Zen Habits and Koanic Soul

Here’s a cool summary of the core philosophy of Leo Babuata, who writes the blog Zen Habits:

So what are the principles that changed my life, repeatedly?

If you read the brief stories above, you already know:

1. Start very small.
2. Do only one change at a time.
3. Be present and enjoy the activity (don’t focus on results).
4. Be grateful for every step you take.

My only objection to this list is that I view it as a list of the desired second-order psychological effects of a good mental system, not the first order causes.

In other words, this is the desired state, but it’s not the optimal route.

If you tried to use these as your actual mental system, it would take a huge amount of mental discipline to stick to them in the midst of real life stress. We can’t all disconnect and go to Thailand and live by writing a blog like Babuata. Some of us are more ambitious than that.

Next I’ll explain how Koanic Soul activates each of the four habits Babuata lists.

1. Start very small

This is accomplished in several ways.

Most importantly, your organizational system should break everything down into tiny completeable steps. I use Cyborganize, you might use GTD or something else. The cyborg koan integrates this strategy into your identity.

The Yahweh koan gives core confidence. The Kingdom koan affirms your identity as a valuable worker. Beginning small is the action of a man confidently going about his business.

The koan “Will I die today” prevents the excessive mental wheel spinning that can happen when we get ambitious and anxious. The girls koan reframes your priorities, preventing work panic that might cause you to scramble. The Seneca koan makes going slow and enjoying life part of your core identity. The “needs” koans remind you that no disaster can befall you.

Together, these koans produce the desired effect of “starting small”.

2. Do only one change at a time.

I don’t actually agree that one should only ever do one change at a time. But it’s a good principle for habit instillation, which is what he’s talking about.

In my opinion, self-tracking is the key to personal behavioral change, which is a function of your organizational system.

This one I’m going to give to Babuata. Koanic Soul doesn’t really talk about it.

I would argue that Koanic Soul is more situationally flexible, permitting you to use your judgment on how much change to simultaneously attempt.

3. Be present and enjoy the activity (don’t focus on results).

Tongues and koan cycles embed you in the moment more firmly than anything else I’ve tried.

Remembering that one may die today, and that this is completely beyond one’s control, wonderfully centers you in the moment.

Lastly, the Seneca koan forces you to be in the moment, because that’s where the little things are.

4. Be grateful for every step you take.

Here I’m going to diverge from Babuata again.

Gratitude is an emotion you should be constantly feeling when you’re in your optimal state. But I don’t think he’s appreciating the right thing, necessarily.

You don’t need to patronize yourself like a kindergarten teacher, applauding your every bowel movement. That gets old quick.

Instead, you should have a constant appreciation for the big things (the Yahweh koan), the pleasurable things (girls koan), and the little things (Seneca koan).

And you should prevent life’s worries from interrupting your gratitude, by being constantly reminded of death, by outsourcing worry to your organizational system, by being comfortable with the possibility of poverty, and by centering yourself in your ideal social group.

Well, those are my thoughts on Babuata’s system. I think it’s a bit cultish. He gives you this life template to follow that is guaranteed to fail, which means people have to constantly come back to his blog to reindoctrinate themselves to realign their state. It’s a good strategy for a blogger. But I’m looking for a way to give you all the tools you need to self-sufficiently go forward, with nothing more than your own mind.

And let me say that I read Babuata because I respect him, so all criticism should be interpreted in that light.