September 6, 2018

Is Zen Hygge?

This text is based on a Czech text about Zen and hygge, but I made some changes to the contents. Of course, it is basically the same message.  As for using the term Zen, I decided to use this term rather than Buddhism in this text, as the word "Buddhism" means all kinds of things to all kinds of people. Although the word Zen is also quite misleading, I feel it is still a bit closer to the actual meaning of Buddhism or Zen... 

I have recently come across a phenomenon called "hygge". It's basically a Danish lifestyle, which has become popular throughout the West in recent years. Maybe it will be popular in Japan as well, as the Japanese like to copy the West. What is the lifestyle? And why write about it on this blog? I wonder how it relates to Zen and whether it has any value for people who are interested in Zen.

Hygge, pronouncing "hyg", where the "y" sound has no equivalent in English, is a style that the Danes, I do not know when, have developed, in order not to be cold, sad and anxious. Who would  want to be cold, sad and anxious? Take the Italians for example. They also have a very specific lifestyle, but because they live in completely different geographic conditions, they are logically interested in things other than warm socks and a cup of hot chocolate - maybe a parasol and a glass of good wine. Why is Hygge so popular today? As I wrote, the Danes want to be warm, feel nice and not sad. So they need warm, hand-knitted woolen socks, throw blankets, cushions, a lot of cushions and a thick scarf. The Danes probably do not turn up the heating much in the winter, otherwise I cannot fathom why all those thick layers and woolen hats and scarves. Well, ideally, there is a fire place making the room even cozier. You are surrounded by  friends, sipping hot chocolate, if alone, reading a good book - or playing board games with others. If you are talking, you should avoid topics like politics or religion. No zen, then, no matter if you consider Zen a religion or not... See? A conflict already. Definitely don't argue what Zen is... Conversations must be pleasant and easy going. If it is summer, and in Denmark sometimes it is summer, I myself experienced it myself, then it is good to go for a beer with friends, go to a jazz club or a beach. Although the water is so cold that it is not possible to swim in it, you can play games on the beach or read - a real book, not stare at your smartphone screen. What is not Hygge - internet arguments, political demonstrations, your own graffiti on your neighbour's wall, road rage, etc.  If you are a prime minister, you have to treat your subordinates as if they were your best friends -  offer nice tea and cushions. Don't discuss politics!

How does it all relate to Zen?  Because I have decided that since September of this year I will live Hygge. There have been too many arguments about money and politics, and such... Enough cold feet and instant coffee... and enough fast food. I want to talk to people without making them feel uncomfortable... Of course, I am joking, but not completely. I would like to add that Hygge aspect to my everyday life, to my cycling, meeting friends, furnishing my bedroom, talking to my girlfriend and spending time with her. There is no need to add Hygge to zen retreats or weekly practice. There is some Hygge aspect to practicing zazen with others, some Hygge aspect to listening to your teacher's talks, while you are wrapped in a blanket and sipping nice coffee. We used to have retreats at Earth Spirit in England, and that place was very, very Hygge. The style, the furniture, the meals, the cozy atmosphere in the evening -  friends whispering to each other on the sofa, quietly giggling and feeling close. We even had a real saxophone players playing jazz at the end of the retreat - do you know John Hart? We had poets... Ralph? Dancers, forgot their names... all very Hygge.  But we shouldn't expect zen retreats to be Hygge from the beginning to the end. If there are no conflicts, if the teaching is not a bit harsh at times, there is something wrong. Even master Dogen wrote that the teaching must be a bit pushing at times.

Hygge is primarily about feeling good, cozy, comfortable and safe. Zen is primarily about becoming one with what you are doing right now, no matter if it is eating delicious cake or shoveling manure. When you drink tea, there is no difference between you and your tea. When you repair a bicycle, which is also a Hygge thing, if you do it calmly, in Zen it is primarily about being united with your activity. In Hygge you don't care if you are one or not with whatever you are doing, you just want to enjoy what you're doing, that's all.  In Zen this joy is secondary, it comes naturally. Or doesn't. Certainly someone having experienced Hygge may become interested in Zen or vice versa.

As for zazen, you know people like meditation, in general, when it is Hygge - no pain, you are wrapped in  a blanket, no pushing, nobody is telling you how to sit. Zazen is a bit different. There may be some pain or discomfort. But not too much. We should find a posture in which we can sit balanced, balancing right and left, back and forth, so you are looking for the middle, without being stiff. Also, mentally, not trying to feel nirvanic, nor being preoccupied with negative thoughts or anger, you just let these feelings or desire go, over and over again, and return to your posture.  There is no room for human sentiments and opinions in zazen. We can do that after zazen, discuss feelings, pain, opinions, but during zazen, you just sit pretty stupidly.  But when you do this completely, a new kind of freedom appears. Master Dogen wrote: If you continue this something ineffable (practicing zazen without being stiff mentally or physically) the warehouse of treasures will open naturally, and it will become possible to receive and make use of these treasures.

It sounds very grand and mystical, but basically master Dogen means that zazen helps us to be completely one with our coffee and blanket. Sometimes we have to endure a bit of pain in order to get some comfort. Some people have to work hard in the fields and factories so that we can have that delicious hot chocolate and buy that beautiful woolen scarf. Some masters tried extremely hard in severe conditions and the result was the complete freedom master Dogen writes about. Anyway, Hygge is a nice concept and great experience. As for Zen, it is up to you.

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