

Fortunately, it’s not hard to take a zen approach to realising your goal. Try not to characterise your efforts as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, instead be deliberate.

‘There is no particular secret to mastering something. Just repeat the same practice every day. Adopt a sober, steady, continuous routine. At some point in this routine you will suddenly realise: “Ah, this is the answer I have been looking for.”’

5. Look Beyond A Single View The Japanese concept of mitate is seeing an item in a different way, and putting it to a different purpose. For instance, seeing how ‘a teacup that has a chipped rim might now be used as a bud vase,’ says Masuno.

It’s a useful concept in a wasteful world of shrinking resources, but it’s also a good way to express the idea of not being bound by a single perspective, in order to think more creatively. In an automated world, the currency of the future will be creative solutions. ‘Try seeing things in different ways, so as not to be bound by just ‘the proper way’.’

6. Think Simple To Satisfy Your Mind It’s no accident that our current century has seen the invention of terms such as ‘decision fatigue’ and ‘analysis paralysis’ – we have such a bewildering array of choices to make, every day, whenever we stop for lunch, go shopping, or fire up our streaming service of choice for some downtime. Need to buy a new washing machine? Then welcome to online-research hell…

It’s no surprise you feel exhausted by all of this, and to hear what your mind really craves is simplicity. Japanese Zen practitioners have a saying about samadhi, the state of intense concentration created through meditation. ‘Ichigyo zanmai. It means “Strive for just one thing.” Rather than branching into this, that and what-have-you, focus your attention on just one thing. This is the way to gain satisfaction and fulfilment.’

‘When you’re uncertain, simplicity is the best way to go,’ says Masuno.

7. Or Don’t Think At All Meditating, to empty your mind of conscious thoughts, is a discipline, but Masuno says that for creative thinking – where you uncover ideas or have breakthroughs – daydreaming can be even more important.

‘At the office, when trying to solve a problem, everyone is frantic to hit on the right idea. You don’t stop thinking for a moment; you just keep plugging away at it… Ideas or sparks actually emerge from the empty spaces within your mind – from the gaps between your thoughts,’ he says. ‘Cherish the time when you’re not thinking about anything.’

8. Acquire Only What You Need You don’t need to swear off material possessions to benefit from Zen, but it does pay to be conscious of the mental load that accumulating loads of ‘stuff’ can have on you. ‘Acquiring lots of things isn’t freedom. What’s important is acquiring the mindset of using things freely,’ says Masuno.

He gives the example of the Zen rock gardens at Kyoto, which are called ‘dry landscape gardens, because they evoke beautiful landscapes without employing ponds or streams.’ Despite this it’s easy to imagine a stream flowing through them, if your mindset is free enough to see it, that is.

‘Before you acquire something new, give some thought to whether you really need it, and take another look at what you already have.’

A vast landscape this can be shrunk to a minuscule version by creating a small garden

9. Do A 5-minute Chair Zazen You might think that you don’t have time to incorporate mindful zen practice into your life, but most of us have five minutes while sat at our desk after we’ve finished eating lunch. This is a good place to practice a chair zazen, according to Masuno, because you can fix some posture issues while you’re at it…

He recommends the following to harmonize your posture, breathing and mind: ‘First, adjust your posture by aligning your head and your tailbone. If you were to see yourself from the side, your spine would create an S-curve, and you could draw a straight line from your head to your tailbone.’

‘Next, attend to your breathing. Under the stressful conditions at work, you might take seven or eight breaths per minute. By focussing on your breathing, you can naturally decrease this to three or four breaths per minute. Once this happens your mind will naturally settle.’

10. Create A Micro Garden A good way to build your powers of visualisation, and create an internal oasis, is to plant a micro-garden. You can do this even if all you have is a balcony, or window box, says Masuno.

‘We can visualise distant mountains and, in our mind, can hear the rushing sound of a river. A vast landscape like this can be shrunk to a minuscule version by creating a small garden… within that space try representing the landscape of your mind.’

‘A place where your mind can escape. A place where you can look upon your essential self. It might just become your favourite spot.’

WHAT NEXT? Want more Zen wisdom in your life? Then check out the RSNG Q&A with Julian Skinner, Zen Master.

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Comments are for information only and should not replace medical advice, care or recommendations.