Zen for Everyday Living

by Tu Hoang

A young woman using Zen techniques to manage stress.

I seem to keep a lot of things on my mind. Thinking about work and worrying about my job security, wondering about my relationship with family and friends, trying to figure out where to invest my money, having to buy a new set of tires for the car, engrossed in the war on terrorism, seeing that all my buddies are getting married and a thousand other things that gnaw at me throughout the day.

I am not the only one with a lot on my mind. I have friends who are dissatisfied with their careers but work it so they can afford the house and the baby. I know guys with beautiful girlfriends and nice cars that still seek approval. I know girls with great careers; lots of friends but can not find love. So it is easy for us all to be stressed. We look forward to 'going out', meeting up with friends, shopping, weekends when we can retreat to our homes, spending time with the new baby and all the other little moments that give us pleasure before we re-immerse ourselves into the immense displeasure of the daily drone. Life seems like a cycle of seeking pleasure, in material things, in business success or in personal relationships in order to stem the displeasures of circumstance.

I recently delved into Zen in order to break this cycle and experience life in its entirety; not embracing just the good bits and avoiding the bad bits because there will be times when such things are out of our control. I still maintain my career ambitions, my commitment to family and friends. My rent still has to be paid and my car still needs four new tires. But my day is no longer a daily drone; no longer a struggle and I no longer seek to 'get away from it all'. I am experiencing things for what they are and not what they should be or aren't. For a Zen master, who I am not, there is no friction between himself and life and the world. Events and circumstances ebb and flow but he is always centered steering his life wherever he sees fit and acting in a way that is always appropriate to the situation.

So what is Zen and how can it be used. Well, Zen is not a religion. There is Zen Buddhism but there can also be Zen Catholicism as well. There is no morality or ethics in Zen; for morality or ethics you will have to look elsewhere like Buddhism or Catholicism. Zen is a way of looking and confronting events, circumstances and life.

Joseph Campbell said of Zen practice, 'It is like an athlete when he's in the zone, except all of the time.' I thought it would be great to live and handle challenges and interact with people like I was in that zone all of the time. Don't you?

Here are some techniques for laypeople to obtain the benefits of Zen.

Focused Breathing:

One of the basic ways of clearing your head of distractions so that you can concentrate is focusing on your breathing. Harvard Medical Center researchers can this the relaxation principle. In Zen it is called zazen or sitting meditation but I do this while jogging, reading and working. When you are relaxed you are more focused and effective in the task at hand.

To do this you must relax your diaphragm and be fully conscious of your breathing. This is not easy to do when you are tense. It takes true self-awareness to realize that your body is tense. It takes effort to relax those muscles in your stomach and discipline to breath steadily. But try to focus on your breathing; here is a long breath in, here is a long breath out, here is a short breath in, here is a short breath out. You will find that you will be more in tune to the present moment. As your mind is focused on your breathing, your senses take in the situation around you unencumbered and unfiltered. You begin to see things as they unfold, hear and listen to sounds as they come, feel and smell aromas as they arise without automatically shutting any of it out or reflexively reacting to them.

Continued practice of focused breathing will help you deal with situations in a more rational and objective manner. It lets you put things in perspective. And it gives you insight into the way your body responds under different situations.

Focused Breathing is the foundation for adopting many of the other techniques of Zen. Practiced on its own it will yield immense benefit to you.

Beginner's Mind:

Zen is known for some very esoteric notions, 'No mind', 'With-out Thinking' and a refutation of all concepts in general. This is one reason Zen appears inaccessible and nonsensical to the casual observer.

These notions are meant to encourage us to adopt a basic tenant of Zen, the Beginner's Mind. When we first learn something we may be anxious, nervous, excited and looking forward to it but we begin without concepts, knowledge or any ideas about the subject. Maintaining a beginner's mind, even in things that we are already experts, means not to carry any preconceived ideas and beliefs when confronting situations. His students asked a Zen teacher if he ever got tired of being asked the same question day in and day out. He replied that each student was different and their question, though worded the same, had a different meaning. A beginner's mind protects us from over-conceptualizing, over-thinking and over-analyzing a situation. We are better able to think outside of the box because we respond appropriately to the needs of each situation. When we think we already know what is going on or that we are already experts in our field we are trapped in one mode of thinking. Many physicists, scientists, philosophers, economists and corporate leaders practice Zen-like techniques because they are aware of such traps. The next time you think 'here comes an annoying co-worker' or 'someone has let me down again, they're always like this' or 'how am I ever going to get this done', go back to focusing on your breathing, take in the situation unencumbered and unfiltered by your knowledge and conditioning and learning. Trust that you have all of the prerequisite abilities that have taken you this far in life to respond to any situation. Once your initial, reflexive thoughts subside you will find that by not categorize situations as they arise you will be open to more alternatives, more opportunities and more ways of responding to the situation appropriately and effectively.


It is not easy to let go of our thoughts, feelings and tension as they arise. Commotion, distractions and other people requiring our attention surround us. We cannot always maintain a beginner's mind and often we cannot afford to focus on our breathing because we are actively responding to something; this is especially true with first applying Zen techniques. But like everything else, continued practice allows us to live these techniques not just merely apply them.

One way to over come the initial hurdles of applying Zen in a busy day is to be Mindful; basically to be self-aware and self-monitoring with the aim of accepting all of the thoughts and feelings that arise in us without judging them or shutting them out.

When you are focused on your breathing, with a Beginner's Mind you will sense feelings and thoughts arising. Focusing on your breathing will keep you centered, and with a Beginner's Mind you will observe thoughts and feelings without judging them; rather let thoughts and feelings rise and subside while you pay attention but not cling to them.

In Zen, all that arises within us are natural; they are a result of what we are and how we are connected to the world. Our eyes, ears and nose sense the world; we perceive, conceptualize and feel because that is the statement of our body.

When we are mindful of anger, sadness, nervousness and joy we acknowledge them, welcome them when they appear but we do not cling to them. When we feel love or happiness we welcome these feelings. It should be the same with anger and nervousness. All these feelings are our mind, body and consciousness communicating to us. When we are mindful of them we can only become wiser and more insightful.

I may get nervous before a test. 'I am nervous. Hello nervousness, how are you today? Glad to feel you again.' Focused breathing keeps me centered. When the test begins my nervousness naturally subsides. 'Farewell nervousness,' and I am completely in tuned with the task at hand.

Do not try to resist or suppress your feelings. That only means you have turned your mind to them and are clinging to them even more. Let your feelings and thoughts. Be mindful of them. I find that as the situation dictates my distracting feelings and thoughts subside allowing me to respond unencumbered by the task at hand.

Focused breathing, Beginner's Mind and Mindfulness are basic Zen practices. They are almost common sense but often we become mired in the complexities and details of every day living and lose sight of common sense wisdom. Zen is not a monastic way of life. The Zen ideal is to experience and embrace life experiences full on; not editing out the bad bits because there are no bad bits, just things are they are.

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