Zencast: Zen meditation and the North Shore

Find some Zen with scenes from the North Shore

A copper colored waterfall.
Meditate with scenes from the North Shore.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

With Minnesota’s stay-at-home order extended until May 4, we’re all finding our lives changed, disrupted and paused in any number of ways.

Despite orders to stay in place, it can still be difficult to find a sense of stillness with the constant flow of news, especially if we live with others or work in an essential field.

Ben Connelly is a Soto Zen and secular mindfulness teacher based at the Minneapolis Zen Meditation Center. He teaches classes focusing on things from addiction recovery to police training. We spoke about how to bring some Zen practices into your life during the COVID-19 pandemic. This has been shortened and edited for clarity.

Watch the video above for a short guided meditation.

What is Zen meditation and how does it work?

Zen meditation is practicing being where you are in the way that is most beneficial to yourself and everyone. What that usually looks like is sitting in an upright posture and usually focusing on the breathing, and letting the attention to the breathing help you be more aware of your own body, your own feelings, be more aware of your surroundings, your sensory experience and your mind.

Zen is a sect of Buddhism that originated in China about 1,500 years ago.

How can we incorporate it into our daily lives?

In Zen, we focus on sitting meditation practice. A very simple approach to drawing attention into the body and the senses. In our Soto Zen school, I’m a Soto Zen priest, we emphasize wholehearted activity. That is doing simple tasks, or actually any tasks with your whole attention and your whole heart, and letting go of a focus on an outcome.

One of the ways it’s often used is things like cleaning, sweeping. There are a lot of famous Zen stories about Zen masters sweeping the floor. Cooking, washing the dishes. Because it’s hard to focus in this way sometimes when you're doing something that’s very intellectually engaging. We actively say, “now I'm going to clean, and I’m just going to put all my attention into doing this. And I don’t have [to] think about something else or focus on when it’s going to get done.”

I can just be like, this is what it’s like for me to be doing this right now, washing the dishes or cleaning. Finding some simplicity. As a Zen teacher we’re trying to make space for everyone to process all their difficult feelings during this pandemic. But also to say as Zen students or practitioners, you have a great opportunity because you are sequestered and can take advantage of slowing down.

Are there any ways to practice together? Or any Zen wisdom on having more patience for people that we may be spending a lot of time with?

You know, the best bet is to focus on doing this starting inward — your body and your feelings — and then just practice really deeply hearing and seeing the people in your house. So it's very easy to start walking past each other or when you're near each other, you're kind of caught in your ideas about what the other person is. Take those opportunities. You just pause and just see what's going on with the person. And they may be: “I'm tired of being with you.” You can just be: “That's what that person feels.” So you just practice tuning your whole attention to the other person without trying to get something out of that. And then it's like a little connection opens up.

But you don't have to do a specific thing. I mean, it's great to, you know, play games and do stuff together. It's great to meditate together, but not everyone wants to do it. So if they want to do it, that's great. But you can just focus on how I am right now and just practice, like when someone turns to me and says something, I'm going to give them all of my attention right now.

How can Zen help us deal with the social isolation we’re all experiencing?

The sense of alienation from the world is one of the fundamentals of Buddhist thinking, as one of the drivers of all of our suffering. So a little bit paradoxically, one of the things we do is focus on the body and our feelings. So we turn the light inward and we practice connecting with ourselves. And by my feelings, I don't mean what you think about your feelings, but actually just the feelings. From that strengthened connection, we open up and try and connect with what's going on.

So definitely you want to look for ways to actually connect with other human beings right now. But we live in changed conditions. Basically, you can find ways to feel connected to anything. One of the best ways to do that is to focus less on trying to get something from it or control it or get rid of it. All of that makes you feel alienated from it. So if you just connect with yourself, that will help you feel more connected in general and that will make you better able to connect with other people.

You teach meditation focusing on overcoming addiction and living in recovery, how can Zen help people experiencing these things get through this?

I came to Zen meditation principally because I had a pretty long history with addiction and mental illness and I was suffering a whole lot. So I was looking for a means to be well. I used many of [those means] and still do, including recovery groups and yoga. And I used to do psychotherapy for years. But part of that was meditation. And meditation brought me to Zen because I found that people in Zen practice were really committed to and knowledgeable and good at supporting meditation practice.

A lot of the things that I've been saying before still stand, but for recovering people, the relationship, the human relationship component is so fundamental and so just find it.

Keep looking for means to find a connection. You know, there are lots of online meetings. It's not the same as being there in person, but nothing is more powerful than that. Find shared peer support for working on your liberation and your healing.