The Beginner's Guide to Zen Living: 10 Steps to Transforming Your Life with the Spirit of Zen

The Beginner's Guide to Zen Living (1)

One of the major intentions of my life is to live with the spirit of Zen.

That's the spirit with which I live my everyday life and the very spirit of Buddhaimonia.

I'm a firm believer that we all hold a certain intuitive wisdom within each of us, and it's that wisdom which hints at our naturally harmonious and interconnected nature.

It's also this wisdom which, if we so choose, can be used to bring this world together in greater peace and harmony.

And it's this intuitive wisdom which we share that is the very spirit of Zen.

Zen is a sect of Buddhism which focuses on the practice of meditation. But that's a very "textbook" response and hardly communicates the true spirit of Zen.

When it comes down to it, Zen has an individual "essence", an essence that speaks directly to us.

Why is this? Because Zen speaks that same language of intuitive wisdom that I mentioned a moment ago and which we all have deep within us.

We may not have practiced or studied Zen, meditation, or even be completely familiar with Zen, but the wisdom it speaks resonates with us because it's in line with the way we feel that we should live our lives.

So what does it mean to actually live with the spirit of Zen? My favorite explanation of this is in renowned Zen teacher and author Philip Kapleau's Introduction in Thich Nhat Hanh's book Zen Keys, where he describes Zen as a possible antidote to many of the problems of modern society:

"One obvious answer is- through Zen. Not necessarily Zen Buddhism but Zen in its broad sense of a one-pointed aware mind; of a disciplined life of simplicity and naturalness as against a contrived and artificial one; of a life compassionately concerned with our own and the world's welfare and not self-centered and aggressive. A life, in short, of harmony with the natural order of things and not in constant conflict with it."

In a way, this isn't Zen at all- Kapleau's describing life itself. This is the intuitive wisdom I speak of. To me, this is simply how we should all live:

  • With the energy of mindfulness - Fully aware, alive in each moment, with a single-pointed awareness. If we're cleaning, we're fully present for the act of cleaning; if we're with our loved ones, we're fully present for them; if we're relaxing at home, we're simply relaxing and not letting the events of the day or worries of the future cloud our mind and distract us.
  • Simply and naturally - Understanding that less is more and being aware of how this affects the state of our mind as well as accepting things fully as they come or "going with the flow of things" so to speak (among other things).
  • Compassionately and lovingly - Concerned for our own well-being as well as the well-being of all other beings together as one, ultimately understanding how we're all interconnected.

As Kapleau put it, this is about overall living in harmony with the natural way of things (and not creating friction).

Figuring out how to truly live with the spirit of Zen in my everyday life has been pretty difficult at times, but along the way I've learned quite a bit.

And it's been infinitely worth it, more so than anything else I've ever done in my life.

In this guide, I hope to impart some of that to you.


Zen for Everyday Life Online Course...Coming Soon


If you're interested in learning how to live a more authentic Zen life and bring peace, joy, and balance into your everyday life, then you'll love my upcoming course, Zen for Everyday Life.

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10 Steps to Transforming Your Life Through Living with the Spirit of Zen

Below you'll find 10 steps to making Zen living (living with the spirit of Zen) a reality.

Some are straightforward, some are quick, and some are slow and will be more of a constant work-in-progress. But overall, if you put all of these strategies together, they'll make nothing short of a life changing impact throughout your entire life

Many of these tips will seem closely interlinked. That's on purpose. By being able to see clearly how one point leads into another you're able to see clearly the overarching effort involved in making this a reality.

Also, keep in mind that this isn't about perfection. Don't expect to get these all right the first time, or for them to all happen quickly (as mentioned above, some may and some may not). Your focus should simply be on making your best effort.

I hope some, or all, of these 10 steps can help you find the spirit of Zen in your own life.

  1. Simplify your daily activities down to the essentials
  2. Do a mind cleanse
  3. Reevaluate your dreams and goals
  4. Establish a daily routine for your life
  5. Establish a home meditation practice, but make practice simple and convenient (blend it in to everyday life)
  6. Identify the resistance and remove it (lean in to your problems, don't run from them)
  7. Become aware of dualistic thinking
  8. Live with the energy of mindfulness
  9. Do One Thing
  10. Respect and Appreciate Life

1. Simplify your daily activities down to the essentials

Before working on anything else, it's often most important just to clear away the unnecessary clutter, and that's exactly what these first 2 points are all about.

The first area to work on centers around your physical activity, so this is all about discovering what's unnecessary or unimportant, but which is still seemingly taking up your time, and then either removing them completely or reducing them as much as possible.

This has significance in literally every aspect of your life: personally, professionally, spiritually/religiously, and psychologically.

An important point:This first point is all about simplifying your mental activity by way of simplifying your physical activity (or physical world).

When it comes down to it, it's not about simplifying your physical life. Simplifying your physical life is only nice because of the fact that it simplifies the "mental clutter", not the physical.

That might not be so clear now, but think on it and you'll see that it's true.

How to do it:

So, how can you begin making this a reality? Simplifying you daily activities can seem like a huge task, and it can be if you go all out, but if you take it one step at a time you'll have created a hugely positive effect in very little time.

These are the most important categories to keep in mind when working on simplifying your life as a whole:

1. Finances - Remember when I said that this really comes down to simplifying mental activity? Almost nowhere is it clearer than when simplifying your finances.

This includes mostly how you spend and how you save.

2. Mental stimulation - This includes associations, T.V., the Internet, news (wherever you get it), books, audio, etc.

This is such a huge category that it's the entire 2nd of 10 steps, but also because it's really its own beast altogether (that's when we get much more directly mental rather than physical).

3. Material possessions - This is the most well-known of all "simplifying your life" tactics.

This one might not sound like it has much to do with our mental state of being, and it does have the least effect, but it still very much matters. Physical clutter in our homes and life overall can have a real effect on us and so tackling this is a worthwhile early venture in seeking to live the spirit of Zen.

4. Daily actions - The one area we've yet to cover is daily actions. This is one of the biggest and most important as it deals with everything you actually do physically all day long: go to the bank, go to work, what you do at work, run errands, visit friends and family, spend off-time, spend time with your loved ones, etc. Literally everything.

There is some overlap between this and #2, but again that's an important point to isolate because it's so important.

I've written a few articles which deal with this exact topic, even one taking you through a 30-day plan to simplifying your life in every aspect. Here they are:

  1. 30 Simple Steps to Simple Living in 30 Days: How to Simplify Your Life from Start to Finish in 30 Days
  2. 13 Simple Ways to Increase Productivity, Reduce Distractions and Have More Time for What’s Most Important
  3. The 10 Most Important Ways to Simplify Your Life

2. Do a mind cleanse

We often don't realize just how much outside stimuli affects the state of our minds.

It can fog our mind, distract us, completely detract and divert us altogether, as well as lead us to be more aggressive, fearful, and paranoid (among other things). It can have just about any and every effect on us possible.

This step is all about what's called "mental food", and it's extraordinarily important.

What do I mean by mental food? This includes everything from associations (people, relationships) and environments to forms of media such as video (T.V., YouTube, news sites), audio (radio, audiobooks, podcasts), and text (books, blogs, and essentially the Internet as a whole).*

*It's important to note that the Internet is included in every one of those categories, being that social networks are a big part of our associations and the environments we engage in as well as including all forms of media: video, audio, and text. Also, associations and media crisscross because we interact with others via video, audio, and text.

So then, what is a mind cleanse?

A mind cleanse is about taking each of those categories and purging (or reducing) the bad mental food to "cleanse" our minds.

How to do it:

When it comes down to it, for the majority of people, a mind cleanse includes tackling these 3 categories:

1. Associations (people) along with the environments you engage with people in - This is always the most difficult, but also the most powerful, of all the categories in this step. There's rarely an easy way to go about dealing with this but to realize the hard fact that if you continue to be around people who willfully bring you down, it's going to have a definitive effect on your life.

2. T.V. - A point of interest here is the nightly news, talk shows, sitcoms, soap operas, and advertisements in general.

3. The Internet - Again, this is a huge category. The most important points here are social networks (you could be positively spending your time there or not so positively, you'll have to find this out for yourself), news and gossip sites, and blogs.

A mind cleanse such as this can take time, or you can do it all within a week or two (usually, outside of associations unless you're in a position to just stop hanging out with the people in question), it's really up to you (some might need more time, it just depends on your situation).

The first time I did this was back in high school, and it had an extraordinary effect. What kind of an effect? Let me explain...

What you'll notice when you do this is you'll naturally turn "inward" more than you were before.

What I mean by that is, you'll be willing to sit down to read, meditate, and do other more nourishing activities far more often than you were before. It's almost as if you just gravitate towards these things more now than before, you'll almost be compelled to.

*An important note: This won't last forever- it will likely only be an initial feeling that will last a few weeks or even a few months. But as with anything, consistency is key. This is your opportunity to build new and better habits. If you can do this, that period after the mind cleanse will be that much more beneficial.

That leads me to the next point. So what do you replace this bad mental food with? Many things, such as:

1. Books - Preferably self-help of some kind (this doesn't have to be non-fiction either, it can be fiction. See: The Alchemist), although I'll strongly warn against consuming the wrong kind of self-help centered around making more money, becoming successful and powerful, and other ways we try to fill ourselves up falsely.

2. Audio - Audiobooks (same guidelines as with books above), podcasts (see books again), guided meditations, etc.

3. Positive TV programming - There's a lot out there, just have to make your best judgment.

4. Positive groups and environments - This is all about the people and emotions you're around on a regular basis. This can have a considerable effect on your life as a whole, but be equally difficult to find. This one may take time, but if you're always on the lookout you'll begin to see possibilities.

3. Reevaluate your dreams and goals

Most of us are striving towards something.

We have a dream or a goal and we want to achieve it, and we look forward to the way our life will be when we accomplish it.

In many ways, having a dream and a goal is just fine. But it's natural for us to become attached to it, to the point where we convince ourselves that we can't be happy until we get it.

This kind of attachment is very unhealthy, and unfortunately it's something that most of us have fallen for (I was no exception). This next step is about evaluating that very thing.

How to do it:

How do you evaluate your dreams and goals? This includes:

1. Evaluating why you want to achieve said dream or goal - Do you want it because you believe you'll find happiness? Or do you want it because you'll believe it's a worthwhile pursuit that will help others? Or simply something worth spending your time on?

2. Evaluating your daily actions with these dreams and goals in mind - How are your daily actions colored by these dreams and goals? Most importantly, is what you're doing to achieve your dream or goal sacrificing your well-being or the well-being of others?

3. Identifying the thoughts and ideas that exist within your mind in connection with these dreams and goals - An idea of this would be working off point #1, identifying that you want to achieve this goal because you believe you'll find happiness. That's an idea you hold in your mind in connection with the dream or goal.

This last point can take time to develop, and largely comes through developing your mindfulness and meditation practice (which we'll talk about in a bit), so just become aware of these thoughts and ideas as they arise when possible.

The overarching idea here is to begin identifying the harmful thought patterns you hold within your mind so that you can begin releasing them. This step is very important because it's so often this attachment to a dream or goal and the idea that, "I'll be happy when ____" that holds us back from realizing peace and happiness in the present moment.

*An important note: You won't be able to release this idea of "I'll be happy when ____" right away, nor is it required. Just begin to become aware of them, that will be enough right now.

4. Establish a daily routine for your life

Sometimes, we think that things like "order" and "structure" are boring and only slightly useful in some situations, when in fact when used in the right way they can be the breeding ground for much peace, joy, and freedom.

How? A daily routine, for instance, allows for a quieter mind because there's less to think about.

Ultimately, that's really what you want- less to think about = more enjoying the peace of the present moment.

In modern life, planning ahead and remembering certain things is necessary to a point, but by structuring things in the right way and pre-planning, we can remove much of that mental clutter that builds up as a result of our many everyday tasks, to-do's, and important events.

We're so afraid of forgetting what we have to do that we often feel the need to cycle those things repeatedly through our minds until the time comes to do them. The thing is, that cycle never ends because new things come up. So our minds are constantly cluttered with, "Remember this!", and "Remember that!"

By establishing a daily routine and some form of order to your life, you remove a lot of feeling that you need to do that. And as a result, you remove more mental clutter and give yourself more peace and quiet.

How to do it:

So, what should this daily routine look like? That's completely up to your own daily schedule and life as a whole.

To some degree, that will change day-by-day, but as long as you make your major daily (or weekly) activities routine than you'll have just about done your best.

Outside of that, for those activities that are irregular or one-time, I'd suggest keeping a simple to-do list.

Don't let this to-do list rule your life though, only use it to keep a few important points for that day (or group of days). I'd suggest keeping this list at no more than 3-5 things for the sake of simplicity and for keeping it from becoming its own monster (to-do lists are helpful, but only to a point).

I prefer Trello due to its simplicity (and it works across all devices), but you could use anything.

*Two more important points:

Having some form of structure, a daily routine namely, keeps you from wasting time. It improves your efficiency towards the task at hand because you act with more of your being in every moment. This is a very important part of Zen in itself as well, so they go together nicely.

On top of that, breaking that sense of order and structure from time to time can become a very liberating experience.

Zen monasteries have always been run with a sense of order and structure because they're perfectly aware of the benefits of it.

Zen priests don't run monasteries with a strong sense of order just because they feel like it- everything in Zen is calculated- they do it to create a breeding ground for those students to better realize greater awakening, and their true nature.

So use a sense of order and structure to liberate yourself in your own life by creating a daily routine, giving yourself more mental energy for what really matters.

5. Establish a home meditation practice, but make practice simple and convenient (blend it in to everyday life)

Meditation (zazen in Zen- meaning literally "sitting meditation" in Japanese) is obviously an important part of living the spirit of Zen, but with regards to doing so in your everyday life (modern life), this can't be done the same way a full-time Zen monk or student practices meditation.

Within this point there's really 2 important sub-steps:

1. Begin your home meditation practice

First and foremost, for those new to meditation, here's a few guides to get you started:

The Little Book of Mindfulness– Discover the power of mindfulness meditation in simple, straight-forward, and crystal clear language. You can get this free eBook by clicking here.

The Mindfulness Survival Guide– Learn 5 powerful meditative practices for overcoming life’s difficult challenges and living more mindfully. You can get this free guide by clicking here.

5 Tools to Help Start Your Home Meditation Practice– This is a guide all about teaching you both the basics of sitting meditation (instruction included along with the 5 tools) as well as the 5 tools you can use to help build your practice. A great beginner's guide.

2. Blend meditation into your everyday life (and make it a daily habit)

Once you've begun your meditation practice, you'll likely discover that it can be pretty difficult to stay consistent. That's where this next point comes into play.

First, because simply meditating isn't enough, focus on establishing meditation as a daily habit. But also, do it in a way that allows you to blend meditation into your everyday life.

Read this guide to establish meditation as a daily habit:

5 Steps to Making Meditation a Daily Habit

These are the only 5 steps you need do to make meditation into a daily habit. You can read the guide here.

This also happens when you bring the energy of mindfulness into your daily activities, which we'll talk about in a moment.

These 5 steps also help you to bring meditation into your daily life in a way that "blends" with it, but here's a few additional points to really make your practice as convenient as possible:

  • Meditate morning, afternoon, and night (even if only for a few minutes) to create powerful "anchors" that keep you grounded throughout each day. Early on, spreading out your meditation practice (even if you meditate for less time on each session) is a powerful way to support and encourage your practice. Ultimately, you're just trying to get used to sitting and to make the act of sitting in meditation become as comfortable as possible to you.
  • Place your cushion in a place you reside in often, a very common area you'll see regularly and be likely to encourage yourself to sit even if for only a few minutes at a time. This is the best example, outside of living with mindfulness, of blending meditation into your daily life.
  • Sometimes, meditate without a cushion (work with what you've got, don't restrict yourself). I work from home and help my wife put our two sons to nap. Well, my oldest son gets a little crazy sometimes, so I often find myself waiting on him to make sure he falls asleep and doesn't instead go berserk around the room before I go back to writing. While I wait, I sit in what's called the "seiza" position and meditate (this is essentially sitting on top of your lower legs and feet, to where your butt is sitting on to bottom of your feet), as I've found it very easy to sit in when I don't have my cushion near me. Sometimes, you just have to work with whatever you've got, and this is a great way to do just that. Remember, you can always meditate while sitting in a chair as well.

Overall, the idea here is to make sitting down to meditate simple and convenient to do. If you can do that, you've surmounted a great hurdle to living with the spirit of Zen in your everyday life.

Don't overlook the importance of meditation. It may by the 5th step, but it's one of, if not the, most important.

6. Identify the resistance and remove it (lean in to your problems, don't run from them)

The idea of resistance is something I've talked about before, and it's a very important part of Zen living.

What do I mean when I say resistance? I mean specifically:

Resistance:Fighting against reality and the true nature of things.

When I say fighting against, what do I mean? Ultimately, I mean accepting some things and not accepting others.

For example:

- A break up or divorce: When one person just won't let the other person go and continues to be tortured by the person's absence.

- Driving home from work: When we drive home from work with the expectation that we'll get home without a hitch, but end up running into traffic and becoming very annoyed and angered as a result. That expectation we're holding on to is driving us to anger, not the reality of things.

- Striving for greatness: Living your life wanting to "get it all" for yourself, constantly trying to bend and rearrange things to get what you want. Ultimately, you're doing this to be happy, but this isn't where true happiness lies. Because this isn't the way things work, where true happiness actually exists, you get sent down a path of bad habits and patterns that fight against the true nature of things, leading to pain and suffering for either you and/or other beings.

Ultimately, this is us clinging or attaching to certain ideas and expectations that just aren't true. And by clinging to these ideas and expectations we're resisting reality (or the true nature of things) and causing ourselves pain and suffering.

Another important point to note here is that, since we were little, many of us have been taught to distract ourselves from our problems as opposed to facing them.

This behavior stays with us to adulthood, and we end up living our lives doing everything we can to avoid our problems. We:

  • Eat
  • Drink
  • Smoke
  • Have sex
  • Play games
  • Surf online
  • Watch T.V.
  • Engage in groups that help justify our actions
  • And so much more...

...because we've been conditioned that the only way to get away from our problems is to drown them in patterns of bad behavior.

*A side note: Almost none of these behaviors are bad in-and-of-themselves, they're bad when used as a way to avoid our problems and difficulties.

But the reality is, you'll never overcome your problems and realize peace and happiness unless you summon the courage to face those problems and lean in to them.

This can be very difficult to do, but it's absolutely worth it.

How can you begin facing and leaning in to your problems instead of running from them?

Your mindfulness and meditation practice will help uncover these problems and challenges, so from there it's your job to simply lean in to them.

Simply accept the situation as it is fully and openly and allow yourself to feel any emotions that arise in conjunction with it.

Do this:When something arises or occurs, stop to follow your breath and be with it. Imagine yourself facing across from your perceived problem or challenge and accepting it fully with each in-breath and out-breath.

In this way, you can begin making friends with these perceived problems instead of running from them.

7. Become aware of dualistic thinking

All our lives, we were taught that there's "bad" and there's "good" and that these are very separate things. But this is very misleading.

This is because, without the bad, there would be no good.

You wouldn't have the capability to identify happiness if it weren't for your challenges and struggles.

These challenges and struggles should be appreciated, because they allow the opportunity for us to experience the beauty and joy that life has to offer.

If we can begin to remove this dualistic thinking and see that without the bad, without the challenges, there would be no good, no beauty or peace or joy, we can begin to can transform our relationship with those occurrences so that they no longer affect us the way that they once did.

And, going a bit deeper, much of what we identify as "bad", "annoying", etc. is only so because of the concept we hold in our minds.

Much of the suffering we feel exists because of:

Something happens -> Touches mind, Idea (or combination of ideas) triggered -> Creates suffering

It's when the event registers in our minds that we draw a judgment on it that leads us to react negatively to it. This is, again, something we've been taught since we were little ("This is bad." "That's good.").

This takes non-dualistic thinking to another level: preventative. This is all about living in a way that we simply don't draw judgment on anything and accept it full as it comes (remember the last step).

In this way, those things you once considered "bad" no longer affect you the same as they once did, and you can even oftentimes find joy in them.

This is closely connected to living without expectations, understanding that it's not the traffic which caused us to become angry, it was the expectation in our minds which triggered the anger when we encountered the traffic.

For now, this is something simply to become aware of. Just work on identifying this dualistic thinking and you'll begin to gain clarity about the way they affect your life.

8. Live with the energy of mindfulness

In many ways, mindfulness is an energy. It's very contagious. The more you practice, the more mindful you become throughout the rest of your life. In this way, mindfulness practice compounds on itself.

In Zen, this is all about taking the energy of your zazen (sitting meditation) practice into your daily life.

Zen monks for centuries have lived their practice partly with the intention of living every moment of their lives with mindfulness.

The first and clearest example of how this becomes possible is in their practice of walking meditation.

Zen monks often break from zazen practice to do what's called "kinhin" (literally "walking meditation" in Japanese). The idea is to bring the same energy you've developed in your zazen practice- that cultivated one-pointed awareness- into motion.

From here, Zen monks practice to live every moment of their lives- on the cushion and off- with this same spirit of one-pointed awareness, or mindfulness.

This works as a great practice to begin bringing the energy of mindfulness into your everyday life.

It's so important to live with mindfulness throughout your daily life, instead of just sitting to meditate for a few minutes 1-2 times a day.

Live with the spirit of greater awareness in daily activities, giving your full presence around loved ones, and with complete (but not exclusive, still open) attention during your work and you'll see the significant effect living with mindfulness has on every aspect of your life.

My second book, Zen for Everyday Life, is about teaching you exactly that. It's a valuable resource for further developing this step:

Zen for Everyday Life– Learn how to live with the energy of mindfulness throughout your everyday life. You can get the first 2 chapters free by clicking here.

9. Do One thing

This is a very simple step with a lot of significance.

Ready for it?

What's the one thing you're doing right now?

Give your full attention to that thing (and nothing else).

That's the practice of One Thing.

That's it...really. OK, let me break it down a little bit more for clarity sake:

Is it being with a person? Give your full presence to them.

Is it a physical task? Focus on the movement of your body and be fully present for the act of doing that thing.

This doesn't have to be difficult. Start off by picking one hour (say 7-8 P.M.- picking something random here) where you practice One Thing and then gradually expand your practice from there.

Afraid that you might fall behind in your planning and daily agenda if you do this too often? Then you really need this point.

And don't worry, start small with the 1-hour suggestion and bring this practice into your life slowly.

If you have kids, you could reserve one hour a day to being fully present for them.

If you like to clean, or just need to do it out of necessity, then you can do this while cleaning for one hour (or less) a day in the beginning.

As you can tell, your mindfulness practice and this are very similar (which is why this point follows the former), although the practice of One Thing isn't strictly mindfulness and can be practiced by itself.

The point is to get you accustomed to not having to feel like you have to multi-task and to begin becoming used to letting the things in your mind go for at least a short period during your daily life and doing things with a single-pointed mind.

As you let this practice and that of mindfulness bleed into your daily life you'll begin to realize a greater and greater level of peace and freedom.

10. Respect and appreciate life

In many ways, this is something you'll begin to cultivate on your own through following a number of the steps on this list. But this is still a very important point to mention on its own because a lot is included within it. This includes:

- Respecting and appreciating your own life and understanding your own impermanence (you only have so long to live, appreciate every moment of life).

- Understanding the precious nature of life and not purposely harming or hindering it unless necessary (using/wasting resources, not killing or abusing, etc.).

- Being aware of your interconnected nature, and as a result serving others in some way (there are many ways to do this, it's up to you- aiding physically or financially, teaching, inspiring, being an example).

In many ways, this point is all about living in harmony with the natural way of things, and all of existence.

It's about understanding your place, your relationship with other living and non-living things, and the fundamental truths of this world (impermanence, interconnectedness).

These are principles which we can all use to improve our appreciation for life, so it's really through understanding these truths that we can begin to cultivate that respect and appreciation for life in the first place.

Living in this way, every moment, every interaction, and every thing becomes beautiful and infinitely valuable.

You can see significance in something as simple as a tree or flower.

You can see absolute truth in the smile of a child.

And you can see great beauty and importance within yourself.

And in this way, you realize you never needed anything to be "filled up", because you were full all along.


Living Zen Spirit...Coming Soon

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!