During a zen meditation day, one is silent (or as much so as possible); this is called a Zazenkai (day of sitting). Longer meditations may last several days to a week (sessin).
The meditations themselves (i.e. sitting and walking meditations) are just longer lasting versions of a single meditation sitting (which may last 20 to 40 minutes); the goal is to focus one’s attention on the breathing (or other focuses) and observe the thoughts that arise with objectivity and compassion.
Because participants are nearly silent during these periods, the mind also becomes quieter.
Then, during the meditation session (day or longer), there are periods of work including cooking, cleaning, or other tasks. For instance, one might choose to clean the bathroom as a work task.
What is fascinating is that turning down the volume on one’s thoughts liberates one to act with more focus and attention: this is because the thoughts create a divide between you and your actions. The example of cleaning the bathrooms would work as follows: The teacher/meditation leader announces tasks to do for work practice. In your mind, you might think “I do not want to clean the bathrooms. How disgusting….” This might turn into an entire internal dialogue with yourself, in which you create a whole story and scenario surrounding the cleaning of bathrooms. You might even bring up opinions you have formed regarding cleaning of bathrooms–for instance, “that is below me” or “only poor or uneducated people clean bathrooms” or “I am too good to clean bathrooms” or “cleaning bathrooms is dirty and disgusting work.” This story process might last for seconds or minutes, clouding your attention and distracting you from whatever else is taking place in your environment. Meanwhile, if your thoughts are quieted down, there might be no gap between the announcement that the bathrooms need cleaning and your action of volunteering to help. Without the judging, analyzing, and storytelling taking place in your mind, the action of cleaning follows directly as a response to the announcement of the need for a bathroom cleaner.
A personal example is that I frequently fail to ask for help or ask questions, for instance when doing a homework assignment for school. The thoughts that say “I don’t really understand but I’m not going to seek help” can get in the way of reacting to the need of getting help and ultimately harm my understanding.
To encapsulate this theme: Events (causes) occur which, under ideal circumstances, would lead to a person taking a direct action to address the event. An internal effect of the cause is a cascade of storytelling, self-judgements, and analysis within the mind. These may ultimately lead to failure to take action that would otherwise be an optimal response to the event. Often there are many, unnecessary thoughts and stories that prevent efficient action.
This relates to another concept. That is that when the (or at least my) mind is faced with a challenge–for instance, a cause the requires action, like feeling hunger and needing to decide what to eat–it will naturally dig and find resources to solve the problem. However, the extra thoughts that I mention above cloud this problem-solving process. In other words, internal stories and self-imposed restrictions (in the case of the bathroom cleaning, “I am too good to clean a bathroom”) prevent one from solving the problem at hand. Other false beliefs I have observed include things like “I am not good at math” or “I am stupid.” These beliefs are actively blocking the believer from taking actions and problem-solving in response to causes.