When people become interested in Zen they often think it is a way to be more relaxed and balanced. Sometimes they ask me for a quick guidance into “the Zen way of life”. Some even get a bit angry if I tell them it is not something I can just give them. Because learning to do things the Zen way is about stopping to want all kinds of things, this includes the desire for relaxation. It seems like one of those typical Zen paradoxes: you must try to do something but without trying…
Although it is true that Zen will probably make you more relaxed, it is more of a side-effect of walking the Zen-path instead of a main goal.
How to “Not Try”
Let’s go back to the Eightfold Path. The last one is about the Right Concentration. If you think a little bit about what is happening when you feel unrest you will probably find it is because you were thinking about something that worries you. Or you were thinking about something that happened some time ago. In both cases it has very little to do with your current situation, you are thinking about the future or about the past. This is what most of us do 95% of the day. There is nothing wrong with planning ahead or evaluating the future, but most of the time you can do that in just a few minutes. It doesn’t have to take all day. If you are more aware of your current situation and focus all your attention on that, you will find your unrest will ease away. Even if you manage to concentrate on what you are doing right now for just a moment, you will feel a gulf of relaxation sweep through your body. But don’t focus on your relaxation or you will lose it just as fast. Keep doing what you are doing. The simpler your activity is the better. Household tasks, odd jobs or gardening are great. This is what is meant by the Right Concentration. Feel the tools you are using, the sound it makes, how your muscles do their work.
The best way to learn the Right Concentration is through meditation. It is what meditation (or Zazen) is: a practice in concentration. It is why young children are better at relaxing than adults: they still now how to live in the moment.
My favorite Zen quote says it all: “Chop wood, carry water.”
Your current task is all there is.
That is the way.