The Beauty of Zen

If you’re looking for a little slice of serenity, there’s no need to check yourself into a Buddhist monastery or scamper away to India a la “Eat Pray Love.”

The daily stresses of life might be enough to trigger a flight response in the form of a one-way ticket to the Himalayas, but according to some professionals, there’s a simpler — and more affordable — way of hushing a buzzing brain: Create your own personal retreat at .

Clodagh, an interior designer based in New York City, says true Zen is all about comfort. A Zen retreat can be a meditation room, a living room, a bedroom or a garden. Choosing appropriate elements relies heavily on the individual and what puts each individual at ease.

“Zen isn’t about living in a monastery,” Clodagh explained. “It’s about celebrating every moment of your life.”

For Clodagh, the first step in building a tranquil environment that even a monk would envy involves fighting stagnation.

“I think one of the most stressful things you could do is have too much stuff around your place. It doesn’t leave your mind space to expand,” Clodagh said, citing kitchens, bathrooms and closets as the major clutter culprits. “To create a Zen living space, or a calming living space, space where you can grow and think and become, the first thing you need to do is get rid of a lot of stuff. People think that if it’s behind a door that it isn’t going to affect you, but I believe it does.”

Los Angeles-based interior designer Shelley Beckes says a calm space requires simplicity. Bright colors can be wildly distracting, so having the right wall colors to complement your newly cleaned space is like humming a long, deep “Om” that warms you to your core.

“One of the most soothing colors that they’ve done research on are soft green tones like sage, blue greens, and some sand tones and beiges — a very neutral palette, derived from basic earth tones,” she said. “In Japanese interiors, they use the accent of black or dark brown wood, but that’s the only real contrast.”

“You can paint the walls in one of the soothing tones or keep the walls fairly neutral and accent with sage tones and natural colors,” Beckes continued. “Artwork could be anything from a lovely black and white photograph of a beautiful spot that may be reminiscent of a trip someone took. Have it blown up. I think it’s important to feel a sense of peace and in the space.”

When it comes to bestowing divine and spiritual accents to a room, Werner Brandmaier of the Institute of Feng Shui & Geopathology in Portland, Maine, surrounds himself with natural elements such as wood flooring, trickling water fountains, lush vegetation and gentle lighting.

“You want plants around you. I like bamboo, for example, a fast-growing wood element,” Brandmaier said. “I would recommend avoiding cacti or palm trees, which are really pointy and spiky. Try to have more round leaves and soft shapes. You also want water elements around you like a water fountain or aquarium — just make sure it’s clean. If an aquarium is dirty and the pH is off and there’s algae, that’s not something enhancing chi.”

“In a home, you need glow and not glare,” added Clodagh. “One of the things that I think is most important is having light where you need it. I have a huge glowing light box behind a Buddha. But then I have a small Italian halogen light. And I like to light with shadows.”

While visual elements make up the bricks and mortar of a Zen retreat, calming smells and dulcet sounds can be like wrapping a space in a giant plush blanket. Beckes swears by cucumber and lavender scented candles, which are soothing and not too overpowering. Clodagh stands firmly beside cedar scents, which harvest creativity.

For sound, Clodagh always matches her mood to her music.

“Calming inspiration isn’t necessarily about having ‘woo woo’ sounds,” she explained. “It’s not necessarily about having remote Indian flutes on top of a mountain somewhere wafting through your space.

“It could be a quiet reggae beat. I’ll put on rap or put on Mozart. Zen is about understanding that it’s all good. If I’ve had a tense day, the last thing I want to do is sit on a sofa and listen to Mozart. I want to put on a hot beat or some Spanish flamenco and cook up a great meal, and get the energy moving around like that.”

Indeed, finding Zen means triggering your senses, and Mother Nature lays a nice foundation for that. Look to your yard or patio for the beginnings of a Zen garden. To do so, don’t be afraid to tap into your youth and collect the stones you find on a hike, using them to snake a dry creek bed throughout your yard or dot your landscape. The key is in its simplicity, Beckes notes.

“Mainly, it’s sculpting the soil and finding rocks indigenous to the area,” she said. “I always like to bring in what is native, because it feels more integrated.”

You can incorporate water features, too, and Beckes adds that you don’t have to have a nearby creek to do so. The trickling of a small water fountain creates ambient noise. Or for the more adventurous, construct small pools, the still waters of which exude tranquility. Place a meditation bench nearby, utilizing what’s already there or what can be easily found — maybe a large stone or a tree trunk. But, Beckes warned, “use plants sparingly, because, again, it’s all about keeping it simple.

“When you think of Japanese or that Zen sensibility,” she continued, “whether it’s indoors or outdoors, a lot of times it’s one very simple flower — it’s not very busy.”

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