Zen and the Art of Anything

Zen and the Art of Anything

“The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.” –  Robert Pirsig.

Some people can search for Zen their entire lives, and still never really know what the hell it is. They know it’s a feeling, and that it should make them happy, but that’s as far as they get.

They seek a practical approach to inciting Zen, an emotional instruction manual to deliver them directly to a serene and mindful psychological space.

Yet as far as I’m aware, there’s no specific algorithm for getting there. Not one that fits any two people anyway.

Zen who?

So, if Zen’s such a desirable emotion, what actually is it?

Well, according to the dictionary it’s ‘A Japanese sect of Mahayana Buddhism that aims at enlightenment by direct intuition through meditation’.

To most other people, it’s simply happiness. While such word substitution may anger Buddhist fundamentalists, the urban dictionary has spoken.

So, if we associate the attainment of Zen with happiness, you’re probably thinking this whole endeavour is futile. I mean, no one has the answer to that right?

Well, before we go lumping the two words together, let me give you my definition.

I would argue that Zen is total contentment with the self, a togetherness of mind and body.

I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. Those moments when you feel that everything is right, you’re breathing in time, and slotting squarely into place.

It’s a tranquillity that transcends joy.

Sustainable growth

The reason I prefer Zen to happiness is that it’s more sustainable.

Happiness is an extreme, and like any extreme, it must be tempered with its adversary.  If perpetual happiness were the aim, the feeling would fade into perpetual normality.

Zen is a feeling that can bridge the emotional spectrum. A way of being that provides psychological stability.

The stormy fluctuations of thought that leave so many of us feeling disconsolate can be calmed.

Rather than allowing your enthusiasm to replace better judgement, or your depression to rule your decision making, you can approach life with a measured perspective.

Prior to my own search for Zen, I often allowed my emotions to dominate my life. One day I was consumed by energy, while the next I allowed myself to be disheartened by a setback. It was a rollercoaster, where I felt I was never able to gain traction. I started new projects, only to abandon them when they got tough, resulting in emotional instability and frustration.

So I sought a solution in meditation.

I sought my Zen.

A pursuit of Zen

So if Zen is so desirable, how do you actually find it in yourself?

Well, the answer lies in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

I’m serious.

Rather than running out and finding a motorcycle to fix, pick up a copy of this cult book by Robert Pirsig first.

The book describes the author’s psychology behind achieving a Zen state of mind while fixing his motorcycle.

He uses this Zen state to refer to the undivided attention he devotes to his task, and consequently the superior quality of his work. It’s a way of working, he argues, that can improve performance and satisfaction in all pursuits.

Take, for example, an athlete in the throes of competition and observe their dedication to the task; complete physical and emotional harmony; the highest plateau of concentration.

They’re so engrossed in the moment that they’re not thinking, merely being. The result is the pursuit of excellence, and an inherent satisfaction with the pursuit of that goal.

This state of mind can be witnessed in a variety of activities: dancing, music, art. Even knitting. If the participant is truly focused, they’re feeling what to do next instead of planning it.

It sounds so easy. Pick something you love and do it until it makes you happy.

Well, that’s part of finding your Zen, but not all.

Quality

The secret ingredient to achieving Zen is ‘quality’, which Pirsig uses as a symbol for the driving force behind Man’s relationship with the Universe.

He suggests that by using quality as a measure of success in your activities, you can reach a point where you’re unthinking, lost in the moment.

Imagine an amateur playing musical instrument. Even when they’re learning a song, and haven’t mastered the notes, they’re repetitively practicing the fingering, attempting to commit their actions to memory.

They don’t have to achieve perfection in their playing to achieve their Zen. Rather it’s the pursuit of quality and mindlessness of their actions that stimulates pleasure.

My Zen

I know when I play the guitar, I disappear into my own world, barely aware of how much time has passed, or if someone has spoken to me. I emerge from my subconscious feeling an inner peace, all previous stresses having evaporated.

I’m sure there are activities that invoke similar feelings for you, passions that leave you cleansed and balanced.

To find your Zen, the key is to engineer the drive for quality in everything you do. By focusing on performing a task to the best of your ability, you become lost in your actions.

You don’t just have to focus on your passions discover Zen. By seeking it in all actions, you too can quiet your emotional flux and become the centred person you’ve always sought.

You may even be able to bend space fabric like a Shaolin monk.

Practice

  1. To find your inner Zen, choose an activity you’re passionate about. If you’re more skilled in the pursuit, it will be easier to stimulate Zen. As you improve, shift the focus to activities you’re not as comfortable with.
  2. Strive for quality in everything you do.
  3. During the activity, relax as much as possible. Start with your body, before moving to your mind.
  4. Don’t think about your physical actions.
  5. Disengage active thought. Try not to let your mind wander and become preoccupied with the stresses of life.
  6. Try focusing on a colour, as if in meditation.
  7. Retreat to an inner space, where you’re aware of your surroundings, but disengaged from them.
  8. It may feel like you’re in a dream, where the mind becomes more powerful than your physical being.
  9. Maintain the interaction between mindlessness and physical interaction for as long as feels natural.
  10. Well done, you’ve found your Zen! Do you feel calm, relaxed and centred?

Please, share your experiences with this technique in the comments below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Photo by Shubham

Joel Key

Joel Key is a writer and physiotherapist who inspires his community to make positive changes in their lives. He has just created a new campaign called 'Write for Life', which raises awareness of worldwide illiteracy. To learn more, visit his site at www.joelkey.com, or follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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51 Comments

  1. I think it’s very important to have something that centres you and gives you a sense of ‘zen’. I actually use an app called Headspace to practice daily Mindful Meditation but I also feel centred when I crochet. I know friends say they get the same feeling from drawing or gardening but, whatever you do to achieve this feeling, I can attest to the fact that it definitely adds to the quality of your life.

    Reply
    • That’s great, thanks for the tip! I will certainly look into ‘Headspace’. It’s so important to effectively utilise activities which draw you closer to Zen state of mind. The best thing about using ‘quality’ as a driving force is that you can discover even more pursuits which have a similar effect.

      Reply
  2. Thank you for this inspiring and very useful post. As one who does not like traditional meditation, I use my art and music as contemplative exercises. When I work on my art I try to bring myself into a state of relaxation and intention by lighting a candle, shutting the door and spending time just with myself and my art. It is a wonderful space away from the crazy details of life. I guess it’s my Zen.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the input CJ! it certainly sounds like you’ve found your Zen pursuit. Art is a wonderful medium to achieve mindfulness. I particularly like your use of solitude and candles to unplug from the distractions of modern life.

      Reply
  3. What a great post!

    I find it really difficult to meditate because I cannot seem to, as you call it, “disengage active thought” but I can very easily get lost in my work when it’s fueled by passion. Your tips at the end are very helpful and I will try to incorporate them into my daily activities to hopefully stimulate this inner Zen you speak of. Thanks again and I will report back soon! :)

    Reply
    • Thanks Phoebe! It’s far easier to become immersed in the moment when following a true passion. Start with your favourite activities and try to extend the approach to other pursuits when you have practiced the steps. Let me know you get on!

      Reply
  4. I think the term is mindfulness, not mindlessness

    Reply
    • Hi Les. Mindfulness would certainly work too. Thanks for reading!

      Reply
    • Well I just attempted to respond to this and got kicked out when I tried to “post” so I hope this doesnt post twice, as I felt it was worth it to type it up again…because I wanted to share something about this difference between mindFULness and mindLESSness. I am no master of “presence” by any means, but I do meditate daily, several times a day, and I read about this topic a great deal. And it seems to me that what we are trying to reach, in the pursuit of sitting with self, is a place where our minds are clear of thoughts, not full of them. And since finding ones way into that space can be quite difficult at times, thinking of it as mindLESSness, for me, is actually more conducive to getting me there. A frustrated audience member told Eckhart Tolle that he struggled with this as well, being able to “turn off” his mind. Eckhart told him its actually quite simple, you are in THIS moment right now………and you are in THIS moment right now (pausing for a second in between)…..did you have any thoughts during that time?” The man chuckled and said “no, of course not, it was just a second that passed!” To which Eckhart replied “yes, thats true, and NOW you are in another moment…….(pauses for 2 or 3 seconds this time)……..and NOW you are in another. Did you have any thoughts during that time?” The man said “no, it was still only a few seconds”. Eckhart said “yes, now try to sting together another second and another, just like those, until you are able to extend that space without thought into longer stretches.” The man tried it on the spot, as did I, and it really did work. I use it multiple times a day now and its become a wonderful “induction” for me. Mind without thought, mindLESSness. It seems to me, the more accurate term for it, but thats just my opinion ;)

      Reply
      • Hi Cathy, thanks for contributing and for the technique that you propose. Les did raise an interesting point, and it’s served to make me think more about these two words, which perhaps deserve more attention. The word mindlessness does often has a derogatory connotation. Mindless violence and mindless eating to name but two. Essentially pre-programmed unconscious behaviours which can impact our choices, often in a negative way. It’s regarded as encouraging the formation of bad habits and perpetuating unhealthy vices. But, what if mindlessness is pursued solely with beneficial and healthy pursuits in mind? In this case, rather than being avoided, it can be used a technique to lose yourself in the moment. There are undoubtedly similarities with the term mindfulness, in that you bring your complete attention to the present experience, but by choosing that word, I was keen to highlight the benefits of de-cluttering your mind from extraneous thoughts to focus completely on the task at hand. I will enjoy experimenting with the technique you suggested. Do you use this approach when performing certain activities, or as a way to enhance your meditation practice? Also, what benefits have you experienced using this method?

        Reply
  5. My husband read Pirsig’s book YEARS ago and really enjoyed it. Lately, I’ve found myself struggling with “monkey mind”…thoughts hopping from one subject to the next. Too much going on in my head. Without realizing it, I’ve been trying to be more Zen overall. Just really focusing on the task at hand, JUST that task: washing the dishes, writing that article, being PRESENT with my family. I still have a long ways to go, but am going to bed, much happier and less exhausted. Great post, Joel.

    Reply
      • Thanks, Joel. I LOVE TED talks and hadn’t seen this one. Thanks for sharing.

        Reply
  6. A very interesting post Joel, I have practised meditation for a few years now and find it easy to achieve mindfulness, but I guess the activity where I become lost in my actions is when I write, I love writing and I become completely part of it, time just disappears. So I guess writing is my Zen :)

    Reply
    • Thanks Robert, you’re right in making the distinction between traditional meditation and discovering Zen through action. Like you, I enjoy using both techniques, but find writing incites a special kind of catharsis.

      Reply
  7. Great post Joel! Nature is my zen. I completely integrate myself in the colors, smell and sounds of nature.

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing Veronica. There is evidence that wellbeing is enhanced by placing greenery in a workspace, so immersing yourself in nature is an extremely effective stimulus for Zen. I even find walking next to the Thames in London (where I currently live) is a great form of meditation.

      Reply
  8. Great post Joel! For me, experiencing Zen is in those moments when we tap into a sense of wholeness. Our sense of time changes, we are connected to our bodies, art and the spirit that drives these things. I am a writer and am passionate about the writing practice for this reason. When connected to the “flow” we are in a place of healing, creativity and alignment with the whole part of our experience.

    Reply
    • Thanks Jackie! Beautifully worded. I’m glad you mentioned the ‘flow’ experience, as Csikszentmihalyi’s theory symbolises the ‘Zen’ state of mind perfectly. Is there a particular type of writing that enhances these feelings you describe?

      Reply
  9. No mention of yoga (yet) so let me add that to the list of “artful zen.” Long before I walked into a yoga studio, some of my zen moments always came 1) when I’d mastered the art of teaching so that it was effortless and between the students and myself we could make magic happen in a classroom 2) slipping into a hyper-aware state when I’m editing someone’s writing or when I’ve fallen into my own writer’s grace moments … Your #7 – Retreat to an inner space is my third eye – the ultimate zen.

    Thanks for the detailed post on a topic that’s hard to pin down. I’ll have to come back and read it a few more times.

    Reply
    • Hi Kathy! It seems that you have discovered some fantastic methods of inciting Zen. Yoga is a great way to find a mindful space. I’m intrigued by your ability to enter such a state in the classroom. Did you find this came naturally, or does it depend on the class and topic you’re teaching? Regardless, I’m sure you’re students reap the rewards when you find your flow! Thanks for sharing.

      Reply
      • Think about how deceptively easy some things look to an outsider: the Olympic hopeful who does triple jumps with enviable ease or the jazz musician who’s been playing one instrument for decades – we don’t see the years of dedication that (bolstered by an individual passion) contributed to that “ease,” which I think is another way to fall into zen moments.I didn’t fall into my classroom zen until I’d mastered the mechanics of my trade and pushed their limits to something more. Part of that zen is understanding how to live in the present moment, having enough teaching experience under my belt to be able to invite students to play with me – I could never have created this as a beginning teacher but after my first 5 years of teaching, that “collective zen” of teacher plus students was what I aimed to create every day.

        Reply
        • It’s an interesting point you raise Kathy. There is a link between an individuals’ skill level in their task and their ability to enter these states of mind. It sounds that, with your experience and mastery of the teaching craft, you’ve found a way to incite these moments extremely effectively. I would argue however, that it’s possible to discover Zen in the pursuit of goals without a pre-defined level of ability. If I return to my guitar analogy, I can remember when I started playing that I was able to lose myself in my practice. It required more work to dissociate my mind from my movements, but once there I was able to achieve a Zen state. The complexity of the task is also a consideration. While teaching a class of students is clearly a highly specialised task, doing the washing up doesn’t preclude anyone from discovering their Zen.

          Reply
  10. Its really inspiring article.. I loved it.. I wanted to try the tips, But I have some wrong practices which make me lost in them.. like watching TV and sleep.. Can anyone tell me how I can get rid of them..

    Reply
    • Hi Suma, I don’t think you’re alone in getting lost in such habits. Activities such as watching television are an attractive psychological draw which can leave little time for other things you wish to accomplish. However, watching TV can be informative and/or very relaxing. You’ll see from Cathy’s comment below that she’s worried about the time that passes when she sketches and writes. So, I think an important point to make is that all activities need to be approached with moderation and balance in mind. Finding your Zen with any passion can result in time management problems and feelings of regret that you don’t have enough time to complete other important tasks. Regarding watching TV and sleeping, my advice would be to set yourself a schedule for these activities to free up time for the pursuit of Zen in other areas. By sticking to a schedule, you can still enjoy these activities, but they will not consume your day. Also, I’d love to hear what you would do with the extra time earned by watching less TV…..?!

      Reply
      • Thank you Joel for your suggestions.. I would like to read books ,cooking and spending happy time with family when I get extra time.. I tried to make scheduled to every thing..But it lasts only for couple of days.. I will try your suggestions from today.. Thanks Joel..

        Reply
        • Google calendar is an excellent way to schedule your time. Good luck, and please let me know how you get on!

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  11. Theory of ” Karma Yoga” propounded in the Bhagavad Gita is precisely this. It exhorts one to perform the given task with absolute concentration and efficiency (to the extent one is capable of ) and not bother about the result. We get distracted when one worries about the outcome and attention wavers. Living in the moment is Zen moment.

    Reply
    • That’s great Mahavir, thanks for sharing! I do think that obsessing about the outcome of a task, and namely, how it will be perceived by others, can be detrimental to finding inner peace. That’s why I like Pirsig’s use of ‘quality’ as the driving force behind the attainment of Zen. Quality is an emotional and subjective measurement which is perceived differently by everybody. I think the essence of the word centres around pouring your whole being into a chosen task in order to create something you’re inherently proud of.

      Reply
  12. I enjoyed your article very much but I find myself feeling confused about something. When I am sketching, or writing, especially poetry (which for me is usually cathartic in nature) I get into “the zone” so to speak and it would seem to be a place consistent with what you refer to here. But I can lose HOURS, a whole day even (embarrassed to admit this really :) and though I can honestly say that I enjoy every second of that state of complete absorption in my craft, I also find it to be quite disconcerting at times, as absorbing oneself in an activity for a whole day isn’t always compatible with the schedule that the rest of the world is on! I wish I could find a balance with this and I wish I could understand it as well. Its not ego, as far as I can tell, but it’s certainly dysfunctional no? To continue to indulge such a passion even when you need to start dinner or finish the laundry…? I’m interested in hearing anyone,s thoughts on this, author or reader :)

    Reply
    • Thanks for contributing Cathy and sharing your thoughts. There was also a similar comment by Suma above, in which I mentioned your thread in my answer, so feel free to read that too. Finding Zen through an activity you love can be an intoxicating feeling, and it can drive you to seek out that sensation more than a balanced schedule may allow. Whether the activity which provides this experience is work, or a hobby, overcommitting in any area of you life can lead to misgivings and regret further down the line. Namely the opportunity cost of your time spent sketching and writing. One of the best ways I’ve found to manage this problem is by sticking to a schedule. I absolutely love Google calendar as it’s free and easy to sync your computer and phone. I personally decide in advance how much time I’m willing to commit to each activity through the day and the calendar helps me stick to this. I would advise doing the same with your writing and sketching. When the allotted time for these tasks finishes, no matter how immersed you are, you must get in the habit of sticking to your schedule and moving onto another activity. You’ll still experience the psychological benefit of having found your Zen, but you’ll also be much happier having achieved all of your goals for that day. I’d love to know how you get on with this technique. Also, I’d be interested to know if you write and sketch for work or pleasure?

      Reply
  13. I recall reading Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance some years ago and was really struck by a passge where a mechanic was doing some welding and there was that perfect connection between the creator and the creation. I think Zen is about finding those things we have a passion about such that we can so deeply engage we literally become one with the task.

    Reply
  14. Exactly Peter, that’s a perfect example. I think that creative or practical endeavours lend themselves perfectly to the attainment of Zen, because of the symbiosis between creator and creation as you put it. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  15. Great post, Joel. I usually find my zen state these days in Taiji (t’ai chi). In the beginning stages of when I looked for that kind of peace, I found it in juggling. That was something I used to move from a state of fear and scarcity to a sense of wellness. It’s a big tent…room for all kinds of zen practitioners. :)

    Reply
    • Thanks Larry. I’ve just returned from living in China, and have witnessed the calming effects of T’ai chi. Juggling is a new one though! I’m sure if you’re able (unlike me) to keep the balls in the air for long enough, it’s an excellent way to achieve Zen ;)

      Reply
  16. Very impressive article. I shall email it to myself so that I can always have it. I’ve kept Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance since it was given to me in the early 80’s but your article was so easily understood. Thank you. I was extremely impressed by the brilliant and understanding you gave in response. Sincerely, ckfrederick

    Reply
    • Thanks Cynthia, that’s very kind. One of my favourite parts of the book, other than the message contained within, was the persistence that Pirsig demonstrated to get his work published. It was rejected by publishers 121 times, more than any other best selling book. Luckily, we’re still able to benefit from his teachings!

      Reply
  17. Excellent post, Joel. I think that Zen Buddhist monks would be annoyed by equating Zen with happiness because they know the popular concept of “happiness.” “I get what I want,” “I don’t have to think too much to get what I want,” “Getting what I want is the only thing that matters to me.”

    That kind of “happiness” is momentary and kind of delusional. It leads to dissatisfaction as one desire leads to another. Real happiness comes from being in touch with yourself and being confident that you handle the challenges that come your way. Your tips on meditation and living in the moment shine a light on how to achieve this balance.

    Reply
    • Hi Dave. You’re exactly right. There’s certainly a popularised definition of Zen, which has found a home in our culture of instant gratification. It takes work to uncover the true meaning of the word and find a place where its benefits are sustainable. Thanks for reading!

      Reply
  18. Hi Dave. You’re exactly right. There’s certainly a popularised definition of Zen, which has found a home in our culture of instant gratification. It takes work to uncover the true meaning of the word and find a place where its benefits are sustainable. Thanks for reading!

    Reply
  19. Hi joel.
    Zen sounds a lot like what I call
    peace of mind…for both the body and soul..
    which comes from reflections for the soul…. and very different from worldly happiness …which usually comes from.the fulfilment of physical desires.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your thoughts Richard. Indeed happiness seems to be a rather opaque saying these days, used in a broad range of contexts. It’s become a preoccupation in our quick fix culture, when perhaps deeper contemplation is required. Zen I think, fulfils that role.

      Reply
  20. Joel,

    Love your post. Yes, I think doing what you love and loving what you do is the heart of that book. Mindfulness as well. I have always believed that if you follow your excitement, you are following your soul’s path and practicing Zen in this way truly does that. Thanks for this!!!!

    Reply
    • Hi Susan, thanks for this. Following your passions is certainly a great way to incite Zen. I would encourage everyone who’s curious to start with an activity they’re excited about and slowly try to harness the same emotion in tasks they find unappealing. It can be a perception-altering exercise.

      Reply
      • Great suggestion Joel, to harness that same emotion in not so appealing tasks. I am going to try that today!!

        Reply
  21. I would have to say that I feel like I may have found my Zen but it is difficult to get to. A few years ago I discovered the world of ballroom dancing. After learning what I could in a basic class I took for about a year I dove in with all I had. I feel most in the moment when I’m dancing with someone who is at my level. You can’t be thinking about what you had for dinner or what you are going to do tomorrow because then you will miss the cues that your partner is giving you and the whole thing is ruined. Unfortunately I seem to have found an area that ballroom dancing is not common and I haven’t been able to dance for a year or two now. It’s terribly frustrating to have found this kind of inner peace and then lose it. I can only hope that once I’m done with school, I can find work somewhere that I can dance as well.

    Reply
    • Hi Katie, ballroom dancing is the perfect example of an activity that exemplifies Zen. The movement patterns are perfect for engaging the mind as well as the body. I sincerely hope you’re able to dance again soon. Thanks for sharing!

      Reply
  22. Thanks Joel, this was the most enjoyable article I’ve read on Change Blog so far. I’m a professional musician and my drumset teacher recently turned me on to practicing my instrument in a Zen state. He told me to play a very simple beat while focusing on breathing all the way in, and I mean allllllll the way, and then alllllll the way out, releasing all tension (and almost passing out the first couple times I tried). I always admired the musicians who made difficult concepts look so easy and with this Zen form of practicing I feel I am slowly turning into one of those musicians! Thanks again for the article, I hope my comment helps to enlighten your practice experience!

    Reply
    • Thanks Will, that’s really kind of you to say. I’m glad you’re finding your rhythm with the Zen practice. Music is the perfect vehicle for this approach as you can really get lost in the moment. Happy drumming!

      Reply
  23. Its a great write up Joel. I have been trying these from sometime now. I think I have been quite successful in following point 1-6 and still attempting 7,8 & 9.

    Thanks for the reiteration.

    Reply

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