bonsai tree in zen garden

How a Zen Garden Can Improve Your Mental Health

While a flower delivery can be a great mood-lifter in the short-term, a Zen garden could be just what you need for long-term mental wellbeing. One of the great things about these gardens is that they can be as small or as large as you want, so they’re accessible to everybody. With as little 40 square inches of flat space, you can reap the benefits. 

What is a Zen garden, and how can it help boost your mental health? Let’s take a closer look.

What Is a Zen Garden?

Zen gardens originated in Japan during the reign of Emperor Suiko as part of Mahayana Buddhism. This sect of Buddhism focuses on meditation and mindfulness rather than the study of scriptures or ritual worship.

Since so much focus is on meditation, Zen gardens were to help the mind calm down and focus. Using sand, rocks, pebbles, and sometimes plants, water, or bridges, these gardens evoke feelings of calmness, tranquility, and peace. Raking the sand into swirling patterns is relaxing, and looking at the lines can help you focus.

Large zen gardens may feature trees, water elements, and even bridges, while small gardens might be as simple as a few polished rocks and sand in a small tray.

Do Zen Gardens Take Up a Lot of Space?

A Zen garden may be as large as a city park or as small as a tray that fits a desk or side table. That’s one of the great things about them. If you have a large backyard, you could dedicate part of it to a zen garden by adding sand and rocks. If you live in a tiny apartment, a small tray will suit your needs just fine. You can find these gardens online as small as 8” long by 5” wide. 

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Zen Garden Benefits

Gardening in general and tending a Zen garden, in particular, can have many physical and psychological benefits, including:

  • They promote stress relief and relaxation. The act of raking even a small Zen garden can be incredibly relaxing, which helps with overall stress relief. Large gardens require even more tending, and things like pulling weeds can be a meditative act in itself.
  • Zen gardens may spur creativity. Meditation can help inspire any number of creative ideas, and raking a Zen garden can help with meditation. Zoning out while raking your garden could just bring you that next big brainstorm idea. 
  • They remind you to practice meditation. One of the hardest things about starting a new habit is remembering to do it regularly. Seeing your garden could help remind you to take time for meditation every day. It’s certainly a gentler reminder than setting the alarm.
  • They may increase concentration, focus, and discipline. A Zen garden is a visual reminder to stay calm and focused throughout the day, regardless of what stressors life may hand you. 
  • They can enhance your décor. A small Zen garden in your home can add a classy, peaceful element to any room. Not only that, but it can be a talking point for guests who aren’t familiar with these gardens. 
  • Gardening has many physical and mental benefits. If you have space for a larger Zen garden, you’ll also get some of the benefits gardening offers. The CDC says that gardening is a great way to get physical activity. It’s an excellent way to combine stretching, strengthening, and cardiovascular benefits into a pleasurable activity. This increased activity can lead to various physical and mental benefits like lower blood pressure and fewer symptoms of depression. 
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Elements of a Zen Garden

Every Zen garden contains at least rocks or ornaments and sand. Larger gardens may have even more elements, including water and bridges. Here are some of the most common features of these gardens, along with their meaning and importance. 

Rocks (Ishi)

In Zen gardens, rocks represent power and strength. In larger gardens, the entrance is typically marked by large stones, which are a sign of welcome. Stone figures can also form paths. Even small gardens typically include polished stones. Rocks can be mixed with sand, pebbles, or water features, too. 

Ornaments (Tenkeibutsu)

A tray Zen garden may not have room for ornaments apart from small figurines, but they’re an important part of large gardens. Generally, lanterns are included because they represent enlightenment. Other typical ornaments include gates, basins, and statues of Buddha or other deities. 

Plants (Shokubutsu)

Plants tend to be included in Zen gardens because they show the passage of seasons. Cherry trees are one of the most popular choices thanks to their delicate pink spring blooms. However, Bamboo, pine, and plum trees are also common. For a smaller garden, you might consider adding succulents. 

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Water (Mizu)

Water is included in these gardens because it represents purification and cleansing. Larger gardens may consist of streams, ponds, or even waterfalls. Water is an excellent element for promoting reflection and meditation. 

Bridges (Hashi)

These gardens often include bridges because they represent somebody’s movement into the afterlife from the mortal world. Bridges cleanse a person’s worldly burdens along the journey. A red arched bridge (gazeo) is often found in Zen gardens because red represents transformation and wisdom. This encourages people to reject an attachment to material things when they cross the bridge. 

Borrowed Scenery (Shakkei)

As much as possible, outdoor Zen gardens should be near pre-existing scenery like valleys, hills, or forests. The blending of the garden into the background beauty not only enhances the look of the garden, but it also represents the interconnectedness of all existence. 

As you can see, Zen gardens can help you focus on meditation, relaxation, and stress relief, which provides many mental health benefits. Zen gardens don’t require a lot of space, either, as a small tray filled with sand and rocks can be nearly as beneficial as one the size of a park. 

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