5 things we can learn from the Zen Masters

Zen Buddhism’s teachings are surprisingly practical and translate well to modern life. Sometimes older is wiser!

Zen, the Japanese school of Mahayana Buddhism, is about 1,500 years old, give or take a century or two. A ripe old age by any yardstick. The first Zen masters were doing their thing 1,000 years before the industrial revolution, 1,200 years before American independence, and 1,500 years before that whole thing with Ross and Rachel being “on a break” (one for the Friends fans, there).

But despite it being so old, much of Zen Buddhism’s teachings are surprisingly practical and translate well to modern life. Perhaps it’s because there’s something timeless about the Zen approach to life, which invites us to look inside ourselves for enlightenment, rather than searching outside for it.

So here are five Zen teachings that are as relevant and useful today as they ever were. Why not give them a try? You never know, they might well help you release that inner genius.

Beginners mind

There’s a very cool idea in Zen Buddhism called “shoshin”, which means “beginner’s mind”. As Suzuki Roshi, the monk who helped popularize Zen Buddhism in the West, puts it: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”.

That’s not to say knowledge isn’t incredibly valuable or that experts shouldn’t be listened to; it’s more an invitation to approach life with a spirit of curiosity and openness, to drop our preconceptions and see the world with fresh eyes. Beginner’s mind can help us to try new things, to look at problems in new ways and the openness it fosters can even can help us make new friendships or reinvigorate old ones.

Zen encourages us to go beyond conscious thought and to trust our intuition – in other words: to go with our gut. And given that the gut and brain are directly connected via the vagus nerve (sometimes known as “the body’s superhighway”), those monks might well have been onto something. The vagus nerve really is quite clever: not only does it carry messages from the brain down to the gut, it sends info back to the brain from the gut, too (more on this here).  So, you see, the idea of a “gut feeling” isn’t quite as airy-fairy as it first sounds; it’s actually backed up by the science.

Accept the things you can’t change

Core to the teachings of Zen Buddhism is the practice of acceptance. Now, we have to be careful here, as this one is easily misunderstood, and many people take it to mean that we should all float passively through life just waiting for things to happen. Not great advice in any conversation about unlocking potential! A more useful interpretation might be this (sometimes known as the serenity prayer):

“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Going into battle with things we have absolutely no control over is a bad use of resources and can be seriously exhausting (as anyone who’s taken a cat to task about licking the butter dish will tell you). Far better to accept the reality of the situation and focus on improving the things that can in fact be improved. Good, solid, practical advice from about 600 AD.

Focus on the journey

Zen masters tend to care less about final results and more about the journey– the habits they practice every day. There’s real wisdom in this, even for those of us who do place value on achievements. People often have a tendency to pin their all of happiness on a future goal (If only I could lose 5 pounds, own a yacht, play the solo in Bohemian Rhapsody on the didgeridoo… then I’d be happy.). But the danger here is we end up constantly putting happiness off, turning it into a thing to be enjoyed at some imagined point in the future, rather than something we can experience right now. Goals are vital when it comes to steering us in the right direction and helping us track our progress towards our ambitions, but learning to enjoy the process, the journey, the things we do every day, is what keeps us happy and motivated.

Be present

Zen Buddhism puts great importance on the present moment – “the now”. At a glance, it might not seem all that revolutionary: of course now is important.

It’s always now! But how much time do you spend dwelling on things that happened in the past or worrying about things that may or may not happen in the future? Chances are the answer to that question is “a lot”. This kind of thinking can be a big distraction and really get in the way of progress.

Focussing on the present moment can help you to give proper attention to the task in hand. It can help you connect on a deeper level with friends, family and colleagues. And it can help you experience in full whatever it is you’re experiencing, without distraction: whether that’s reading a book, watching the sunset or, indeed, learning the solo in Bohemian Rhapsody on the didgeridoo. “Now” is all we ever really have, so let’s make the most of it.