Zen and iZen Gardens: Get your virtual Zen on


Spoiler alert!If you’re going to buy a virtual zen garden, I would recommend iZenGarden. It will give you the most bang for your buck, which, now that I think of it, isn’t zen at all.


Before the break I promised to write about the train wreck in the making that was supposed to be the Stephens family reunion. I regret to inform you that it wasn’t a train wreck, although there were a few minor detours.

I can’t speak for all Baptist families, but I can speak for our Baptist family which is a relatively smaller subset of Baptist families called Baptist Preachers’ Families (BPFs). BPFs distinguish themselves by having almost every male adult member of the family being a Baptist preacher. That’s right, my grandfather was a Baptist minister, as was my father, two uncles and several cousins. As far as I know, women don’t get to be Baptist preachers yet, although they can occasionally become evangelists but more often missionaries, which includes an aunt and two nieces.

When you have that many BPs in a BPF the odds are high that they aren’t the same kind of Baptist either, because Baptist churches and denominations split into smaller Baptist churches and denominations faster than ameoba. There are Fundamentalist Baptists, Evangelical Baptists, Southern Baptists, Hard Shell Baptists, Bedrock Baptists, Independent Baptists, Independent Bible Believing Baptists, Independent Every Single Word of the Bible Believing Baptists, Megachurch Baptists and even, believe it or not, politically progressive Baptists who still remember their connections to William Jennings Bryan and the farmers’ alliances (and, in a short turn to the left, Eugene Debs and the Wobblies, who were political allies but definitely not Baptists).

This means that you can’t worry about family conversations degenerating into arguments, that will happen with a statement like, “Lovely morning, isn’t it?” No, BPFs make their points with drama. Baptists love drama. If a sermon hasn’t delivered a few dents to the top of the podium, feedback from the speakers, liberal Bible slapping and thumping, shouting, leaping and “amens” and “hallelujahs,” then that minister is demoted to deacon or the Episcopal church before you can say, “amen.”

And when BPFs gather, every statement or gesture that isn’t thoroughly vetted by the seventeen hundred possible interpretations of the literal meaning of the Bible is likely to become brittle and dry tender being carried by the wind into the focused lens of the family magnifying glass and a ray of sunlight so bright it will burst in the apocalypse of all dramas intended to squeeze everyone through those old laundry wringers that leave you flat and hanging compliantly from the clothesline of acquiescence. Even if you don’t know what you did wrong, you will know you somehow transgressed. At least until later in the evening when a new drama unfolds.

This reunion was surprisingly sedate. It was almost as though our wives never left us unattended and spent every moment with their hands wrapped our elbows waiting to squeeze as soon as we opened our mouths.

Even at that moment when we were all at the tiny Baptist church in Easterly and they started to sing the invitation, and I started to sweat because past experience has taught me that if you’re the only person who’s not a member of a church that small the invitation won’t end until you’re prostrate on the altar and speaking in tongues, they rose to the occasion and stopped singing after three verses.

Even my nephew Stephen, who can bring an emotional hurricane into the tiniest family gathering, was so exhausted from swimming, roughhousing with new cousins and riding all-terrain vehicles that he was a model child.

Everyone was on their best behavior and there was only one comment about my failing to live up to my potential.

Since I used to get that comment at least three times during every family dinner, I take that as a testament to my family’s maturity, because I have never intended to live up to my potential. At various times I have—according to my family and often within fifteen minutes of the last comment—been told I should be a lawyer and a minister, a news reporter, a lawyer, a minister, a high school teacher, a lawyer, a minister, a counselor, a CIA analyst, a lawyer and a minister.

The family let up on me a little when I introduced them to Carol, the first woman I dated that they approved of (this includes my first wife, which may have been the first time my family and I agreed on anything—although it took a few years for me to reach agreement with them on that). In fact, both my parents took Carol aside after our first dinner together to let her know a girl like her could do a lot better than me.

But back to the family reunion. The only real glitch came from us. Carol’s family is incredibly organized and Baptists like to wait for God to let his plans happen. So when Carol wanted an agenda for the reunion, the best anyone could tell her is “it starts Saturday morning and we’ll see what happens, and we may stay to hear Phillip’s uncle preach on Sunday.” Suddenly, I found myself stuck in the middle of the classic spouse v family battle of wills.

Twenty-five years of marriage have taught me that the best way to manage conflict between the most precious person to you in the world and your family is to get out of the way, but if you can’t, take your wife’s side. Especially if you don’t want to move back in with your family.

But Carol wasn’t going to let this one go because this time what was my family’s fault was my fault too. I am a Stephens and when Carol asked what was in the agenda I told her exactly what was on the flyer: “It starts Saturday morning and we’ll see what happens, and we may stay to hear Phil (my uncle and namesake) preach on Sunday.” What I forgot to tell her was that there was a flyer.

Now Carol’s family is probably the most sedate lot I’ve ever met. My family has Baptist in the genes, hers has Espiscopal. Their idea of family conflict is to go to your separate rooms and do what you really wanted to do anyway. Or put on a movie and limit the conversation to those moments when her mother would say, “what just happened?” and everybody else would say “watch the movie, Nancy.”

Why she picked this moment to behave like my family and draw a line in the sand, I don’t know. But she drew the line in the sand and we were the ones who had to move across it. For the first time in our marriage, she was behaving like a Stephens. She sent emails to everyone demanding an agenda. Whenver she spoke on the phone with my mother or sister Aimee she said, at least once, “if I only had an agenda.”

I’m going to fast forward to the moment when we were only fifteen minutes out of Austin, it was already one-thirty in the afternoon and my mother called in a panic to see where we were because the barbecue had been served an hour ago. Carol politely informed my mother that we would be another couple of hours and that if there really had been an agenda we would have known to come earlier.

I will admit I was really pissed at the time, but in retrospect I have to say, “Way to go, Carol. That was classic Stephens drama. In your face and still passive aggressive. They will grouse about you at the next four family Christmases the way they used to grouse about me and never get your point. Because the drama is the point.”

I’ve never been more proud of you.

If you’re wondering if there’s a point to all this, there is. Family reunions, especially BPF family reunions, are like volcanoes waiting to blow from all the stress just underneath the surface. And since I started discussing stress management apps last week, I thought I’d turn to virtual zen gardens where you can rake virtual sand with your virtual rake and meditate calmly until the crisis passes.

I hope it’s a virtual crisis, because I’m not sure any iPad based stress management tool relieves real stress. But two contenders have thrown their hat in the ring, Zen Garden and iZen Garden.

The connection between stress and zen

I hardly consider myself a Zen master, or even a Zen student, but I’ve done a lot of reading about Zen and the only thing about it that I understand is that if I were to really understand it, I would have missed the point entirely.

Americans don’t get Zen, and those that do are only fooling themselves. There’s nothing to get, and that runs as counter to the American mindset at mayonnaise on french fries. In fact, Americans are Zenophobic, which is why virtual Zen tools are so popular.

Zen looks cool, and for Americans the only thing that matters is to look cool. You don’t actually have to be cool; other’s just have to think you’re cool. You might call this Zen American. And that’s where iPad Zen gardens come in.

You can rake for a few moments and meditate to relieve your stress, but the good news is you won’t really relieve stres, you will convince yourself you relieved stress. And that’s even better because anyone who isn’t stessed in America is a slacker so if anything we really need more stress.

Do you see the beauty of it? Spend a few minutes meditating and as your stress dissolves, you will realize you’re falling behind deadline and feel more stress. But that’s a good thing because Americans can’t relax unless we’re totally stressed. This is the truly American Zen paradox.

Let’s phrase that as a Koan: “How can one relax if they feel no stress?”

As far as I’m concerned there’s no Zen more American than the Zen and iZen gardens.

Zen Garden: Keep it Zimple

Zen Garden is nothing more than a virtual sandbox. You can drag figures in the sand with one finger or use multiple fingers to create a rake effect. When you want to reset, you can shake the iPad and the sand smooths out (very much like Etch-a-Sketch).

You can drag a path with a single finger.

Or create a very very narrow rake effect by dragging multiple fingers.

You may think to yourself “That’s it?” Yes, that’s it. Then again, when people finally grasp Zen, they have the same response. When they come to accept that epiphany, they are ready to become Zen Masters.

Will Zen Garden get you there? It’s hard to say because I have only advanced to the level of Zen where I understand that I don’t get it. But I have to admit that I’ve played in plenty of sand boxes and this doesn’t feel anything like sand. I know you’re supposed to use a rake, so you wouldn’t feel the sand between your fingers, but even a rake should experience some drag.

And there are only two rake modes—single finger and three tine. Perhaps zen rakes only have three tines so they’re going for verisimilitude. But if that were the case, they could have at least added a sand raking sound.

When, I opened iZen Garden, however, I discovered that rake had five or six tines. So I guess the developers didn’t want to write the code for a fourth tine. Or perhaps they wanted to keep the code as small as possible.
All I have to say is, it looks like sand, but it doesn’t feel like sand and I would really have liked to see a wider rake and hear the sand.

But if I were really to reach a state of zen, I think I would be able to do it with this Zen Garden as well as any other. And it’s only a dollar.

iZen Garden for iPad: razzle dazzle zen

The irony of iZen Garden is that it’s a much more sophisticated and iPad worthy app. It’s five dollars more, but it packs dozens of features into it’s interface. In fact, it reminds me very much of the Koi Pond app I reviewed last week. I had to double check to make sure the app didn’t have the same developer.

iZen Garden is the perfect iPad zen garden, slick and commercial with lots of options. Best of all it provides you with a neat little koan every time you open the app, and complete instructions on the principles of of zen meditation among the hundreds of lines in the in app user guide.

Each session begins with a koan.

The app also provides a user guide to zen meditation.

The app also provides you with total control of the environment and meditation settings. You can choose ambient sounds that include Tibetan Bells, the ocean and rain, you can adjust the rake depth and, theoretically, you can hear the sound of the rake in the sand (I haven’t been able to, and I’m to lazy to hook up the headphones just to see if I can hear through them).

You have almost complete control over the ambient environment.

I suspect most users will be happiest with the ability to customize their gardens. And I mean gardens. You can save multiple garden layouts to suit your current meditation needs.

You can choose from rocks, leaves, plants, fossils and other decorative objects, resize them and plant them anywhere you want in your garden. Most importantly, you can lock them in place. I stress the importance of this because if you don’t lock them you are likely to catch them in your rake and move them around.

The gardens come with a number of decorative objects to enhance contemplation and meditation.
They also make your garden feel like a much cooler toy.

As an iPad app, iZen Garden dazzles, but it reminds me of those Chinese restaurants that cater to American tastes. Zen is not about “cool” and “choice.” This strikes me more as an exercise in consumerism more than in spiritual growth.

On the other hand, who knows? I can imagine a Zen Master saying, “What matters is that you become enlightened, not so much as how you get there.” Or, “What is the sound of virtual raking?”

Jenny Manytoes rates the Zen Gardens

Jenny Manytoes would actually make biscuits on the Zen Garden app and ignore iZen Garden. After all, no respectable cat likes clutter and noise in her litter box. It gets in the way of raking. But I’m going to overrule her because raking the iZen Garden is about as close as a human can come to making biscuits on your iPad.

In fact, I’m recommending that Carol recommend this app to her Siamese Rescue buddies so they can experience making biscuits themselves and relieve some of the stress from changing litter boxes for a dozen cats.

The Jenny Manytoes Rating System


Jenny Manytoes, our polydactyl cat
  • When Jenny makes biscuits on a product she thinks she’s in heaven.
  • When Jenny purrs over a product she’s very happy.
  • When Jenny naps next to a product it’s okay with her.
  • When Jenny bunches her tail she can live with a product, but she has higher expectations.
  • When Jenny leaves it in the litter box….I don’t think I need to explain this one.

iPad Envy is created entirely using apps from my iPad.
Please email me at iPadenvy@me.com.

Location:Pitter Pat Ln,Austin,United States

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About Phillip T Stephens

Phillip T. Stephens disappeared into the Bermuda Triangle twenty years before he was born, creating a time travel paradox so confusing it remains unspoken between physicists and sci-fi writers to this day. Follow @stephens_pt
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