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Daylong Zen workshop is designed to help working professionals find their inner calm

To gain the full benefit of Zen practice, people have to make time for it in their life, said Tim Burkett of the Zen Center. The workshop will offer strategies for incorporating mindfulness into a crazy schedule.

A bell in the entry hall at the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center. It's rung at the start of meditation.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center

To the untrained eye, a Zen Buddhist practice and a career in litigation seem diametrically opposed. That’s what Wayne Moskowitz, an attorney at Minneapolis’s Maslon LLP, thought 25 years ago when he took his first class at the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center.

“At first I wasn’t sure if meditation and Buddhist practice mixed with litigation,” Moskowitz said. “But over the years I discovered that the two are very complementary,” so complementary, in fact, that Moskowitz kept going back to the center, eventually becoming board president: “A meditation practice helps you find a healthy way to deal with things like anger and greed, negative emotions that are a litigator’s stock-in-trade.”

It took time and concentration, but Moskowitz believes that mindfulness meditation eventually made him a better lawyer — and a happier human being. He believes that basic Zen practice can also help other working professionals bring greater insight and joy to their work and their personal lives. With that in mind, staff and board members at the Zen Center designed “Mindfulness at Work: Strategies for a Busy Life,” a one-day retreat for professionals in search of ways to reclaim their inner stillness led by Tim Burkett, Zen Center guiding teacher. The retreat will be held Oct. 20 at the Opus College of Business at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis. The event is sponsored by a number of Twin Cities employers.

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“When I started going to the Zen Center, I was looking, like a lot of people, for peace of mind,” Moskowitz said. “The pressures of my career made me want to seek out a meditation practice. It helped me, and I think it could be good for lots of people in business and other high-pressure jobs.”

Growing interest

Spurred in part by the popularity of yoga (“There are so many lawyers walking around with yoga mats today,” Moskowitz said), many people now consider meditation mainstream. But it wasn’t always that way.

Burkett started meditating at the San Francisco Zen Center 50 years ago, when he was not quite 21. “It was considered weird back then,” he said. “To have it entering the mainstream now has blown me away. I saw that with yoga 25 years ago, so I probably shouldn’t be too surprised.”

Burkett believes that growing interest in meditation coincides with what he sees as a culture that has wound itself so tightly it’s nearly out of control.

Tim Burkett

Tim Burkett

“Our culture is so revved up,” he said. “We have billable hours, billable 15 minutes. You have to bill if you are doctor or a lawyer or a psychologist. Some people tell me they even have to decide if they should bill their bathroom time.”

Burkett blames the revved up culture on “iPhones, emails, texting — all at the same time. Maybe that’s why meditation is getting so big now. Mindfulness is even featured in the New York Times. My dad would turn over in his grave if I showed him a New York Times article on mindfulness, but there it is. It’s out there, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going away.”

To gain the full benefit of Zen practice, people have to make time for it in their life, Burkett said. The workshop will offer strategies for incorporating mindfulness into a crazy schedule.

“People are realizing that mediation is just as important as exercise,” Burkett said. “You need to build discipline to see the benefit, but you don’t have to sit for an hour a day or even a half an hour a day. You just have to make it something you do regularly, even if it is just in little bits. These changes don’t happen fast. Our minds have been running since we were little kids. We have to learn to find discipline within ourselves in a soft, gentle way.”

Designed for the audience

Because the audience this workshop hopes to attract might be put off by the idea of trekking to an offsite location to spend a day learning about meditation, organizers chose the location carefully.

“Going to a Zen center on the shores of Lake Calhoun might seem countercultural to some people in the business community,” Moskowitz said. “This is more of an outreach thing. We thought we might draw a wider audience if we held the event downtown at a business school. Some participants might feel more comfortable in that environment.”

Wayne Moskowitz

Wayne Moskowitz

Burkett said that his goal at the workshop will be to “to show working people that these practices have practical applicability in their daily lives.”

“I have eight different modules I’m going to explain to help participants integrate this possibility of connecting with some stillness and being present in the middle of this hurly-burly of the middle of their lives,” he said. “We will touch on different mindfulness techniques, including listening, paying attention to your physical sensations, walking meditation, sitting meditation.”

Burkett, who was trained in mindfulness meditation by Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society, said he is excited to bring his these ideas to a group of people who otherwise may not think Zen practice is for them.

“I’m really interested in applying these principles to people’s hectic lives,” he said. “I can’t wait to introduce these practices to people who otherwise would never set foot in the Zen Center.”

Payoff of practice

Meditation has made a difference in Moskowitz’s life.

“When you meditate regularly, over time it changes your mind and your way of relating to negative emotions,” he said.  “It makes me calmer. It makes it easier for me to deal with opposing counsel. When I was first practicing law, I would get angry easily. Now I can let go of the anger and just deal with everyone as a person. Anger clouds judgment. If I am able to be relaxed and present to what’s going on around me, I’m happier, and because I’m happier, I’m better at what I do. Meditation has transformed my life and my heart.”

Moskowitz aims to meditate every day, but the truth is, he sometimes skips a session: “I think I have a 50 percent success rate,” he admitted.

But even at a 50 percent, Moskowitz feels the difference. Do others see a difference? The verdict is still out on that.

“I guess I haven’t heard that I’m coming across as nicer,” Moscowitz laughed. “I may still be the same jerk I always was. But it feels completely different to me. I like to think that I’m easier to get along with than I was before. Early in my practice, I hung up the phone on another lawyer. Now I’d never do that.”

What feels like baby steps from the outside are actually giant leaps on the inside, Burkett said. To practice calm and loving kindness in the midst of a stressful job is a key step to making the world a better place. Zen practice can help bring individuals closer to that goal.

“This is not the kind of world that I grew up in 60 years ago where people worked from 8 to 4, went home and didn’t think about work until the next day,” he said. “Now people have so much more stress and anxiety. They are always worried about the future and anticipating problems. Zen teaches you to find quiet and be present. If you can’t be present in your life you miss your life. How many moments do you really have when you are truly engaged and joyful? Our goal is to find more time for those moments. This workshop could be a first step.”

Space is still available for “Mindfulness at Work: Strategies for a Busy Life.” Tickets are $175 for the general public and $125 for employees of sponsoring organizations, including Bullis Insurance Agency, Enova Illumination, Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, Hennepin County Medical Center, Maslon LLP, Medtronic, People Incorporated, RedBrick Health, United Theological Seminary, Wedin Communications and Whitewater Coaching and Consulting.