10 Zen Principles to Help You Live Life Better

Zen prin­ci­ples are lit­tle bits of sim­ple guid­ance, designed to help you grasp this life direc­tion. This arti­cle is great­ly expand­ed upon in my book, Half Asleep in the Bud­dha Hall.

Look­ing for more on this top­ic? Check out my book, Half Asleep in the Bud­dha Hall.

10 Zen Principles According to Zen Master Yogi Berra

zen principles

The fol­low­ing Zen prin­ci­ples are from one of the most Zen guys
ever–Yogi Berra

10. “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

Most do not get this, and give up way too ear­ly. You’re not done until you die-or give up.

This quote is from 1973. Berra was man­ag­ing, and his New York Mets trailed the Chica­go Cubs by 9½ games in the Nation­al League East. Berra real­ized that no mat­ter how hope­less a sit­u­a­tion seemed, the sea­son did not end until the last out. The Mets ral­lied to win the divi­sion title on the next-to-last day of the season.

To be down sev­en runs with one out to go is no more sig­nif­i­cant than any oth­er point in the game. Your duty is to act-in this case, to ‘play ball devot­ed­ly.’ The out­come is what­ev­er it is. How­ev­er, if you don’t swing the bat with the inten­tion of win­ning, you doom your­self. So, you set an inten­tion (in this case, to win) and you work toward it with full effort, until the very last.

Most give up a moment or so too soon-typ­i­cal­ly when the going gets tough, and the fog rolls in. Here’s a story:… 

[The rest of the sto­ry is in my book, Half Asleep in the Bud­dha Hall]

Often, decisions to “stop,” to “pull up,” are made in a similar fog, just a few feet from success. Far better to continue walking, and to make course corrections as we go.

Zen con­sid­ers only the present moment. What I choose to do in this moment is not pre-deter­mined by any­thing. Blam­ing your mom­my or your past rela­tion­ships, your genet­ics or your lack of under­stand­ing is just an excuse for not swing­ing for the fence, right now. 

Remem­ber: the jour­ney of a thou­sand miles begins with the first step, but only if you take it. And, of course, each step is a first step.

9. “You can observe a lot just by watching.”

This might seem non­sen­si­cal until you see the under­ly­ing rhythm:

You can observe a lot by “just watching,” 
as opposed to judging.

Observ­ing is some­thing we have talked about at length. To observe is to detach from inter­pre­ta­tion. When you ‘just observe—just watch,’ every­thing means noth­ing, and noth­ing is per­ma­nent. On the oth­er hand, if I see some­thing and imme­di­ate­ly go into my head, and start mak­ing dis­tinc­tions, all I will do is find evi­dence for what I already believe.

Shift­ing to sim­ply observ­ing requires that I uncrit­i­cal­ly watch the sit­u­a­tion as it unfolds before me. As my mind strug­gles to cre­ate a dra­ma to judge, I observe my mind play­ing games, and then have a breath and let go of that game. In this clar­i­ty, I can choose a way to respond that is appro­pri­ate to the cur­rent moment and sit­u­a­tion, with­out get­ting tied up in the games and dra­mas my mind loves.

[The rest of the sto­ry is in my book about Zen prin­ci­ples, Half Asleep in the Bud­dha Hall]

The cen­tered life (“observ­ing by just watch­ing…”) is about act­ing in a way that is con­sis­tent with your most deeply held under­stand­ings. You can­not be peace­ful by yelling… you can­not solve com­pli­ca­tions by cre­at­ing chaos. The job of life is to become con­sis­tent, per­sis­tent, and resistant.

Remem­ber: in every area where you think you are stuck, you are stuck because you are hold­ing on to some­thing that does not work. Let go, observe, move on.

8. “Think? How the hell are you gonna think and hit at the same time?”

This is the fol­low-on to the last point. From a prac­ti­cal per­spec­tive, Berra was spot on. When a pitch­er throws a base­ball at 95 miles per hour, it takes the ball only four-tenths of a sec­ond to reach home plate. That gives the bat­ter about two-tenths of a sec­ond to decide to swing or not to swing.

Thus, when hitting a baseball, thinking gets in the way of acting.

This is true with learn­ing most things. As we learn some­thing, we move from com­plex and slow to easy and fast. (Think back, for exam­ple, to how hard rid­ing a bicy­cle was, until it wasn’t.)

I’m not say­ing that hit­ting a 95 mile an hour fast­ball is easy. I am say­ing that if you are going to learn this skill, you had bet­ter give up think­ing you can rea­son your way through it. All you can do is swing a bat, again and again. Once your body ‘gets’ the idea, you can then prac­tice ele­gant hit­ting, until it becomes instinctual.

In Zen, we speak of dis­ci­pline. The key dis­ci­pline is ‘non-fol­low­ing,’ or non-attach­ment. You let each non-help­ful thought go by not cling­ing to it. Now, of course, as with Beth, such thoughts will arise until you die. 

Fol­low­ing such thoughts leads to paral­y­sis by analy­sis. This paral­y­sis seems inevitable, until I notice that repeat­ing dys­func­tion­al thought pat­terns caus­es the paral­y­sis. I am ‘lost in thought,’ and the cure is to stop myself—not by more think­ing, but by act­ing. Less thought, more action.

Remem­ber: you cause your­self prob­lems by over-think­ing and under-doing. Pick a way to be, and then just be it. Swing for the fences, let­ting the crit­i­cal thoughts fade into back­ground noise.

7. “If you don’t know where you are going, you will wind up somewhere else.”

I used to have a poster on my coun­selling wall that read, 

If you aim at nothing, you will hit it.” 

Berra presents the same idea. 

pointing toward zen principles

Many are the clients who whine about their lives, their rela­tion­ships, etc. I say, “Well, what do you want?” They reply, “Here’s what I don’t want…” Phooey. Stat­ing what you do not want, or where you are not going, or who you are not is futile and lazy. Odd­ly, most see this as progress.

I nev­er want to be in a rela­tion­ship like this again!” OK, so the next one is worse. You got what you asked for. This hap­pens all the time.

If you think about it, defin­ing what you do not want is impos­si­ble, as you can­not cov­er everything. 

[The rest of the sto­ry is in my book, Half Asleep in the Bud­dha Hall]

There is noth­ing more impor­tant than iden­ti­fy­ing the ter­ri­to­ry (what I want) and procur­ing a map (how to behave so as to get there.) It is like using a for­eign sub­way sys­tem. If you have a des­ti­na­tion, all you have to fig­ure out is the map, how to get to the right plat­form, and which car to enter. If you have no des­ti­na­tion, you are going to end up ‘wher­ev­er.’

Sure, life is hard. There are the bad breaks we cre­ate, and bad breaks that just hap­pen. So what? The only way to real­ly live is to focus on what you want, as you drop your attach­ment to what you don’t want. Then, start. Sounds easy, but it takes dis­ci­pline. Is it worth it? “Yes!”

Remem­ber: your job is to state, clear­ly, who you are, what you are about, and where you are. From “here,” you choose your next action. Next, see to it that you have integri­ty. Integri­ty means that your actions match what your mouth is say­ing. Wan­der­ing around all con­fused and lost, while grip­ing about how hard you are work­ing at defin­ing what and where you aren’t, is the height of dumb.

6. “You better cut the pizza in four pieces because I’m not hungry enough to eat six.”

I think we laugh at this one because we rec­og­nize we have done this a time or two. We know we shouldn’t eat two pieces of pie, so we take a larg­er first slice. And then tell our­selves, “At least I didn’t eat two.”

What we are talk­ing about here is the ten­den­cy to jus­ti­fy doing some­thing that vio­lates our prin­ci­ples, then resort­ing to the “It’s not as bad as it appears” defense.

  • I’m not going to crit­i­cize my part­ner, as it doesn’t work. Except this time, because what he did was real­ly bad.”
  • I’m done cruis­ing bars and pick­ing up women. I met her at a library, so that’s different.”
  • Sure, he’s abused me in the past, but this time he real­ly means it when he says he’s changed.”
  • I’m going to live my life and not let my part­ner tell me what to do, just as soon as he agrees.”

Your life changes when you decide to be dis­ci­plined about what you allow your­self to enact. This process starts when you watch your behav­iour­al out­comes, and notice your patterns.

[The rest of the sto­ry is in my book, Half Asleep in the Bud­dha Hall]

For this young woman, change will come when she drops the excus­es for hav­ing sex in an attempt to buy love. She must devel­op and then live by her prin­ci­ples, with no excus­es. She must take total respon­si­bil­i­ty for her out­comes. Oth­er­wise, she is doomed to repeat the same hor­i­zon­tal behav­iours, get the same results, and nev­er change her lev­el of self-esteem. 

Remem­ber: our minds are clever lit­tle things, and end­less­ly jus­ti­fy why we can­not do what we say we are going to do. The last thing our egos want is integri­ty-based liv­ing — it’s entire­ly too self-responsible.

It is very Zen to do what we say we will do. Noth­ing less, noth­ing more. Chop wood, car­ry water. Don’t be tricky, don’t dis­sem­ble, and don’t lie. Say it. Do it. Four pieces, six pieces — it’s still the whole pie.

5. “It was impossible to get a conversation going; everybody was talking too much.”

con­ver­sa­tion requires undi­vid­ed atten­tion, depth, and a will­ing­ness to be open and vul­ner­a­ble. Most peo­ple talk to hear their own voic­es, and to fill fear­ful silence with sound. Berra is right—when peo­ple talk too much, it is impos­si­ble to con­verse with them.

Talk­ing (small talk, empha­sis on small) is the social­ly accept­able way to fill the silence void. We’re con­di­tioned to spew small talk, which has noth­ing to do with actu­al conversation. 

Con­ver­sa­tion requires the will­ing­ness to lis­ten care­ful­ly, while sus­pend­ing judge­ment. If we do not pay atten­tion, we are noth­ing more than the sum of our pre-judgements—our prejudices. 

Actu­al con­ver­sa­tion is a ver­bal dance, as both par­ties make a seri­ous attempt to com­mu­ni­cate, “This is who and where I am right now.” Con­ver­sa­tion is shar­ing who I am through self-reflec­tion, and lis­ten­ing to what the oth­er per­son has learned of them­selves through their self-reflection. 

Many people confuse self-reflection with an endless whine about how tough their life is.

[The rest of the sto­ry is in my book, Half Asleep in the Bud­dha Hall]

Even when you lis­ten care­ful­ly, your ego-based prej­u­dices have a way of con­fus­ing you. Lis­ten again, with a clear heart and mind, and you might hear some­thing different. 

Remem­ber: slow down. Speak your truth, from as deep inside as you can reach. Reveal more and more of you, includ­ing the messy, evil, nasty parts. Then, shut up, watch and observe. As you find your­self plan­ning a response to what anoth­er is say­ing (in oth­er words, you have stopped lis­ten­ing,) shut up and open your ears. A con­ver­sa­tion is nev­er a debate, and there is no winner.

4. “Slump? I ain’t in no slump. I just ain’t hitting.”

We are noth­ing more than our self-def­i­n­i­tion. Or, as the Bud­dha said, 

All that you are is what you have thought.” 

We end­less­ly self-describe, and because we think it, we tend to stop there, believ­ing we are as we think our­selves to be. There­fore, to change is, first, to change your self-descrip­tion.

[The rest of the sto­ry in my book, Half Asleep in the Bud­dha Hall]

Our lives are the prov­ing ground for our beliefs. Where I am in life–right now–is a per­fect mir­ror of who I am, what I believe, and espe­cial­ly what I do. I can look at my sur­round­ings and at my men­tal, emo­tion­al, and phys­i­cal state and tell pre­cise­ly what I believe, and who I am. 

We need to explore the rules we oper­ate under. If we don’t look at what we believe, to see if what we believe makes sense for us now, we are doomed to live out some old ver­sion of our life plan, and be total­ly mis­er­able in the process.

Remem­ber: “a slump” is a judge­ment, and makes the thing per­ceived seem to be some­thing out­side of your con­trol. If you put the way you are present­ly into a box labeled “Out of my con­trol,” you are well and tru­ly screwed. Instead, emp­ty that box. A sim­ple state­ment of, “Here is where I am right now” allows for the next clause, “…and here is what I will do differently.”

Berra’s “I just ain’t hit­ting” is actu­al­ly his way of say­ing, “I am not hit­ting right now, and will hit next time I’m up to bat.”

You think it, you are it.

3. “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

This is opposed to just stand­ing there, star­ing at the fork, refus­ing to choose, to move, to decide. Or, you’re going down a road that’s not get­ting you where you want to go. You come to a place for chang­ing direc­tions, yet con­tin­ue down the old path. You say, “I may not be get­ting what I want, but at least this path is famil­iar.”

Oth­ers are stuck in deep iner­tia, refus­ing to shift any­thing, includ­ing the painful stuff, until they can be assured that they’ll get to the ‘right’ destination.

Just stand­ing at a cross­roads, end­less­ly debat­ing the ‘right path,’ is a mook’s game. [A Mook’s Game is a game for suckers—like 3 Card Monte]

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, our world is filled with peo­ple doing just that—doing noth­ing, while brag­ging about how much effort they are putting into their inter­nal debate. 

As they stand there. Doing nothing. 

Not to decide is to decide. What hap­pens in our life is about what we notice or give cre­dence to. Some­thing dif­fer­ent hap­pens in our lives when we choose to shift our under­stand­ing, and then our actions. This way, or that way—no dif­fer­ence, no wait­ing to iden­ti­fy the ‘right path’—just take the fork in the road.

[The rest of the sto­ry is in my book, Half Asleep in the Bud­dha Hall]

Remem­ber: life presents end­less forks in the road. In gen­er­al, any choice we make can be changed at any time. (Life and death choic­es occur rarely.) Turn­ing a gar­den vari­ety choice into life and death (“But… but… what if I make the wrong choice???”) is actu­al­ly a way to stay stuck. Pick one, and start walk­ing. You do not get the time you waste back at the end of your life. 

2. “I never blame myself when I’m not hitting. I just blame the bat, and if it keeps up, I change bats. After all, if I know it isn’t my fault that I’m not hitting, how can I get mad at myself?”

Regret, blam­ing your­self, get­ting mad at your­self… a trio of stu­pid­i­ty. What Berra is describ­ing in this quote is so Zen—“This is not work­ing, so let me try this.” His “blam­ing the bat” strat­e­gy is per­fect. Blam­ing the bat is “no-blame,” or non-attach­ment-to-blame. Berra’s bat was a totem —a symbol—and he used it to re-focus his attention.

Here’s an illus­tra­tion: say your kid mis­be­haves, and you decide to yell at her. The kid flinch­es, cries, and runs and hides. And lat­er repeats the mis-behaviour. 

The wise soul “does not get mad at her­self.” She looks at the bat she chose—her choice to yell. She “blames the bat,” and picks up anoth­er bat—she apol­o­gis­es to her daugh­ter and talks the issue through. Remem­ber: blam­ing the bat is no-blame!

Non-attach­ment starts with accep­tance that every­thing is as it is, until it isn’t. When things go ‘ass-over-teaket­tle,’ it’s essen­tial not to get into blam­ing or recrim­i­na­tions, as all this does is freeze you in place, with­out ‘things’ changing.

Being in cri­sis is the per­fect time for a lit­tle mantra: 

This is not about me, this is not personal.”

[The rest of the sto­ry is in my book, Half Asleep in the Bud­dha Hall]

In reality, nothing is happening to us.

All one can do, as Berra states, is drop the judge­ments while doing some­thing new. Blam­ing your­self accom­plish­es noth­ing. Shift­ing focus helps us to remem­ber that life is end­less­ly mov­ing on, and we are step­ping into it, moment by moment. Noth­ing ever remains the same.

Remem­ber: when seem­ing­ly lost, open your eyes and see the beau­ty around you, then ski in a log­i­cal direc­tion, grace­ful­ly and smooth­ly. Breathe. Watch life con­tin­ue to unfold. Act, have faith, and detach. You will get home, one way or anoth­er. Pan­ic and giv­ing up, although pop­u­lar, gets you nowhere.

If what you are doing is not work­ing, change bats — no blame, no recrim­i­na­tion. Move. Now.

1. If I didn’t wake up, I’d still be sleeping.

Here’s my favourite image. I think it’s by John Dai­do Loori. 

If you are not awake, you are asleep. Period.

Being asleep is the norm in our world. Peo­ple are caught in dream­scape liv­ing, mak­ing what lit­tle they observe fit their pre­con­ceived notions, cat­e­go­riz­ing peo­ple and expe­ri­ences accord­ing to their prejudices.

Being awake is sim­ply being. It starts with a con­scious sus­pen­sion of judge­ment, through the dis­ci­pline of direct­ing one’s atten­tion. Judge­ments fade and what is left is awak­ened living.

Here is a descrip­tion of being asleep: as you react out of habitfear, or con­fu­sion, you are drift­ing off into dreamland.

As I wrote in This End­less Moment:

One point of [the movie] Wak­ing Life is cap­tured in the title: one can choose to wake up to life. Or one can live for­ev­er trapped in a dream­scape, liv­ing a “life” of “woul­da, coul­da, shoul­da.” In a hun­dred years, no one will remem­ber your name. No one, ever, will know you. Except, pos­si­bly, you. If you choose.

And the only you that you can know is the you that you are in this moment. You are not your past—all you have is a present expla­na­tion of the sto­ry you tell your­self about what you believe hap­pened to you.

In oth­er words, you expe­ri­ence your past now and only now.

You are noth­ing more than this moment, this breath. In this moment, you can be ful­ly alive and ful­ly present. And in that choice, you are whole, com­plete, and with­out blemish.

Authen­tic, enlight­ened human­i­ty exists only in the Eter­nal Now.

Wake up!

 [The rest of the sto­ry is in my book, Half Asleep in the Bud­dha Hall]

Life is about ‘wak­ing up’—about get­ting on with what needs doing. There are a mil­lion and one rea­sons for not start­ing, for turn­ing back, for stay­ing put, for being ‘safe.’ At the end of the day, how­ev­er, noth­ing will have changed. Far bet­ter to risk, to dare, to climb.

Far, far bet­ter to ‘wake up’!

If you liked this arti­cle, here’s anoth­er Zen prin­ci­ples arti­cle, this one on Zen Liv­ing!

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