Peeling Potatoes: Zen Meditation

American pop culture has embraced the word Zen as an adjective to convey serenity or simplicity. “I am so Zen. This guy cut right in front of me in line at Starbucks and I just smiled and told him I liked his shirt.” Perhaps you have one of those novelty trays of sand for your desk with a tiny rake and a few stones: a “Zen Rock Garden”. The mainstream perception of “Zen” makes some sense, though its true essence is far more complex in it’s simplicity than its common use suggests.

Zen is a school of Buddhism that developed in China during the 6th century, and later spread to Japan, Korea and Viet Nam. It emphasizes the attainment of enlightenment through direct, personal insight into Buddhist teachings, rather than through the study of scriptures and doctrines. As the great philosopher, speaker and self-described Zennist, Alan Watts said, “Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.”

The focus of Zen is finding spirituality by discovering the self in the ordinary, dropping illusion and seeing things without distortion created by your own thoughts: “Sun is warm. Grass is green.” Though the true and full practice of Zen involves working individually with a master teacher in the confines of a monastery, the essense of Zen can be incorporated through the practice of Zazen.


Zazen literally means “seated meditation” and is a focused investigation into the nature of the self by subtly abandoning anything that resists the simplicity of just being.

  1. Body Position: Settle into the stillness of a seated Buddha position with an upright spine and a slight curve at the base of the spine, assisted by a cushion that subtly tilts the pelvis eliminating any strain. Gently fold the legs so the knees touch the floor and create a stable triangular base. Hands can be held in “cosmic mudra” as pictured.
  2. Facial Postion: Gazing 2-3 feet in front of you, keep the eyes mostly covered by the lids, lessening the need for frequent blinking. Gently press the tongue on the roof of the mouth and swallow once, creating a seal that will lessen the need for frequent swallowing. The chin is slightly tucked in.
  3. Breathing: Breathing naturally and through the nose, begin stabilizing the mind by counting the breaths up to ten. Then begin again. At first, count each inhalation and exhalation separately. When you are able to stay with the counting without drifting and repeat it several times, start counting each pair of inhalation and exhalation as a pair. Eventually you will be able to abandon the counting altogether and just be with the breath.

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