Advice to a 20-Year-Old Self

Don't neglect the dishes. Try to get enough sleep most nights. Smile every day. Keep your promises, even if others don't. Enjoy the little things: They add up. You will be very surprised at how deeply, earth-shatteringly not-boring moderation is.
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Yesterday I was asked by a young Buddhist, "What advice would you give to your 20-year-old self, when you were just starting on the path?" I answered, Zen doesn't mean that nothing matters. Money matters, work matters, every little interaction matters.

Don't go out with people just because you feel lonely. Choose wisely and learn self-discipline. But don't get too uptight or earnest! Have fun and let your hair down, too. Yes I know this advice is contradictory -- that's why it's hard. But it's worth it.

When you have ideas, don't dismiss them or hide them because you're afraid. Take them as seriously as you would take anyone's ideas. Be proud of them and bring them forward. You are talented. Use it to serve.

There isn't always a right answer. Sometimes you'll just have to muddle through, so you might as well enjoy the scenery while you're there. Do the thing you think is right, and then if the landscape changes up ahead, it's okay to adjust.

Try not to chop and change so much. A little boredom won't kill you. It doesn't matter whether you become Secretary General of the U.N. or a plumber. When you work throw yourself into it completely, but be open-minded about what work that might be -- especially at this stage. What matters is that it is your job, that you take pride in it and that you do your best. No matter what you do, you will touch people's lives. Don't underestimate the value of that.

Don't be afraid to make mistakes. When you make mistakes, don't cover them up -- own up, and then move on. Be humble -- but don't suffer low self-esteem. At your age, simply aim to be cheerful and to learn. Ask until you find mentors, and absorb everything you can from them. People are basically kind; there is nothing to be afraid of.

Despite appearances, consider everyone a friend at heart. It's a bit of an art to do this without being a doormat... You'll figure it out. Don't be afraid to be close to people. Whatever arises -- and I mean anything -- you can find a way to work with it.

Make criticism your friend. It might be clumsily given, but in your own mind you can make it constructive. Whether you're given criticism or a compliment, say "Thank you."

Be kind and generous even if the world is falling apart around you, but don't bend over backwards to make people like you. Some people will like you, some won't. That's the way things will always be.

The world really looks like the way you are inside.

Treasure your body. It seems indestructible, but one day it will age and you'll care then.

The purpose and great challenge of our lives is to be ourselves completely -- but you can't second guess what that is. All you can do is nurture yourself, and let it unfold gently. That process is never-ending -- so you'll need to develop patience and steadfastness.

The world is complicated. There are people directing charities who are self-centered, and there are bankers who are compassionate. (If you're wondering why I took bankers as an example, it's because in future a lot of people are going to hate them!) Human nature typically needs someone to blame. Keep seeing through it.

People who try to take advantage are in the minority. It's true that almost everyone has an agenda -- but that agenda is simply that everyone wants to be loved. It's just that it expresses itself in twisted ways sometimes. Sometimes even friends will try to put you down, in the smallest most insidious ways. Never believe such stupidity. Brush it off, tell them the truth if you think it'll help, and move on.

Yes there is "true love." It will be almost everything you hoped it would, and more. But you can't make it happen, it won't look like you imagine it will, and it won't miraculously make everything okay. So don't waste your time going looking for it.

Sometimes it will feel like you have nothing. But that won't be true. Look carefully, and find your passion again. I know Zen seems to say that passion is not the way to go, but if it's about passion for life and you have an honest heart, it is.

Don't be angry at life for always throwing you a new challenge. You like to think that if only life stood still, we could all be happy and safe forever; there'd be no loss or pain. But change is movement, and movement is life itself. Do you see? Without constant change, we'd be dead. Embrace each challenge, and you'll suffer less.

You can enjoy fashion without being vain, and things without being greedy. So long as you keep your priorities straight, do it for fun, and are willing to let go, it helps keep people like you grounded and happy. You weren't meant to be a monk -- so stop trying to act like one.

Don't neglect the dishes. Try to get enough sleep most nights. Smile every day. Keep your promises, even if others don't. Enjoy the little things: They add up. You will be very surprised at how deeply, earth-shatteringly not-boring moderation is.

Your heart will break, more than once. I'm really sorry. I wish that weren't so. If it's any consolation, vets have a saying that if you leave all of a cat's bones in the same room, when you turn your back the bones will uncannily find their own way back together and re-assemble themselves in perfect order. Hearts are like that too. Nothing that is real, can be lost.

Sometimes you will wonder if there is more to life. The answer is yes, a million times yes. When you feel like it, find a Zen monastery that you can learn from. Enlightened people exist all over the world, right now. It's not mythical, a thing from the past, or only in Japan. It's possible for everyone, and it doesn't conflict with ambition or with ordinary life. Actually it's a part of ordinary life -- of your life.

Follow your heart and know that you are loved -- especially when it looks like you are all alone.

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