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Entering the Zen Zone

We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts, with our thoughts we make the world.”
~Buddha 

The word “Zen” gets thrown around a lot in the contemporary design context. Designers in particular often appropriate the word “Zen” to describe almost anything remotely spiritual, New Age-y or Eastern in origin. “Zen dens” for stressed-out executives, “Zen-like” states of mind for spa clientele — the term tends to be bandied around to describe everything from bathroom tiles to yoga studios. Of course, the word Zen has a rich history that many folks today don’t take the time to appreciate. 

For some background into the ancient art of Zen, a quick Google search can give us the basics. According to Wikipedia, “Zen is a school of Mahayana Buddhism that developed in China during the 6th century. From China, Zen spread south to Vietnam, northeast to Korea and East to Japan. The word Zen is derived from the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese word ‘dʑjen’, which in turn is derived from the Sanskrit word dhyāna, which can be approximately translated as ‘absorption’ or ‘meditative state’. Zen emphasizes the attainment of enlightenment and the personal expression of direct insight in the Buddhist teachings.” I have a lot of time for the philosophy of Zen Buddhism, which reminds me of the Japanese concept of “wabi-sabi”, an aesthetic philosophy that believes true beauty lies in the imperfections of an item, be it a handmade ceramic bowl, a pebble or a piece of wood.

As with most things, there is so much more to Zen Buddhism than meets the eye — which should not be surprising with its more than 1400 year history. I believe the term, and the philosophy behind it, does have a lot of legitimate design applications, perhaps nowhere more so than in my area of expertise — colour. There are many ways that we can use colour to make spaces feel more calm, more peaceful and, yes, more “Zen-like”.

One area where I’ve noticed this in particular is lighting. In the modern marketplace, we can now buy coloured lights that seem able to drench interiors (or exteriors, for that matter) in colour, enhancing spaces in a way that paint or wallpaper simply cannot. Colours, as we’ve discussed previously, can be a powerful influence on one’s mood and state-of-mind. There’s a reason why places of healing (such as hospitals, medical or dental clinics) are usually bathed in soft, soothing shades such as pale blue and green (even the medical scrubs worn by health professionals are most often made in these calming colours).

The therapeutic nature of certain colours has also been embraced by the holistic beauty industry. Skin care brand Dermalogica, for example, has won widespread acclaim for its unique use of ambient colour. Its clinics feature a unique colour light system in some of the therapy rooms (or ‘pods’), which can totally change a client’s spa experience. So too, the Aura-Soma therapy system (which incidentally I have been trained in, more on that in a future post!) embraces the therapeutic nature of colour to its full extent. This unique system was developed in the UK by Vicky Wall, who was, when she developed the Aura-Soma system, a practicing chiropodist, pharmacist and herbalist. Wall was then 66 years of age and — many people are often astonished to hear — clinically blind.

As a colour consultant, I am, as you’d expect, a big proponent of using colour to help meditate, find peace, and work towards attaining a more enlightened and peaceful state of mind. The colour Ultra Violet (which incidentally is the colour of the Crown chakra) is so healing. Even the act of simply drinking out of cobalt blue glass can help to bring more positive ions into the water. And it’s been shown that invoices printed on pink paper tend to get paid faster.

A dear client of mine once told me that we Westerners are on what is dubbed by Zen Buddhists as the “Circle of 99” — a term coined to describe the state of being where we are always telling ourselves “Just one more thing and I’ll get off the wheel!” But, of course, it never seems to happen. As someone who is constantly looking at colour wheels, Pantone colour charts and swatches of paint, I must agree that modern life is a wheel that we must resolve to remove ourselves from every now and then.

And of course, those of you who have studied yoga or meditation will likely know about the chakras and their different colours. I was intrigued to discover that the word chakra actually comes from the Sanskrit word for “wheel”. So even when I am meditating, I cannot really escape my colour wheels! But what I can do is use colours to help me find peace or address the issues on my mind.

There is SO much to say about colours and Zen, so we’ll revisit this topic again in our next post, where I’ll share with you the Colorful Meditation that I have developed over the years to help me slow down, get off the “Circle of 99” and help me to find that peaceful place. I’ll also share with you some places where people can go to experience the tranquility of Zen Buddhism, perhaps with an added dash of Western luxury or modernity. So, stay tuned for Re-entering the Zen Zone, coming soon.

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