When I was on writing retreat in New Mexico this spring, I kept — or aspired to keep — a traditional retreat schedule.
It involved mostly writing -- or pacing the floor while eating a block of smoked Dutch cheese -- punctuated by meditation practice in the morning, noon, and night at the Zen center down the street.
It’s here that I first heard the delightful Zen Buddhist phrase ‘Zen no chikara’.
It tickled my ears and reminded me of something crunchy that one would eat on a road trip. Like a puffed rice snack with just a sprinkle of sea salt and a hint of seaweed.
I also fixate on food when I’m on retreat, apparently. Preferably with savory undertones.
While Zen no chikara isn’t exactly edible, it’s a phrase that’s no less delicious, translating from Japanese as Zen Power or The Power of Zen.
It describes the state of being so awake and alive to what one is engaged in, that the distinction between the action and the doer of the action begins to dissolve entirely.
In meditation, we might think of this as the subtle shift from actively focusing on the breath — which can sometimes feel rigid and heady — to fully occupying the body breathing, in a way that is whole, unencumbered and relaxed.
It reminds me of the old sporting adage ‘Be the ball’ or as Sylvia Plath wrote of the heart’s quiet declaration: “I am. I am. I am.“
There’s a surrendering and a receiving and a full embodiment of our moment to moment experience that is happening simultaneously, without a lot of effort to make it so.
AND: This is power.
Which is what I find so delicious about Zen no chikara. It shares a very different narrative of power than the one that’s often depicted, at least in contemporary times.
Most of the examples that we're given of what power looks like in the world are something akin to a Lexus commercial : fast cuts, lots of speed, flash, zing, and assertiveness. Power is dominating and strategic.
Take “Power Yoga” for instance. The phrase oozes intensity and heat.
Zen no chikara, on the other hand, implies a power that is cool and relaxed. Gentle, even.
A power that relies more on being than on doing, and is a form of power with rather than power over. It's no less precise, and an alternative to the dominant narrative :
Power - Zen no chikara says - can be both received and offered when we inhabit our experience without force or manipulation. Communion, baby.
Doing the dishes and occupying the essence of dishes being washed.
Watching the sky as the embodiment of sky being witnessed.
Recognizing that on retreat, I'm the floor being paced and the cheese being eaten.
All we have to do is be open to it.
Because gentle, present, embodied POWER.
Now that's a delicious alternative. 💎