Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Mary Jaksch of the Goodlife Zen blog.
When we see a wilting plant, we know what to do, right? We water it. But when we are exhausted and stressed, it’s often difficult to recover.
The problem is that the exhaustion many of us suffer from can’t be fixed by a holiday at the beach, or a visit to a day-spa. Because it’s not just our body that’s exhausted, it’s our soul.
When the soul is exhausted, we suffer from loss of joy and hope
Life then seems increasingly difficult, and sometimes even meaningless. In those times we’re estranged from a dimension of being human that adds ease and joy to life. We’re estranged from our natural spirituality. By natural spirituality I mean the insight and wisdom that comes from a deeper recognition of who we are, and of how our life is interwoven with all other beings.
I came to spirituality the hard way. Twenty-five years ago my life was in tatters: my marriage was disintegrating, I was homesick, having just emigrated to New Zealand, and work was a nightmare. That’s when I started Zen meditation. It wasn’t a magic bullet, but I began to find islands of ease within the chaos of my life.
Maybe you too are suffering, especially in this dire economic climate? In my experience, even if we are powerless to change our circumstances, we can learn to find island of ease within our distress.
I use the word ease because it implies that our body is relaxed and that we are at peace with ourselves. It also means that we are in harmony with everything around us. When we are at ease, even difficult tasks begin to flow.
Here are five ways of finding islands of ease. These five ways will help you to feel more alive and peaceful, instead of preoccupied and stressed.
Silence can heal. But many of us are afraid of it because we think it might make us feel lonely. Or because it might force us to face ourselves.
There are two kinds of silence. There is outer silence which is absence of noise. And there is inner silence when our thoughts die down and our mind becomes quiet. If you are not used to silence, you might like to try this island of ease in small doses.
- Spend at least 5 minutes each day doing nothing.
Just notice sounds, sights, smells, and so on. Let go of planning thoughts or other distractions. This is a way to cultivate inner silence.
- Eliminate background music.
Only play music if you can listen to it with full attention. That might be difficult for you if you tend to exercise to music or listen to music in the car. Maybe you could just try silence for one day and see what it’s like.
- Turn the TV off if you are not watching it.
In many households the TV is blaring, even though nobody is watching it. Try turning it off as much as possible and see what happens.
When our mind is neither in the past or the future and we are completely present, our experience changes in a significant way. Suddenly life seems more spacious, and more peaceful.
Mindfulness means being present with a clear mind, and an open heart.
When we are mindful, we are available for life, and aren’t trapped in our own little world. Whether it’s peacefulness, or anger, or boredom, or elation, or fear: mindfulness allows us to notice what we are experiencing right now.
Mindfulness means bringing full, soft attention to the task at hand.
All of us tend to let our mind drift when faced with a boring task. The good news is that if we pull ourselves back into the present moment, the task is transformed and boredom soon disappears. So, whether it’s washing the dishes, or cutting carrots, or driving in the rush hour – mindfulness can transform ‘lost’ time into islands of ease.
If we’re able-bodied, we do a fair amount of walking, wherever we live. In an urban area, most of our walking might be to get to work, or to the bus, car, or subway, or to the corner shop. And maybe we sometimes go for a walk in a park. If we live in the countryside, we may be used to long walks in nature.
What happens in our mind as we walk?
Often the mind churns away: it worries, plans, re-lives old hurts, or dreams of the future.
In order to turn walking into an island of ease, all you needs is a simple change: you need to focus on the experience of walking and let go of your busy thoughts. The following tip will assist you:
As you walk, touch forefinger and thumb together to remind you of the present moment.
Focus the feeling of your feet on the ground, on sounds, and on your breath flowing in and out as you walk along. Each time you find that your churning mind has taken you away from experience of ‘now’, gently refocus on the present moment.
As I said before, I’ve been practicing daily Zen meditation for twenty-five years now. I do it because it makes me feel vividly alive. It gives me a sense of ease and peacefulness that is not dependant on my circumstances.
Science has put meditation under the microscope and has found amazing psychological and physiological benefits:
- Increased feelings of vitality and rejuvenation;
- Increased happiness;
- Increased emotional stability;
- Decreased anxiety;
- Decreased depression;
- Greater creativity;
- Decreased irritability and moodiness;
- Improved learning ability and memory;
- Increased insight and wisdom.
- Deep rest (as measured by decreased metabolic rate, and lower heart rate);
- Lowered levels of cortisol and lactate (two chemicals associated with stress);
- Improved blood pressure;
- Drop in cholesterol levels;
- Improved flow of air to the lungs;
- Significant slowing of the aging process.
The simplest and most natural meditation is a way that Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh teaches: on your in-breath, silently say in, and on your out-breath, silently say out. If you do this even for just five minutes, you will notice that soul and body start to relax and find ease.
There is a lot more to meditation but it’s good to start simple. If you want to learn more, you can find ten important tips on how to meditate here.
All spiritual traditions suggest taking time out to refresh the soul and nourish spirituality.
In ancient India and China, pilgrims used to gather during the months of the rainy season to meditate and study under the guidance of a teacher. In the Zen tradition, students leave home for a week at a time in order to attend silent meditation retreats.
It’s important to set aside time to nurture one’s spirituality. But that’s not so easy these days. Money is tight and holidays are scarce.
What to do?
It’s taken me a long while to come up with a solution that works. I now offer Virtual Zen Retreats , in addition to traditional ones. The great thing is that you can participate in a virtual Zen Retreat without leaving home or having to take time off work. Even more importantly, you can integrate what you learn, and explore islands of ease in your everyday life at home and at work.
Here’s what you can expect to put to use in your daily life from Virtual Zen Retreats:
- a way to find your peaceful center regardless of the chaos around you;
- the tools to stay in the ‘now': breathing techniques, mindfulness, ‘islands of ease’, and others;
- a system of coping with stress, anxiety, and depression;
- ways to be in touch with your body for relaxation and healing;
- increased feeling of vitality;
- a regular meditation practice;
- enhanced creativity.
Virtual Zen Retreats are innovative.
Some of my Zen teacher colleagues argue that our tradition should shun the Net. But I love the fact that we can use modern technology to foster our natural spirituality! For example, during the ten retreat days, participants receive daily emails with readings and practical suggestions of how to explore the day’s particular focus. And they can opt for Twitter reminders, share their experiences on a private forum, or email me personally. I think every tradition has to move with the times and adapt to changing circumstances!
By the way, Virtual Zen Retreats are by donation. That’s because I want those hardest hit in our difficult economic times to be able to find islands of ease and healing through participating in the Virtual Zen Retreats.
What’s really important is that YOU find islands of ease.
I hope that the five ways I have outlined above are helpful to you. I’d be interested to read what you think in the comments. Maybe you have found other islands of ease that work for you? Please do share them – we can all learn from each other.