“Between stimulus and response there is a space.
In that space is our power
to choose our response.
In our response lie our growth and
This quote by Austrian neurologist Viktor Frankl perfectly summarizes the Zen and Yoga seminar I recently attended.
Yoga and Zen at the Zen Monastery Buchenberg
I spent seven days at a Zen monastery in the German village of Buchenberg. The program contained about 5 hours of Zen meditation (zazen, sitting in silence) and 2 yoga classes per day. Each day followed the same schedule, each scheduled element followed a strict structure, and for most of the day this was all done in silence.
The day roughly looked like: waking up – tea ceremony – zazen – walking meditation – zazen – breakfast – yoga – zazen – lunch – zazen/teisho – yoga – zazen – dinner – dish washing – zazen – rest
Rinse and repeat…
Uncovering behavioral patterns
This strict structure taught me a very important lesson. When you’re following a set procedure, and there’s nothing for you to decide or choose, you very quickly stumble upon your own subconscious behaviors.
Behavioral patterns encompass all of the behavior we subconsciously and automatically display, pretty much always in response to a certain stimulus. In my opinion you can often further divide these stimuli into two elements: the internal stimulus and the external stimulus. Something happens (external stimulus), which brings about a thought/idea or emotion (internal stimulus), which we act upon.
During the seminar, it quickly became clear I struggle with a physical stress response. Okay, I’ve already known for years that I tend to be haunted by stress. But to discover exactly how bad it was and, moreover, how utterly pointless, came as a surprise. I mean, there wasn’t anything stressful about the program. Maybe the getting up early and many hours of sitting were strenuous at times, but not stressful. It was supposed to be a relaxing break from everyday life… And yet the quick walking during the walking meditations and the speedy pace in the dining hall brought about very strong feelings of stress in my body.
When I talked about this with one of the teachers, during a one-on-one talk, he asked: “Who is feeling stressed? What does it have to do with your true essence?”
He was right. During dinner, I had seen people already starting their dishwashing chores when I was still trying to work my way through a second helping. But no one had said to me I needed to eat quicker. In fact, we were told we could take our time. So the stressful response in my body didn’t have anything to do with reality, or my true self for that matter.
Well, what good did this discovery bring me?
The ultimate goal of Zen (and yoga)
Both Zen Buddhism and yoga are concerned with attaining absolute freedom. Freedom from suffering, that is. So that’s where our friend Viktor Frankl comes into play: How are we supposed to achieve this freedom if we remain prisoners to our own responses? Freedom means the power of free will. While each and every subconscious, automatic reaction stands in the way of our free will.
That’s exactly why it’s important to become aware of our subconscious behavior and responses. In order to take a step back and use that space between stimulus and reponse to decide for ourselves how we want to react.
As I became aware of this, I was able to observe over dinner how the others were finishing up their meals before me. I now had the choice to speed up or just take my time. I discovered I could decide to move a bit quicker without needing to feel stressed in the process. For it was my own decision, without external pressure and without anyone forcing me.
Bringing practice into daily life
In order to come to these seemingly simple discoveries, it really is useful to step outside of the usual structures of daily life. To experience a longer period of eating, working, practicing, and living according to set procedures. Until you uncover old behavioral patterns and are able to actively intervene in order to separate yourself of them.
That’s why, for me personally, the real Zen practice isn’t so much in meditating and sitting still. No, Zen is the form, the structure of your actions. And that’s something you can bring into daily life.
Oh, and how I fared with the rest of the meals? On the last day of the seminar I quickly ate my lunch without feeling stressed, and without fear of being hungry later on. Then I made my way to the lobby, in quick strides of course, for a final talk. As I arrived there, I noticed I was 5 minutes early. How wonderful and relaxed!