Zen & the Art of Nursing

Published in Transformation Magazine, October 10th, 2015
Written by Susan L. Schoenbeck, MSN, RN

Americans pause on average one and one-half seconds from the time their word dueling companions finish their dialogue and they begin talking. This is not so with nurses. Nurses have developed the fine art of listening, and their good may often be achieved through silence. It is in this pause between words that nurses experience the moment when Zen is achieved. For Zen is, in essence, being in the moment. Nurses’ ears are fine-tuned to pick up on patients’ innermost thoughts. A nurse’s quiet presence creates a shared, safe space where humans can utter their most terrifying thoughts and most shamed actions without worry of being judged. From nurses, clients gain an acceptance that brings peacefulness that often cannot be explained with words, but is realized by the nurse and patient. Countless times healing takes place in ways unknown to us when we operate from a Zen-like state of being. That we cannot always grasp how this healing occurs makes such healing events no less significant.

There are many similarities between best nursing practices and Zen, which began in China during the 6th century as a way of looking at the world with a centered and calm mind. Although associated with Buddhism, Zen is not a religion, but a meditative state associated with the search for truth and self improvement. The following meditations celebrate the interaction of nurses with their patients—but they are practices we all can learn from, regardless or our profession or life path. These experiences often fall into the category of events that are beyond words, and remind us that each movement we make is full of potential and can be rich in rewards.

Looking Beyond the Masks

Zen is a way of looking at and through events. Patients are just like other people. They send out messages about who they say they are, who others think they are, and who they really are. Nurses look beyond the masks people wear and come to know who the patient is and what he or she needs most.


Zen has no map or destination. Zen encourages people to forge their own pathway of learning to better understand themselves and others. Nurses often do not know where their questions may lead. Despite not knowing, a nurse is comfortable searching for deeper meanings, thereby bringing better patient outcomes.


In the mind of a nurse, a patient can be neither good nor bad. Such a distinction is artificial. People just “are.” Nurses demonstrate that they can transcend circumstances, and work beside patients no matter what situations have brought them together.

Here and Now

Nurses meet patients whether they are:

  • angry
  • confused
  • scared
  • tired
  • unsure
  • recovering
  • hopeful or hopeless

A patient’s state of mind is never unexpected. The nurse explores, not ignores, the here-and-now feelings of a patient.



Zen says teachers will appear according to the learner’s needs. Nurses meet patients lost in a labyrinth of unfamiliar places and technologies. Nurses perform nursing cares until such a time the patient or other caregiver can take over the tasks. Nurses are some of the best teachers. Digging for Meaning Nurses understand that sometimes patients will say “yes” when they mean “no,” just to be nice. Nurses have the good sense not to believe everything they hear, but to dig deeper than asking a “yes or no” question. Nurses ask patients to tell their stories to find out what really is on their minds. Digging for meaning, rather than settling for pleasantries, uncovers truth. “Tell me” are powerful words in a nurse’s vocabulary.

The Moment

Zen teaches us to live in the moment. Nurses identify critical moments in patients’ lives. The actions nurses take in those moments make differences in patients’ well-being. One Thing at a Time Zen asks us to focus on one thing at a time. In this hectic world, nurses consciously put aside thoughts of all that must be done to dwell quietly with a patient for one moment in time.


Zen teaches us how to touch each other with our minds. Sometimes the nurse sits quietly beside a patient. When close together in silence, the patient understands the nurse cares deeply. Meditation Zen uses meditation as a way of clearing the mind to find answers. Nurses require quiet times to focus their thoughts on what needs to happen for the patient. Meditation helps nurses be more aware and rested so they can act in the best interest of a patient.

Zen Koan

A Zen koan is a puzzling question without a specific answer. A Zen koan may ask why mankind is weak. Nurses realize there is value in understanding our individual weaknesses. Nurses’ insights into their own weaknesses allow them to understand patients’ vulnerabilities and thereby, be less judgmental and more accepting of patient frailties.


Zen is persistent. Likewise, nurses do not give up on anyone. Over and over nurses provide treatment, hoping a patient may feel better and be made more comfortable.

The Growing Edge

Zen teaches us that we continue to grow on life’s journey to the end. Nurses find they learn more and better ways to provide care by going through experiences with patients. Each encounter may teach the nurse another way of practice that can be used to help future patients. That is the nature of the growing edge. The skills of nurses keep growing during their lifelong journeys.


Zen teaches us to be fully present for each other. Nurses understand listening to another requires turning off all the busyness going on in their own minds if they are to fully hear what is on a patient’s mind. Many times nurses stop attending to all the IV lines and other high-tech equipment and intentionally position themselves where patients can see and hear that the nurses are there for them. Good nursing care may just be this listening presence.

Editor’s note: The above meditations are excerpted from Zen and the Art of Nursing by Susan L. Schoenbeck (2015); publishd by Springwater Press. You can order on Amazon.

Susan L. Schoenbeck has worked in ICUs, emergency rooms, rehabilitation units, and long-term care administration. She has taught in college nursing programs and has mentored graduate students. Her work has been published in many peer-reviewed journals. In her books, The Final Entrance: Journeys Beyond Life and Near-Death Experiences: Visits to the Other Side, Schoenbeck reports experiences of patients who had out-of-body and near-death events. She also wrote Good Grief: Daily Meditations to meet the bereavement needs of families and friends who lost loved ones. Susan’s areas of specialty practice are bereavement, counseling the dying and their families, and nursing personnel as they face, in her words, “death as a life event.”