ZEN ,This word is tossed around quite a bit in our culture. Products and places are named for it. But what does it mean really? Is it an ideal to aspire to? How can we create our own version of Zen no matter what our core beliefs are? Let’s start with a definition of the word Zen according to Miriam Webster Dictionary:
Zen (Noun) a Japanese sect of Mahayana Buddhism that aims at enlightenment by direct intuition through meditation or Zen : a state of calm attentiveness in which one's actions are guided by intuition rather than by conscious effort
Ok so now we know that Zen is an actual Buddhist practice, but do we have to be a Buddhist to achieve Zen in our life? Actually no. In the grand scheme of things most religions believe in some form of Zen like behavior. Even if you don’t subscribe to any organized set of beliefs, you still can access Zen and implement it into your life.
Return to a beginner’s mind.
I personally have been grooming in some form or another my entire life. I was raised with a comb in my hand and show dogs and cats at my side. I would often tell people that I loved grooming, it was my “Zen.” Therefore, I avoided doing it professionally for so long. I kept a job as a licensed massage therapist for over 15 years, until I decided to make grooming my profession and not my hobby. I came into a professional grooming career with a lifetime of knowledge from show handlers, show groomers, breed specific breeders, you know; cat and dog people who lived the four-legged life. I knew show grooming, but I had no true educational experience in the pet grooming realm. I set off to learn as much as I could, I went to school, I took seminars, I got involved in the community through associations and networking. I was open to any information and lessons I could get my hands and head around.
In the beginning I struggled with the new information. I had preconceived notions, years of conditioning, doing things a different way than what I was being taught. I really was disheartened. I thought I made a huge mistake leaving my thriving LMT practice, to groom full time. Then I came across this phrase while researching how to find inner peace. Beginner’s Mind is a phrase from Japanese Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki’s book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. He uses it to describe an approach to life that is empty of preconceptions and egotism, yet very mindful.
Traditionally in Asian culture, a lot of emphasis is put on long-term practice and effort, to reach continuously for higher levels of skill development. There is a deeper character training happening as well, to reduce the ego’s voice, let go of fears, cultivate mindfulness, increase gratitude and live more fully in the present moment.
How beautiful is that? To reach continuously for higher levels of skill development. To always be in the state of the beginner’s mind.
In Japan they have the phrase shoshin (初心), which means ‘beginner’s mind.’ The goal of this practice is always to keep our beginner’s mind in everything we do. This [means] in theory, to practice having an empty mind and a ready mind. If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.
I struggled horribly coming into my pet grooming career, with so much knowledge on confirmation style grooming and very little on the pet end of grooming. I almost quit and went back to my massage practice. I was so full of the old lessons. My mind was not a ready or empty one. This created the struggle with in me. I had to return my thoughts to that of the student. In order to learn new lessons, we need to file the old ones away (for reference later if needed) but actually clear the space in your mind for new information.
In Zen Flesh, Zen Bones (by Paul Rep) there is a section entitled 101 Zen Stories. There is a story told of a University professor who visits Nan-in, a Japanese Zen master. The professor says he wants to learn about Zen but is filled with his own knowledge and opinions. Nan-in pours tea into his cup and does not stop so that it begins to overflow.
What are you doing? It is overfull. No more will go in!” yells the Professor. “Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”
I had to empty my cup, so I could fill it with all the new and wonderful information I was being blessed with. Once I came into the space of emptiness and let go of those preconceived opinions, I was set free to grow, experiment, explore and eventually develop my own personal style of pet grooming. Giving myself the option of seeing things from a beginner standpoint allowed me work on a style of pet grooming that merges my appreciation for all things holistic and natural. Taking lessons from my past and merging them with the new lessons I was learning was an amazing feeling. Grooming once again became my Zen.
Now my emphasis is put on long-term practice and effort, to reach continuously for higher levels of skill development. There is a deeper character training happening as well, to reduce the ego’s voice, let go of fears, cultivate mindfulness, increase gratitude and live more fully in the present moment.
Today my core idea with Zen-influenced learning, is that deep mastery and learning requires that we keep all our senses open. Over time one’s knowledge becomes intuitive, instinctual. We do not have to ‘think’ consciously to act skillfully. Think about when you are “in the zone” doing your thing, grooming with confidence and an open heart. You have tapped into your Zen.
The goal with Zen training is not to receive praise or do better than others, but to grow spiritually, develop as a human being and learn to live each moment peacefully, mindfully and deeply connected to the present.
The Buddhist scholar D.T. Suzuki gave this description, in his essay An Introduction to Zen Buddhism:
“The idea of Zen is to catch life as it flows. There is nothing extraordinary or mysterious about Zen. I raise my hand; I take a book from the other side of the desk; I hear the boys playing ball outside my window; I see the clouds blown away beyond the neighboring wood — in all these I am practicing Zen, I am living Zen. No wordy discussion is necessary, nor any explanation… When the sun rises the whole world dances with joy and everybody’s heart is filled with bliss. If Zen is at all conceivable, it must be taken hold of here.”
How do you find your Zen in our modern world? We are bombarded with images and messages that are the opposite of Zen. The world tells us to be the “Big Dog”, success is measured by how much stuff we have, how many titles and accolades we have gathered. Living and learning this way has created a world where a rat race mentality dominates. Where many ‘well-educated’ people’s minds are crammed with disconnected bits of knowledge, that we never developed the ability to apply in meaningful ways.
Psychologist Carol Dweck says; A growth mindset is open and curious, the person understands what they are studying and is continuously learning, updating their knowledge and skills. We do not compare ourselves with others and see learning as a lifelong process.
When was the last time you truly felt like you learned something new? Do you seek out ways to achieve a higher level of learning for your profession and your life? Have you taken an active role in developing skills to apply your learning in a more meaningful way? Do you possess a growth mindset? Do you find it hard to focus and achieve your long-term goals?
With out applying these questions to your life/career, you cannot seek out and understand the positive effects of finding your Zen. Goals can be helpful, but the focus with Zen, is to anchor our consciousness in the present moment, detached from ego and desire.
“A goal is not always meant to be reached, it often serves simply as something to aim at,” ~Bruce Lee
Our western minds say, set long term goals and achieve them. But what if we stopped thinking of each goal as a step on a ladder. Why can’t we think of ourselves as the ladder, and with each new learning experience we build a rung to stand a little higher in our quest for knowledge.
While this is not difficult to comprehend conceptually, it can be challenging for people to experience Zen directly and frequently. Not buying into the rat race mentality of modern cultures is an essential first step. Training mindfully in your art form or learning to meditate or do yoga, will provide us with a system of practice that assists greatly.
As we learn to meet the world like an empty cup, we allow inner and outer realms of our lives to flow together. Where there had been separation before, now there is greater unity and love. Every living being we meet, every experience we have, can be seen as a blessing in some way.
I believe that Zen is my way of connecting with the pets and people I encounter in my life. Having a flowing gentle energy of compassion and understanding allows me to be approachable and have meaningful interactions.
First be open to all that is around you. Set your intention daily through a practice of prayer and meditation, add yoga or journaling to further enhance your experience.
Think of yourself like water. Water can find a way through, even if it is in an unconventional way. Be fluid, let your day flow seamlessly without any preconceived notions of what should happen. Give yourself permission to act, speak and work in the spirit of Zen. Holding no attachment to anything, while still appreciating the lessons they bring into your life. Zen is achievable, through daily practice and through recognizing that we are so much more than the titles, accolades and successes we achieve. You are here for a purpose, and that purpose calls you to a higher thought process. Never loose your excitement and innocence, keep that beginners mind ready to absorb!
Wishing you a life of Zen and the possibilities that each new lesson brings!