Zen Principles

Zen Principles to Help You Live Life Better

This article was greatly expanded upon in my book, [amazon text=Half Asleep in the Buddha Hall &asin=0968444660]

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Life According to Zen Master Yogi Berra

Used with per­mis­sion, Jer­ry Breen, of newbreen.com

The following quotes are from one of the most Zen guys
of the 20th century — 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: [sto­ry 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.

[sto­ry in my book, 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.

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.

[sto­ry 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.

[sto­ry 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.”

A 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.

[sto­ry 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.

[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. 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.

[sto­ry 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.”

[sto­ry 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 habit, fear, 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!

[sto­ry 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 on Zen Living!

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