Moments of Zen

A couple of weeks ago I listened to a podcast about zen moments. The podcast was also about cat burglars and included an entertaining collection of stories about cats who like to bring things home, including gloves, other people’s underwear and cooked legs of lamb.

But it was the zen moments which resonated with me. These were predominately ordinary actions or repetitive tasks which induced a sense of calm in people. The moments themselves varied quite considerably, and included the untangling of masses of electrical cords or looping up a long length of rope following abseiling, to the act of weeding and creating a sense of order by putting laundry away. The common element was focusing on the task at hand and finding a simple pleasure in creating order or establishing a working rhythm. A sense of calm was created in the mind and these tasks which might otherwise be seen as irritating or time-consuming instead contributed to a sense of well being.

Apart from the ordinariness of the actions, I was struck by how individual these responses were. What created a moment of calm in one person might seem inexplicable to the next. Perhaps it was the mindset applied to the task, or simply a sense that the task had to be done and approaching it with calm acceptance was better than to greet it with resistance and irritation.

This isn’t to say that there won’t be times when the feelings of zen-like calm fail to materialise but it is nice to know that there are instances in which they can appear, regardless of the mundanity of the task. For me, it is the repetitive, endless chores of washing up and hanging out laundry that come to mind, along with the sense of order that follows putting things away. Perhaps it is because there is little required of the mind in those moments apart from repeating actions that have been carried out so often they require little concentration and provide time in which the mind can be satisfied in the motions.

What creates a zen-like moment in your day?

[Photo: a single cloud skipping across the sky, also known to induce a zen-like moment]

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Writing Book Review: Still Life with Teapot by Brigid Lowry

I came across Still Life with Teapot by Brigid Lowry by chance. There was something about the byline: ‘on zen, writing and creativity’ that caught my interest. I downloaded the sample chapter and laughed and felt so comfortable with the writing style that I downloaded the book to travel along with me. Lowry is a New Zealand author who has been published in various genres and predominately in young adult fiction. She has taught writing extensively, lived in a Buddhist community for years and is a Zen practitioner. There is a link to more about her work here.

The book is divided into three sections: on zen and creativity, writing, and memoir. Each section offers a wealth of riches. The book has a conversational tone, an honesty and simplicity that resonated for me. Lowry is a journal keeper, and as my stash of books filled with words and thoughts continues to grow, I felt I was in good company. It was like reading a book written by a kindred spirit. Lowry writes of how truth, or our perception of it, isn’t always reliable:  ‘Our lives are not solid. They are stories that twist over time. Cobwebs, smoke, mirrors. Fictional accounts, not facts.’ 

I also loved how she collects random facts, amongst other things: ‘… I collect teacups, old postcards, neurotic friends, recipes, scarves and decent pens.’ These lists of facts were a delight, and Lowry paid homage to The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, which in itself is an inspiration. I have a copy on my shelves and there is much to enjoy including lists of ‘nothing annoys me so much’ and ‘things that should be short’.  Lowry’s list of disappointing things: ‘Missing the train. Some haircuts. A phone that stops ringing just as you pick it up. Dry, tasteless mandarins.’

There is a depth to her writing, particularly in relation to zen as a way of life. This had echoes of Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, which is noted in the reading list. The depth required by zen is identified: ‘Zen, like art, calls us to attention. It asks us to slow down, to allow, to be still.’

The portrayal of a writing life is given with grace and humour, but also with the reality of frustrations, doubts and loneliness that can come with the act of creating in isolation. The section on writers festivals was entertaining and informative to see what it is like from the other side. The art of creativity is illuminated in a myriad of ways, including the gathering of material in books and journals which will ferment and, if alchemy occurs, take form in stories, poems and narratives. Above all there is a deep respect for the process itself.

Memoir is the final section of the book and it is moving and emotional, devastating and uplifting. Stories and the act of invention are seen as the ‘creative road to healing’.

For me there was much to enjoy in this book as a writer and a person interested in creative pursuits, as well as looking for a life with a deeper sense of meaning. It is a book that has stayed in my thoughts in recent weeks, and will be one of the books that I return to when I need solace, some grounding, or to revel in pleasurable writing.

Have you read any books lately that have inspired your creativity?

[Photo: sculpture honouring Lithgow Pottery as part of Lithgow History Avenue]