Having practiced Zen most of my life, I feel blessed to have this spiritual path of practice. It is my firm conviction that Zen can be translated into the West in such a way that it is made more accessible to everyone, regardless of religion, belief or culture. I have started this blog as an inquiry into the nature of living a Zen-inspired lifestyle. What would that look like and how might it help us address many of the pressing problems we face in our world today? Every day people act in unethical ways, and in the face of clear evidence to the contrary, they often make short-sighted decisions. And people that act in ethical ways, contributing to the well-being of others often find themselves burnt out and exhausted.
How can living a Zen-inspired lifestyle help us find a moral compass in the wilderness of this world? And how can living a Zen-inspired life help those of us who are trying to do the right thing, but find ourselves spent and exhausted at the end of the day?
Living a Zen-inspired life of openness, empathy and clarity is something we need in our world today. The beauty of Zen is that it doesn't depend on any one religion. It's strength lies in it's radical inclusiveness. And though this spiritual path accommodates everyone, it's practice is not vague nor general but always specific and concrete.
Just having good intentions in not enough. We need real, practical wisdom that helps us co-create together the world we want to live in. This is challenging when we are ourselves, stressed out, and the magnitude of the problems we face are staggering and unprecedented. Take the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico. While our anger and outrage is understandable, living a Zen-inspired life style can help us get beyond that. There's plenty of blame to go around but at the end of the day, how are we going to work together to solve this problem?
Margaret Wheatley recently wrote that our anger and aggression that results from our sense of urgency and panic is itself a source of toxin that prevents us from thinking clearly about solutions to this problem. She writes, "Think about what happens to us and our relationships when we feel a sense of urgency. We work harder and harder, we push our plans and agendas, we shove aside or disdain anyone with an alternative plan or point of view."
Without the kind of inner life Zen can provide, we are helpless in the face of our own irritation and anger. It's so easy to blame others, but so much harder to overcome our own aggression in order to communicate and listen to others.
At the Zen Life & Meditation Center our spiritual practice is grounded in mindfulness meditation. This simple meditation introduces into our lives a still point of silence that is not affected by our usually busy thoughts and concerns. Cultivating this hub of awareness can help us be stable but not rigid – flexible but not chaotic – resilient but not stubborn.
Parker Palmer, who has done so much to advance a clear agenda for improving our educational system, says that burn out is a real problem for teachers in our schools. 50% of those entering public education will be gone within 5 years. This is because schools as institutions of learning don't often provide a culture that nurtures growth and learning for teachers. And if they aren't growing and learning, how can we expect them to teach children to do the same?
He sites a study by Anthony Bryk and Barbara Schneider on school reform in Chicago that was done in the early 1990's. The study asked why some schools do better than others in teaching, reading, writing and math. They found that having money, in-service training or even state-of-the-art curriculum did not make any real difference. What made a significant difference was a variable they called "relational trust". If a school had high levels of relational trust among student and teachers, among administrators and teachers, among teacher and parents, the chance of raising student performance over a 10 year period increased dramatically.
At the Zen Life & Meditation Center part of our core curriculum teaches Nonviolent Communication. This language skill set can help us learn to approach conflict and disagreements with a higher degree of skill that can transform what are often devastating disagreements into opportunities for growth and learning. This kind of pro-active communication builds trust in interpersonal relationships. I believe this is what a Zen-inspired lifestyle looks like. It is a lifestyle that leads to increased clarity and compassion that can calmly go about the business of healing ourselves and this world we all share together.
© 2010, Roshi Robert Althouse