Our biggest aversion to psychological guidance systems—religious or not—tends to be skepticism bred out of (assumed) inapplicability.
We’ll trust lifestyle magazines and blog posts and cultural norms. This is simply because they make sense to us. They become self-evident “truth” when we can easily apply them to our issues.
But we don’t often consider the source, or the intention, or the long-term significance of what it is we begin to believe in. When the extent of our personal philosophy is, essentially, to just do what we’re told without questioning, we end up serving consumerism, or ego, or misguided religious figures or someone else’s desire for control.
Despite being a derivative of Buddhist teaching, Zen is simply the art of self-awareness. It does not dictate what you should feel or believe in; how you should be or what you should do…only that you should be conscious of your experience, fully immersed in it.
It’s for this reason that Zen principles are universal—they can apply to any dogma or lifestyle, essentially. So here are eight ancient teachings of Zen and how to navigate them in the modern world.
1. Your experience is constructed by your mind. The Yogācāra discourse essentially explains how our mind’s perceptions create our experiences. Therefore, we must realize that, even despite our disposition, we can create a different experience simply by shifting and choosing what to focus on. We are raised to believe that we cannot choose what we think about, when, in fact, we can. Not every fear feeling or negative thought is an invitation to explore it to a resolutive end.
2. Your concept of self is an illusion (and construct) as well. “Who you are” is an essence. An energy. That’s it. That’s why it’s never “one thing” for too long or in any given context. That’s why it’s so difficult to understand yourself—you’re more than the limiting definitions and titles repetitive habits and jobs and roles provide. However, most of us only understand ourselves as we imagine other people see us. (Writer, teacher, mom, student, basketball player, “good person,” etc.) Most of our issues surround trying to manipulate the ego; trying to inflate or immortalize the self. Trying to shift and change how we think other people see us (therefore, how we believe we exist in reality, and so how we should see ourselves).
Mastering the idea of self is knowing that you can play out the illusion of who you are and what you do while not being so lost in it that it controls you.
3. You need not believe in anything; you only need to follow what feels true in the moment. The trouble with adhering to a certain, set belief system without question is that when you value (or consider) the voices that were implanted into you by someone else’s dogma or teaching, you start trusting that more than you trust yourself, and you’ll end up either very lost or very confused, battling between what you think is right and what you feel is true.
If you aren’t living your life by what you know to be true, you aren’t following your highest good. Allow yourself the ability to expand and grow by thinking (and feeling) beyond what your current dogma “allows.”
4. The ultimate path to happiness is non-attachment. And before you get all caught up in the impossibility of not caring about the outcome of your life, understand that non-attachment is much more (and yet much simpler) than “not caring” how things turn out. It’s about the simple understanding that all things serve you. The “bad” things teach you and show you how to heal to open even further to the “good” things. It cannot be put much simpler than that.
5. “Doing” is not as important as simply “being.” Meditative states can be achieved though a variety of practices, but perhaps the most underutilized among them is just “sitting.” The art of doing “nothing” is profound. It quiets the waters of your mind, brings forth what needs to be immediately acknowledged and healed, and keeps you connected to yourself, not the attachments and responsibilities you have in your life. The point is: You are not what you do; you simply are. Aside from a meditation practice, giving yourself the time to relax, recuperate, and reflect is of the upmost importance.
6. You can be an objective observer of your mind and your life. It’s one thing to know that you can choose your thoughts, but it’s really more to realize that you can also decide which ones you value, if only you are able to see them all objectively. Guided meditation practices will often have you observe thoughts as they pass, as a third-party viewer. The point being to teach you that you are not those thoughts. You are not your feelings. You are the being that experiences those thoughts and feelings, who decides which to value and act on.
7. Your natural state is oneness. The reality we will all return to eventually is that everything is one. (This is the basis of enlightenment.) It is in the illusion of separateness that we suffer. It is playing out the ideas of individualism that we learn. It is to our natural state, unification, that we eventually return.