Dogen Zenji’s Secret to Leading a Happy Life

A constant struggle and dissonance with our imperfections may very well be the number 1 issue concerning self-esteem, which opens the door to greater stress, anxiety and depression.

Yes, you can quote me on that. We all have self-esteem issues and the media feeds it. When some of us were young, we felt like we had to be perfect in order to get positive attention or love from our parents. Others became enthralled with the media and airbrushed pictures of models showing what a “normal” body looks like. Or maybe it was the billboards and cartoon commercials showing how happy children were when they had a particular expensive toy that many of us didn’t have.

In some way the message is that we’re defective, deficient and imperfect.

Japanese Zen Buddhist teacher Dogen Zenji has a wonderful quote:

“To be in harmony with the wholeness of things is not to have anxiety over imperfections.”

The newsflash is that we are ALL imperfect and that is okay. Dogen Zenji’s quote tells us that to cultivate a sense of harmony, peace and happiness in our lives, we must create peace with our imperfections.

As is said in The Now Effect, “we are all perfectly imperfect.”

I just want to clarify that this does not mean that we’re becoming complacent and not making plans to move toward mental and physical health. This simply means to understand that we are all imperfect and to begin practicing kindness, instead of fear and hate, toward your imperfections when they arise. Then you can make a plan to improve things and engage with that plan.

OK, so let’s get practical. How does this work in our daily lives?

  1. Acceptance – The first step is to accept the fact that you are imperfect as we all are.
  2. ANTS – The automatic negative thoughts (ANTS) may arise “yes, but I have many more imperfections than most people.” If and/or when this happens, notice that as an automatic, habitual thought pattern (because that is what it is), let it be and bring your attention to this third step.
  3. Re-parenting with kindness – Bring kindness to the moment. Bring your attention to the feeling that is there right now. It is likely a physical feeling that is connected to an emotion. Possibly an emotion of shame, disgust, fear, sadness, or anger. Put your hand where the feeling is and imagine it as a little baby; maybe even imagine yourself as a little baby or little boy or girl. Now say to this part of yourself, “I care about your pain and I love you just the way you are.” Or use whatever words fit for you. You can do this for 30 seconds or 30 minutes. Whatever feels right for you in the moment.

Note: Be aware of any judgments that arise right now, such as “this is dumb” or “This is lame, I could never do this.” These automatic negative thoughts (ANTS) are habitual patterns of the mind that have been with you for quite some time. That’s all they are.  Notice them, and bring attention back to practicing kindness with the pain.

The instructions here may seem simple, but this is not necessarily an easy practice. It is a practice; sometimes you will be able to do it, other times you may not. When you are not able, that is OK.  You can always come back to it another time. Notice the thoughts that come tell you that you can’t do it, practice noticing them just as habitual mind-traps and come back to it again when you’re ready.

Try this out for yourself, this is a path toward greater healing and self-esteem.

As always, please share your thoughts, stories, and questions below. Your interactions create a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.

Reposted from Elisha Goldstein’s Mindfulness Blog on

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