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The Power of Presence: Zen Teachings on Living in the Moment

On my podcast, through the lens of Zen, we see that every moment holds infinite potential for awareness, transformation, and true engagement with the richness of life.

We rush through our days, consumed by past regrets and future anxieties, rarely pausing to inhabit the present moment — the only place where life truly unfolds. As Buddha said, “Life is accessible only in the present moment.” This profound insight lies at the heart of Zen Buddhism and offers an antidote to the stress and disconnection of modern life.

What is Zen presence?

Zen presence is not merely about occupying a space. It’s about being deeply attuned to the now. It is the art of maintaining one’s consciousness in the present moment, fully aware and completely engaged with whatever the current situation demands. This concept is beautifully encapsulated in the famous Zen koan (story): “Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.” This teaching suggests that enlightenment is not found in changing what we do, but in altering how we perceive and engage with our actions.

Benefits of being present

In the realm of emotional landscapes, Zen presence is profoundly transformative. According to Taylor Elizabeth, a licensed Life Coach and Emotional Intelligence Coach, “Mindfulness acts as a gentle guide, helping us to acknowledge, accept, and navigate our emotions with grace and understanding. Through the practice of mindfulness meditation, we learn to bring ourselves back to the present, to observe our thoughts and feelings without passing judgement.”

The journey of mindfulness fosters a space between our emotions and our reactions, enriching our relationships and nurturing our overall well-being. As Zen priest and author Shozan Jack Haubner said in my podcast on the topic of Zen Buddhism, “Being in the present moment is about paying attention to what’s actually happening on the outside and on the inside. It’s about not getting caught up in ideas and fantasies, in notions about what I wish was happening, or what I hope will happen or getting upset about what happened in the past.”

One of the most compelling stories in Zen tradition is the koan of the monk who carries a woman across the river. After helping her, he continues on his journey, but his fellow monk is troubled, later asking, “Why did you carry that woman?” The first monk replies, “I left her at the river. Are you still carrying her?” This story underscores the essence of Zen presence—letting go of the past to remain steadfastly in the now.

“This teaching is not just metaphorical but can be applied to our daily lives. We carry the weight of countless past encounters and future worries, which can be laid aside through mindfulness practices. To practice this, begin by engaging deeply in simple daily tasks — be it washing dishes or walking to work — with full awareness of every sensation and action,” Rubén L. F. Hábito told me. Hábito is a Filipino Zen rōshi of the Sanbō Kyōdan lineage and a professor at SMU Perkins School of Theology in the US.

Shozan Jack Haubner
Ruben L. F. Habito

In the realm of emotional landscapes, Zen presence is profoundly transformative. According to Taylor Elizabeth, a licensed Life Coach and Emotional Intelligence Coach, “Mindfulness acts as a gentle guide, helping us to acknowledge, accept, and navigate our emotions with grace and understanding. Through the practice of mindfulness meditation, we learn to bring ourselves back to the present, to observe our thoughts and feelings without passing judgement.”

Shozan Jack Haubner

The journey of mindfulness fosters a space between our emotions and our reactions, enriching our relationships and nurturing our overall well-being. As Zen priest and author Shozan Jack Haubner said in my podcast on the topic of Zen Buddhism, “Being in the present moment is about paying attention to what’s actually happening on the outside and on the inside. It’s about not getting caught up in ideas and fantasies, in notions about what I wish was happening, or what I hope will happen or getting upset about what happened in the past.”

Ruben L. F. Habito

One of the most compelling stories in Zen tradition is the koan of the monk who carries a woman across the river. After helping her, he continues on his journey, but his fellow monk is troubled, later asking, “Why did you carry that woman?” The first monk replies, “I left her at the river. Are you still carrying her?” This story underscores the essence of Zen presence—letting go of the past to remain steadfastly in the now.

“This teaching is not just metaphorical but can be applied to our daily lives. We carry the weight of countless past encounters and future worries, which can be laid aside through mindfulness practices. To practice this, begin by engaging deeply in simple daily tasks — be it washing dishes or walking to work — with full awareness of every sensation and action,” Rubén L. F. Hábito told me. Hábito is a Filipino Zen rōshi of the Sanbō Kyōdan lineage and a professor at SMU Perkins School of Theology in the US.

How to be more present

Integrating Zen practices into our routines transforms mundane activities into exercises in mindfulness. For instance, begin your day with a moment of stillness, observing your breath and setting an intention to stay present. Throughout the day, gently guide your mind back to your current activity whenever you notice it drifting to past or future concerns.

Zen presence can also be woven into communication. By being fully present in conversations, you listen more deeply, respond more thoughtfully, and connect more genuinely. Reflecting on Zen stories and koans can deepen our understanding of presence. These stories often reveal the profound truths hidden in plain sight and challenge us to see beyond our preconceived notions. By contemplating such tales, we can learn to navigate our lives with greater awareness and less attachment.

Taylor Elizabeth's Guide to Stress Management through Mindfulness

Taylor Elizabeth

When faced with high-pressure situations, deadlines and distractions, mindfulness serves as a reliable and useful tool ally.

  1. Centre with Breath: To centre yourself in the present moment, begin with deep, intentional breathing, allowing each breath to anchor you in the here and now. Breathing exercises such as Box Breathing, 4-7-8 Breathing, and Diaphragmatic Breathing are frequently utilised in mindfulness practice.
  2. Scan and release: Conduct a gentle scan of your body, noticing any areas of tension or discomfort. Release this tension through mindful relaxation of those muscles.
  3. Sensory awareness: Engage your senses by tuning into the sights, sounds, and sensations around you. Allow these sensory inputs to ground you in the present reality without judgement or thought beyond awareness of their presence.
  4. Thoughtful observation: Acknowledge any racing thoughts that may arise, but refrain from judging them or entertaining them. Let them pass like fleeting clouds, maintaining a sense of detached observation.
  5. Intentional response: Before reacting to the situation at hand, take a moment to pause and consider your response. Count to 5 to allow yourself to choose a mindful and intentional approach that aligns with your intentions, values and objectives.

When faced with high-pressure situations, deadlines and distractions, mindfulness serves as a reliable and useful tool ally.

  1. Centre with Breath: To centre yourself in the present moment, begin with deep, intentional breathing, allowing each breath to anchor you in the here and now. Breathing exercises such as Box Breathing, 4-7-8 Breathing, and Diaphragmatic Breathing are frequently utilised in mindfulness practice.
  2. Scan and release: Conduct a gentle scan of your body, noticing any areas of tension or discomfort. Release this tension through mindful relaxation of those muscles.
  3. Sensory awareness: Engage your senses by tuning into the sights, sounds, and sensations around you. Allow these sensory inputs to ground you in the present reality without judgement or thought beyond awareness of their presence.
  4. Thoughtful observation: Acknowledge any racing thoughts that may arise, but refrain from judging them or entertaining them. Let them pass like fleeting clouds, maintaining a sense of detached observation.
  5. Intentional response: Before reacting to the situation at hand, take a moment to pause and consider your response. Count to 5 to allow yourself to choose a mindful and intentional approach that aligns with your intentions, values and objectives.
Taylor Elizabeth
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