I turned 26 last week, so decided to share some of my life philosophy. I talked about existential questions back in the days and that post still gets a lot of attention. Now, however, I’ll share the zen principles I practice. I’m not religious or anything, but the rules, beauty and simplicity of Zen Buddhism have saved me in more than one way.
You’ve had zen moments in your life, but chances are you never analyzed them to see what caused them and how to get more of them. You can get to know the Zen Buddhist philosophy and use it to end your suffering, find happiness and meaning without changing anything, improve your relationships, overcome the hardships of life, deal with loss, and much more.
That’s what I did back in the days and the simple but powerful realizations I came to helped me transform my thoughts, which then affected my actions. Once you do that, you can change your reality.
Truth is, I first worked on my spiritual development, before I moved onto personal growth, after which I pursued business growth.
It all begins on the inside – by getting to know yourself, letting go of the past and the regrets that go with it, handling stress and anxiety, dealing with unresolved issues that are blocking your clear thinking, and then setting other goals.
You’ve heard of most of the zen principles and practices I’ll share below. But with everything else going on in your life, you probably didn’t pay enough attention to any of them. But these can’t be practiced without a deep understanding of their meaning. I believe it’s worth it and such a process of self-awareness can lead to inner fulfillment for the rest of your life.
So, here are the zen teachings that helped me live the life I now enjoy every day:
9 Zen Principles of Life
1. Suffering is inevitable, but you are the one who can end it.
According to Buddhism, there’s a lot of pain in life and there’s no way to avoid it. However, suffering is something we choose.
Buddha talks talked about getting hurt by an arrow and gave this as an example of real pain. What comes after it, though, which depends on whether or not you’re in harmony with yourself and the world, is suffering. And you do it to yourself.
That’s the overthinking, the blaming, getting angry, seeking revenge, reliving the experience in your mind, complaining about it, grieving about the wound, and more.
This really helps give a perspective and we can understand the difference between pain and suffering. And while it’s true that life goes together with death, illness and pain, there’s no need to bring mental suffering too by not letting go of the experience.
Life is amazing and much easier to handle once you understand this simple truth. The zen life has no suffering in it simply because anyone following this philosophy found a way to end their suffering and free themselves from the emotional pain. One of the main causes for this is attachment, which brings us to the next zen principle.
2. Free yourself from attachment to fully experience life.
People get attached to their partner, belongings, career, hopes and dreams, the past, or else. That behavior is harmful as it brings more suffering to your life.
The moment you get too attached, you become more vulnerable and thus allow yourself to be hurt.
You also start having expectations and try to fill a void inside you with the object you’re attached to.
That’s because you seek happiness in external sources, when actually it’s already here, everywhere around you. I’ll talk about this in one of the next zen principles on the list. The truths I’m sharing now are all connected, really.
The foundation of Buddhism is The 4 Noble Truths. These teachings talk about what suffering is, what causes it, and how attachment is the way out of this mental trap. That’s also the way to finding the path to enlightenment.
Attachment is wrong because everything in life is impermanent. That means we don’t own anything and won’t have anyone in our lives for long. Even our own time here is limited so we shouldn’t spend it by living with the burden of attachment.
Buddhism can help you accept pain but eliminate suffering.
Oftentimes, the hard question is when to attach and when to let go. I thought about this a lot and the answer was almost always to let go. It helps you live the zen way and be not just your best version, but also make others happy by serving them, instead of affecting them negatively with your mental struggles.
Here’s something you might enjoy:
The opposite of attachment is non-attachment and that itself is one of the zen principles that changed my life.
Detach yourself from everything you cling to in order to be able to see how it made you more miserable. The interesting thing is that once you free yourself from it, you will then experience it fully.
Just think about it. If you’re attached to a person, you probably look a bit desperate, need them around you all the time, crave their attention and try to please them. In the end, you change and aren’t the person they fell in love with anymore. No one would want to be part of a relationship like that.
Buddhism teaches that to have a meaningful relationship with another human being, you should be independent.
Being attached to the other person causes suffering, which prevents you from living freely and happily. Once you leave it aside and instead simply appreciate that person, thank them for being in your life, enjoy the time you spend together and don’t expect anything from them, you can have a connection that will make you both fulfilled.
3. Letting go brings peace and freedom.
Back in the days I was living in the past or worrying about the future. These 2 behaviors are so wrong and make life so much more complicated, yet most people do it all the time.
The solution is simple: let go of the past and future because they don’t matter. All we have is this moment and by not being mindful of it, we’re missing out on life.
One of the first books I ever wrote, even before I was making money as a writer, was about finding happiness in the present moment. It’s called This Moment and in it, I talk about freeing ourselves from the burden of the past and letting go of fearing the future. Once we do that, we come back to this moment, smile, live it and find true contentment.
These simple zen principles and practices helped me be happy with my life the way it is, even though that new mindset was the foundation of the transformation I later started.
4. Nothing is permanent.
The Zen way of thinking also encourages accepting the impermanence of life. Everything is transient, so even if we get attached, it’s sure that we will experience loss.
Giving this existential truth some time to sink in helped me look at things from another perspective. There’s nothing I could do about the impermanent things in life and feeling bad about this or getting depressed is a waste of time. When you allow your subconscious mind to believe this too, you enter another mental state where you can take action without fearing failure.
If we can’t really have anything forever, then we might as well make the most of the things we have now.
I tried to appreciate the people in my life more. In fact, one of the critical things that helped me be more patient with my parents instead of annoyed all the time, was the habit of reminding myself that they won’t be here forever. This changed everything.
Whenever you’re about to judge someone, don’t feel like listening to them, are annoyed at being asked many questions, or are in a bad mood and can’t deal with a friend, remember this: That person won’t be here for long. But they are giving you their most precious thing – their time – right now. By investing yours too, listening actively and truly being there (without bringing arguments from the past or expecting them to behave in a certain way), you can bring joy to both of you and have a meaningful conversation.
5. Live simply.
I’ve always been interested in the life of a zen monk.
Monks are truly contented but own almost nothing. Their days are simple. They work hard, have dedicated their life to serving others, meditate to rest and empty their mind, have a light smile on their face all the time, eat simple food, have just a few pieces of clothing, don’t complain, judge or have wishes to achieve more.
There’s wisdom in this and many signs of what true happiness looks like. One of the zen principles I paid attention to over the years was to simplify my existence. I became more of a minimalist in a few ways.
Elimination is a powerful process. Truth is, people own more than they need, do many unnecessary things every day, keep themselves busy, have too much information in their head, want to keep up with everything going on, wish for more friends, more money, new belongings, etc.
However, turns out these desires also lead to suffering. There’s always something ‘more’ so satisfaction never comes by chasing it.
What if we look at what we already have and realize it’s more than enough?
And don’t think that can stop you from being successful or reaching your goals. The secret is in finding balance between taking action and being grateful and peaceful.
The way I do it is this:
I don’t have too many goals or too many things on my to-do list. The ones that have place there are essential, it’s what I truly want and every day I take action to get closer. At the same time, though, I also stop, look around and thank for the abundance I live in.
That reminds me that even if nothing changes, I’ll be happy. Such a comforting thought is important to staying sane in the process of getting ahead, but also to make sure you don’t miss out on the beauty of the present moment.
Follow this one of the zen principles by removing the unnecessary in your life and living more like a zen monk.
6. We are building our own prisons.
I was feeling guilty for so much a few years ago. Even things such as knowing I’m not making the most of my time, rejecting others and thus hurting them, and not appreciating the people in my life enough were bothering me, although I wasn’t dong anything to change that. Such a vicious circle!
Also, although pretty young and not having done anything too bad, I was going back to mistakes from the past. I felt bad about them over and over again. My life was easy and instead of enjoying that, I was looking for a way to make it feel fair as I thought I don’t deserve it.
At some point it hit me. All this guilt was pointless and only making things worse. Thanks to getting familiar with the teachings of Zen Buddhism, I realized that guilt is a choice and I can decide to let it go, and continue my life without it.
I learned that feeling guilty all the time for no apparent reason was a common thing in the Western world, and some more peaceful and easy going cultures such as those in Asia didn’t struggle with something like that.
By feeling guilty, we are punishing ourselves.
You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger. – Buddha
We feel bad about something we did or didn’t do. There’s a lot we can learn about this condition from a psychological point of view, but that’s not the point here. The zen living implies that we all make mistakes as we aren’t perfect.
Perfection is an illusion. So accept the fact that you have done wrong things and you’ll probably do some more in the future even if you try your best. That’s okay. Let it go, be free from the negativity, embarrassment and guilt.
You hurt people in your life all the time without even realizing it. You hurt yourself by not forgiving yourself about everything from the past, not celebrating your successes and giving yourself some credit, not following your dreams, not ending a bad relationship, and more. But by feeling guilty about it, it gets much worse.
7. Everything is already perfect.
Another big aspect of my spiritual awakening, and one of the key zen principles that helped me change my life, was the realization that things are perfect the way they are.
“When you realize how perfect everything is you will tilt your head back and laugh at the sky.” – Buddha
I, like many of you, was focusing on what I wanted to get rid of in my life, the things I didn’t like, the stuff I wanted more of. At the end of the day, I wasn’t acknowledging all that I did have which was perfect.
It wasn’t until I started practicing mindfulness (being in the present moment and accepting everything for what it is, as it’s exactly what it’s supposed to be) that I became much happier without changing anything.
If something isn’t perfect, that means you have created a picture in your mind of how it’s supposed to be. So now you aim to achieve that outcome in reality too. But people and life itself have limitations. And what’s in our mind isn’t always how things are supposed to be.
There’s something called the Zen way, the natural flow of events. My first book is dedicated to it, The Tao of Happiness.
There I talk about the fact that we should stop trying to control everything and accept things more. Then, we can look around and see we already have all that we need. That brings contentment, it makes you grateful and joyful. And by some magic force, the more you focus on what you already have and appreciate it, the more you get from it.
Understand that you’re doing great, what you don’t like and want more of is actually okay. And if you stop expecting and start accepting, you’ll feel like the richest person in the world.
8. Be kind and forgive.
Another one of the zen principles of life is about compassion. The act of forgiving, of being kind both to yourself and to others.
Silence the angry man with love. Silence the ill-natured man with kindness. Silence the miser with generosity. Silence the liar with truth. – Buddha
The best way to make the world a better place is to be kind to others. Sometimes a smile, compliment or just being there for them can make someone’s day. Also, by sending such vibes to people you get the same in return and every day becomes a positive experience.
Compassion is about understanding others, knowing we’re all equal and connected, forming relationships without expecting anything from the other person. Judging and blaming are wrong. They bring negative emotions and make us suffer, so let them go.
I significantly improved my relationships and let go of some of the pain from the past by learning how to forgive. Like anything else, that works best if you manage to forgive yourself first.
Remind yourself that you’re allowed to make mistakes and that you’re taking the lesson out of each in order to move on stronger. When others hurt you in some way, don’t take it personally. It usually isn’t.
Whenever someone in my life does something I’m not happy with, I remember that these people don’t have it easy either. I can never know what’s going on in their head, so I shouldn’t start an argument, make them feel guilty about how they treated me, or else.
Kindness heals all kinds of wounds. Practice it, even though other people will keep doing the same things to you. Over time, you’ll notice how they are becoming kinder too and your relationship gets easier and more enjoyable.
Use that approach for family members too. Sometimes, we end up being angry at our parents because we assume they didn’t raise us right. But they did what they could. It’s just that their version of right is different. They don’t always know our true desires and can’t take us on the right path. They want us to be happy but have a different plan for that.
Instead of blaming your parents for their high expectations, try to see things from their point of view. You’ll notice that they dedicated their best years to giving you the life you once took for granted. And for that, you should be forever grateful.
9. Unconditional love does exist, but we’re doing it wrong.
Most people have a wrong perception of love. It’s not love when you have jealousy, don’t share things with your partner, try to change them, blame them for what they did in the past, or expect from them more than they can give you.
But it is true love when you find a way to appreciate everything about that person, especially their flaws. It is love when you expect absolutely nothing in return and truly want them to be happy, even if that doesn’t mean they will choose to spend their life with you.
That involves leaving behind our own desires and wishing these people the best. We can love them from a distance, or even if we move on and find someone else to spend our lives with.
Such love is a form of energy and it doesn’t need to go away. It can transform into other good things.
People also wrongly assume that love hurts. But no, it’s rejection that hurts, it’s breaking up that hurts, it’s getting attached and having high expectations that can’t be met that hurts.
Love itself is what life is all about and the teachings of Buddhism about it are very liberal. It says that you can love anyone, but let them be and don’t get in their way. Instead, you should do your own things.
It also says that marriage itself doesn’t mean much, especially these days. But the deep, lasting bond that two people have is strong enough to overcome all challenges, even losing each other.
What are the zen principles you’d like to follow?
So that’s how the teachings of Zen Buddhism have affected my life over the years. I go back to them every now and then as it’s easy to get distracted, start chasing too many things at once, get attached again, or stop approaching what you have.
A simple reminder of even one of these zen principles can make you peaceful, mindful and contented.