In a strict sense, Zen is a school of Buddhism that emphasizes meditation in order to 'know your true self'.
In a loose, Western world sense, Zen may mean just the last part: 'know your true self'. No school, no Buddhism.
In truth, it is our everyday thinking that has become complicated. Zen is simply the attempt to uncomplicate it.
For example, we tend to crave: for a good job, a good family, good health, vacation, retirement. Or we cling, afraid of losing the good job, the family, the health. These attachments to what we do not have or can only temporarily have, bring anxiety, disappointment, and discontentment. This is the 'necessary understanding': that much of discontentment is our own doing, a product of our busy minds looking for happiness in the wrong places.
Not knowing our true selves, we have mistaken ideas of what will make us happy. Many students think "When I graduate, I will be happy". Then they graduate, and start thinking "When I get a good job, I will be happy." This keeps going: "When I start a family...", "When my kids get settled...", "When I retire"... Every time something is gained, it feels less than imagined. So we move on to the next thing, ad infinitum.
Ironically, this constant yearning to gain and achieve, keeps us from the acceptance and calmness that bring contentment. Always looking ahead to the next thing, we lose the ability to enjoy the present. Try to slow down, look around, and enjoy the realization that we are already where we are, and it is right where we should be.
Not necessarily. Vacations, like graduation and retirement, is one more attachment that keeps us from regular every minute contentment.
Of course we should enjoy vacations, but we should also enjoy our everyday lives. Whether we are students in school, or workers in an office, working hard in order to go on vacation is like a fish swimming in the ocean in order to get out of the ocean. Fish swim because they are alive, that is how they express their nature. The same is true of us. Every minute of the day, we are doing something because we are alive. Whether we are in the kitchen doing cooking, or we are on the couch doing not-doing, we are engaged in activity.
We have all experienced moments when we lose ourselves in an activity, like cooking, or studying, or writing a report. There is no thought of time or progress. In these moments of honest, sincere activity, we are calm and truly alive.
The cultivation of this attitude toward activity is a very important part of zen practice. We should bring this attitude to everyday actions --- brushing our teeth, getting dressed, eating, driving to work, talking with colleagues, reading reports, writing reports. One step at a time. Expect to make progress little by little, or even no progress at all. Do not think "I need to do a good job" because then your activity is burdened by the judgement afterwards. Do not think "I am almost done" because then your activity loses calmness.
The activity is what we are after, not the getting done. Like fish swimming in the ocean, and ants marching on the ground, activity expresses our nature, makes us feel alive. When we have this attitude, then work is just one more source of calming activity, as are vacations. Work is good, vacation is good.
That is why it is important to examine and know our true selves, because so many things that seem true are not always so. For example, consider the desirability of social status. Can we really be calm and content when we rely so much on what people think of us? Why does it matter that people know us, or that we impress them?
Money may buy physical comfort, but not contentment. Nice homes and comfortable beds only cost so much. Haven't you been comfortable the last 10 minutes? The last 10 years? What other comfort would you buy if you had more money? Would it make you more content?
You may find that fame and fortune can change your environment, but you will still need to be happy in it. This is a very well kept secret -- contentment is being happy with the objective reality around us, whatever shape that reality takes.
A lot of things that seem real to us are actually delusions, or products of our imagination. For example, our bodies are real. Furthermore, we come in different shapes and sizes -- some people have this shape, some have that shape, this is part of reality. However, when you call yourself too fat, or too skinny, or too short, now that is a delusion -- it exists only in the mind. All judgements are subjective, imaginary, and delusional -- "good" and "bad", "pretty" and "ugly", "rich" and "poor". Judgements make our mind demanding, forever discontent, forever anxious, always wishing things were different.
If we were to die, all our delusions would disappear with us. What would remain is objective reality. Trees, rocks, rivers, people. Objective reality has many names: the real world, truth, the universe, things-as-they-are. Attachment to reality brings calmness because, of course, everything is already what it is. You do not have to do anything else.
This is a very important lesson, and very hard to learn. Every minute, we should try to distinguish between what is real, and what our minds have added. For example, when we look at a glass with water, we should truly see just a glass with water. Our expert minds will want to add judgement: "it is not cold enough". Or discontent: "I wish the water was colder". Or anxiety: "Did somebody else drink from my glass?" Or arrogance: "Some people call that half-empty, I call it half-full". These complicated thoughts keep us from seeing the real world in full high definition. When we get better at recognizing mind-noise, then we can start seeing things as they really are. By seeing more clearly, we may better appreciate the world outside our minds, and regain our childhood's enthusiasm for simple everyday existence.
Whether it comes to small things like a glass of water, or large things like career and family, our noisy minds can be relentless. Think about your kids, for example. Are they in a good place in their lives, have you raised them reasonable well? If you start thinking "I wish he had better grades", or "I do not like her boyfriend", you have again added imagination, discontent, and anxiety. Instead of things-as-they-are, you are now seeing things-as-you-want-them-to-be. Step back and remember that your kids are already who they are, you do not have to do anything else. Of course, you will advise your children. But sometimes, things go this way, sometimes they go that way. Either outcome is okay, reality happens. Just observe and see, without adding judgement, discontentment, or anxiety.
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