Zen and the Art of Creating the Future


I have been deeply interested in Zen since my late teens. When I moved to Japan in my late 20s, ultimately spending 3 ½ years there, the reasons included my fascination with Zen.

Soon after I arrived in Tokyo I found a Zen master, Nishijima-Sensei, who held weekly meditation sessions followed by lectures in English on Shobogenzo, the foundation text of Soto Zen.

Later I lived for a year in his Zen Dojo, commuting to my day job as a financial journalist, following the center’s principles of meditating twice a day and doing the daily chores that sustained the community, and taking the Soto Zen Buddhist precepts.

This time helped me resolve one of the issues I had grappled with since I had entered the workforce. Zen teaches us that the only thing that exists is the present. Yet if there is only the present, how and why should we work in the present to create the outcomes we desire in the future?

The answer is simple, though it took a long time for me to truly understand it.

Work is central to Zen practice, you cannot have true Zen practice without work. When I went on sesshin – intense retreats in Buddhist temples – the days were filled not only with meditation and lectures, but also work such as sweeping or preparing food. The work was not just an activity, it was a form of meditation. We were to be fully and completely engaged in what we were doing, existing purely in our activity.

Work can be sweeping, cooking, gardening or motorcycle maintenance, or it can be planning, writing, coding, designing or selling. Work of course should be always worth doing, driven by a desired future, whether it is a cleaner room, a useful software application, or a better society.

This doesn’t mean that all work is done with the spirit of Zen, in fact little is. Work is often done in a distracted state, disturbed with irrelevant thoughts about places, people and times that are not in the present.

Work must be done for its own sake. It has an intent, but that is not relevant in performing the work. If it is done begrudgingly or only in order to create outcomes at another time, it takes you away from the present, away from the only moment that exists.

As such the focus is on doing the work to the very best of your abilities, completely immersed in the now of the work, knowing but not necessarily even being aware in the present that it is to create a future that is better than now. That focus and frame means that the work and outcomes are usually far better than if they are done in a distracted state.

Understanding this is not to say that I live it fully each day. However even with my constant future focus I strive to live and work completely in the present.

There is no conflict between living fully in the present and working towards the future.

In fact doing that creates not just a better future, but a life that is truly lived in the eternal now.

Image: el_ave