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Five ways to become more Zen

Whether it's social anxiety about lockdown ending, or panic that it's not coming soon enough, a new book claims the ancient art of Zen will see us through. Ready to try it?

Zen, for most of us, is a distant concept – a Buddha on a mountain top. But with stress and depression at an all time high in this unprecedented situation, we need to try new strategies to cope and stay happy.

In her new book, The Little Book of Zen, Émile Marini explains the mystique of Zen and how to achieve it. All you need is a raisin or two apparently (and no, not a whole bunch crushed into a wine bottle – seriously, you lot!). OK Émile, what do we need to do to calm our souls?

1/ Consider a raisin

Hold some raisins in your hand. Now imagine – really, as hard as you can – that you have never seen a raisin before. You have no idea what’s in your hand. One at a time, I want you to bring each of your senses to bear on the raisin: look, touch, sound, smell, taste. What does it look like? What does its skin look like? How big is it? How does it feel in your hand? Does it have a smell? What does it taste like? What does it feel like in your mouth? Eat the raisin mindfully, slowly, with concentration. Really focus your mind on this raisin, as if you’re preparing a report for someone else who has also never eaten a raisin. Take your time. Don’t let your mind wander off topic: tell me about the raisin.

2/ Read the story about the overflowing teacup

Once there was a rich man who had everything he could possibly need. There was nothing he could not buy, and he was used to getting everything he wanted, and everything his own way. One day he heard of a great Zen master, and went to him. ‘Open my mind to enlightenment,’ he told the Zen master. ‘Teach me.’ He was, remember, used to getting everything he wanted. He was used to getting things his own way.

The master smiled, told the man to sit down and called for tea. When the tea was served, the master set a cup before the rich man and began to pour. The master kept pouring. He kept pouring, and the tea came up to the rim of the cup and over the rim. ‘You’re spilling it,’ said the rich man, but the master kept pouring, and the tea came onto the table. ‘What are you doing?’ said the rich man, but the master kept pouring and the tea flooded the table.

‘The cup is full!’ cried the rich man. ‘Stop! Stop pouring!’ But the master did not stop, and the tea spilled onto the expensive robes of the rich man. ‘Can’t you see the cup is full?’ cried the rich man. ‘What are you doing?’ ‘You are the cup,’ said the master, still smiling. ‘You are the cup, so full that nothing more can be added. Come back to me with an empty mind, and I can teach you.’

3/ Learn how to sit

Asanam is fairly simple: like zazen, it means seat, and sitting. We tend to sit cross-legged when we meditate. We do this because it’s the most stable posture. Feel free to use a cushion or a folded blanket here to stabilize your position. Have your eyes open, and your gaze soft; turn your palms out to the universe, to show, even just to yourself, that you’re ready to receive what it wants to bring you. Sthira means steadiness and being able to stay as we are for a long time: finding a way of being that allows us to sit, as we did with the raisin exercise.

What it means practically is that we shouldn’t sit somewhere where we’re going to be interrupted. Sukham is translated as ‘a space of ease’. When we sit in this way, we sit in a long tradition of people attempting to find clarity the whole world over, for thousands of years. We form part of a vast chain of human connection, all striving for something more than themselves.

4/ Breathe

Sit comfortably, as above, and bring your shoulders back. Try to make your shoulder blades kiss a little in the middle and engage your core muscles. Be as still as you can. Breathe normally. Observe your breath – ask yourself: How does the breath feel in my mouth and my nose? How about in my chest? How does the breath feel in my lungs? Is it reaching every part of my lungs, or just the top? How does the breath feel in my throat? Is it cold or hot?

5/ Acceptance

We have only now, and we have to live in it. We can only change how we respond to this ever-changing world: to follow our breath, to sit in peace and ease, to accept that joy and pain are two sides of the same coin, and to see that every day is a good day, if we let it be.

The Little Book of Zen by Émile Marini is published by Octopus Books

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