Adding a layer of calm to our days eases stress. And for me, that's achieved by soaking in elements of nature. One way I like to bring the beauty and tranquility of Mother Nature indoors is by constructing a DIY Zen garden. The mini nature oasis provides a focal point for meditation and helps me mindfully pause when spending time indoors. Let's learn more about these tranquil spaces and how to make a Zen garden of your own.
What Exactly Is a Zen Garden?
Originating in Japan, these structures are also known as Japanese rock gardens or karesansui, which translates to "dry-mountain-water," according to Smithsonian Magazine. These minimalist gardens, generally featuring white sand and a few carefully positioned rocks, are designed to "invoke deep meditation"—a core tenet of Buddhist philosophy.
These gardens are conventionally located outside and can measure as large as a tennis court. You might see approximately fifteen rocks nestled in sand that's been carefully groomed with a rake to display lines in various patterns. You might also spot pieces of moss anchoring the stones, creating an island effect in the sea of sand.
In Kyoto, Japan, you can visit Ryoan-ji, also known as the Temple of the Peaceful Dragon. The stones in this 15th-century rock garden are positioned in a way that loosely creates the outline of a branching tree or resembles a tiger and cubs, both tranquil illusions that engage visitors' thinking minds during moments of reflection at the garden.
Steps to Make a DIY Indoor Zen Garden
Traditional Zen gardens are simple: sand, stones, and occasionally moss. But in modern times, we've evolved these gardens to feature additional earth-derived elements that speak to us, all in a small tabletop scale.
As I've created a few of these around my home, I tend to work with a soil or pebble base, because it feels more grounding and helps me connect with the earth. Plus, sand can get a little messy! Here's my approach to how to make a Zen garden.
1. Choose a Container
Can you upcycle an unused flower pot or a fancy bowl that's tucked away in your kitchen cupboard? I've also used homemade wooden boxes or large, flat seashells for the bases of DIY Zen gardens.
2. Select a Substrate
What do you want to form the base of your garden? If you like the idea of traditional white sand, you can find some at a craft store. Or, you could use sand collected locally from the edge of a lake or beach that has meaning to you. You can also experiment with other earth-based elements, such as wood mulch, small stones, cut grass, or sprouted seedlings in soil.
3. Pick your Stones
These will become the focal points in your Zen garden. I personally have chosen rocks that I've picked up on vacations that have personal meaning to me. For example, I used five small blacks stones that I gathered during a mindfulness walk in the forest last month for my latest Zen garden.
4. Add New Elements
If you want to go beyond a traditional Zen garden style, consider adding extra elements. I like tiny figurines intended for fairy gardens, rocks I've painted, shells, seeds, tree bark, and other trinkets I've found outdoors that remind me of my hiking and camping adventures.
5. Arrange the Garden as You Wish
Fill the container with the substrate, then layer on the stones and other items. Configure them in a way that feels right to you and brings you happiness. You might position them once and leave them, or move the items around each time you peer at the garden.
6. Visit Your Garden
Finally, visit the garden often. If you become stressed or overwhelmed and need to clear your mind, look at one of the rocks in the garden and see what bubbles up in your thoughts. Try to acknowledge the thought, then let it go. This is the basic idea behind meditation. Practicing this releasing of attachment can help us feel calmer.
Benefits of Mindfulness and Meditation
Building a tabletop DIY Zen garden and seeing it in your home each day can help you remember to pause and reflect. An essay published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry about Buddhist philosophy and western psychology states that taking control of the content of our minds is how we can develop good mental habits. Examining our thoughts, without attachment to them, allows us to sort them out. Negative thoughts and impulses can then be abandoned, making space and energy to nurture positive ideas.
When I adopt this process, I discover I have less ruminating thoughts that focus on worry, what-ifs, or negativity. Why? Because I've intentionally let them go to gain the capacity to nourish ideas that deserve attention and exploration. Peering at one of my in-home Zen gardens helps me stay focused on this mental process.
Learning how to make a Zen garden amplifies your appreciation of nature while providing a focal point in your home that encourages calm and tranquility. Check out other ideas for supporting your mental well-being on the Yoga and Mindfulness board by @tomsofmaine on Pinterest.
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Why It's Good
Pausing to reflect helps us feel calm and collected. Building a Zen garden, then visiting it often to pause during our busy days can help to ease stress and anxious thoughts. Your DIY Zen garden can include your favorite elements in nature—rocks, flowers, sand, or water—to help you connect with the things that bring you peace.