That’s Zen! — A Story from Life at a Zen Center

The following reflection originally appeared in the twice-a-month newsletter I sent out on September 26th, 2023.


For easy reading, feel free to just read the bold points and skip the rest 


Back in 2012, I was living at the Upaya Zen Center, a place where people’s shoes were always neatly lined up outside the temple door.  This wasn’t just Upaya.  It’s a thing at Zen Centers, which is quite a bit different from other meditation centers, or, say, the foyer in most houses.

Usually, people just toss their shoes wherever they fit, but at Upaya, people would bend down to the ground and carefully place the left shoe next to the right, often even putting the shoelaces inside each respective shoe.

The reason is that the idea of Zen practice is to put an incredible amount of mindfulness into every action of our lives, no matter how big or small.  In this way, there is an emphasis on how there is ultimately no difference between sitting meditation in the temple and cooking meditationbrushing teeth meditation, talking to a friend meditation, and so on.  Even though it may be a trivial matter how one’s shoes are positioned, it is of the utmost importance how one’s mind is positioned in each moment.

Anyhow, before coming to the Zen Center, I was the type of person who would just gingerly toss my shoes next to the door — right-side-up, up-side-down, twisted in circles, what’s the difference, I thought.

This extended to a lot of my life.  My living space was generally somewhat messy.  Dishes would pile up.  I would often arrive late to things.  I didn’t pay much attention to saying please, thank you and you’re welcome.  In my work, I would often do just enough to get by.  I was a fairly spacey guy and would pass a lot of my time lost in clouds of thought.

Basically, I didn’t have a lot of care and presence in how I lived my life and one could see all of that in how I placed my shoes at the door to the temple.


The Part With The Monk

After I had been at Upaya for about a month, I went to have a 1-on-1 meeting with the head monk, as a general check-in on how my meditation practice was coming along.

I shared with him that one day, I had just tossed my shoes aimlessly at the door, walked into the temple, and took about 20 steps before suddenly realizing, “oh, I didn’t put my shoes away neatly.”  I walked back, arranged them neatly, and returned into the temple.

As I said this to him, the normally mild-mannered middle-aged monk became very excited, his eyes lit up, and he exclaimed, “Yes! That’s Zen!”

Basically, Zen, and really all of meditative is about living in an awake way; getting off of autopilot, and living a life of caring presence.

How you put your shoes away matters, because that’s the same mindset you bring into everything else.

Often, we come up with all sorts of excuses.  “Oh, I already put my shoes away, it’s too late, I’m already 20 steps into the temple; I’ll just remember next time.”  No!  That’s not Zen!  Do it now!  Always now!

I’ve noticed in myself there are times when I’ve realized I haven’t been present or am out of alignment with my deeper values & intentions, but a part of me doesn’t want to take that metaphorical walk back to the temple.  Usually, it’s one of three things that has a grip on me:

  1. The sense that I’m already in too deep
  2. The belief that it doesn’t matter.
  3. I just don’t feel like it.


The Part With The Examples

Here are some examples of the sense that I’m already in too deep.

  • If you’re halfway through a bag of chips and suddenly realize, “oh crap, I just wanted one bite and now I’m half done,” rather than say “screw it, I might as well just keep going,”  No!  Right now!  Let go of the chips!  That’s Zen!
  • If you’re in a conversation with a loved one and realize you’re in a familiar conflict pattern with them, rather than digging in your heels as you’ve already gone too far, take a breath, call yourself out, and say, “I’m feeling stuck right now; how about we start over?  I love you.”  That’s Zen!

Here are some examples of the belief that it doesn’t matter.

  • If you realize something you’ve been buying or want to buy is actually terrible for the environment or is produced by an icky or unethical company, rather than think, “I’m just one person; it makes no difference if I just buy it,” you stop in your tracks and choose to live your deeper values.  That’s Zen!
  • If you realize after the fact that you said something insensitive to a friend, co-worker, or loved one, rather than think, “it doesn’t even matter; they’ll be fine,” you check back in and apologize.  That’s Zen!

Here are some examples of I just don’t feel like it.

  • If you suddenly find yourself seconds, minutes, or hours into low-value phone/internet activities, rather than think, “meh, whatever” and just keep following the screen-based dopamine hits, you immediately put down the phone and shift gears.  That’s Zen!
  • If you hold the intention to brush your teeth or meditate before bed, and you find yourself having put on your pajamas and made your way to your bedroom (or are even in your bed), and then suddenly realize you forgot, rather than just sinking into the feeling of inertia and going to sleep, you get up and do the thing. That’s Zen!


Where This Path Leads

Of course, a Zen life isn’t just about noticing when we’ve gone astray after the fact and course-correcting.  Eventually, we begin to notice the actual impulse to grab the phone, the impulse to say the not-so-appropriate thing, and the impulse to distract oneself.  Or, say, in formal meditation, our awareness becomes sharp enough that we even notice the impulse to grab hold of a thought before it turns into a long and winding thought chain.

In that very moment of noticing the impulse, there is a little space where we have the power to choose — to give in to the impulse or to pivot into our intuitive wisdom.  The more we choose the wise response, the more our mind naturally inclines toward a wise & caring presence in the future.

A fair percentage of people read a reflection like this and turn it into another way to criticize and shame themselves — “oh, there I go again, grabbing the chips even though I know I shouldn’t. Getting sucked into another impulse. I’m hopeless.”  While I could write a whole new essay on this single topic, perhaps, in addition to just being a little more gentle with ourselves, we might reflect that progress isn’t all-or-nothing.  It’s not that we either display perfect awake-ness or total collapse.

Rather, progress comes through incremental change, and a huge step forward is to celebrate whatever moment we catch ourselves, whether that’s after the fact, in the middle of a binge, or at the level of impulse.  Every moment we are awake, no matter how big or how small, is a moment of Zen.

The more all these moments add up, like raindrops filling a jar, you might one day reflect on your life as a whole, noting that you tend to be quite present, filling even the small moments by yourself with wise & caring presence.  It’s not so much that you are “doing Zen,” but that it’s become a part of the fabric of your being.

In the meantime, as you fill your jar drop by drop with this sort of presence, I challenge you, today, to notice some moments of wise & caring presence, and perhaps with the unexpected excitement of a normally mild-mannered middle-aged monk, you might exclaim to yourself, “that’s Zen!”