Stress, anxiety and depression are an increasing part of life in Britain. According to the Mental Health Foundation around 50 percent of adults in the UK feel stressed every day while a fifth of adults suffer anxiety or depression. 11.3 million working days were lost last year due to stress, depression or anxiety, and the figures keep rising. Could Zen be the answer?
Zen comes from a school of Buddhism that developed initially in China before spreading out to Japan, Vietnam and Korea. It has a reputation for being overly arcane and enigmatic but new teachers are now making it more accessible to Westerners.
‘Zen can enhance health and vitality; increasing happiness, energy, concentration and problem solving,’ says Zen meditation teacher Kim Bennett. ‘People who practice it also report less fear and anxiety, and much less depression.
Research at Emory University in Atlanta suggested that Zen meditation could help treat attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorders, anxiety, and major depression. ‘The regular practice may enhance the capacity to limit the influence of distracting thoughts,’ says neuroscientist Giuseppe Pagnoni. He found that Zen meditators were simply more able to control their thoughts.
Daizan Roshi is the founder of Zenways which teaches Zen meditation via classes, workshops and intensive retreats. He spent years studying in Japan before returning to the UK. ‘Zen is the perfect tool for modern life,’ he says. ‘It works with your body, mind and energy to create greater wellbeing, vitality and awareness.’
While most ‘normal’ meditation and mindfulness simply aim to relax the body and restore the mind, Zen goes one step further. It helps you realise your true nature; who you really are – what is known as ‘awakening’ or ‘enlightenment’. The aim is not to become Buddha-like but to have a profound grounding for your life, a calm certainty about who you are which, in turn, removes stress, anxiety, depression and fear.
‘I’ve taught all kinds of people: high flying businesspeople, actors, teachers, engineers, psychotherapists, working and stay-at-home mothers,’ says Bennett. ‘They tend to be down-to-earth people who want a down-to-earth way of looking at their lives and effecting change. There’s nothing remotely fluffy or New Agey about Zen.’
Daizan agrees. ‘It’s uniquely suitable for stressed-out westerners who need to find a source of meaning in their lives,’ he says. ‘It also builds up physical and emotional strength and energy.’
Even complete novices report huge benefits after one of his intensive weekends, which revolve around asking one question: ‘Who am I?’ It sounds too simple to be possible but Daizen insists that, ‘”Who am I?” is the most important question a human can ask. It opens up the entire universe.’ He explains that, even if we have great relationships and careers, many of us still feel a sense of being alone, of being alienated from the world. Zen helps you see the world with new eyes; to find your place in it. ‘It becomes less ‘me against the world’ and more ‘me in and of the world,’ says Bennett. ‘And that, in turn, makes the world a much less stressful place to be.’
Although ideally you would study with a teacher, Daizan says you can make great progress on your own. ‘All you need is a little time,’ he says. ‘Thirty minutes a day for eight weeks. That’s it. You don’t need anything else.’
Caution: Everyone can benefit from Zen although if you suffer from schizophrenia or paranoia, you would need individual and specialised help. Contact Zenways for advice.
Finding your sitting place
You simply need to find a position that is comfortable, either on a chair with your feet planted firmly on the floor; kneeling with your sitting bones resting on a cushion or sitting cross-legged with a cushion beneath your buttocks. Apart from the benefits of meditation, these positions encourage good posture and can help prevent back pain.
1. Whichever position you choose, create a stable triangular base with your lower body. Make sure your knees are separated and the weight of your upper body is supported by your ischia, the two sitting bones in the base of your pelvis. Sway a little from side to side, forwards and backwards to find your position of natural uprightness. Your spine should adopt its natural curves.
2. Relax your shoulders and let your hands sit in your lap. Imagine you have a string at the top of your head, gently pulling your spine upright.
3. You can either shut your eyes or have them gently downcast.
4. Rest the tip of your tongue against the roof of your mouth
5. Relax your body. Allow your breathing to be natural. Feel the rising and sinking of the breath in your belly.
Meditation with a Question
At the heart of Zenways intensive retreats is an active form of meditation, called group Sanzen. In this you enquire into the question, ‘Who am I?’ It is said to lead swiftly to a sense of your true nature, reducing stress, anxiety and depression. Practice every day aiming for 25 minutes. In addition, keep the question in mind throughout your day, coming back to it whenever you have a quiet moment.
1. Once you are sitting in a comfortable position (see above) start by asking yourself the question: ‘Who am I?’
2. As you breathe out, ask yourself silently, ‘Who am I?’
3. As you breathe in, just allow whatever arises to come up. You may notice thoughts, memories, perceptions, sensations, theories. Don’t censor yourself in any way. Just observe each thought and then let it go. Return to the question: Who am I?
4. There is more to you than any theory, any past, any emotion. Who are you really? Keep asking yourself the question. Keep investigating.
5. At the end of the meditation, gently sway your body side to side. Stretch a little bit. Slowly come up into standing.
6. Continue to keep this question in mind throughout your day.
The Practice of Presence (‘Unborn Meditation’)
This is another classic Zen meditation technique from Daizan that you can use if you want a second period of meditation in the day. Set a gentle alarm on your phone (maybe a chime?) so you know when you have practiced for 25 minutes.
1. Come into your sitting place. Relax your body. Allow your breathing to be natural. Feel the rising and sinking of the breath in your belly.
2. In this meditation practice you don’t focus on your breathing or any question. You just stay one hundred percent present regardless of whatever arises and whatever passes away.
3. Sit and allow thoughts, feelings, emotions, anything at all to come up and then pass. For now, you can just be. There is nothing to do, nothing to chase after. Just relax. The arising and passing – none of it is you.
4. As you go through your day, come back to this sense of presence as much as you can. Allow things to arise and pass and just deal with that which is necessary. How simple and straightforward can your life be? How clear and open and enjoyable can it all be?
Daizan recommends that, as you start with Zen meditation, you keep a diary. Psychologists would agree – keeping a diary is said to improve confidence and reduce stress. Research from the University of Texas shows that regular journaling strengthens immune cells, called T-lymphocytes.
● After each period of meditation, use your diary as a kind of brain-dump, putting down whatever occurs to you during meditation. Don’t censor yourself – nobody needs to read it but you.
● Writing down your thoughts and feelings gives you distance and perspective on any emotional and mental material that may have arisen. Over time it’s useful to go back and note particular themes and threads that recur. The diary will also help you track your progress.
Although sitting meditation is the core of Zen practice, it’s not the only way to bring Zen awareness into your everyday life. You can practice asking your question as you go about everyday life. Focus on it as you stand waiting in line. Bring it into your mind as you walk. If you can spend a little time out in nature every day, it will help enormously. It doesn’t matter how fast or slowly you walk; just be aware of yourself walking and be aware of your question. Who am I?
Hachi Danken – the eight brocades or eight pieces of silk
Moving meditation is also a part of Zen. This series of exercises comes from the energy exercise system of qigong. Research has shown it strengthens the body and can even help prevent bone loss. It also has an uplifting effect on the mind.
1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Your knees should be soft and your shoulders relaxed. Now bring your hands up over your head with the palms facing up. Push upwards as you breathe out. As you breathe in, lower your hands so they’re just over your head. Repeat this pushing up and down eight times.
2. Now bring your arms out to the sides. Your index fingers should point straight up while your thumbs are pointing forwards. As you breathe out, push out so you stretch across the chest. As you breathe in, soften the stretch. Repeat eight times.
3. Now stretch your right arm up, with the palm facing up while your left hand reaches down, with the palm facing down. Imagine you’re a band being pulled and breathe out as you expand out, and breathe in as you contract. Repeat four times on each side.
4. Have your arms stretched out in front of you at shoulder height, with the palms facing out. Turning to the right, breathe out and push away. As you breathe in, pull in. Now do the same on the other side. Repeat four times on each side.
5. Bent your knees slightly more and make your hands into fists (with your fingers facing up) either side of your body. Bring your right hand forwards, turning your fist so the fingers are facing down (as if you’re performing a slow punch) as you breathe out. Breathe in as you bring the fist back to your side (fist returning to fingers up position). Repeat on the other side and alternate four times.
6. With your weight on your left foot and the toes of your right foot just touching the floor, bring your arms up. Now, as you breathe out, bend sideways to the right. As you breathe in come back to centre. Transfer the weight to the right foot, with the toes of your left foot just touching the ground and bend sideways to the left as you breathe out. Alternate four times on each side.
7. Swing your hands down in front of you in an energetic movement, so they sweep over the floor, as you breathe out, and bring them up behind you as you breathe in. You’re making big circles. Do this eight times.
8. Hold your hands on your kidneys (in the small of your back). Now, while standing still, shake your whole body loose as you breathe out (the movement comes from your legs). Stand still as you breathe in. Repeat eight times.
‘I had absolutely no expectations before the Zenways retreat. A friend had booked me on it and I had never even practiced meditation before. I was a complete novice.
By the second day, I was starting to get annoyed. I felt drained physically and mentally. I couldn’t seem to get comfortable and I had problems letting my emotions come out freely. At one point I really just wanted to go home.
It was when we did the silent meditation that I really broke through. I sat concentrating on my breathing and every time I breathed out I would mentally speak out all the negativity that was coming up in my head. This letting-go process grew quickly, building on itself like a snowball. Suddenly there was a ‘Pow!’ moment. The snowballing stopped. I felt the most immense peace and love I’ve ever experienced in my life. I was complete – better than I’ve ever felt in my life with anything or anyone. It was overwhelming. I burst into tears and ran out of the room.
It completely changed my outlook on life. I continue to meditate on my own and also with a small group here in Bournemouth once a week. There are a lot of meditation techniques out there but most just take you to a peaceful place. This technique fundamentally adjusts your outlook on life – and it takes you there really quickly. I feel incredibly clear now and I have a sense of security inside me – nothing externally can affect it; it’s a pure knowing within.’
I attended a Zenways weekend intensive retreat in Yorkshire. For my full report, see Queen of Retreats
‘I have been on a lot of retreats but I don’t think I have ever worked quite so hard. Every day we had 13 sessions of ‘Group Sanzen’ in which we would sit in pairs asking the question ‘Who am I?’ while the other person sat and listened. I found old memories and emotions coming up but you’re encouraged not to get into psychoanalysing yourself but rather to observe the feelings, thoughts and memories and then move on.
Sometimes insights took me by surprise and at some points I felt old pains coming up in my body (for example, I felt the asthma I’d had as a teenager; the sudden pain of a broken wrist; the discomfort and bloated feeling of pregnancy) – it was very strange, unlike anything I have done before.
When we weren’t doing Sanzen, we had sessions of silent meditation (Zazen), walking meditation, breathing meditation and exercise. Days started at 6am and didn’t finish until 11pm – during which we didn’t talk (outside of Sanzen), so it’s not for the faint-hearted. However I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to go beyond standard meditation and to anyone who feels that somehow there must be ‘more to life.’ I can also see very clearly how it can help people who are unduly anxious, depressed or stressed.
Sadly I didn’t achieve ‘enlightenment’ (although many people did) on my weekend but I did gain a deep sense of calmness. I had some extraordinary insights into myself – and also learned how to listen without judgment or jumping in to tell ‘my side of the story’. I’ll definitely go back.’
Find out more
Zenways run workshops and intensive retreats and can also put you in touch with a teacher for Zen study and meditation. 01698 542677 www.zenways.org
Kim Bennett runs Serenity Retreat (www.serenityretreat.co.uk) which offer Zen meditation. She also teaches in Yorkshire.
A version of this first appeared in Top Sante magazine