When anxiety and stress hits, it can be hard not to let overthinking get the better of you. However, I came across a great piece of advice from Zen master Shunryu Suzuki that could help us all.
If you’ve ever tried to control your thoughts, you’ve probably realized that more thoughts seem to arise. It’s almost like putting out fire with fire, even though it seems like the logical thing to do.
The strategy Zen master Shunry Suzuki recommends
Zen master Shunry Suzuki says that “if you want to obtain perfect calmness in your [practice], you should not be bothered by the various images you find in your mind. Let them come and let them go. Then they will be under control.”
The teaching is direct – we simply watch our thoughts, giving them plenty of room. We don’t try to control or shove them aside. Instead of treating them like we were the thought police, we instead act like a more casual observer.
This advice is echoed from Zen master Annamalai Swami:
“If you can be continuously aware of each thought as it rises, and if you can be so indifferent to it that it doesn’t sprout or flourish, you are well on the way to escaping from the entanglements of mind.”
The underlying principle we need to adopt
According to Sazuki, the underlying key is to accept change:
“Without accepting the fact that everything changes, we cannot find perfect composure. But unfortunately, although it is true, it is difficult for us to accept it. Because we cannot accept the truth of transiency, we suffer.”
Everything changes, it’s the fundamental law of the universe. Yet, we find it hard to accept it. We identify strongly with our fixed appearance, with our body and our personality. And when it changes, we suffer.
However, Sazuki says we can overcome this by recognizing that the contents of our minds are in perpetual flux. Everything about consciousness comes and goes. Realizing this in the heat of the moment can diffuse fear, anger, grasping, despair. For example, it’s hard to stay angry when you see anger for what it is. This is why Zen teach that the moment is all that exists.
Sazuki says: “Whatever you do, it should be an expression of the same deep activity. We should appreciate what we are doing. There is no preparation for something else”
The point of Zen practice
Zen practice is to appreciate each action with our full being. The whole point – the essence of Suzuki’s teaching – is to express our simple human nature in daily life. “We just think with our whole mind, and see things as they are without any effort,” said the great Zen master. “Just to see, and to be ready to see things with our whole mind, is [Zen] practice.”