The Big Happiness Interview: How to become more Zen and transform your life

‘Zen’ has become a ubiquitous concept in modern day life with celebrities, sportspeople and top business gurus all advocating the benefits of a Zen meditation practice (from Oprah and Michael Jordan to tech billionaire Marc Benioff).

Amazon has even introduced tiny ‘Zenbooths’ for their stressed-out warehouse workers to watch company videos about mindfulness.

But what is Zen and will it really help with our modern day stress, malaise and post-pandemic anxiety?

‘Zen literally means meditation,’ says Julian Daizan Skinner, the first Englishman to go to Japan and become a Zen master – he gave up his career as a scientist, sold his house, gave all his money away and entered a monastery 30 years ago.

‘Meditation is fitness training for the mind, or more specifically, the attention,’ he tells Metro.co.uk. ‘And in this world, which is awash with distraction, the ability to control our attention will transform your health and your life.’

This is not an empty promise.

Professor Maryanne Martin and Dr Barbara Jikai Gabrys of the University of Oxford’s Department of Experimental Psychology have worked with Daizan and his Zenways organisation and studied the effects of Zen meditation, and results found that students experienced a significant decrease in perceived stress together with a decrease in anxiety, plus increases in levels of awareness and satisfaction in life.

Here we talk to Daizan on the process of becoming less stressed and more Zen.

Why will zen meditation make us happier?

The whole point of Zen meditation is to find peace and happiness and satisfaction in life.

Learning to meditate can transform your life because you are developing the quality of your attention.

It’s not difficult. It doesn’t require years of study, or a high IQ or a deep level of personal development. It requires one thing and one thing only – practice.

Everyone gets distracted but if you are able to gently bring your mind back enough times, attention becomes a habit.

As you foster this habit of awareness, you can consciously begin to enjoy your own life, you learn to let go of blocks and burdens, you might even, the science tells us, turn back the ageing clock.

woman meditating with city landscape turning into forest

How does it work?

Zen meditation is about seeing things clearly. To see the world for the optical illusion that it is.

I always give the example of how we go to the movies and watch the story on the big screen and get caught up in the drama – of the car chase, or the spaceship invasion or the explosion. But at any minute we can turn around and look over our shoulders and see the truth. A film is not reality, it’s just a pattern of dancing light coming from the projector.

Zen meditation helps you stop being distracted by the stories you play in your head about the past and future and instead invites you to put the attention on being present right here, right now. That is where your life is really happening.

But the drama in our heads can be so compelling…

Yes, very compelling! But that’s why it’s so useful to bring our attention to our bodies. Our body is our best friend, which can be much more stable than the mind, which is highly creative and hypnotises us with its stories.

If we can just come back to our bodies, bring our attention to breathing in and out, you’ll find you don’t get dragged around as much.

Learning to meditate can transform your life because you are developing the quality of your attention.

But it’s so hard to focus on your breathing when you’re triggered.

I can tell you from a mountain of personal experience that the best way to be with emotional anguish is to treat it as if you were with a terrified and injured pet dog.

In this situation, you wouldn’t just walk out and leave the dog to suffer. Nor I suspect would you chase it around the room, trying to catch it and fix it. Most likely, you would sit down patiently and quietly just being present with the dog. In time, the dog would gain confidence and trust, and only then can you set about helping.

When we treat the emotion in the same way, the suffering shifts.

But my fear is… my suffering won’t shift.

Yes, you’re not alone. People worry they will end up in a bottomless pit of awfulness. But to counter that, the Buddha himself said ‘there is an end to suffering’.

When we start to meditate, we often become aware of how much stress and anxiety we are carrying round. And how we try to distract ourselves or numb ourselves from those feelings. But we’re never at peace.

A major barrier to being present and mindful is the unwillingness to be with things as they really are. It’s normal to want for things to be different. But no amount of wishful thinking really helps. And there are powerful forces within us that lead us towards our unhappiness.

Powerful forces?

They are traditionally classified as three types: the forces of greed, the forces of hatred and the forces of delusion.

The forces of greed are probably, for our society and culture, the most powerful ones. They are within that sphere of ‘I am not good enough’. I need, I need, I need. The endless propaganda of advertising tells you that you will be all right if you have this motorboat, or this Greek holiday or this face cream or whatever it is.

The underlying message is always the same – right now, you are not all right. We live in a society that is driven powerfully by this feeling of lack.

In going deeper into this work, these internalised forces come into focus, and if we are willing, can be actually seen through so that you regain your freedom from what is essentially brainwashing.

So what can we do?

What really works is to take the momentous step of being what I call AA – aware and accepting – even of our feelings of unwillingness. What that means in practice is we stop running away and realise we can deal with whatever life throws at us and in that moment, we are at peace. 30 minutes of meditation a day where you work on being aware and accepting of whatever comes up can transform someone’s life beyond measure.

But what if you’re depressed – wouldn’t meditation just make you wallow in misery?

The opposite. A recent study done with the Oxford Mindfulness Centre suggested that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is as effective as antidepressants in preventing relapse and more effective in enhancing quality of life.

A major barrier to being present and mindful is the unwillingness to be with things as they really are. It’s normal to want for things to be different. But no amount of wishful thinking really helps. And there are powerful forces within us that lead us towards our unhappiness.

So how do we meditate?

Set aside 30 minutes each day for eight weeks. Start meditating by trying the body scan. Lie down, close your mouth with your togue resting on the roof of your mouth. Pay attention to your breath.

Move your attention progressively through your body and attend to its sensations. Start at your toes, work the way through your body until you reach the top of your head.

Don’t try to change anything; just be aware, be present. You’re not trying to change anything or control anything. Simply be present with what is. That’s a good way to start your meditation journey.

What happens after 30 minutes?

I recommend taking the last five minutes to write in a meditation diary – using it as a kind of brain dump. Simply allow anything and everything on your mind to be transferred on to paper. In the process, you can digest it and let it go. T

he ability to deal with emotional pains such as fear and depression through mindfulness and meditation is a skill that can only develop through application.

Repetition is the only way to get the habit momentum working for you. Research says it takes 100 days to create a habit so create a 100-day challenge for yourself to meditate daily.

Through the process you will have good days and bad days, guaranteed. But the more you practice becomes a habit – something you just do, regardless of how you’re feeling – the more able you become to gracefully ride out the ups and downs, not only in your meditation, but more importantly, in your life generally.

Nourish yourself with this daily practice:

A daily Zen practice will help you gain clarity about the things that nourish you and allow you to feel calm and centred.

Conversely, you see more clearly those thing and people that deplete you and diminish you.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • What three things come most immediately to mind that you can do to increase the nourishing aspects of your life?
  • What activities, things or people currently deplete your energy? Write down three ways you can approach these activities differently to minimise this depletion.

Practical Zen for Health, Wealth and Mindfulness (Singing Dragon, £10.99), by Julian Daizan Skinner with Sarah Bladen is, out now.

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