What Does it Mean to be Zen?
So what exactly is Zen? When you think of the word, you’re more than likely to come up with images of a sandy beach, monks tending to a garden, maybe some of that awful mood music they play in massage parlors, but I don’t think you’d really be able to pinpoint what the word means. There are some who might lead you to believe that Zen is all about being a peaceful and undisturbed citizen of the cosmic universe who never yells and never gets angry and speaks in little riddles that will only make sense when you think of them at a later date. To briefly summarize all my thoughts on that, I’d have to go with one word: Bullshit.
Zen is a sect of Mahayana Buddhism that emphasizes meditation. Within that sect, there are further sects that differ on rituals and teachers. But in the case of the word, I don’t really think that we’re looking for where it came from. We’re more looking for what it means now, and I’d like to share with you what Zen actually means to me.
For me, Zen does really begin and end with meditation. I believe that meditation should be goalless. There are a ton of meditators that get into mantras and transcendental meditation and chanting and I’ve dabbled in a little bit of all of them. I don’t dislike them. I think that chanting is an amazing way to bring on an altered state of consciousness where you can align yourself with the vibrations of the congregation and feel a bit closer to your fellow humans. I think that mantras are amazing ways to keep your focus throughout practices like yoga, or simply in life, so that when each and every decision comes up, you can check back in with your mantra before deciding to make sure you are staying true to what you originally wanted when you set the mantra. For what it’s worth, I’ve also had some interestingly amazing experiences with hallucinogens and other drugs that seem to make me feel a little more sure of my place in the universe. But I think that each one of the types of meditations that I mentioned above attempt, and sometimes succeed, to get me outside of my own head. And to be sure each choice is probably healthier than going to your local pub and hitting the bottle for a couple hours, but is it really all that different?
Alan Watts, who is considered by many to be the father of Zen Buddhism in the west, once said:
“Zen isn’t peeling potatoes and thinking about God, Zen is just peeling potatoes.”
It’s one of my favorite Zen sayings and I think that it is of the utmost importance. If I ever get around to teaching a class about Zen, we’re spending weeks on understanding this short little phrase.
The problem that we run into with most religions is that we follow leaders who dedicate themselves to the spiritual life more than your average person would, or would ever even be expected to do. We believe that through their dedication to the practice and avoidance of the simple pleasures that we poor sinners pursue in our murky and confused lives, that they become enlightened beings. And then we are absolutely SHOCKED when we find out what they truly are.
Everybody is really just another person trying to figure this whole thing out. And study as many books and old scrolls as you want, but nobody knows what happens when you die because nobody has come back yet.
So Zen doesn’t really put a lot of thought into producing another state of consciousness that is different from the one that you are in right now. Instead it brings attention to the fact that you are in a state of consciousness at this very moment and maybe you should be experiencing that instead of trying to jump to the next thing. Right now I bet half of you are reading this on your phone – and I certainly appreciate your time to read this little piece of dribble that narcissistically pours from my mouth – but are you one hundred percent committed to doing what you’re doing right now? Have you taken the time to sit in a nice comfy chair with a warm cup of tea and prepared yourself to sink into the wonders and mysteries that are the practice of Zen? Or are you in line at the grocery store and killing time looking at your phone as you wait to be rung up?
And there is nothing wrong with either answer! I can promise you that I mindlessly swipe through Instagram throughout the day. But my meditation practice tends to help keep me aware of how often I do things like that so that I can curtail those moments, and maybe take time to actually enjoy my lunch rather than checking the latest news around the NFL.
So if Zen is about being present in the current moment and being completely focused on what is happening in the now rather than rushing to the next moment, then it stands to reason that Zen actually allows for a much wider fluctuation of moods than what we may have originally thought when we imagined meditating in the garden. Because sure, meditation is a big part of Zen, but just like yoga, the more important part is how the practice affects you in your daily life. I promise that no one cares if you meditate 15 minutes a day or 45 and I promise you that no one cares if you can touch your toes with straight legs. The points of these practices are to challenge your body and mind to a place where you have to pinpoint your focus, and then the beauty is when your take that focus with you off of your mat or cushion to the other aspects of your life.
Zen isn’t about being happy and relaxed all the time.
Zen is just about being present. So if you’re angry, be angry. Because sometimes shitty things happen in life and they create a certain reaction. And you should sit with this reaction rather than run away from it. That’s the Zen thing to do.
So in light of this discussion on Zen and being present, I want to bring up one of my favorite artists of all time, Mac Miller.
Mac Miller was a rapper out of Pittsburgh who was only about a year and a half younger than me. Because of the closeness in age, I could always relate to his music. When I was in high school, he had a song called ‘Senior Skip Day.’ In college, he played my school’s Springfest with songs like ‘Party on Fifth Ave’ and ‘Up All Night.’ And in August of 2018, he released a much more somber album called ‘Swimming’, that my friends and I openly commented about how it seemed like Mac was really going through some shit. The first song of the album produced the eerie line, “I just need a way out….. Of my head. I’d do anything for a way out….. Of my head.”
And on September 7, 2018, Mac was found dead of an apparent drug overdose.
Now when I listen to that song, it serves as a reminder to me that there is no way out. A lot of us are at constant war with thinking that we are bad people or maybe we’re not good enough or that something is inherently wrong at our core. We go to great lengths to get away from this person that is always there. Sometimes we use booze and drugs. Sometimes we use mantras and chanting. But it seems like we are still just trying to escape our present state of being.
And I believe that Zen does just the opposite. Zen forces you to become comfortable with you present state of being. Sometimes that state is happy, sometimes its sad, and it can run everywhere in between too. So imagine Zen as being present in the house, present in the forests, present at the beach and present on the 405. You can’t escape the present moment, so maybe you can just sit with it.
That’s just something I’ve been sitting with.
RIP Mac Miller
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Kevin Davi considers himself a jack of all trades. His journey as a healer began when he became a Doctor of Physical Therapy. Yet, the cannon of western medicine wasn’t enough. He had to look deeper. An avid yogi with a daily meditation practice for 10 years running, he continues to explore bridging the gap between mind & body, in hopes we can all learn to intuitively treat ourselves with the love and care we deserve. / Visit Kevin online and on Instagram.