zen, not Zen

Piping Plover chick - Sandy Hook in Highlands, New Jersey.

To stop burying my head in the sand, to stand on my own two feet and to be consciously vulnerable. To be alert, listening and watching without thoughts. To breathe the change, mostly in silence. Such is my intention now.

Almost two years ago, I started a blog called ZenPlan. It was not about Zen Buddhism nor was it about planning. I combined the two words and chose that name to create a tension and to encapsulate what I was most interested in at the time.  Namely, being present, direct perception, intention, focus and spending my time wisely.

The main influence for starting writing a blog was an article by Leo Babauta entitled “Why You Should Write Daily”. I later came to appreciate his simple style and decided to emulate some of his writing. In many ways, Leo Babauta encourages people to use his ideas and he is a great believer in the concept of ‘uncopyright‘. Like him, I am also interested by some of the insights of Zen Buddhism but prefer not writing about religious teachings or meditation techniques. We all have many influences and it is valuable to acknowledge them, yet it is equally important to learn to find one’s voice and to communicate authentically. Is it possible to write freshly about old questions, about something someone else has already chewed on? Language, thoughts, ideas all come from the past but can take a life of their own once they are breathed upon with an alert mind. I also like paradoxes, for they can destabilise our reasoning. They can provoke a temporary blank. This is what I mean by zen, not Zen.

Last May, when I launched this present blog, as well as writing new material, I decided to rewrite almost all the old entries from the ZenPlan blog. It was interesting to revisit the posts that I wrote when I was in Bali. It was like reading letters from an old friend and to my surprise I found them stimulating and happy to share them again.

I am now ready to let go of Leo Babauta’s influence and of zen for that matter. My current enquiry is concerned with freeing the mind from thought and focusing on attention. Nonchalantly,  I could call it Thoughtless, not thoughtless!


Photo: Ray Hennessy


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All we need is…

All we need

All we need is desire!

Really? Surely not. Isn’t desire both the creator and destroyer of love? What is desire anyway? Either latent or active, some suggest that it is the unwavering spark of life. Others claim that it is the voice of the ego and therefore it should be tamed or even gotten rid of.  Whatever it is, we have all experienced it and understanding it, I believe, is key to our well-being.

It is very difficult to look at a desire, actually and factually, for it tends to be emotionally loaded and when active it tends to take over our discerning faculties. Commonly, we focus on the object of desire, not its source or how it manifests itself. A desire often feels like an urge or an itch that needs to be acted upon. The usual reaction is to either be led by the desire or to judge it, to condemn it or to repress it. Both approaches are reactions which don’t help us understand the nature of desire, but I wonder if it is possible to watch it and to pause. This is where mindfulness becomes very useful.

While practicing, I have observed that I had two types of impulses linked to desire. One which is triggered by the real world and my senses and one which is triggered by memory. Without labelling them as good or bad, I have noticed that the former opened doors while the latter tended to close them.

Let me take an example. Imagine that you find yourself in front of a waterfall, it is beautiful and inviting – you have the desire to go under it and to experience its strength and the pool that it has created. This desire may help you to overcome your initial apprehension and to go out of your comfort zone and experience something new. There may be another desire, which is to re-live the sensation and pleasure that you might have experienced under another waterfall. In this second instance, your desire may prevent you from fully enjoying the present situation.

Understanding the nature of desire is complex, but the more one looks at it without judgement the easier it is to stop turning it into a problem. In fact, desires offer opportunities to understand ourselves and many desires are guided by love. Our thoughts and possessive nature can also create desires but with the right attention, one can detect them.

Maybe, all we need is awareness!


Photo: Jeffery Workman

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Cloud watching

cloud watching

When we are in a good mood, we tend to have a greater perspective on events in our lives and are overall more resilient. We are ready to take more risks, and we don’t take things too personally. Conversely, when we are in a bad mood, everything seems much worse, and the smallest bump on the road can become a source of irritation. In tempestuous emotional states, we are even capable of causing harm to people we love.  Seeing how impactful our moods are, there is a natural desire to be more in control of our them.

Nevertheless, it is important to understand that moods are not easily controllable. Bottling up anger or frustration, for example, is asking for trouble. What we can do, though, is not feed them and try to release them. In the same way, as thoughts can be seen and let go of during meditation, we can watch our feelings and circumstances without being caught by them. It requires a little practice, but it is possible.

An image that is often used to help us visualise the process is cloud watching. With the right attention, we can look at what is coming our way as if it were clouds. I was reading about this last night and wondered if the practice would be made easier by actually looking at the sky. Living in England and not far from the sea, I have the advantage of the erratic British weather. A little word of warning, for those of us who are a little impatient it does not work very well when the sky is still! No matter – the act of looking up and gazing far above our heads can help us to change perspective.

Looking at clouds is often associated with children, poets, dreamers and carefree people – but it does not have to be. It does not hurt anybody to take a little break and look up. The sky is a great reminder that everything moves – even when things appear still. The worry or current problem that may overwhelm us currently will lift and pass by.

There is an important difference that is worth exploring between the real sky and our internal sky. The former is entirely out of our control, while the latter is often used as a screen or a lens on which we project our mind movies. In other words, a part of us is responsible for clouding our consciousness with old thoughts and feelings. The more we get caught in the drama that is played, the harder it will be to watch our current thinking. Internal cloud watching is best done without any screens, filters or tinted glass.

When caught in a mental tease is it possible to take a ten-minute break and practice cloud watching? First, if you can, observe the real sky and watch the movement or the vastness of it all. Then, look at the internal sky, the movement of your thoughts without being caught by them. Try to detect the projector and switch it off if you can. The problems won’t be solved, but a change of perspective and perhaps a shift in mood may occur.

Remember that life may bring some dark clouds, but everything is in constant motion, and we can expect most things to pass. Being good at watching the clouds can help us clear our inner skies.


One sentence journal – day 12:
“Going through family pictures on a computer is frustrating, pleasant, moving and also disconcerting. ”

This blog is part of a renewed 42-day writing challenge inspired by Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits Book.
Photo: Iren Petrova


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Five twenty-five


Despite being constant, time is an elusive commodity. One way to harness it to your advantage is through attention and focus. I have adopted a technique that is helping me to get both mindful and focused like never before. I call it Five Twenty-five.

It is a hybrid version of the Pomodoro time-management technique. Put simply; the Pomodoro technique is a way of breaking down time into twenty-five minutes chunks with a five-minute break to help us focus our full attention on one task at a time. I have been aware of this technique for about four years, but only started to use it more frequently last year when I was in Bali.

At the time, I was also exploring mindfulness, and I decided to combine short moments of relaxation with focused Pomodoro sessions. Instead of taking a five-minute break after a stretch of uninterrupted work, I decided to take it before. I had the luxury of working from home where I could lie down anytime I choose to. I started my five-minute session by sitting or lying down and letting go of everything. I soaked the moment and let thoughts float by like clouds in the sky. Then the timer would ring, and I would focus on only one task for twenty-five minutes. If I finished it before the time was up, I would turn my attention to the present moment. The light, the air, the sounds , my posture…  When the timer rang  before I was finished, I would work on it a little more to make sure I did not loose the thread for when I got back to it later. Then, I would start another five-minute of mindful awareness. This is how Five Twenty-five was born. Back in the busyness of life, I have managed to keep up with the practice every now and again and find it useful when I am having to work under pressure.

This practice is also good on the eyes and the back – for a lot of my work is computer-based. I sometimes use the five minutes break to stretch or to do some eye exercises.

As well as improving my focus and performance, I have come to appreciate my Five Twenty-five sessions as a practice in attention and mindfulness. Paradoxically, containing time in 5-25 chunks, has allowed me to be less pressured by it.


One sentence journal – day 11:
“Lack of sleep made for a bumpy start of the day, yoga grounded me, now the afternoon feels like a new morning. ”

This blog is part of a renewed 42-day writing challenge inspired by Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits Book.
Background photo: Loic Djim

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