The ″Zen″ of Berlin: Concentration and Culture-Shock | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 16.03.2007
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The "Zen" of Berlin: Concentration and Culture-Shock

Arden Pennell has discovered that Buddhist teachings are catching on in Berlin. Missing the bus gave her a chance to practice Zen-like mindfulness.

Arden Pennell discovered a bit of Zen in Berlin

Arden Pennell discovered a bit of Zen in Berlin

The January opening of a Church of Scientology center in Berlin has caused a stir of local concern about the “brainwashing” sect’s street-corner proselytizing. Meanwhile, the construction of a new mosque in Pankow has riled up residents and right-wing politicians.

Yet alarmist fears and prejudiced indignation don’t interest me as much as another aspect of Berlin’s religion-related happenings: The large Buddhist community I have discovered here.

The Zen trend

Buddhism has become part of Western Leitkultur, from labeling a laid-back attitude as “Zen,” as in, “I wish I could be a little more Zen about my work,” to the smiling, seated Buddha statuettes sold as trendy centerpieces, to Richard Gere’s “Free Tibet” campaigns with the Dalai Lama. From slang to home furnishings to Hollywood, Buddhism pops up.

Arden Pennell Berliner Dom

The Berlin Cathedral represents a different kind of religious tradition

I didn’t come to Germany to discover what lies beneath this superficial web of associations; rather, the interest arose when I got here, causing me to wonder whether Berlin was the right place to learn more. The enormous, friendly, group of individuals I have since met has definitively proven that, although Germans are allegedly less religious than ever, many have discovered a sort of non-dogma they can live by.

In contrast to Christianity and Judaism, the two religions with the historically largest followings in Germany, Buddhism isn’t necessarily a faith-based system.

It has a tradition of teachers who exhort their listeners to “try it out” before agreeing, and many major principles sound more like common sense than mysticism, which may be part of its appeal in Europe’s “God is dead” era. For example, the ideal of mindfulness, for which many adherents strive, simply describes the state of being fully present in the moment.

Arden Pennell Synagoge in Berlin

A synagogue in Berlin

A recent magazine article about fun diversions for Berliners suggested dabbling in mindfulness, only to conclude that being aware of your surroundings and the nice Altbau architecture on the bike ride home was less efficient than mentally planning dinner.

Yet mindfulness isn’t about inefficiency -- it’s about the power of non-fragmented attention to wake up to the surroundings.

Respond "mindfully" can be rewarding

One morning, having forgotten as I usually do to turn off the heat in my apartment -- not something I’m used to from growing up with building-wide controlled heating in New York -- I ran back in to turn the knob and missed the impeccably punctual bus by about ten seconds.

I began fuming, but instead of going with it, I tried to be mindful, taking a deep breath and thinking, “Hello, fuming. What else is there in this minute alongside you?”

Arden Pennell

Arden Pennell didn't have to worry about turning off the heating in New York City

To Al Gore’s probable horror, I noticed it was an unseasonably warm and beautiful day. Missing the bus was a great chance to walk to the next stop and enjoy the weather. In other words, I paid a little attention to what was going on parallel to my own bundle of nerves and felt rewarded.

Mindfulness isn’t going to turn me into a completely “Zen” individual any time soon, especially since living abroad seems to be a continual adaptation process, not one that eventually slows. But by increasing self-awareness, it is a useful tool for better responding to the occasional frustration of living as a foreigner, such as not remembering how to express certain ideas in German or suffering through the lines at the Ausländerbehörde (public office for foreigners).

Now if I could just figure out how to respond mindfully to those scientology solicitors accosting passers-by outside of KaDeWe…

Read Arden Pennell's Earlier Columns

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