In spiritual circles, achieving zen – a calm, peaceful state of mind – is the ultimate goal. Increasingly, this is becoming the goal of each and every person on the planet, whether they use spiritual means, like meditation, to achieve it or not. But what does “zen” really mean?
History of Zen
Originally, Zen was a school (or sect) of Buddhism that began in China under the name Chan Buddhism. This school of Buddhism was strongly influenced by Taoism. From China, Chan Buddhism spread to Vietnam, Korea and Japan. In Japan, it became known as Japanese Zen. The basic practices include breath work (meditation), non-judgmental observation of one’s mind, chanting and insight.
These practices, as you might imagine, lead to a calm, peaceful inner state. This inner state is expressed during interactions with the world. Socially, Zen practitioners have positive interactions with others. They have healthy boundaries and live without conflict, but also without allowing their boundaries to be crossed. As modern life has become increasingly stressful, non-religious people seek this same sense of peace and calm in the world and within themselves.
The Use of Zen Today
Today, Zen (with a capital z) refers to the Buddhist school. People from all religious backgrounds have begun adopting some of the practices in order to achieve a state of zen (little z.) The truth is, these practices work across cultures, across religions, across genders and across races. Simply put, they work for all humans to calm the mind, calm the inner fires and achieve a state of peace and calm.
The reason these practices work is quite fascinating and rooted in brain science. I don’t claim to be a neuroscientist of any kind, so if you want more about this topic, I suggest the book Buddha’s Brain. That being said, the basic gist is that the Zen practice of meditation actually rewires the pathways in your brain – all human brains.
How Meditation Affects the Brain
As a result of evolution and the need to survive, our brains developed to be magnets for negative stimuli. In the hunter-gatherer days, the flight or fight response literally kept us alive. As a result, our brains developed to pay more attention to those negative imputs than the positive ones.
In today’s society where we all live in relative safety compared to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, this evolution has become detrimental. There are high rates of anxiety and depression. Many of us live with our brains so amped up so often that we can’t shut down. It doesn’t take much to tip us from calm to angry, scared or sad.
Overtime, meditation and other consciousness building practices rewire our brains to accept positive stimuli more readily and to cope with negative ones with less anxiety and stress. The ultimate result is a brain that works in a balance fashion – with equanimity. Thus when people talk about wanting to achieve “zen” what they really mean is that they want an equanimeous brain. No matter what you call it, the path to get there includes daily meditation.