Zen Wisdom in Times of Crisis

Zen Buddhism is a way of being, charting the path to understanding and enlightenment through detachment from the mind using meditation, koans, and activities.  Being Zen or practicing Zen helps reduce anxiety about life in this world, especially when faced with crisis, trauma, or depression.

Zen wisdom is a tool anyone can use to help settle the mind and soul in times of disruption and chaos and keep the mind and soul healthy in times of peace and stability.  This article will explore Zen wisdom and present some tools you can use to help you when you feel anxious and overwhelmed by worry.

Finding Your Zen

Finding your Zen describes centering in a specific moment as well as reaching your optimum alignment with life regarding your relationships, work, and participation in society.  A Zen moment or Zen state of mind is calm, clear, and steady.

Trauma workers find their Zen in moments of crisis. Athletes find their Zen when they are “in the zone” during a game or competition.  Any of us can find our Zen when we realize that all of life is a construct of consciousness and intersubjectivity among all the consciousnesses past and present that have contributed to our current existence.

Finding your Zen in relationships occurs when you know the deep truth of each relationship and attune yourself to that truth without expectation, fear, or anxiety.  You figure out what they are and “let them be”.  Finding your Zen regarding work and your role in society means finding and living your purpose with contentment in your soul.

Books on Zen Buddhism

If you search the term Zen Buddhism on Amazon, limiting the search to “books”, you will get over 10,000 results.  The books that appear at the beginning of the list are the ones that are the most popular and some of the best:

  • Zen Mind, Beginner Mind by Shunryu Suzuki
  • The Way of Zen by Alan Watts
  • An Introduction to Zen Buddhism by D. T. Suzuki and Carl Jung

One of my personal favorites, which, unfortunately, is out-of-print is Zen Speaks: Shouts of Nothingness by Tsai Chih Chung, translated by Brian Bruya. Here is a page from the book, which is done using comic strip cartoon storytelling:

Zen Speaks Page 55

Two well-known books explain Zen thought and practice through archery and motorcycle maintenance: Zen and the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel, R. F. C. Hull, et al and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M Pirsig.  Both books are enjoyable to read and effectively convey the concept and practices of Zen.

Another excellent book is the Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh, who has written many books on the subject and has an insightful way of communicating Zen principles.  Any of these books will provide you with the necessary knowledge about Zen Buddhism.

The Koan

The Koan a paradoxical anecdote or riddle, used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and to provoke enlightenment.  When I used to teach critical thinking to college students, I would often use this Zen Koan to demonstrate the limits of thinking and the traps of perception.  It goes like this:

A student is sitting in a meditation class.  The master/teacher approaches the student with a stick and says, “if you speak, I will strike you; if you do not speak, I will strike you.”

I would then ask my students what they should do, what is the answer?  Some would say, take off running.  To which I would say, “the master is faster than you think, and you will get struck”.  Some would say, it’s impossible not to get struck.  Every so often one student would figure it out and say, “I would reach up and take the stick from the master.”

The key to the Koan is the belief that you cannot take action “against” the master, but that is exactly what the Koan wants you to understand.  There is nothing keeping you from taking the stick, but your thinking traps you, and you believe the problem is unsolvable.

Another, less “ideal” answer, but perhaps no less “Zen” would be to tell the master where you would like to be struck while you are speaking; or, in your silence, you point at the stick and point at a place on your body where you prefer to be struck.  In some way, you must keep yourself from “being at the mercy” or the problem, which is key to Zen Buddhist awareness.

How Does Zen Wisdom help in a Crisis?

As you may be able to surmise, reaching a level of Zen wisdom, even if only in a certain circumstance can be immensely helpful to avoid the fear and anxiety that comes with the unknown, or with known suffering.  There is a classic Zen saying that purports that “all suffering is the result of unmet expectations”.  Further embedded in the comment is the fact that you cannot change some circumstances or some people, but you can change your expectations.

At the moment, and in the crisis of COVID, there are many frustrations to “get back to normal”, or fix the problem quickly, because many of our most cherished expectations have been significantly disrupted and are likely to remain so until a new normal establishes.  If we shift our expectations to the possibilities that COVID will persist, even beyond the arrival of a vaccine, and with permanent changes to our social order, we may discover that we can feel more settled much more quickly.

In another article, I have written about the 5 stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  Zen wisdom promotes acceptance as the starting point when a powerful change occurs in our lives.  Perhaps a parent or child dies unexpectedly, or we discover our partner cheating on us.  Zen wisdom would search for acceptance first and foremost, which can bring us to a new state of equilibrium much faster.

For Zen Buddhism, the mind and our thinking are a source of difficulty and challenge, which is why detachment, no matter how long or short, can help us recenter when we need to, especially during a crisis.  If you are feeling overwhelmed by current circumstances, then I do recommend getting any of the books listed above or studying Zen through a teacher.  You will likely find it is a powerful way of being, which will help you navigate any crisis.


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Philip Young, PhD

I am a spiritual adviser located in Cary, North Carolina. I earned my PhD in English from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 1996 and had a career in academics until 2007, when I retired to become a stay-at-home father. In 2013 I “hung out my shingle” starting my business Black Unykorn Enterprises, LLC. I provide spiritual guidance using different tools: astrology, tarot/oracle cards, numerology, and past life regression (using muscle testing). With a home office, Zoom, WeChat, and WhatsApp, I work with local clients in person and distance clients from around the world. You can read about my practice and contact me through my website: https://www.blackunykorn.com.

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