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Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, and Thinking Zen

I’ve been asked many times how I would describe Zen thinking to a Westerner, so I’ve unearthed a few examples of Zen-like practices to help explain it.

Zen on the Keyboard

Most people learn to type and then practice for years or for decades even without the express goal of getting better at typing. They are writing essays for school, or reports for work, or emails to friends, and over time they improve at typing without ever having attachment to this goal. 

I believe many in the West use a Zen mind when they are typing. Their mind is not consciously telling each finger which letter to press on the keyboard. The fingers know where to go. In fact, it is much faster when you don’t think about what you are doing with the controlling conscious mind. Imagine trying to type with the conscious mind saying out each letter as you type each word. That would be much slower. While typing, ego is not involved. The mind is acting intuitively beyond conscious control, and the focus is on the present; yet, the action is happening with the true focus elsewhere. 

To truly understand the Japanese Zen mind, try to imagine typing sixty words per minute while someone is holding a samurai sword over your head threatening to decapitate you if you typed too slowly. Concentrating and typing without thinking about the letters or the sword hanging over your head would be the Zen mind. Imagine living your whole life in that mindset, removing the ego and control.

The Knife’s Edge

Zen thinking might also occur during activities we might not otherwise associate with meditation. When cutting up food with a sharp knife, the mind has no choice but to be in the present and to forget all of the worries from the past causing one to be depressed, or concerns about the future that would cause anxiety. Anyone that has played baseball knows that the conscious mind would take way too long to react to hit a baseball. The pitch comes in too fast. The body must intuitively react, in the way it was trained, to successfully swing the bat and hit the ball. This is the Zen mind. The jazz greats also remind me of Zen thinking. They dedicate themselves for decades to their instruments and became innovative masters playing out of their spontaneous centers in the true sense of Zen.

As D.T. Suzuki explains, the practice of Zen philosophy is to learn and master a technique so that you can take the next step, which is to forget the technique and become immersed in a subject. Then we can transcend the obvious and get in touch with the deeper mysteries of life, which helps make one a true master or artist.[1]

Intuition and Our Gut

In the West, we are starting to realize there may be something to intuitive thinking. A 2012 BBC article titled “The Second Brain in Our Stomachs” pointed out that there are over 100 million brain cells in the human gut, as many as there are in the head of a cat.[2] This means that significant cognition occurs not only in the head but also in the gut, and that there is more to it when we say we “trust our gut” or “I have a gut feeling.” 

The Japanese recognized this traditionally. The Japanese say (腹を割る— “cutting one’s belly open”) to mean to speak openly and frankly. Or they would say (腹を読む —“to read one’s belly”), usually in the negative, to mean it is difficult to know what someone else is thinking or I can’t read his belly. (腹芸) or “belly-art” means the intentional expression of meaning from one person to another without using words. To be resolved or calm and collected would be the gut is ready (腹ができている). If someone is very angry, it means (腹が立つ) or their belly is standing up. Someone deceitful would have a black belly (腹が黒い), and a despicable person would have a rotten stomach (「腹が腐ってる」). When the Japanese commit Seppuku, or ritual suicide, the sword cuts the belly, as this was considered the seat of the soul.

A 2017 article on Quartz.com, “Your Intuition Is More Powerful than Your Intellect, and Just as Easily Expanded,” details a variety of ways in which intuition supersedes logic.[3] For example, the article discussed an experiment having two decks of cards with one side rigged to be better than the other. It took subjects about fifty cards to figure out the decks were different and eighty cards to figure out the difference. But it only took about ten cards for their palms to start sweating when they reached for the weaker deck. The subjects’ nervous systems were registering the information faster than the conscious mind. The author concluded, “The science is clear: intuition is a powerful force of the mind that can help us make better decisions. Fortunately, intuition is a skill that can be honed by practicing the habits of highly intuitive people.”

Those habits are:

  • Slow down and listen to your inner voice
  • Be intuitively aware of what others are feeling
  • Practice mindfulness, or stay in the moment
  • Nurture creativity
  • Trust your gut
  • Analyze your dreams for clues

By practicing these habits, you can hone your sense of intuition and move one step closer to thinking Zen. 

This article was adapted from the book Culture Hacks: Deciphering Differences in American, Chinese, and Japanese Thinking.


[1] Daisetz T. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture, 220.

[2] Michael Mosley, “The Second Brain in Our Stomachs,” BBC TV, July 11, 2012, http://www.bbc.com/news/health-18779997.

[3] Travis Bradberry, “Your Intuition is More Powerful than Your Intellect, and Just as Easily Expanded,” Quartz, January 10, 2017, https://qz.com/880678/intuition-is-more-powerful-than-intellect/.

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