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10 essential habits in a Zen monk’s life

Andrea Pieck
by: Andrea Pieck
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10 essential habits in a Zen monk’s life

“Smile, breathe and go slowly.” It doesn’t get any better than that". - Thich Nhat Hanh

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We had the amazing opportunity to interview two Zen monks that have spent long periods of their lives in monasteries. They shared with us some of the essential habits they practice everyday. 

As you may already know Zen is all about experimenting meditation in our daily lives. 

Do one thing at a time 

You probably don’t want to become a Zen monk yourself, but you can live your life in a more Zen-like manner by following a few simple rules.

Do only one thing, whatever it is you're doing. Anything that demands your presence, you're there for it fully. Zen monks live in a way that they're totally and completely focused on the task at hand. A Zen proverb says: “When walking, walk. When eating, eat”. This promotes greater concentration and mindfulness.

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Multi-tasking has not only been proven to be ineffective, but actually damaging to our health. Committing to live your life in a way that you do one thing at a time means to live with greater clarity and perform more effectively at everything you do

Do each thing with all of your being

“When you do something, you should burn yourself up completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself.” - Shunryu Suzuki

To do something with your entire being means to live with mindfulness and concentration in every moment. It means to be totally and completely immersed on that one thing with all your attention. And of course outside noises, thoughts and other distractions may arise, but you are focused on your task and embrace them consciously as part of the experience. 

You most be soft but persistent. You are here, awake, present in the moment. This makes a significant difference in the quality of your day-to-day experience.

Work diligently and let go your attachments

Zen monks work diligently to reach satori, or awakening. They are constantly conscious of the preciousness of this life we are given, and the principle of impermanence: nothing lasts, nothing can be grasped or held onto. Being diligent in one's efforts is very important because this life is all we have for sure. For that reason, you should work assiduously to attain true peace and happiness.

Throughout our lives we constantly resist the way of things, either we have an attachment to something we like, or an aversion to something we don’t. Working thoroughly is not only the path to enlightenment, but while in it you have the opportunity to let go of these aversions and attachments.

Simplify your life down to the essentials

By the time we're adults, we have generally amassed quite a lot of things in our lives, which are either useless or relatively unimportant – both material possessions and non-material things. The monastic way of life is designed in a way that only the essentials remain: physical nourishment, a place to rest, a community and the practice.

But how do you decide what's essential and non-essential? The best place to start is to ask yourself if the item or activity is ever used or holds any purpose. Moreover: does it help contribute to my well-being or those of others? If the answer is no, it not only doesn't serve a purpose, but it is often getting in the way of things that really matter to arise in your life. 

You can also go in the opposite direction by asking yourself: If I had to live with only a handful of things, what would they be? This can truly help improve our lives by giving us more space and time to let in and welcome what matters most.

Monitor mental nutriment

If simplifying your life down to the essentials is about removing those unnecessary items from our lives so that we can focus on what’s important, limiting and monitoring mental nutriment is about specifically identifying things we consume that are bad for us, and actively working to remove them.

By mental nutriment, I'm referring to those various types of "food" that we ingest on an everyday basis. But I'm not just talking about food for your stomach, I'm also referring to “mental food”: T.V., social media, books, personal associations, etc. Really anything we ingest through one of our senses because it affects our well-being in many ways. 

The challenge is about identifying any sources of poison seeds that are affecting us, and working to remove or minimize them and replace them with wholesome seeds.

Establish order

Living with a sense of order or structure is very important for a Zen monk.

Many of us are reluctant to order and structure, but this is generally due to a misunderstanding. Think about it this way: what if you could free up an entire hour each day for yourself if you just took the time to establish a daily schedule and stuck to it with discipline? Isn't this freedom as opposed to working all day long on work + home responsibilities?

To live half-asleep, unconscious of what we do (even though our bodies are doing it), is the opposite of true freedom. Living in this way, we're being pushed and pulled by our habitual patterns and being guided by the winds of life. To live in a way that we structure our days and have a sense of order is to live with mindfulness, because we're living intentionally. That’s what a Zen monk calls freedom. 

Live as if you’re going to die

"Throughout this life, you can never be certain of living long enough to take another breath.” - Zen master Huang Po.

To live as if you're going to die is to live in a way that you're aware of your own impermanence and the impermanence of all things. Most of us push away any thought of our own end, and the end of our loved ones.

To live completely conscious of our own impermanence can be a great source of joy. It’s a constant reminder of the precious nature of this life. It gives us the opportunity to live it more deeply: richer and more vibrant than anything we ever imagined.

Express yourself artistically

Zen is very closely connected with the arts due to their effectiveness to express ourselves fully and honestly. It's very common for a Zen monk to take up some form of artistic expression such as calligraphy, poetry (haiku), or even chanoyu, the Japanese "way of tea".

When we express ourselves freely and spontaneously, we're allowing all our whole being to come forth. Our hesitations, resistance, doubt, fear… anything disturbing us, vanishes. It is a very purifying process and an enjoyable form of meditation.

Find something that fits you and make it a regular (weekly, or more): be attentive when practicing how fear, anger, and judgment arise -"that was horrible","I'm not good enough", "I can't do this"). Keep practicing until you don't get in your own way, until you express your authentic self without holding back. Can you do the same while you are going on with your everyday life? Would you dare to live without getting in your own way?

Live the Buddha’s middle way

The Buddha's “middle way” is a principle that essentially refers to the fact that in all things in life we shouldn't remain in the extreme either way. Let’s take a simple example: 

We shouldn't be quiet about important issues, we should speak up and express our opinion. Bu to force others to go along with what we believe is not good either. So we must stay in the middle way. When practicing it in every moment, it leads to a balanced life free from excess and conflict.

Practice Zazen diligently

“Zazen is an activity that is an extension of the universe. Zazen is not the life of an individual, it’s the universe that’s breathing”.- Zen master Dogen Zenji

This is arguably the single most important practice on this entire list. Most would go as far as to say that without it, it’s impossible to practice Zen. 

Zazen is Japanese for “sitting/seated meditation” and it was carried over to English when Zen traveled from Japan to the West. It is a very unique and specific type of meditation.

It is frequently confused with the very similar Vipassana meditation practice, which is also based primarily on mindfulness, but it involves actively naming and identifying that which is noticed with one’s awareness. As opposed, when doing Zazen things are simply acknowledged and allowed to float by, as if a passing cloud in the sky.

Photo: Amanda Flavell

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