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How to Live

Photo by Vanessa Paxton
Every artist dips his brush in his own soul and paints his own nature into his pictures. ~Henry Ward Beecher

“Okay, let’s say life is a blank canvas. Anything you want. What would you paint, babe?” I asked my husband.

There was a brief pause. He grabbed a few Almond Rocas off the kitchen counter, made his way to the couch, and then sat there … like a happy, modern Buddha.

He responded, “I don’t think about what to paint, I think about how to paint.”

Irritation quickly spread throughout my entire body. Regardless of the Zen reading and Vipassana training I had been doing, that was not the response I’d anticipated.

Tonight, for one moment, I wanted to set aside the rationale of “Journey is the way, happiness is not a destination”. Tonight, I really wanted to abandon abstractness and find practicality in our thought process.

Tonight, I’d hoped for grounded, definitive answers—a timeline, some known factors with some known possibilities that delivered a measurable “what to paint” outcome. I wanted to know how to live fulfilling days centered in peace and meaning.

Inspiration for How To Live

I’d just come home after a long day—a long month, at that. I’d spent most of the past two months fueled by perpetual, reactionary energy. A few weeks earlier I had lost a relative very dear to me. This loss, coupled with other personal transitions and an overcommitted workload, I was mentally and emotionally exhausted.

With a daily mindfulness practice, I’d become better at not seeking external diversions. I had learned to not search for outer validations for the inner challenges I was experiencing. I hard learned to take full responsibility for the choices I had made (to commit to extra work, to be busy, to be tired).

The past few years, I had become a student of breathing through anxious moments, sitting quietly when my mind was over stimulated, or writing when I needed detoxifying from emotional bombardment.

I was learning how to sit with discomfort without reaching for tools to distract, deny or escape.

Instead of plugging up to Pandora to inject a feel-good song to muffle unsettled feelings, I’d sit with raw emotions. Instead of reaching for my cell phone—a distraction—to check my Twitter feed, I’d examine feelings and attempt to process them.

I was learning. And had witnessed significant inner growth.

But, not tonight.

Tonight, although aware of my burnout-driven-desire for answers, my husband was the one I’d seek out for the external “quick fix”.

I wanted him to tell me, right now, at this very moment, “Where are we going? How will we live? What are we going to do with our lives? What greatness will we achieve? How will we save the world? And are we on the right path? Is this—the way we experience our days now—our purpose?

Or are we really half asleep, on a wheel?

I wanted to know what to paint. I wanted to know what my picture would look like.

My deepest belief is that our reality is a mental creation. Our internal story lines—our thoughts, mindset, affirmations—narrate a projection into our physical world. And vice versa, our physical world is a mirror of our inner being.

So I’d propositioned to him, with this stage-setting belief, my question again: “Life is a blank canvas, let’s paint, shall we?? How do you want to live?” Since I’d rephrased with a few ounces of maturity and philosophy, I expected him to reciprocate.

Yet, I still received no solid answer. No picture.

He repeated himself with the same simplicity as moments before. Something that went like this, “The way we intentionally choose to live each day. This is the how “the way” and “the what” naturally would follow suit.”

“Wow … What a really, really unfulfilling answer.”

This was my last thought that evening. I went to sleep—still stuck in a war zone of mental uncertainty—frustrated with the vagueness of a blank canvas. And I didn’t return to this thought until today.


A few months have passed, and my anxiousness for the unknown is beginning to dissipate. I now radically let my frustrations, fears and uncertainties be. Acknowledging them, blessing them, and reminding myself, during times when fears do take over, “this too shall pass”.

I let go of my obsession with future-oriented events. I found myself happier in each moment. And, in turn, the answers to my ‘what’ question has been generous in its return. With less force and resistance—and more allowing and surrendering—a picture began to organically form (a story for another post).

How to Live? The 3 Hows of Intentional Living

I’m becoming more and more aware, and accepting, that life is uncertain.

The same elements that make it exciting and beautiful can also bring us on an anxious pursuit for answers. Here are three mindset tools for how to live when we are in a time of transition, fresh with questions, faced with unknowns.

1. Choose Consciously

Living life as a reflex is the grass-root of stress. Reactionary living is working backwards and leads to energy depletion. Our stressors begin to strip away our soul, and we suffocate on an empty tank of unfulfilled needs.

We can reverse this way of living backwards by choosing to consciously create our lives. We can live by setting our intentions.

Contemplate this: “What do I want to intentionally represent?” For example, is it love, humility, compassion, creativity, intelligence?

Or, ask yourself this, “How can I honestly show up for myself and then for others?”

Or on a smaller scale, “When I have lunch with a good friend or a co-worker today, what will I stand for?”

We can choose consciously by affirming we are love, we are humble, we are compassionate, we are creative, and so on.

And when moments of distress do find their way into our space, it is noticeably apparent. There is a heightened awareness towards unconscious feelings.

Take this moment to ponder how your intentions—your mindset, your strategy—will create a conscious, fulfilling life. Choose wisely, and then carry them, center them, deeply within.

Our intentions guide everything. Know this.

2. Adopt a Zen Mind

In zazen—the Zen practice of meditation—our mind is calm and simple. Though, in ordinary life, outside of zazen, this isn’t usually the case.

Daily, we experience a flurry of busy and complicated thoughts—an influx of stimulating & annoying status updates, media noise, email-flood-gate-management, what to have for the next meal, the weekend errand list, a project deadline, keeping in touch with friends, taking care of a parent, going home to a sick child. Hardly Zen.

With many responsibilities that are constantly calling us, we may not easily be able to focus on what we are doing at this very moment.

According to Zen teachings, our cluttered thoughts are a result of thinking with a relative mind. The relative mind is exactly as it readsthe mind which sets itself in relation to other things. And this type of thinking leads to mental clutter.

For example, let’s explore traffic with a relative mind.

Instead of sitting in rush hour with a clear mind, we are impatient—even angry—as we’re running late for the 8am meeting. As we’re driving our shoulders stiffen, our grip on the steering wheel tightens. Our entire bodies react as we become tense. We are zooming into the future by envisioning the wrath of our boss as we stumble in late… guided by our reflection into the past—last week when we were also late.

Not to mention, we’re irritated with the car in front of us for leaving a larger gap than needed … driving slower than the 10 mph flow. Then, we look over to the next lane and find a woman putting on make-up, treating the driver’s seat as a vanity instead of as a vehicle.

We start to form judgment. Our temper has a growing aggression.

The mind is cluttered.

Compulsive thinking forms residual debris that further creates fuel for more compulsive thinking—a result of reaching into the past or zooming into the future. There is another way.

If we adopt a Zen Mind, if we embrace something quite simple with a clear mind, we have no shadows, no debris, no relative mind. Our present moment just is.

There is clarity and the moment is straightforward.

Zen teachings state to do one event, one conversation, one focus with our whole body and mind; to be concentrated. Be whole in each moment. In our conversations, when we are preparing a meal, when we are listening.

So, back to the example of traffic: when we are stuck, be there with your whole body and mind. Just sit there. Take three slow and deep breaths: inhale & exhale.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist Monk, would also remedy irritation by recommending adding a half smile with this breathing exercise. Certainly, though conceptually simplistic, to master frustrations with present moment awareness and breathing is no small feat … and one that takes practice in a very demanding, modern world.

But it can be done. If this philosophy is intriguing to you and you’d like to explore further, I highly recommend “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”, a book that changed my life.

3. Show Up

You. This moment. Both are perfect.

This final “how to live” is a parallel to the second: to show-up, wholly, wherever you go. Understand that your attention is the most precious resource you have.

Today, we can recognize, we can allow what we are doing right now to be perfect, without judgment, without analyzing. We can allow ourselves to be fully here. And we can provide this most amazing gift—our attention—to our current action, to each of our conversations, to those we meet throughout the day.

Parting Words

To close on a Zen note, there is a precept, a saying, “Dana pajna paramita.”

Dana is to give.
Prajna is wisdom.
Paramaita means to cross over, to reach the other shore.

In other words, “To reach the other shore with each step of the crossing is the way of true living.”

That frustrating night months ago, and my husband’s response that I shunned at—I don’t think about what to paint, I think about how to paint—well, it’s true.

Our mind and heart are so powerful and deliberate: how we see becomes how we paint. Our canvas is then our intent, mindfulness, and presence.

And with this priming, our “what”—our unique work of art—is revealed to us moment-by-moment.

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About the author

Cat is a recent corporate escapee, now practicing as a full-time Zen Student. Her home, for the next year or so, is on various meditation cushions in the world.

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15 thoughts on How to Live

  1. It’s funny I’m less worried about the big picture things: where to live? (we’ve had the same house 11 years and have no intention of leaving), what will we be doing? (I just changed careers almost 2 years ago, and it’s going well so far despite the poor economy)…

    So I’m not worried about what to put on the canvas.

    The day-to-day things cause me more anxiety than anything else. Lately our decision not to have kids (that we made 10 years ago) is weighing me down–living outside of the societal norms is never easy.

    I must say what you wrote about being “fully here” occurs a lot at home. Usually with a cat in my lap and while reading a good book. As long as I’m taking time for myself and keeping up with yoga (as well as getting enough fresh air) a lot of the small worries seem to fade. I guess I’m lucky I’m not worrying about the where to live, what we will be doing part of life!

  2. well, thanks for sharing. I am beginning a new day and with this article I think I am really going to make it a new day.

  3. Rahi

    Such a wise article and so practical at that! Thank you, Cat. Blessings.

  4. This was a great article with good advice …if I’d only take it :) I’ve been trying to figure out my life purpose for a while now, so much I started blogging aobut it hoping to find answers. I have a hard time with intention because I intend , every day, to be nice to people. to treat people kindly, etc. but I get so easily irritated that I fall of the intended path. I have all these great intentions but I fail to keep them. In any case, I truly enjoyed this article. Thank you and continue to paint your canvas any way you want !!

  5. Luke

    Great article, thank you :)

  6. I admire your ability to communicate your feelings so well. I’m an Eckhart Tolle follower so much so that I am starting to live his teachings as if they were my religion. Reading your insightful words describing your frustrations lead me to reflect on The Power of Now which got me thinking about how many of us still refuse to live each moment of our lives individually. There is no grand purpose or life road map required to live the moment that I am living right now. When we allow our moments to blend and disappear into blocks of time, life goes by pretty fast and these questions arise. Over thinking purpose, meaning and even everyday frustrations takes us away from focusing on the only thing we have……this moment. Conquering the “How To Live” question is easy when we reduce the self created blocks of meaningless time that we burn through every day into individual moments. A wise person once said…..”There are no ordinary moments”. Simply live each individual life moment as they come and as you said……our purpose will reveal itself moment by moment. I could not agree with you more.

    I look forward to reading more of your thoughts…..thank you for taking the time to share with us……you are doing good work by helping others master their minds.

  7. Hi Cat,

    Life is certain and uncertain. Change as you already know is the only constant in life. Every moment requires a different response from us which is why being in the here and now is so important. But at the same time we must also be aware of the larger picture. If we do not know where we are going, we will not get anywhere. But to get to our destinations, we have to advance step by step. It is simply a matter of balance, a constant shifting between perspectives.

    I believe that making the best choices in any situation is the best way to live. To do so, I always divine the outcome of all my possible actions before I choose the best suited one for a situation. With this foresight and foreknowledge, change rarely catches me by surprise. I am by no means omniscient. I selectively choose what I need to be aware of and ignore the rest. Even with this awareness and foresight, it is still not easy to make life certain. But there is greater certainty in my life because I know which actions I choose will produce the desired effect.

    As a result, I am calm most of the time. After all, if you knew roughly what would happen to you each day, week, month and year and you took the steps to prepare for it, what is there to unsettle you? With this clarity, how to live becomes that much easier.

    Thank you for sharing this lovely article! :)

    Irving the Vizier

  8. sonal

    Thank u for sharing an article full of wisdom . If we clear our mind from negative thoughts it becomes easier to act wisely in present moment . It is so important to watch each and every moment what
    our mind can think . It can be a wise mind or stupid to do any mistake leading us to repent for whole week , month or years to come . Friends and family are just good listeners . Our own mind is our best friend to take us out of bad situations . So we have to take care of our own body and mind first to take care of other responsibilities .

  9. What a beautiful post. I have actually given up my full-time job and just earn money as and when, so I feel like my life really is a blank canvas but even so, sometimes a day can pass without me noticing it! I am clearly not mindful enough.
    Incidentally, Thich Nhat Hanh is coming to talk in London soon (I’m UK based!) so I’m going to hear him in person! Got my ticket this morning!

  10. JenP ~ Inspiring comment. Thank you! Sounds to me as if you’re pretty mindful … and how cool you will be seeing Thich. Enjoy his wisdom. Please send his blessings to the West :)



  11. The Vizer ~ You pose some interesting, wise viewpoints. I really like this: “It is simply a matter of balance, a constant shifting between perspectives.” Ahh … yes … truth :)

    Cheers & Love,


  12. Steve ~ Thanks for the kind comments.

    I’m an Eckhart Tolle follower as well. Often listen to his Power of Now book on audio, simply as a reminder. In 3 weeks, I’ll be attending a conference in San Fran where he is a main speaker :) Perhaps I can write/share his words of wisdom & inspiration from the conference via Think Simple Now.



  13. Kris ~ I imagine in all your blogging, you will unravel answers about your life purpose. Writing is a self-awareness, reflection tool — so powerful in its ability to take a deep dive within. And in the dive, reveal more of who we are at the core.

    Best to your discovery journey. It’s an exciting ride :)


  14. Sonal ~ Yes, what you said resonates with me: we take care of ourselves, first, — fully loving & committing to who we are — only then can we wholly be there for others.


  15. Leah ~ You sound happy :) Content with each moment in each day, the ordinary. Without a wanting of extraordinary, external events to paint you a picture.

    And you make a nice point — perhaps when we are truly present and in the flow, we don’t fight for a picture. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

    Saumya, Rahi, Kris & Luke ~ Grateful for your comments



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