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How is Zen Meditation Beneficial to Mental Health
By | April 13th, 2022 | Newsletter

April 2022 Newsletter

Dear members, 

A survey published last week showed that 84% of Americans report feeling stressed weekly, and one out of six being stressed every day. When we are stressed and overwhelmed by work, financial concerns, family life or social obligations, we tend to look for ways to do or be more. In this month’s Newsletter we highlight an opposite approach which in the last decades has become more popular in the Western world: the Zen philosophy. 

Buddhism, originating in India in the fifth century B.C. and being transferred to China in the early part of the sixth century A.D., became highly popular and eventually spread to Japan, where it was embraced and identified as the term Zen Buddhism. Zen, which means sitting meditation, is derived from a transliteration of the Chinese word chán, which was in turn a transliteration of the Sanskrit term dhyāna, referring as meditative practice that requires deep mental concentration. In early Indian Buddhism, a deepened state of meditation was singled out as one of the three components of study a Buddhist was required to master, the other two being an observation of ethical precepts and an embodiment of nondiscriminatory wisdom. 

Seated meditation, called za-zen, is central in Zen buddhism. It derives from the historical Buddha achieving enlightenment through the practice of meditation. There are basically two methods utilized in Zen, focused attention and open attention: 
– Focused attention: as its name suggests, it focuses on one thing. It stabilizes the mind by focusing it on a specific point such as the breath, a mantra, a part of the body, a visualization, etc. 
– Open attention places the person in the present moment. It observes thoughts without judgment and lets them go as they come. 

Zen is not an ideology and not even a religion, but it is more a way of living. The purpose of meditation is not about emptying the mind or not thinking, nor is it about silencing thoughts or emotions. It brings attention back to the present and brings clarity, calm, and kindness, both to ourselves and to others. Zen aims at the perfection of personhood by helping to anchor yourself in the here and now, regardless of what is going on around and within you. 

The benefits of Zen meditation are closely tied to the practice of breathing. The autonomic nervous system is so-called because it functions independently of our will. Zen breathing is a shift from unconscious, involuntary breathing to conscious, voluntary deep breathing. Generally speaking, Zen does not recommend any complicated, strenuous breathing exercises as in yoga. Since nerves are bundled in the upper part of the abdominal cavity, it recommends abdominal breathing exercise in order to stimulate this bundle and stills the mind. Ordinarily, we are told to control our emotion by exercising our will. Meditation practice suggest that with proper body posture and breathing we can learn to adjust the mind and disengage from the concerns of daily life. 

It requires practice and guidance to meditate properly. However, here are a few tips for the ones who are not familiar with Zen meditation and want to get started: 
– adjust your body by taking an upright and balanced posture. 
– concentrate on your breath and come back to it every time your mind goes for a walk. If you have trouble staying focused, you can count your breaths from 1 to 10. Once you get used to following your breath, you can give up counting. 
– thoughts and emotions will distract you. When you notice something, acknowledge it. By recognizing your thoughts, you recognize the movements of your mind. Meditation trains your mind to stay focused and fully present. 
– start with short sessions (2 or 5 minutes) and gradually increase. 

Ideally, meditation should be part of a set of habits nurturing a healthy mind-body condition, together with a proper diet and appropriate physical exercise. The recent popularity of meditation certainly spawns from a need for experience in emotional and intellectual levels and a desire for liberation from obsession with self-affirmation or materialism which are often main sources of stress in our daily life. As physical and mental health derive directly from the feeling of happiness and well-being, a holistic approach shall be privileged to improve health. 


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