Meet Emily: the President of the University of Bristol's Zen Society

We interviewed Emily Rosenfeld, president of Zen Soc and regular leader of their weekly mediation sessions.

Tell us more about Zen

"Zen is a school of Buddhism (rooted in Mahayana) that is deeply connected to spirtituality which departs from branches of Buddhism that are centred upon scripture (although this informs the practice). Zen has more of an emphasis on learning the philosophy of Buddhism and exploring this through direct practice and experience (i.e. meditation), rather than the study of it. The philosophical aspect of Zen doesn't teach people that they have to believe in anything specifically, whether that be spiritually or religiously, but rather, is a practical approach to one's life. The simple aspect of it as meditation has been used in the NHS as a form of stress reduction, well-being therapies and more widely in western medicine as it is seen to have incredible benefits for anxiety and stress; to increase happiness and longevity, and is scientifically proven to have effect on your neuroplasticity (relating to attention span). One of my personal interests in Zen meditation is that it's an incredibly practical life philosophy. It enables one to view things from a proximal level (how things seem right now) and an ultimate level (acknowledging universal truths and laws), in order to help recognise that stressful and anxious observations are transitory."

"Part of the privileges we've gained in becoming a society is accessing a broader range of people; we are now linked with the Student's Health Service. The counselling amenities are really fantastic at Bristol, however oversubscription often means that there are long waiting lists for treatment. If people are in a crisis a 6 week wait can be very intimidating. Zen Society offers a safe space every week to have some alone time in the company of open-minded people, and there is no pressure to come along to every session. Meditation may seem really intimidating to some because it encourages you to take time out and sit alone with your thoughts, but it can be a really important way to engage with your mind and see that problems aren't as terrifying as they seem; one of the key aspects of Buddhist philosophy is that nothing is permanent: bad thoughts are one of many that come and pass. Often things appear permanent, but meditiation helps you gain greater perspective, which is really helpful if you feel in crisis."

How did you become involved with Zen practice and Zen society at Bristol University?

"I got involved in the first year of University. At the fresher's fair I was keeping an eye out for things related to meditation because it was something that, through my own practice, I had found really helpful with anxiety and stress, and additionally I found it a helpful tool for having a clear mind. The society was actually originally set up by practicing Nun Sister Jinho. who herself, studied for a PhD in philosophy at the University of Bristol, and wanted to bring meditation practice to a student body. People usually envisage a monk in a spiritual setting for meditation, but Nuns are spiritual practitioners you learn from and are part of the monastic community. Sister Jinho left for a time after my first year and wanted Zen Society to continue as a student lead organisation with a space to meet weekly and practice. I was keen for it to keep going and ensure that there was still a space for mediation practice on a Monday. It has been successfully running for the past two years now, last year gaining the status of an official society with a full committee."

What events and classes do Zen Society offer?

"We run weekly mediation classes at the Multifaith Chaplaincy on Mondays from 6pm, although if you are new to the society, we have the room booked from 5.30pm incase anybody wants to come early if they have any questions or want any guidance and instruction. If the meditation class is run by a member of the committee (which it usually is), we will give a brief introduction on how we sit in our tradition of Buddhism, Zazen, the practice of sitting meditation. This is followed by a 15-20 minute meditation, followed by a break for discussion around Buddhist philosophy in which we read Koans which are stories that make you question your external reality. This is intended to be a thought-provoking and open-minded exercise in which members of the class can share their own perspectives. After this we close the class with a second meditation, and people can stay on and have a cup of tea afterwards and a chat. The whole session is usually an hour and is just a small part of your week that can ensure and encourage meditative practice. Additionally, with our new status as a society, we have a lot more events on offer. Each term we run a mindful arts and crafts evening which is open to everybody. We supply the resources for painting and drawing, and we run a little session mindfully. We also organise meditation retreats. We've had two so far that have been day retreats at the Multifaith Chaplaincy that have been lead by Sister Jinho, which involved a few sit in sessions of meditations (approximately 40 mintues long), follwed by a meditative walk around the gardens and then preparing and earing food mindfully together, and futher, reading Buddhist texts/other accessible literature that gives insight into Zen practice and how to incorporate it into everyday life."

Any advice for newcomers to Zen meditation?

"I'd implore students to come into Zen practice with an inquisitive approach; see what happens, step back from your own life and gain more perspective. Zen Soc and meditiation in general gives you the space and support to gain this and can be a crucial way to help you learn how to trust yourself and your own instincts, which can be really difficult with modern day, high-pressure stresses. I think that whilst having close support systems is invaluable, it's also really important to build trust in your own inner wisdom." 

Try the following link to join Zen Soc, or to find out more about upcoming events and classes