Greg Alexander

Zen at Home

Baltimore Sun, June 11, 2008

Calm. Serenity. Peace of mind. Being one with your soul and mind. While this may sound like copy points on a brochure for a destination spa or a high-end resort, these soothing and inviting elements could be the feeling you experience every day without having to fly to some exotic destination. Instead it could be tranquil feeling you experience by applying the practices and principles of Zen into your home’s interior design.

So what exactly is Zen and how can it be applied to your home? “[Zen is] more a discipline and practice than a philosophy. Zen means meditation or concentration and derives from the Chinese term Chan. A useful definition of Zen is the practice of being present; sometimes called the way of mindfulness and awareness, Zen is also defined as a ‘non-theistic’ spiritual path and human development,” says Bruce Blackman, Sensei and guiding Zen teacher at the Zen Community of Baltimore/Clare Sangha (

Blackman, who was introduced to Zen in 1980 when he took an introductory meditation class at a Buddhist Dharma Center in Washington, D.C., says students at the Zen Community of Baltimore practice Zen through meditation classes and via monthly days of silence. “Last year, we initiated the 108-Day Challenge whereby a member who does one hour or more of zazen (sitting practice) for 108 consecutive days is honored in ceremony at a seasonal retreat. This helps members establish a strong home practice,” says Blackman, who notes that home practice is often preferable to driving a congested road to sit in a community setting. “We encourage members to create a welcoming space in the home that is conducive to daily meditation.”

Zen itself – and by extension a Zen design scheme in the home – is quite personal, as what allows one to achieve peace and tranquility may not work for everyone; however, there are techniques that can be applied that will help you create an environment that is conducive to the practice of Zen.

“With Zen, there is an emphasis on serenity, and more and more people want what I call an ‘edited look,’ which can be very restful, serene and inviting,” says Lynne Korpman, owner of Interiors by Lynne Korpman, a showroom and design studio in Phoenix, Md. Korpman, who has 20 years experience as an interior designer and added the showroom five years ago, says that most clients who express an interest in incorporating a Zen environment to their home need guidance on how to accomplish this. “One of the first things that needs to be done is to eliminate clutter and get rid of any unnecessary items in the home. This is important in every room – the bedroom for restful sleep or even the bathroom for a sense of calm. It’s helpful to have someone objective, as this process can be quite emotional. I recommend to clients to think about ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ and categorize items into three piles: ‘Can’t Live Without,’ ‘Maybe’ and ‘Has to Go.’ Get rid of the last pile and then go back and see if anything from the ‘Maybe’ pile can be moved to the ‘Has to Go’ pile. People have a tough time giving away items that they paid for, so consignment is a good option. I am not dictatorial; I am very respectful of personal belongings,” says Korpman. “Another way to declutter without getting rid of belongings is through rotation. For example, you have three collections of tea sets that you love. Display one and pack the other two away. Then, every year or at the onset of a new season, swap one collection out for another. Your collections will have greater impact this way, too.”

Blackman says that the limitation of personal items and decorative items is important to create visual simplicity. “People’s home sizes seem to be getting bigger, and many homeowners make the mistake of packing these large homes full of furniture. People are so busy in their everyday lives and have so many details to worry about at the office, and then they come home to a house full of details, which is not restful,” concurs Korpman. “I recommend utilizing fewer pieces that have greater impact. Find several pieces of furniture of great value – the space will still be personal but not busy and open spaces flow better. People’s vacation homes are great examples; most of them have little furniture, which evokes a peaceful feeling.”

Korpman recommends starting from the ground up. “A great area rug can be the foundation and be very powerful,” she says. As for wall colors, she touts soft, yet rich, colors – blues, different shades of green and varying soft neutrals, while still using lots of textures, such as linens and flax line. Blackman asked some of his senior students about the right décor for a Zen mood and “harmonizing with the outdoors and the seasons” and the use of “natural lighting and open spaces” were recommended. “Soft lighting is really important to create the right ambiance. Use minimal window treatments to let natural light in. Woven wooden blinds and sheer fabrics are a nice option,” Korpman agrees. “Natural and renewable materials also are important, such as bamboo flooring.”

“Many members have a home altar equipped with items such as candle, small plant or flowers, incense, statue of Buddha or cross. The altar is located away from busy areas such as a TV room or home office,” says Blackman, noting that the area around this space is usually free of clutter. “Several members turn off the phone during meditation practice and begin and end the practice with a bell,” says Blackman, adding that indoor fountains are also used for the soothing sound of water.

“The benefits of a Zen life derive from true practice. Physically and mentally, it can relieve stress. Mentally and spiritually, we come to know ourselves and our Essential Nature, and we train ourselves to abide in and come forth from it. This helps us to live freshly, creatively and appropriately – to live a life that matters,” says Blackman.

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