As it crept into the vernacular as an enticing notion of mind control, the idea of zen thought has been twisted and turned into just about anything a person wants to call it.
The Urban Dictionary defines zen this way: One way to think of zen is this: a total state of focus that incorporates a total togetherness of body and mind.
So it’s that zimple, right? Just stick the letter z into your head and focused thought will occur.
Shortcuts and major memes
The Western mind always seeks such shortcuts.
For one grandiose example, that’s why biblical literalism and its pursuant product, legalism is so popular among fundamental Christians. It’s a seeming shortcut to truth. It gives the illusion of simplicity.
Just believe what the Bible tells you and life is so zimple. Isn’t it?
Not so zimple
Never mind that Jesus Christ thought legalism was a scourge (and said so repeatedly) on the faith of his Father.
And while we’re at it, we can also ask what the original author of the Muslim faith––who shall go unnamed––might think of the tactics of those who murder others in the name of God as a means to earn a passel of Virgins in the next life, and who think that imposing religion through law is going to make real believers of anyone.
The two major faiths of the world could use a little zen, it turns out. They’ve lost their focus. Grabbed the wrong Golden Ring. Wandered off course into zealous dogma in hopes of winning the faith war. It’s been like that for 2000 years.
Zip It, Zealots.
Jesus didn’t like zealots, that’s for sure. He called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers.” But that insult could be aimed at anyone who takes religion and turns it into a tool for power and manipulation. And when confronted by the very zealots who demanded answers from him, Jesus adopted zenlike techniques to upset their motives. He’d draw a line in the sand. Tell a story. Do a little healing. Consideration trumps bluster every time.
Imitations of wisdom
All these imitations of wisdom helped me realize, during a recent walk through the woods, that so many of us have it all wrong.
Painfully wrong, actually. Which is why I burst out laughing when, upon stopping to take a photo of a fern hanging over a sun-dappled boulder, a friend said, part jesting, “You know, that fern just about screams serenity.”
How perfect! I thought. How very Western and post-Modern such a statement really is! We’re all screaming serenity.
It’s like that when we’re out cycling on the roads, cars roaring past, chasing our cyclometers and worrying about the fat on our sides or our bellies or our ass. We claim that we do all that exercise for mental health when in fact we’re just screaming serenity.
And those runners piling up the mileage like horse dung in preparation for a marathon?
They are incrementally challenging themselves in hopes that on theone day they’ve chosen, everything will be spot on and go well. And if it doesn’t, well hey: You gave it a good try.
Then you walk off injured or sick and find yourself…screaming for serenity.
There’s no peace in having not achieved a goal.
Yet there’s no peace when you actually do. Because it’s just a PR, something you’ve got to beat someday to prove yourself better than you were yesterday, or yesterweek, or yesteryear. Some people measure themselves in minutes or seconds. Others by dollar and cents. Still others by years and common sense. All personal records. Some are closer to zen thought than others. Some people just don’t care.
But those who do live a richer life indeed, and in deed.
Better than nothing
I have PRs that are better than 99.9% of Americans who run.
Those PRs do give me some peace these days, but not for the reasons you might think. It’s not because I’m a better runner than you or anyone else.
It’s because I know there are not many more things I could have done to run any faster. I sacrificed in ways that even now seem foolish relative to my career. At one point I even told my own mother that what I’d done was probably selfish and stupid. She said something you might not expect from a Unitarian. “Well I liked you then. You had focus. It was a beautiful thing to see.”
Sometimes we do drift away from the things that make us whole. That give us focus. That serve as a gateway to zen living.
Again, I’ll repeat. My PRs do not make me a better runner than you. I do not think my PRs (31:10 10K, 14:45 5K, 4:18 mile, etc.) entitle me to a particularly zen insight into running today.
Or cycling. I ride between 18-22 miles an hour during peak fitness months, but so what? Technically I’ve now ridden once around the world. Does it truly matter how fast you’re going? Sometimes. Never. Yin and yang.
So we have to choose our zen moments. That’s the point. If we set a PR at some moment in time, what does it mean?
I’ll tell you with a question: what do you recall from that moment that made it significant? That is zen.
The zen of running and riding is what enters you from the experience.
What inner sensations were brought from the external world to make you feel whole, even serene?
When you see a fern leaning over a boulder on a sunlight day, what do you really see? Is it the shape of the fern, or the shadow beneath it that is most beautiful? And the sunlight, which has traveled some 93,000,000 miles to reach that rock, what does it say to us? How can we focus ourselves on that level of perfection in understanding that all things are perfect, if we let them be?
When you are in the arms of your lover, is it you that is important, or them? When we give ourselves over to the moment, or to another, we discover who we really are, and what our minds need to survive, and thrive. That is zen.
The art of living, running and riding
An artist rendering a scene must consider all these things. A true artist or writer or musician or dancer or singer uses his or her talent and focus to give over––completely––their ability to see the world in a right and true way. That is zen.
You should consider your efforts running and riding with the same intensity and focus. When you step out the door to run, or clop out the garage door to ride, what does it mean?
Finding significance in the insignificant
Are you starting to see why tarsnakes are significant? They are placed there by people, but in random fashion. It is up to us to make something of them.
That something might really be nothing, yet the effort of consideration can be pleasing, like a garden.
The shimmy of black tarsnakes underfoot or rippling ahead of you on the road is the reverberation life itself beneath your feet.
And once you notice that, you can move your mind to the grasses in the ditch. The swaying limbs of the trees. And if you dare, the patient shadow of a fern over a rock, which does not relent in its perfection. Not down to the leaf. It is so patient it awaits your patience. That is zen.
Old habits die hard
Or must we scream serenity these days in order to hear it? That is the modern problem. Our ears are ringing from the volume we use to talk ourselves into our own beliefs.
Anxiety rumbles. Depression growls. That ringing in our ears is from too much sugar or whatever substances we shove in our body that feel like comfort and cause us pain.
Stop screaming serenity
Start listening to the light. Start hearing the reflection off a pond.
That is zen.
You must turn your perceptions inside out to do something focused with your mind. To be original, definitive, attentive and creative requires patient focus. That is zen.
And it is worth pursuing. Ever patiently.