Barefoot and seated on the floor in half-lotus position, members of the Northwestern University Zen Society are on a quest. Sure, they look for the meaning of life, but they find much more along the way through the Buddhist art of meditation.
In its sixth year, the Zen Society meets every Thursday under the dimmed lights of the Oratory Room in Alice Millar Chapel. At a typical meeting, about 25 members spend 45 minutes to an hour practicing meditation, followed by an informal discussion about questions from religion, philosophy, and morality.
Many members of the Zen society meditate for reasons such as finding happiness, perfecting self-control, or becoming self-actualized. “Who am I? What is the purpose of my life?” asks Kristen Radtke, a Weinberg sophomore and president of the Zen Society. “I meditate to know myself better, and to treat other people better.”
Radtke suggests that by virtue of practicing Zen, many practical benefits are attained, such as strengthening the immune system and fueling the body with newfound energy. Physical discipline is also acquired as the meditation positions can be difficult for newcomers.
Weinberg junior Zach Warburg, however, uses meditation to better control his mind and find clarity within it. “It blocks off all the white noise in your brain and clears the mind of excess thought,” says Warburg. “You learn to focus on the present instead of dwelling on the past or looking into the future”
This method of focused-thinking is valuable for problem-solving and conflict resolution, according to Warburg. “Your mind is burdened with unnecessary considerations. When you focus your thinking, you think a lot faster and more efficiently.”
A real treasure for Northwestern students is the added bonus of stress relief and relaxation. Many members, however, challenge the notion that meditation is primarily for relaxation. The Zen Society’s most dedicated members keep returning because of the inner peace and mental acuity they achieve.
Though many perceive Zen to be an exclusively Buddhist practice, the Northwestern Zen Society welcomes members of all backgrounds to attend their weekly meetings. “It’s not a Buddhist thing – it’s a human thing. Everybody should try it once in their life,” says Radtke. But if you really want to find the meaning of life, you’ll probably want to take those shoes off more than just once.