Advice to a 20-year-old self

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. Throw yourself into work – I mean, don’t get a heart attack over it, but you’d probably enjoy being an apprentice in TV – try it. It sounds superficial but it won’t be forever, and you’ll learn the skills you need such as working with fun teams of people, selling your ideas, and taking care of yourself materially. Don’t judge things and people so much – what’s the use? One day you will find that you were only judging yourself. The world really looks like the way you are inside.

That shit about never taking “no” for an answer? That’s only true when you’re on the right path. Sometimes it’s actually an indication that you’re on the wrong one.

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.

Don’t go to university just because everybody else is – wait until you really want to, or until you’ve found a subject you love. You’re passionate about literature, right? That’s ok – you can study that. This is going to sound horribly elitist, but once you feel that you’ve got some measure of your shit together, try Oxbridge and the Ivy League, because you’ll regret if you don’t even try it. You’ll be meeting some really fun people from Yale, for instance. It doesn’t matter if the courses seem narrow-minded or aren’t vocational enough – you can make the time yours and do a conversion post-grad afterwards. Do more research before making such an important decision. You don’t want to be going to university forever. By research I mean keep looking until you find something that sounds really exciting to you. What would you do if you weren’t worried about the future? Don’t listen to dad – he loves you, but he has his own unintended agenda and he doesn’t know everything. The important thing with something like a degree is that you find something that you can go deeply into and enjoy. Then you will do well. Otherwise you will be acting against your own heart, and that won’t go far. Trust me. Trust your own intuition.

Travel is not more important than work. I’m not saying don’t travel, but also don’t try to walk in your parents’ footsteps – you are not them, and the world has changed. Make a base – not necessarily geographically, although that can help. Concentrate on making a living, then from there, you can find ways to travel. Doing it the other way round won’t work for you. Try not to chop and change so much. A little boredom won’t kill you. I’ve got some radical news – it doesn’t matter whether you become Secretary General of the UN, or a plumber. Choose something you enjoy doing, in the sense that you can throw yourself into it completely, but be open-minded about what 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. The thing is that no matter what you do, you will touch people’s lives. Don’t underestimate the value of that.

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.

Don’t go out with people just because you feel lonely. When you sleep with someone, they will forever be a part of you, in a way. 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 how things are. That’s why it’s hard. But it’s worth it, I promise, and you can do it. Persevere and do your best. Then rest in the knowledge that your best is enough.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. When you make mistakes, don’t cover them up – own up, and then move on. Please be humble – but don’t suffer low self-esteem. At your age, simply aim to be cheerful and to learn. Find mentors at work and absorb everything you can from them. Most people are basically kind; there is nothing to be afraid of. If you approach enough people honestly and humbly, some will agree to take you in as a trainee. This is an amazing and limited opportunity – treasure it and give it everything. Don’t worry about your doubts or your future. It will work itself out so that you don’t have to.

Make criticism your friend. It will often be clumsily given, but in your own mind you can make it constructive. People will give you feedback that you can use to become a better person. Whether you’re given criticism or a compliment, say “thank you”. There will be abusers too, though. That’s a whole different chapter, but you’ll save yourself a lot of trouble if you simply ignore them. They don’t deserve your attention.

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. So the sooner you learn to march to the beat of your own drum, the better. Do the thing you think is right, and then if the landscape changes up ahead, it’s ok to adjust. Don’t judge things in black-and-white.

Treasure your body. It seems invincible, but you only have one, and one day it will age. You will be grateful then that you care for it now. I don’t mean weird spa treatments or that you have to run a marathon – you know what I mean. I know you are angry, but don’t take it out on yourself. Don’t hate where you come from; be proud. There is no one quite like you. The purpose and great challenge of our lives is to be ourselves completely – but you can’t second-guess what that is. You have to nurture yourself, and let it unfold gently. That process doesn’t end until you’re dead. That’ll hopefully be a long time from now, so you’ll need to develop some patience and steadfastness.

The world is complicated. There are people directing charities who are self-centered a-holes, and there are bankers who are kind and selfless. If you’re wondering why I took bankers as an example, it’s because in future people are going to really hate them. Human nature typically needs someone to blame. Keep seeing through it.

There is an honourable British tradition known as “taking the piss”. Learn it and use it liberally, particularly take the piss out of yourself.

As you’ll already be aware, some people will try to take advantage of you. The fact that you’re a woman can sometimes be hard. Remember that such people are 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. There will also be people – even friends inadvertently do this sometimes – who try to put you down, sometimes in the smallest most insidious ways. Never ever believe such stupidity. God knows you’re not perfect, but you are also brilliant and full of heart and potential. That stuff that mom used to say about how they’re only jealous, and you never believed her? It’s time to start believing her. You’ve got a great instinctive defense system – trust it. Tell people where to go, when they deserve it. Don’t let anyone or anything get to you. Don’t dwell on the upset that arises, it will only hurt you.

In a heartbeat friends can become enemies and vice versa. 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 at all – you can learn to handle it.

Yes there is “true love”. It will be almost everything you hoped it would, and more. You will know beyond doubt when it happens. But you can’t make it happen, it won’t always look like you imagine it will, and it won’t miraculously make everything ok. So simply have faith; don’t waste your time going looking for it. You need to get on with your life and enjoy whatever you have now. Sometimes it will feel like you have nothing. But that won’t be true. Look carefully and find your passion again, even then. Especially then. 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 life stood still, we could all be happy and safe forever. You imagine that there would be no loss or pain. But if life stood still, there could be no change. Change is movement, and movement is life itself. Do you see? Without constant change and learning, we’d be dead. So embrace each challenge. I’m not saying “embrace it” because it’s the nice thing to do; I’m saying it because ultimately you have no choice, and because it’s the path of least pain.

You can enjoy fashion without being vain, and stuff without being greedy. So long as you keep your priorities straight, do it for fun, and remain willing to let go, such things help keep people like you grounded and happy. You weren’t meant to be a monk, so stop trying to act like one. Art, theatre, music and dance aren’t superficial – they’re fun and they’re important to you. There’s a film in which angels can’t see colour, and yearn to experience the passion that only the ups-and-downs of human life can give. You can tread where angels can’t. Savour it and experience it fully. Don’t stop going on your wild adventures. There are lots of worthwhile things to discover.

At the same time, don’t neglect the dishes. Try to get enough sleep most nights. Don’t make a habit of drinking too much coffee. Smile every day. Wear sunscreen (yes I’m serious. You’ve no idea.) Keep your promises, even if others don’t. Enjoy the little things: they add up. Moderation is your friend. It’s underrated. You will be very surprised at how deeply, earth-shatteringly not-boring moderation can truly be.

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. I know, it feels like the world ends – but in the end, you will be ok. Other and better chances really will come to you when the time is right. Remember what I said about true love? Nothing that is real, can be lost. Trust, breathe, walk tall, and keep going. If you want to sometimes curl up and sob your heart out, that’s ok too. Walk through all the clouds; but don’t wallow.

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.

Change your life for no one. Zen masters have important stuff to teach, but they don’t know everything about you personally. They would say as I will: follow your heart, continue to sit still within yourself, and know that you are loved – especially when it looks like you are all alone.

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A short version of this post was published in The Huffington Post.

Did you hear my latest interview on BBC Radio London?  Mixing Faiths – in interview with Jumoke Fashola

05th August 2014

Comments (8)

  1. Rörande!

  2. Interestingly, other than mentioning Zen that is remarkably similar to the advice I would give my own 20 year old self, (though at 20 I wouldn’t have asked!). I think it’s great that this is available for people to read – hopefully many will.

    Zen had nothing to do with me discovering myself …or is that Zen? And BTW, I agree that the Isle of Man is a great place to live!

    • Thanks Paul! Yes I know what you mean. Good for you. Zen practice helped me figure the stuff out, but certainly, no religion is obligatory to wisdom and to living a good life!

  3. Very nice, thanks.

  4. This really resonated with me. I’m 20 and I’m currently in a really tough place in my life and I’m not happy with who I am becoming/have become. I feel like I’ve lost so many of my original beliefs and am feeling spiritually disconnected. I know it may be a long shot but would you be available for any further discussion in connecting to ones self again? I’d like to know more about zen. Thank you

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