Zen and the Art of Stress Relief

zen stones signifying balance and harmony“That’s so Zen,” people say, meaning peaceful, accepting, and soothing. But what is Zen, exactly? You might picture a room filled with fluffy pillows decorated in blues and grays, lavender incense, and synthesizer sound waves punctuated by gongs. I’d probably like hanging out on those pillows, but Zen is much more than relaxation. It’s a way of life emphasizing the value of meditation and intuition, and realizing one’s true nature—the purpose of Zen.

We complain about stress, about losing ourselves in the hectic din of constant activity, always on the go, busy, and in touch. We even sleep with our phones kept handy on the nightstand, so we can be available 24/7. That is too much stress, but stress is not only a bad guy, it’s a good guy, too, often supporting growth.

Think of how stress helps in the gym. Muscles get bigger with resistance training—which is a form of stress (on the muscles). “No strain, no gain” and “use it or lose it” are popular refrains, but we have to find the optimal amount of strain that promotes growth. We need to work those biceps with the proper weight. Too much will tear our muscles, and too little will leave us with spaghetti arms. This is where a trainer in the gym, or a meditation teacher, a spiritual leader, or a psychotherapist, can come in handy, making sure that the stress you’re experiencing is optimal, be it physical, cognitive, spiritual, or emotional. We need to balance stress and relaxation.

Zen practitioners develop a sense of balance, as well as simplicity, order, and harmony. Right diet, regular exercise, enough sleep, right livelihood, and mindfulness activities such as meditation, yoga, prayer, and other techniques help us recover from too much stress. When we quiet the mind and the body, we have a better chance of finding the true self. That’s the goal of Zen—finding the deep self, who you really are, a key to a more rewarding life, and why psychotherapists often include meditation techniques as part of their treatment plan, although it is not a replacement for psychotherapy.

Zen is a peaceful way of life which avoids killing or harming another living thing, shuns stealing, promotes sexual responsibility, and practices truthful speech that does not hurt anyone. Drinking and drugging, anything that diminishes consciousness, is to be avoided. The Shakyamuni Buddha simplified what a Zen life looks like when he said that Zen means “to do no evil, to cultivate the good, and to purify one’s mind.” These are down-to-earth principles which help us live the good life, without too much stress.

A central aspect of Zen is meditation. Often it’s wise to start a meditation practice by resolving to meditate every day, at the same time if possible, and for a period of perhaps five minutes, so when your meditation time is over you want more and you’re ready to start again the next day. You can use a timer, if you wish; just choose a sound that you like. There are some really good apps for that! You can gradually lengthen the time spent meditating.

Meditation practice is simply sitting quietly while maintaining good posture and focusing on one thing, often the breath. Watching the outbreath is emphasized because the outbreath is a relaxing breath by its nature. We breathe out, let go, and then wait through the pause and on to the next breath, a bead in the necklace of your life’s breaths.

While you meditate and focus on the breath, you try not to get caught in the endless thoughts, stories, and fantasies that our brains are constantly spinning. Each time you catch sight of your thoughts, you simply say “thinking without judgment,” and then you return your attention to the breath. The “without judgment” part? I say it twice; it’s that important. NO JUDGMENT. Meditation is not a self-improvement program. It is a getting-to-know-and-accept-yourself program, after which you can get to know and accept other people, too.

People often get angry with themselves when they catch themselves thinking instead of meditating. They might feel like failures, but it’s exactly the opposite. Catching yourself thinking is the sweet spot. You didn’t do something bad, but just the reverse—you noticed, you woke up and were aware; this is the essence of meditation, the gentle road to mindfulness which leads inside to your true nature. Mindfulness is an extended awareness, throughout the day, noticing, not simply reacting.

Meditation reduces stress by increasing positive feelings and decreasing anxiety. As you get to know yourself better and learn to treat yourself and others with greater kindness, your ability to navigate your emotional reactions with more skillfulness also leads to a greater ability to get along with yourself and with others. Self-acceptance, again, is key.

There have been many scientific investigations into the benefits of mindfulness. An early one was the relaxation response developed by Dr. Herbert Benson, who founded the Mind-Body Institute, affiliated with Harvard University. He reports that meditation produces healthful changes in metabolism, heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, and brain chemistry. The National Institutes of Health concur. Other findings reveal that long-term meditators have increased grey matter in their brains, and an increase in alpha-wave activity.

Meditation can be an important part of your daily life. With patience, you will reap great benefits of consciousness and emotional development. Following basic Zen principles of compassion and nonviolence, and establishing a regular meditation practice, makes for a satisfying life with less stress—and provides the tools to handle stress when you need to. A Zen mind-set can go a long way toward teaching us to deal with stress. You don’t have to make a huge change to gain its benefits.

Recommended reading:

  • The Wisdom of No Escape by Pema Chodron
  • The Trauma of Everyday Life: A Guide to Inner Peace by Mark Epstein
  • Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life by Thich Nhat Hanh, Arnold Kotler, and H. H. the Dalai Lama 
  • Mind and Life: Discussions with the Dalai Lama on the Nature of Reality by Pier Luigi Luisi with Zara Houshmand

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lynn Somerstein, PhD, NCPsyA, C-IAYT, therapist in New York City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Katie

    Katie

    March 19th, 2014 at 11:32 AM

    Do you have anythoughts about the easiest ways to begin implementing more of a Zen lifestyle into my day to day activities? I want to lead a more peaceful and stress free life, but to be honest with you, I don’t think that I am really even sure how to get started on that path. It sounds all well and good til I start trying to weed it all out and then something constantly throws a roadblock in my way that stops me from fully getting the benefits of it. And then I am back right where I started all over again.

  • SaraB

    SaraB

    March 20th, 2014 at 3:51 AM

    I think that you hit the nail on the head when you described it as a wya of life. That is exactly it. It is not just about doing this one thing or another, it is all about changing your whole entire lifestyle to reflect a different way of living and thinking. It is a way to let go of the many outside worried and stresses that generally come with everyday life and develop a simpler and usually better way to deal with all of that anxiety. I can almost guarantee you that once you adopt this lifestyle in a holistic manner you will feel better from head to toe almost immediately!

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    March 20th, 2014 at 9:41 AM

    Thanks, Katie and SaraB, for reading and writing your thoughts. Katie, I think if you try to plant one small seed rather than digging up your whole lawn you may be successful. Just give it lots of time, and be open to restarts.
    SaraB, I think you are a gardener– I enjoyed reading your insights.

  • SaraB

    SaraB

    March 20th, 2014 at 11:55 AM

    a gardener… hmmm I like that!! :)

  • Wally

    Wally

    March 21st, 2014 at 3:57 AM

    But you do think that the Zen life could be compatibale with other lifestyles? Like I have always been under the impression, maybe mistakenly, that this was more of an offshoot of Buddhism, so I couldn’t be a Christian and practice something like this. But reading this doesn’t make it seem this was and makes it sound like I could certainly implement some of these teachings into my everyday life without compromising my religious beliefs. Would you agree with that?

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    March 21st, 2014 at 8:44 AM

    Hi Wally,
    That is a wonderful question. I am not a theologian, but I think that you can incorporate some of the teachings into your Christian life, such as compassion and non-violence, and the practice of meditation.
    Thanks very much for writing!
    Take care,
    Lynn

  • Heather Schwartz

    Heather Schwartz

    March 21st, 2014 at 10:51 AM

    Lynn, you write, “Catching yourself thinking is the sweet spot. You didn’t do something bad, but just the reverse—you noticed, you woke up and were aware; this is the essence of meditation, the gentle road to mindfulness which leads inside to your true nature. Mindfulness is an extended awareness, throughout the day, noticing, not simply reacting.” I love this! It’s so true!

    This is a wonderful summary of informal and formal meditation.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    March 21st, 2014 at 2:42 PM

    Heather, thank you! Have a lovely weekend.
    Lynn

  • Wally

    Wally

    March 22nd, 2014 at 6:06 AM

    Lynn- thank you for caring enough to address my concerns. I think that I am ready to seek out some more writings on the subject and see if there are some ways to incorporate this into my daily life without having to give up other things that are dear to me. Thanks again!

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    March 22nd, 2014 at 9:56 AM

    Wally, my pleasure.
    Take care,
    Lynn

  • kimmy

    kimmy

    March 22nd, 2014 at 3:50 PM

    I know that now everyone will agree with me but I have always had this sense about myself that the tough stuff? That is what tends to make me a little bit stronger. The gym analogy was a great one because life is a whole lot like those muscles. The harder the work at it, well, the easier it gets! That doesn’t mean there won’t still be hard days, but you will eventually just be a little better prepared to handle the tough ones. ;)

  • Iz

    Iz

    March 24th, 2014 at 3:54 AM

    No matter what name it chooses to go by we must all establish this sense of order and balance in life

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    March 24th, 2014 at 8:39 AM

    Yes! Thanks, Iz.
    Take care,
    Lynn

  • Paco

    Paco

    March 25th, 2014 at 4:34 PM

    Any thoughts on how much this has grown in popularity? I mean, even a few years ago you would have never heard anyone talking about this. It’s like it had it’s hey day in the 1960s and 70s and then kind of crashed and burned but is now having a resurgence. I guess it is true that all things are cyclical because this seems to be coming back into fashion again as well. Only this time I hope that it will stick around because I kind of like the emaning behind it and think that a lot of people really could gain a lot from it if only they would stick to it and give it some time to work. I think a lot of people though give up on it just a little too soon.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    March 26th, 2014 at 8:39 AM

    Hi Paco,
    I agree– there is a resurgence of interest in Eastern medicine, thought and philosophy, just as you said. Let’s both hope people remain interested.

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