Skip to content

How “zazen” can bring the power of meditation to your workday life

Take a seat. Take a breath. Take a break.
Adobe Stock / royyimzy / Big Think / Vincent Romero
Key Takeaways
  • Zen is a Japanese word for meditation, and it’s common in all forms of Buddhism but is given primary placement in Zen Buddhism.
  • Zazen is a kind of meditation which requires you to sit and appraise your thoughts.
  • Here we look at three ways the wisdom and the act of zazen can enrich our workplace lives.

Take a moment to appreciate sitting down.

Find a good place and take a seat. Make sure your head and spine are straight but not stiff. Gently tuck your chin in. Shift your pelvis so you’re not slouching forward, but keep your chest from sticking out. Have you done it? It might feel uncomfortable. Most of us aren’t used to sitting this way, and old, forgotten muscles often have a point to make. But if you can, stay here for a moment. Let your mind go wherever it wants. Become aware of the sitting and this alone.

Welcome to the Zen practice of “zazen,” or meditative sitting. It’s an everyday act of calm and contemplation that can transform even the most stressful of days.

Just sit it

The word “zen” has mysterious, new-age connotations, but it’s simply a Japanese translation of “ch’an,” which means meditation. While most schools of Buddhism do some form of meditation, Zen is the branch that places the focus mostly, even exclusively, on it. Some Buddhists might focus more on ritual, textual analysis, or diet, for instance. But most Buddhists practice Zen. An analogy might be with Christian “Baptists” — most Christians baptize, but Baptists place it at their center.

Zen Buddhism, then, is about meditation. It’s when we meditate that we can access what Zen calls “sudden enlightenment.” This is the idea that we all have the potential to reach enlightenment in this world, but it just needs unlocking.

We can, broadly, identify three types of Zen. The first is mindfulness of breathing. The second is to reflect on a kōan, or paradoxical statement, like “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” The third is known as “zazen,” which means “just sitting.” Zazen does not ask us to focus on any particular thing. It’s literally just about sitting. It’s to appreciate the simplicity of the act. It’s to not will yourself somewhere else, but to bathe in the moment of sitting down. In your mind, continue to take in all the sights and sounds around you. Do not deny or force any thoughts. Let them come and go as usual. But you must do nothing else but sit.

Anything and everything that comes to you during zazen is yours. It might be a moment of stillness, or it might be a gem of wisdom. If you’re really lucky, it might be “sudden enlightenment.” Like a lot of Buddhism, zazen is best understood by trying. So, give it a try. It’s probably the simplest thing you can do, but it might have a huge effect.

Buddha in the boardroom

The beauty of zazen is that it requires very little: just you and a hard surface. So we can use zazen in many settings and in many ways. Here are three applications of zazen to the workplace.

Find the space. Sometimes, a day in the office can feel like a high-intensity workout. It means sprinting between meetings, frantically typing out emails, and trying to message your friend that you can’t make lunch. In the frenetic pace of the workplace, taking moments to simply sit and breathe can create a buffer against stress. Just as in zazen, where each breath is a return to the present, use these pauses to reset your focus. In 2017, a study introduced mindfulness-based interventions for Scandinavian bank employees, and it was proven to reduce stress and improve sleep quality. There are pauses in the day, however fleeting. Learn to practice zazen during them.

Watch the thoughts come and go. An important point in most forms of meditation is to unjudgmentally appraise your thoughts and let them go. Imagine you are on a bench, watching your thoughts drive by. The Zen mindset is about approaching situations with openness, eagerness, and a lack of preconceptions, much as a beginner would. This can apply in two ways. First, in a business meeting, try to adopt a “first principles” position as much as you can. Forget how it’s always been and examine the facts or the presentation with the detached serenity of a yogi. Want to learn more about how to be more open to new ideas? Well, Big Think+ can help. Here we have Shane Snow, co-founder of Contently, exploring four factors essential to open-mindedness.

Break it up. The point of Zen, and zazen especially, is to take a break. It’s to find the stillness in your chair and the calm in good posture. It’s the very act of pausing life that makes zazen so beneficial. Earlier this year, Big Think talked to bestselling author and neuroscientist Tali Sharot about breaking habits. Sharot told us that it’s been reported often that when people break a task up — even something like listening to a song — they enjoy it more. When work is overwhelming or just some smothering, smoggy boredom, take a break. Going on holiday lets you appreciate home all the more. Breaking up a task makes it easier to manage.

Unlock potential in your business

Learn how Big Think+ can empower your people.
Request a Demo