Practical Zen in a Nutshell

On my Welcome page I mentioned how the aim of this blog is to make Zen and mindfulness as understandable and practical as possible. That, of course, begs the question – what the heck is practical Zen?

In the smallest of nutshells, practical Zen, as I see it, consists of the following fourfold practice:

  1. Meditation (Zen, after all, means meditation in Japanese)
  2. Mindfulness
  3. Letting go of attachments
  4. Being in touch with our true nature

Depending on your level of exposure to Zen and mindfulness, that may sound like a bunch of gobbledygook, so let’s briefly go through each:

  1. Meditation: Meditation is nothing mystical. In fact, It’s nothing more than simply paying attention. In meditation all we do is pay focused attention to an object or anchor of attention such as our breathing, while maintaining a compassionate awareness of our thoughts and feelings. Then, when the mind wanders (and trust me it will), we simply observe what it has wandered to and gently return to our breathing.

The process of meditation is simple, but the practice can be notoriously difficult, especially when our minds are awash with thoughts (often called the “Monkey Mind” in Zen). Just know that meditation doesn’t have to be practiced on a mountaintop for hours at a time – as little as 10 minutes a day can be beneficial in more ways than I have room to explain here but I will expound on that in another post (the science behind it is actually quite fascinating).

2. Mindfulness: Mindfulness as I see it is essentially Zen in action. Where formal meditation is done while (typically) sitting still, mindfulness is taking the formal practice into everyday life. So what is mindfulness? There are many definitions out there, but as I see it, mindfulness is simply paying focused attention to whatever we’re doing (or experiencing) in the present moment, while maintaining a compassionate awareness of our thoughts and feelings. Then, when the mind wanders from what we’re doing, we observe what it has wandered to and gently bring it back to the task at hand.

Sound familiar? Yep, it’s the same as what we do in formal meditation only this time on a moment by moment basis for whatever we happen to be doing in our everyday lives. Instead of focusing on our breathing, we focus on the task at hand. You could say that through mindfulness our everyday lives become a form of moving meditation. This again can be far easier said than done, but hey, that’s why they call it a practice.

3. Letting go of attachments: Letting go of attachments means letting go of attachments to desires, and comes out of an understanding of what are known as the Four Noble Truths. These Truths essentially hold that life is full of suffering (mental anguish); suffering comes from attachments to desires; suffering is alleviated by detachment from desires; and detachment from desires comes from living life from a certain point of view chief of which (arguably) are mindfulness and letting go of attachments so that we can be in touch with our true nature.

So what does attachment to desires actually mean? Simply put, if anything is taking you away from peace in the present moment, you can bet your bottom dollar that it can be traced back to a desire that’s hard to let go of (that you’re emotionally attached to). That will be the case virtually every time.

The thing to keep in mind is that it’s not the desire that’s the problem, it’s the attachment to the desire that causes suffering. So when you find yourself attached to a desire, the trick is to let that attachment go (once again, often easier said than done, but more about that in another post). So what happens when we actually detach from desires and let them go? Are we just left with a drone-like emotional vacuum? Not at all. What we find is the beauty of our true nature which brings us to our last point.

4. Our true nature: Our true nature is that part of our humanity which at its core is comprised of love, compassion, kindness and peace. We all have it (yes, even the worst of us). Unfortunately, the toxic shaming so often involved in the socialization process, and too often including abuse of various kinds, covers over our true nature like mud over a diamond. That shame then becomes our identity and manifests in ugly ways, including all kinds of addictions in order to mask the pain and make us feel better, and in what is known in Buddhist teachings as the Three Poisons of ignorance, grasping, and aversion.

It’s only when we make the shift in identity from the mud of shame to the hidden diamond of our true nature that we can begin to discover the joy and peace that can be found within and, if needed, begin healing from any abuse. This shift in identity is in many ways just a starting point for the practice ahead as outlined above, but it is fundamental for self-acceptance and self-compassion.

The practices of compassion, acceptance, and loving-kindness begin with us, and as we learn to nurture ourselves, then we can turn that love, acceptance and compassion outward with much greater depth.

So that, essentially, is my current understanding of Zen (with a little psychology thrown in for good measure). The next series of posts will break these four elements down and discuss them in much greater detail.

For more on the Four Noble Truths see:

That’s it for now. Thanks for stopping by and see you soon.


16 thoughts on “Practical Zen in a Nutshell

  1. Your writing is so well stated and easy to understand that this was, for me, both practical advice and encouragement to get back to my own practice.


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