7 Ways Zen Buddhism Can Change Your Life

Years ago, Zen Buddhism caused me to have a mental breakdown of sorts.

I understand how that sounds, but let me explain. It wasn't quite the crazy-eyed, hair pulling, stress-induced brain collapse you might envision when hearing the phrase "mental breakdown", but it was a mental breakdown in the sense that I had felt like much of what I thought I knew about the world was falling down around me, like a great big curtain had been covering had been covering my eyes all along and it was just now being lifted.

Zen led me to question so much of what I believed at the time:

  • I tried to find every way possible to save time, speed up and become more productive.Zen suggested I slow down.
  • I (thought I) wanted to be successful, powerful and make a lot of money.Zen told me I just wanted those things in order to be happy and at peace and that I'd never discover true peace and happiness from attaining those things.
  • I judged others and didn't easily forgive.Zen said I should practice compassion and understanding. It suggested I forgive everyone because we're all intrinsically connected. What I do to others I do to myself.

Zen Buddhism shattered those, and other, preconceived notions which I had held for years. More than anything I was focused on realizing my best self and I thought that meant becoming successful, owning a business and making a lot of money. Not that any of those things are inherently bad. They aren't. They can be tools for great good.

But those things don't bring us peace and happiness like so many of us think. They can give us some peace and happiness, but not true peace and happiness. You can only get that by working from within. Seeing through the illusions, breaking free from attachment and discovering your true nature. Those are the things that need to be your focus.

And if the backdrop of that is, for instance, owning your own business- a business that treats people with compassion and where employees support and nurture each other's happiness and well-being and the happiness and well-being of their families and your customers- then that's fine. But your focus is not making money, becoming more successful or more powerful. Your focus is your practice of peace, happiness and treating people, including yourself, with compassion.

The Way to True Peace and Happiness (A Note on Zen Practice)

Zen Buddhism, put simply (perhaps too simply) shows you the way to the true peace and happiness I'm speaking of. It only shows you the way, though. The Buddha didn't prioritize teaching what enlightenment (or "awakening" in Sanskrit) was, he taught how to achieve it.

Concepts have some importance, but it's the actual path to be walked which is important, not theorizing what something might be like without having actually walked the path yourself. Buddhism, especially Zen Buddhism, is ultimately about direct experience.

Throughout all schools of Buddhism, it's important to study the text, or "sutras", to learn but the heart of your practice is to then verify that with your own direct experience. The Buddha was quick to tell his disciples that you should never believe in or follow something simply because someone tells you to do so (including himself).

This is part of what I appreciate so much about Buddhism. You're asked to take nothing on blind faith but rather to study the wisdom of the texts and then verify them for yourself through dedicated study into your own mind. The practice is ultimately a process of working to achieve moments of insight (think wisdom gained through direct experience with meditation or some other exercise) in order to realize these truths for yourself.

I know each one of these points can change your life because each of them changed my own life. But I can only hope to point the way. Real change happens when you experience something for yourself. I know this can feel a bit overwhelming. So, after reading the article I'd suggest picking your favorite one or two points and focusing on those. When you're done implementing the point(s) come back to this list and select another one or two.

Lastly, keep in mind that some of these points blend together and it can be hard to tell them apart. This is only natural given the nature of the practice itself and what you're studying, so you're really just choosing somewhere to start to get yourself walking along the path and taking action.

Here are seven ways Zen practice can change your life: 

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7 Ways Zen Buddhism Can Change Your Life

  1. Sitting Meditation / Zazen

    Zen sitting meditation, called zazen in Zen Buddhism, has had a significant impact on my life. I had never been particularly susceptible to stress and anxiety but after my first son was born I started to feel like time was running out for me. Still having not achieved any of my major life goals, I raced every day to try to get somewhere only to end up causing myself more and more stress and anxiety.

    When I was first introduced to Zen Buddhism I immediately started my sitting meditation practice. After just a few weeks my stress and anxiety disappeared. All of it. I felt completely different. I slowed down and yet I was more productive. This is probably because I wasn’t doing things with as much of a “monkey mind” as before. I was happier. Noticeably happier. I also felt more resilient. Anytime I met a challenge during my day I was less affected by it. I felt like I had developed a shield around my mind and could handle anything that came my way.

    I have kept a sitting meditation practice ever since. This is just touching on the huge benefits of meditation, though. You can read my guide: The Ultimate Guide to Meditation: The What, Why and How of Meditation Including FAQ’s and Additional Resources for a complete breakdown of meditation practices and detailed instructions on how to practice zazen, or mindfulness sitting meditation. For a quick introduction to mindfulness meditation you can also read my guide: Learn How to Meditate in the Next 5 Minutes: The Quick Start Guide to Mindfulness Meditation.

    For a great introduction to Zen Buddhism in general, including Zen meditation, I’d suggest The Beginner’s Guide to Zen Buddhism. I’d also highly suggest Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki and Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation.

  2. Mindfulness: Meditation For Everyday Life

    Mindfulness is, essentially, meditation in action. In The Miracle of Mindfulness, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh describes mindfulness as “keeping one’s consciousness alive to the present reality”. This generally involves following the breath.

    Our breath is always there with us, no matter what we’re doing, so it works as an ideal anchor. By keeping our focus on our breath, whether we’re driving, walking or talking on the phone, we can stay grounded in the present moment. There are many benefits to mindfulness, but most of all is a renewable peace and happiness independent of outside circumstances.

    No matter what is going on outside you can always take a moment to stop and follow your breath, or you can practice mindfulness while doing a basic activity like walking in order to regain your sense of peace and happiness and take back control of your emotions. Adopting the practice of mindfulness has had such a deep and resounding effect on me that it’s difficult to put into words. I discovered an infinite well of peace and happiness.

    I used to worry about getting enough time to work on “my” things. It’s hard to describe, but, now I feel like I have an infinite amount of time. Every moment is mine, whether I’m working on my own things, sitting down with my son or spending time with my wife. This is because most of us want our personal time in order to nourish our minds and bodies. Especially after a long day.

    But mindfulness is the most nourishing practice of all. It allows you to find true happiness as opposed to the temporary and shallow fixes so many of us resort to using such as watching TV, buying something new or eating sweets and you can do it at any moment in the day. No matter what you’re doing.

    Want to learn more about mindfulness? Check out What is Mindfulness? A Simple Guide to the Power and Practice of Mindfulness. I’d also highly suggest reading The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh in order to begin your practice of mindfulness.

  3. Cultivating Compassion

    Buddhism teaches us the power of compassion. This is a major aspect of all Buddhist teaching including Zen. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said that compassion is an aspiration, not just a passive emotion. By working to express compassion towards others we realize the true nature of our existence and discover a deep sense of peace and happiness.

    Barbara O’Brien of the buddhism.about.com blog explained the importance of compassion in her article Buddhism and Compassion:

    The Buddha taught that to realize enlightenment, a person must develop two qualities: wisdom and compassion. Wisdom and compassion are sometimes compared to two wings that work together to enable flying, or two eyes that work together to see deeply.

    She went on to say…

    What does being nice to others have to do with enlightenment? For one thing, it helps us realize that “individual me” and “individual you” are mistaken ideas. And as long as we’re stuck in the idea of “what’s in it for me?” we are not yet wise.

    Compassion helps us see the greatest illusion of all- the illusion of self. This is one of, if not the, most fundamental teaching in all of Buddhism. Everything in Buddhism is built upon awakening from the illusion of a separate self.

    This is the deepest of Buddhist teachings and a part of Buddhism that is impossible to properly put into words. It can only be experienced by clearing away all illusions and attachments through the dedicated practice of looking within yourself.

    This can be a lot to take in at first. Just know that aspiring to live with compassion will change your life and the lives of the people around you in a significant and measurable way. Practicing compassion is probably one of the most difficult things you’ll do in your life. But for good reason. As soon as I began practicing compassion towards others I started feeling many positive effects.

    As opposed to feeling stressed when someone did something that would typically anger me I’d seek to understand why they would do that thing (whatever it was) and come to terms with it in my mind. I began feeling less stress, all the close relationships in my life grew stronger and things stopped getting to me as much as they once did. Compassion takes a lot of strength. Real strength. But it’s worth it.

  4. Discovering the True Path to Happiness (and About Our Need for Success, Power, and Money)

    Zen led me to one of the most profound realizations of my life thus far- the realization that everything we do is to be happy and at peace. This includes the pursuit of success, power and money. So many of us don’t see it, but we just want those things so that we and the people around us can be happy.

    Everyone from the stock broker on Wall Street, the musician following their dream with no guarantees of success, the factory worker toiling his years away in hopes of living out his golden years in peace to the woman or man searching for their soul mate so that they can fall in love and build a family.

    And while some of those things can bring us further happiness, joy and better overall well-being, true happiness doesn’t exist outside yourself. If you can adopt the practices of  living fully in the present moment through mindfulness, looking deeply into yourself through sitting meditation and seeking to understand those around you and treat everyone including yourself with compassion, then you’ll be able to achieve a true peace and happiness that is like nothing else you’ve ever felt.

    This happiness is renewable. It is available to you in every moment and under your total control. This is true power.

    I’d highly suggest reading The Art of Power by Thich Nhat Hanh on this subject. It’s a decent sized book but more than worth reading in its entirety.

  5. Learning Mindful Consumption

    This includes not only what we eat and drink but also what we watch, read and listen to. Anything that comes into your body via the 5 senses is a part of this category. The conversations you have or listen to, the TV shows and movies (and advertisements) you watch, the books, magazines and websites or blogs you read and the substances you put into your body including food, drinks and drugs.

    Most of us need lot of work here. We talk about people behind their backs negatively, complain about our day at work when we’re home or about home when we’re at work. We watch reality shows filled with nothing but people fighting and insulting one another for entertainment. We read articles and blogs about Hollywood drama and partake in bashing our politicians and government officials instead of trying to create that positive change ourselves.

    Take it one step at a time. First, cut off most TV and begin reading a new self-help book. Then a week or two later stop reading gossip articles and begin reading a few self-development articles each week instead. Next work on the conversations you have at work or at home, if you feel you could use work there. Whatever it is, the point is take it one step at a time.

    If you’re looking for a simple and easy change to make that can have profound results then work on this. It’s easy to change what we consume and quickly changes how we feel and act. And keep in mind, being perfect isn’t the point. You likely won’t follow your plan exactly, especially at first, and that’s OK. As long as you keep your focus and make progress.

  6. Discovering Your True Nature

    Zen doesn’t necessarily speak of finding your purpose in life, but it does talk about discovering your true nature (Buddha Nature). That is a great example of Buddhist wisdom. So many of us search for a sense of purpose in life. And many of those people search in all the wrong places.

    What’s important isn’t so much finding a purpose as it is quenching the feeling of being lost and disconnected. Most of us don’t know it but it’s what we’re really after when we go searching for a purpose in life. This is a major aspect of discovering your true nature.

    By doing so you see that (part of) your true nature isn’t you at all, it’s in the oneness of all beings. Your are a separate person, but that’s the “small you”. The “big you”, or true you, is your true nature.

    My favorite explanation of this is by Thich Nhat Hanh in his book Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers. He explains the “little you”, or the phenomenal world (the world we all know and see), as a wave and the “big you”, or the noumenal world (the ultimatedimension, a world where there’s no separation between you and me), as the water. This makes it very easy to understand.

    But as I mentioned earlier, Zen Buddhism isn’t about understanding. It’s about direct experience and gaining insight. In order to begin on the path to receiving insight and discovering your true nature you’ll have to practice. In Zen this is primarily through meditation (and there’s many forms of it, not just one). This is difficult to do and can take some time.

    What’s important to take away right now is to know that what we want isn’t so much a sense of purpose as a sense of connection. A sense of connection to the world around us. Generally this sense of connection with all others leads one to want to contribute to the greater good, but you can work it the other way. By contributing you can find that deep sense of connection to others.

    You can do a million things in your life. But, whatever you choose to focus your time on, make sure it’s something that allows you to help to others. You’ll begin to feel that sense of connection as well as a deep sense of fulfillment in your life. And this doesn’t have to happen through your job or career. You can satisfy this simply by the way you live your everyday life.

  7. Simplifying Your Life

    Zen Buddhism shows you how to naturally simplify your life. It does this by showing you, through your practice, what is essential and what is not. Adopting a practice of meditation and mindfulness will naturally lead you to simplify your life by revealing to you not just the mental illusions that have been in front of you all along but also the physical ones. It will free you from your craving for material items.

    This doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with wanting a larger house for your growing family or a second car now that both you and your wife are working again. But this does mean that you will cease to desire material objects for your happiness. Your practice will help you realize that these things never gave you true peace or happiness.

    A key aspect of all Buddhist practice is becoming aware of the illusions that are all around us. To see reality as reality, illusion as illusion. This goes together with simplifying your life. In Buddhism this refers to primarily mental illusions, but I’ve found simplifying my life in a physical aspect to have had a positive impact on my noticing of various mental illusions as well.

    There really is no separation. Those physical things are there in your life typically because of an idea in your mind you felt it necessary or desirable to uphold. Once you see the idea for what it is, an illusion, you can rid yourself of it. Also keep in mind, I’m not just talking about simplifying your life in a physical sense. As I said, there’s no separation. Simplifying you life includes mental constructs and ideas as well.

    This isn’t something directly a part of Zen teaching (greed and seeing with clarity is, but not simplification itself), but it is a natural byproduct of Zen practice and something that people seem to really benefit from especially in today’s world. There are some great blogs whose central topic is simplicity. Two of my personal favorites are zenhabits.net and becomingminimalist.com.

For a great introduction to Zen and Buddhism in general I’d start by visiting the buddhism.about.com blog. Barbara O’Brien’s writing for the buddhism.about.com blog is really informative. She has a clear understanding of all things Buddhism including Zen and explains them in a way that makes them easy to grasp. She does a fantastic job of explaining the basic principles of Zen Buddhism. So if you’re interested I’d suggest starting here: What Is Buddhism? An Introduction to Buddhism and then here: Zen 101: An Introduction to Zen Buddhism.

I'd also suggest reading The Beginner's Guide to Zen Buddhism by Jean Smith. That's the book I started with and it's a great introduction to Zen Buddhism. If you'd like to dive straight into the practice of Zen meditation and mindfulness I'd start by reading The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation by ThichNhatHanh as I mentioned earlier. It's one of my personal favorites and probably the best book I've found on the basics of Zen meditation and mindfulness.

Zen can only be properly understood through direct experience. No book or blog will ever give you a complete understanding of any wisdom. I can only hope to help point you in the right direct. That's the very basis of Buddhism so beginning your own meditation and mindfulness practice is necessary.

To that end, you can search for a nearby zendo (Zen temple) or Buddhist temple which should hold a regular introductory class of some sort for free. But you don't have to visit a zendo for that, you can do it in your own home and in your everyday life.

Living Zen Spirit Book Cover via Buddhaimonia.com Zen for Everyday Life

If you're interested in learning how to bring more authentic Zen spirit into your life, then you'll love my upcoming book Living Zen.

If you'd like to be notified when more information is available, as well as get some cool exclusive book bonuses from here until release, fill in your name and email below!