How to Simplify Your Life with Zen Meditation [Immediately]

I used to be a lawyer, which means I loved the sound of my own blather.  Wow, there was a lot of noise in the practice of law.  Oh, and lots of ego nonsense too (my brain’s bigger than your brain!).  And how I loved to fight.

So I guess I’m just the gal to write about simplifying your life and Zen meditation, huh?  The thing is, it had to get really bad before it could get really good.  I’m sorry about that.  I wish life was easier but you know how things have to get to a breaking point before we’ll change?  That’s what happened to me.  In my forties - single mom of three boys, arguing, fighting, fighting - it was either booze or Buddhism.  Glad I took the latter path.

Now you surely don’t need to “convert” to Buddhism to lead a simple life or even to meditate.  My journey began by reading some basic books about Zen and Buddhism but even then I felt overwhelmed.  So many strange words!  Complicated Sanskrit, and ideas about “no mind” and “no self” that just confused me.

Pretty ironic, huh, that in trying to simplify my perspective I got more confused.

Here’s the truth - my truth anyway:  if you suffer enough you’ll find a way.  You have a teacher inside you that knows everything you need to lead a better, happier life.  You don’t need to study ancient texts or chant in monasteries.  You can just listen to your Teacher.

Chatty, feisty, arrogant lawyer to Zen Buddhist Chaplain? I’m having a lot more fun now then when I spent my time arguing in court (and in the office, and on the phone, and at home....).  I started to develop stomach issues and relentless headaches.  Wonder why?

My Dad was a pathologist (he didn’t like living people very much, so this suited him) and when I told him about how much my belly hurt all the time he diagnosed me with....stress.  Suggested I start taking Valium.  This conjured up visions of a hazy, slightly crazy mouthy mom-lawyer who needed pills to stay sane.  Didn’t want to do that.

All I knew was that meditation was the first step. I read a lot of books by a woman named Pema Chodron who’s a big player on the world Buddhist stage but she was a twice-divorced teacher whose world fell apart.  I liked that about her.  And she’s funny.  So I read her books and forced myself to sit still.

Zen meditation is a little different than others.  In Zen, the emphasis is on just sitting.  That’s it.  Just sit.  Sit still, let your mind do it’s crazy monkey thing, and work with it.  No complicated chants or mantras. Just sit there.  I was deeply attracted to the simplicity of the Zen tradition which has its roots in China and Japan.  Other schools of Buddhist thought arise from Indonesia and Tibetan Buddhism, for example, is a different in its emphasis.  Tibetan Buddhism (and Pema Chodron comes from this school) tends to emphasize lots of teachings.  It seemed pretty head-based to me and after sixteen years of litigation, I was pretty tired of my own head.

So I started a sitting practice and tentatively learned more about Zen.  I found a Zen group to sit with.  I liked that they didn’t “chat” a lot.  They laughed plenty, but not much blah blah going on.  We just sat.  And the places I sat were sparse, simple, and shiny clean.  My life, so full of male teenage craziness, just yearned for the shiny clean quiet of the Zendo (Temple) where we sat on small cushions on hardwood floors.

Eventually I went on sesshin, or longer Zen retreats.  Sesshin can last anywhere from one full day to weeks at a time of silence, meditation, and “samu” (work practice).  In Zen, everything you do is exactly what you do at the moment so if you were assigned scrubbing of the monastery toilets, you did so mindfully and with a joyful heart.  I was lucky to often get kitchen duty.  A Zen kitchen is clean, organized, simple, and amazing in what it can put out.

So from very little, much abundance in the Zen world.  You start with nothing - no fancy church, no complicated chants.  On retreat, we always wore just black clothes (I wore my scrubs from the emergency room!), no make up, no jewelry.  Just your regular plain self.  That is such a relief, to be so unadorned.  And to just sit

The Zen perspective is simple:  don’t just do something, sit there.  No rushing around in a hubub, no “accomplishing” anything.  Just sit, and amazing things will happen.

Here’s what you DON’T need to worry about: Zen Myths –

1.    Whether you’re “doing it right.”  Don’t torture yourself.  Like the old Nike slogan - Just Do It.  Don’t fret about “doing it right.”

2.    Zen is not hard core deprivation.  You can live a Zen lifestyle and still have and like “stuff.”  It’s just that you’re more mindful and careful about what “stuff” you have and acquire.  No need to give away your possessions.  But you might want to eventually.

3.    Zen folks are stern and unforgiving.  Actually, just the opposite is true.  Once you really understand the simple perspective of “nothing” then “everything” becomes pretty funny really! Folks who live according to Zen principals smile and laugh A LOT.

How to start Zen Meditation?

Find a quiet place.  Put a cushion or pillow on the floor.  Feel your connection to the earth.  Just breathe.

There you go.  You don’t need a fancy education, a PhD in religion, or years of monastic living.  Just start where you are, and go from there.  The hallmark of Zen is simplicity but our minds love complexity and problems.  Love that crazy mind of yours, like a puppy that can’t sit still.  Cute, but needs training.

In ten years I evolved from a stressed out attorney with an aching belly (and heart) to a Zen Buddhist chaplain who laughs plenty. I live simply, and only acquire what I need (one thing at a time).  I feel like I know how to go slow now, and listen to people, and do the right thing.  It’s a good way to live, from a Zen perspective. 

Thanks for joining me on the journey.

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