Look After Your Mind March 2022

My wife and I have long enjoyed watching gardening programmes on TV. We have however noticed over the past couple of years that some garden designers/presenters increasingly describe quiet spots in the garden as being ‘zen’. They’re not entirely wrong, though Zen amounts to more than just peace and quiet. The word itself comes from the Chinese chan, meaning quietude. Before that it derives from a Sanskrit term meaning meditation, Sanskrit being the classical language of India. Although Zen has a long connection with Buddhism, it can also be seen as a philosophy and method for “rediscovering the experience of being alive” these are the words of Mark Watts, son of Alan Watts, who was one of the great popularisers of Zen in the west during the mid to late 20th Century.

According to Mark Watts, the aim of Zen is to bring about a transformation of consciousness such that we are released from what he calls the dream world of our endless thoughts. Zen cannot be taught directly, says Watts, but can be explored through sessions of meditation, deep reflective thought and dialogues between the student and the Zen master.

As an experiment, treat yourself to a quiet ten or fifteen minutes, indoors or out. Pick an object to focus on, then take a few deep breaths, relax, and try to keep your mind and your gaze fixed on your chosen object. You are likely to find, as I still do, that your mind wanders within moments, that memories, anticipations of the future and other chains of thought intrude and distract. One little trick is not to fight against this constant flow of thoughts, but to simply let them come and go without getting involved. Imagine they are leaves drifting by in a stream, and you’re sitting on the bank just idling time away.

Another useful technique is to be ‘fully present’ in whatever you’re doing. This is to be acutely aware of yourself going through whatever it is that you’re experiencing, however humble a task that might be. A well known Zen story tells of a student who had been studying and practising Zen for some years, yet he still didn’t feel that he’d got the idea. He went and asked his teacher for some advice on how to achieve Zen fully. His teacher said, “Have you eaten your rice?” And when the student nodded, he added, “Then wash out your bowl”. And would say no more.

Steve Bowkett.