9 Zen “ish” principles for living a better life

I’m not a Zen guy, nor do I practice Buddhism. It’s all  getting too spiritual for me. My interpretation of the “rules of living”,  written a thousand years ago is very much dependent on my way of looking at the world. You may see it differently and thus it becomes a different interpretation

But I find a lot of sense in the teachings of philosophers and those who practice Stoicism and Buddhism and consider themselves practitioners of Zen. Some of the teachings hit me extra hard, others I consider normal living rules we should all follow. This blog post contains some of the ones that suit me well and that I try (not always successfully) to live by. Others may have their own that suits them better.

The basis 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. It is also the way to find the path to enlightenment.

Table of content

1. Suffering is inevitable, but you are the one who can put an end to it

This is really straight forward and understandable if one can distinguish between pain and suffering.

According to Buddhism, there is a lot of pain in life, and there is no way to avoid it. However, suffering is something we choose.

If you are beaten by somebody, you get pain. It can be intense and awful. It can also be as bad mentally as physically. But it passes – if you allow it. What comes after that, depending on whether you are in harmony with yourself and the world, is suffering.

The suffering we inflict on ourselves is:

  • Thoughts,
  • The guilt,
  • The mind,
  • Revenge,
  • The re-experience (in your mind),
  • The complaints,
  • The mourn over the wound / pain we once had.

Life consists of a whole series of sad experiences. Death, illness and thus pain will affect us. If we let the pain persist, it becomes a disorder. And it is we who choose to keep it.

Tip: Spend a few minutes thinking about an experience of injustice or pain in the past that still lingers with you. And if it sticks to you, it’s a disorder you carry. A thing you can get rid of. If you want.

2. Free yourself from attachment to experience life to the fullest.

We are linked to assets, careers, prestige, social hierarchy, opinions, hopes and dreams. And we like to linger in what was, in the past.

I found a good description of the attachment and the complications around this in  the Mark Mansons articles. I take the liberty and reproduce parts of his opinion on this here:

Mark says: With that said, this is a pretty common dilemma for people who are exposed to zen and eastern philosophy – that the idea of “unattachment” isn’t exactly practical or even applicable in modern life. You have to remember that a lot of these philosophies were developed thousands of years ago when there were far fewer demands and complexities in everyday life. So the idea of going and sitting in a cave for nine years and staring at a wall wasn’t exactly giving up a whole lot.

The usual sticking point for everyone is, “If I’m supposed to be attached to nothing and desire nothing, how the hell do I get anything done?” Hell, how did Tolle write multiple 300-page books if he was completely unattached to the future? Wouldn’t he just stare and smile at the typewriter?

The problem comes with the explanation of attachment. Many people take it as wanting or desiring anything. This is where you get people living in communes, giving up their possessions, moving to Tibet and whatnot. It’s also the main reason I’ve never felt comfortable in any spiritual community I’ve found, because I think they commit the same foul, just in the opposite direction.

The catch is that actively being unattached to things is still being attached to something. You’re attached to being unattached. Actively desiring to be desireless is still a desire. Letting go of a thought is still a thought. 

Surrendering to a feeling is still a feeling. I think most (smart) people who are turned off by Eastern Philosophy at first glance intuitively recognize this. And rightly so…

By that definition of desire and attachment, you’re screwed if you do and screwed if you don’t.

The catch is that actively being unattached to everything is still being attached to something. You’re attached to being unattached.

It’s not about doing or not doing. It’s all about how much of your sense of Self, your identity is attached to the outcome of what you do or don’t do.

“Being present” is not ignoring the past or the future. That’s impossible actually, because the act of thinking about a past or a future is actually taking place in the present. It’s impossible to not be present. What changes is how you identify yourself. Or rather, how you identify your Self.

It’s about widening your perspective, expanding what you identify to be a potential part of You. Recognizing that you have such little control and little knowledge of, well, anything in the world, that you might as well let go and be humble about it. 

Have your career goals, thoughts and ideas, your hopes and dreams, but do not attach the Self to it in such a way that you will suffer if you do not achieve them. Remember what’s happened to you and enjoy your memories, but don’t base your identity on it.

Obviously, this is all easier said than done.

The way I explain it is recognizing that it’s all just a game that we’re playing, the game is called life. And I do not mean in the business, climb-the-ladder analogy, but in the fact that ultimately everything that we are and do is just a cosmic interplay between seemingly separate manifestations of consciousness. Most people never realize it’s a game. As a result, they are slaves to the ebbs and flows of what’s played.

But there are people who slowly realize that it’s just a game. Some of these people find out by refusing to play. Some find out by simply stopping and paying attention. Some find out by almost being removed from the game. Some realize it by watching others being removed before their eyes. 

But in the end, for whatever reason, they realize it’s just a game. And because it’s just a game, they have no reason to be worried or afraid, ever, because it’s just a game. And because it’s just a game, they have no reason to be worried or afraid, ever, because it’s just a game. And whoever wins or loses does not matter because it’s just going to start all over again. (According to Mark Manson.)

Good memories and good experiences are something we will bring with us further. But the moment you start to have expectations and try to fill a void inside you with the object you are attached to, you become more vulnerable and thus allow yourself to be hurt. And the moment you look for connection to fill the void, the suffering begins.

Everything in life is perishable. Even our own time here is limited, so we should not spend it on living with the burden of attachment.

Tips: Obviously Mark Manson on this (and other topics)

3. Letting go gives peace and freedom.

We live in the past and fear for the future. The two behaviors are so fundamentally wrong and make life so much more complicated than necessary.

A more proper explanation would be that it refers not to just something that you want or desire, but rather to things you are afraid to lose. In life, everything is lost. Everything. At some point, everything goes away, and therefore to have anything at all, we must be willing to accommodate that loss. You know that saying, “You can not truly have something until you’re willing to lose it?” It’s like that.

The solution is simple and it lies in the next of the zen principles that struck me: let go of the past and the future because they do not matter. They can not mean anything because the past is impossible to do anything about and the future we know nothing about. And best of all: we consider both the past and the future in the present. This means that we spend a whole lot of energy on things we can not do anything about. Of course, it’s at the expense of:  you guessing correctly: Where we are now.

All we have is this moment, and by not being aware of it, we are missing out on life. Clichéd and a just a phrase, but also, so true.

Tips: Memento mori  and The video of Alan Watss (under)

4. Nothing is permanent.

I gained this wisdom when I repeatedly sought out places and people with whom I had experienced great things with and had to admit that it was not the same doing it the second (or third9 time. It really showed me that everything is temporary.

Giving this existential truth some time to sink in, helped me look at things from a different perspective.

If we really can not have something forever, we can just as easily get the most out of the things we have now.

Good experiences are best enjoyed the moment they happen. Afterwards, a new one awaits. I do not believe in trying to recreate things in the belief that it will be just as good. Should it turn out to work, it just means that it is a new good experience you have had.

I remember my daughter commenting on something she had read or heard. Dad, she said “Children who sit on the shoulders of their mother or father never know when it’s the last time they sit there until it was the last time.”

Tips: When was the last time you carried your child on your shoulders?

Once again a Mark Manson- this time a small excerpt form the book everything is fucked. (Yes, I know I quote Mark a lot, but his opinions on this are very similar to mine. So bear with me)

One day you and everyone you love will die. And beyond a small group of people in an extremely short period of time, little of what you say or do will ever matter. This is the unpleasant truth of life. And everything you think or do is just an elaborate avoidance of it. We are insignificant cosmic dust, bumps and mills around on a small blue spot. We imagine our own meaning. We invent our purpose – we are nothing. From the uncomfortable truth –  Mark Manson.

5. Live simple.

I have always been interested in living simply but have rarely managed it.

One of the zen “ish” principles I have worked with in recent years was to try to minimize my own life.

When people talk about minilamism, they often think of people with few belongings in a cold apartment without furniture.

Of course, that is not the case. But the truth is, we own more than we need. I discovered this when I was building a campervan. (More about this in later blog posts) Living a few weeks in a very small place means that you quickly find out what you need and what you do not need. And almost everyone is surprised if they try it: you need very little. And the best thing about the so-called decluttering that has become so popular, is that it makes you happier. (Yes, it does.)

My minimalism eventually went beyond giving away t-shirts and shoes. I worked (and work) actively not to take on too many tasks, keep myself too busy, have too much information in my head, follow everything that happens, wish me more money, new assets, etc.

To about speak Zen and Buddhism, these desires also cause suffering. There is always something “more”, and the satisfaction one seeks never comes by chasing “more”.

What if we look at what we already have and realize that it is more than enough?

And do not think that it can stop you from succeeding or reaching your goals. The secret lies in finding the balance between always striving for more and being grateful for what you have. There are people around me who meet all the requirements to be so-called good citizens. Or what they were raised to consider as “solidarity citizenship”. They get up in the morning, drink their coffee and dive into the traffic to get to a job that takes at least 8-9 hours of every day of their lives. (a job they may not hate, but they definitely do not love it.) Then they come home and maybe, maybe not, live the life they want for a few hours before going to bed and repeating yesterday.

The statistics show that 85% of us (I’m okay and use “us” so you do not feel left out) do not like our job. AKA our life. In fact, nearly 70% of Americans hate their jobs. The share is transferable to other countries in the western world. The question therefore becomes: why do we do this? And do not give me the argument about money. If you really want to concretize this with money you will soon find that you maintain very much in your life that you do not really like and feed this with money from a job you do not love.

Tip: Start with a physical decluttering. It is often a springboard towards a total change in how you create less noise in everyday life. Then browse the internet and visit Mark Manson. Take comfort in the fact that if nothing changes, life will still be good. You can, of course, go hardcore: sell everything, move into a campervan (or a cave) and find that having a nice shower and a working toilet was basically pretty good. And then find out that when it comes to living simply, it is wise to start small.

Therefore: Start inside your head and look at what you spend time on, which you absolutely do not need to spend time on.

And stop it.

6.We build our own prisons.

Feeling guilt is a choice, and I can decide to let go of it, and continue my life without it.

It sounds simple, but it is not. Still, there is something that, if we have not thought through thoroughly and managed to do something about – could potentially destroy us.

Guilt. Do not confuse this with feeling of guilt. Guilt is often associated with pain, which I have explained further up. Where pain is guilt and the feeling of guilt is suffering.

By feeling guilty, we punish ourselves. (as mentioned – the difference between feeling guilty and being guilty)

We feel bad about something we did or did not do. There is a lot we can learn about this condition from a psychological point of view, but that is not the point here.

The Zen “ish” principles and way of life mean that we all make mistakes because we are not perfect.

Perfection is an illusion. Believe me. I’m not perfect, you’re not perfect – no one is.

So accept the fact that you have done wrong things and you will probably do more in the future, even if you try your best. It is OK. Let it go, be free from negativity, embarrassment and the feeling of guilt.

You hurt people in your life all the time without being aware of it.

You hurt yourself by not forgiving yourself of everything from the past, not celebrating your successes and giving yourself the credit, not following your dreams, not ending a bad relationship and more.

But by feeling guilty about it, it gets much worse.

Tip: This one you probably saw coming. But if you did not – TED Brene Brown

Or this one with Anthony Hopkins: (It’s short and profound)

And if you have hurt someone – apologize and move on.

7. Everything is already perfect

When I started my minimization, I was focused on what I wanted to get rid of in my life, the things I did not like. Nothing wrong with that. The old clothes I did not use and everything else that I did not need at all. The difficulties, of course, started when I had to choose between things based on emotional attachment. But I have written enough about this above. 

During this process, I was a bit over focused on everything that was not perfect. What is the standard for assessing perfectionism? A football that lacks air is not perfect. (Ignore the fact that you can fill it with air. Let’s say you cannot.) But it can be used and, in a situation, where a bunch of friends are going to kick football, it is perfect for that, there and then.

If something is not perfect, it means that you have made a mental picture of how it should be. So now you aim to achieve that result, no matter what. Again, there’s nothing wrong with setting high standards and lofty goals. You should work hard; you should try to achieve the things you want to achieve in your life.

But there’s a difference between adaptive perfectionism — striving for perfection while accepting that things will never be perfect — and toxic perfectionism — striving for perfection and accepting nothing less.

Humans and life itself have limitations. And what is in our minds is not always how things should be.


Tip: Understand that you are doing well, what you do not like and want more of is actually okay. And if you stop expecting and start accepting, you will feel like the richest person in the world. Perfection does not need to be a result. Perfection can be a process.


The Football is ok for a match with the boys in the hood;)


8. Be kind and forgive

Or put another way. Please forgive. Through the experiences I have had as a nearly 60-year-old man, I have had plenty of time to live without forgiveness. When I started to look back and really forgive people who had done things to me (and do not misunderstand – fortunately I have not had many such in my life. (Not like this guy anyway )

 I realized that when I forgave, I gained new strength and a calm that was wonderful. The forgiveness did not have to be conveyed to those who had hurt me (there is no 12 step anonymous alcoholic group we are talking about) But the forgiveness must be sincere. Close your eyes and feel the forgiveness. And really mean it. Then the event and the person who caused it will forever be out of your head. Remember I’m talking about forgiveness. Not that I forget what happened. I’m not naive. 

If I’m cheated for money, I’ll want them back. If this is not happening, whatever I do, the process will soon turn into bitterness and suffering and it is, as you well know, mine. That does not mean that I, by forgiveness, intend to forget the guy/girl/person who tricked me. Not at all. Of course, I do not lend more money to that person again. I have had my lesson. But I also do not ponder and get annoyed by the incident. I forgive and do not think about it anymore.

The act of forgiving often leads to a side effect of being kind to yourself and others.

 I often think that sometimes a smile, a compliment or that you are just there for someone can really be what makes a day for that person.

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 that we are all equal and connected, forming relationships without expecting anything from the other person.

Judging and blaming is wrong. People who carry negative emotions and make us suffer, I let go. (the guy who tricked me for money is out of my life.)

Tip: Goodness heals all kinds of wounds. Practice it, even if others will continue to do the same things to you. And you remember very well that time someone, without you knowing them, smiled heartily at you? Didn’t that make your day better?

9. Unconditional love exists, but we usually do it wrong.

It’s love when you do not expect anything in return and really want those you love to be happy, even if it does not mean that they will choose to spend their lives with you.

That should really be enough written about principle #9, but I will elaborate a bit.

It’s not love when you’re jealous, not sharing things with your partner, or trying to change them, or blaming them for what they did in the past or expecting more from them than they can give you. It’s ownership. A poison in all contexts, but perhaps especially in a relationship.

But it is true love when you find a way to appreciate everything about that person, especially their faults. This is not to say that you should put up with it. Pointing out something you do not like is legal, but people are unlikely to change. Then it is up to you whether you, despite your love, will continue to live with this person.

We can love them from a distance, even if we move on and find someone else to spend our lives with.

Making this one of our zen “ish” principles can change the way we treat others and ourselves.

People also mistakenly assume that love hurts. It is rejection that hurts, it is breaking up that hurts, having too high expectations that can not be met, hurts.

Love in itself is what life is about, and the teachings of Buddhism about it are very liberal.

It says you can love anyone but leave them alone and do not get in their way. Instead, do your own thing.

I recommend reading the following blogs for more knowledge on this:


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