Zen monks know a thing or two about chilling out, but what can Zen teaches tell us about learning how to give zero shits, in a world where over-thinking things has become standard? Do we have to forsake all of our possessions, and retreat to a monastery to find balance and inner peace?
Fortunately not, says Julian Daizan Skinner who did all of that to become England’s first male Zen Master after giving up modern life at 25 to live in Zen monasteries – in the Japanese Rinzai tradition – and on his return, walking a 700-mile pilgrimage from the Isle Of Wight to the northern coast of Scotland.
RSNG asked him to apply the wisdom he has gained, to the challenges of everyday life, in order to give you a fighting chance of going from stressed out and anxious, to serene and happy…
Light Your Own Path
Questioning yourself can be healthy; after all, overconfidence in your abilities sets you up for an inevitable fall. That said, second-guessing perfectly good decisions just weakens your resolve, increasing the likelihood that you will fail, which can set up a paralysing negative feedback loop.
‘The Buddha’s very last teaching was “Be a light unto yourself.” Practice trusting yourself. The more you do, the better you get at it,’ says Zen Master Julian Daizan Skinner. It seems The Bhudda may have seen modern anxiety coming…
Practice noticing the decisions you make that come out right, rather than fixating on the mistakes we all make, to boost trust in yourself.
‘Zen Masters discovered when you breathe right, the courage and groundedness that comes from ‘guts’ develops to a life-changing level’
First Guts, Then Glory
Often the hardest step to take, in facing your demons, is the first one. There are a million distractions and excuses, from “I’m just too busy”, to “I’m not brave enough”, but Skinner is here to tell you Zen Masters know that mental space and strength can be learned:
‘Guts can be cultivated – the Japanese word for guts is ‘hara’. We tend to think guts is something you’ve either got or haven’t got, but over the centuries in the Zen tradition they discovered that, when you learn to breathe right and use the body right, the courage, groundedness and stability that comes with this term ‘guts’ begins to develop to a life-changing level,’ he says.
Remember you don’t have to prevail in every battle – just starting to put up a fight can lead to ‘winning’ the war…
Look To Your Body
So, how do the Zen Masters use their bodies to become grounded and boost their courage? According to Skinner it starts simply with becoming conscious of how you hold yourself, day to day, and making small changes. ‘Find an upright, balanced, relaxed body position. Make it a habit to do this and you’re already stress-proofing yourself,’ he says.
‘This optimal alignment will also affect your breath – watch how it deepens. Slow, deep, relaxed breathing disarms the stress response. Over time you’ll make this breathing a habit too.’
In scientific terms, this practice switches your central nervous system from its everyday, stress-induced sympathetic, ‘flight or fight’ mode – where you are jacked on adrenaline and stress hormones – to its parasympathetic ‘rest and digest’ recovery mode.
Then Look To Your Thoughts
This being Zen, there’s a further mental approach you can use to get really frosty: ‘Watch your thoughts and adopt what Zen calls the host position – you’re like the host of an inn and all the thoughts, feelings and sensations are like guests, they come, they stay for a while but they always go. You are not your thoughts.’
Boomerang Your Negativity
Skinner tells an illuminating story about how, when he first entered monastic life, the experience left him totally not Zen: ‘I started my monastic experience living cheek by jowl with 30 other monks. After a few months I realised I had a grudge against every single other person!’
‘At that point I had a choice: either I decide that I’m living with terrible people, or I turn it around and take responsibility for my feelings. Facing those resentments gave me a point of power around strong feelings that has served me well over the decades.’
It’s a simple message: ‘Take responsibility for how you’re feeling.’
It’s Not All About You
A central part of Zen teaching is generosity, not only with time or money but with wisdom and compassion. Put simply, inner peace is incompatible with being totally selfish. ‘Find ways to help others; and bear in mind this is for your benefit as much as anyone else’s,’ recommend’s Skinner. Remember to give freely – don’t keep score or expect a return.
‘Make death a friend – ask yourself: if I died tonight, would I be satisfied with my life?’
Take Stock And Reboot
If you’ve got this far, then the odds are that you’re feeling more chilled out, which is a good base for seeing what other improvements you can make to your life. A 2019 UK study by Yakult of 1,500 people showed that 80% felt their lives lacked a purpose, something that only really becomes possible to achieve if you stop and take stock of where you are, right now.
‘Make death a friend. Ask yourself “If I died tonight, would I be satisfied with my life?” Make the changes you need to in the light of this perspective,’ says Skinner.
WHAT NEXT? Still feeling anxious? Then read the RSNG survival guide to panic attacks – they can strike anyone, so it pays to be prepared…
Check out the book Rough Waking* which features Julian Daizan Skinner’s, and two other’s, journeys from dark places to Zen peace… It’s available now from Amazon.
Follow this article’s author on Instagram @The_Adventure_Fella
Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations.