I Lived As A Monk And Studied Zen For 20 Years—Here’s The No. 1 Thing People Miss When They Talk About Happiness

Many of us are taught to believe that we need to be in perfect control of our lives in order to be successful or accepted. But that mindset made me unhappy for years.

Growing up nonbinary, I spent a lot of time escaping to an imaginary world where I controlled everything, including what other people thought of me. I constantly chased this idea that if I could just get that boyfriend, that job, or that money and acclaim, I could finally relax and be happy.

To break this toxic mental habit, I did something drastic: I moved to the woods and lived amongst a community of Buddhists, and have since spent 20 years studying Zen Buddhism.

At the monastery, I learned a valuable lesson about happiness that people often overlook: We can’t control everything that happens to us, but we can control how we treat ourselves. Allowing ourselves to feel happy, no matter what our life looks like, is the key to real happiness.

Why struggling for control won’t make you happier

When you hold on to the need for control, you start to feel responsible for all outcomes of your life. But can you really control what people think of you, or who does or doesn’t give you a chance, or who you’ll date, or where you’ll get a job?

You might have some say in these things, but so much of life is unpredictable — and that’s part of what makes it beautiful. Unpredictability connects us all.

Another problem with the need to control is that it makes you constantly chase after a life you aren’t living, making it hard to appreciate the one you already have.

For example, right now, you might be worried about about finding the perfect partner. In a few years, it might be finding the perfect job.

How to let go of the desire to control

If you free yourself from the need to control everything, you can experience more happiness and gratitude in the present.

Here are some ways to get started:

1. Stop and reflect.

Think about all the ways you’re focusing on an imaginary future instead of the present.

Ask yourself:

  • Do you sometimes let your need to control the future get in the way of you enjoying the present moment? When do you tend to do that, and why?
  • It is essential to honor your dreams, but how can you put some of that energy into the most important things in your life today?
  • What can you be grateful for right now?

2. Redefine unrealistic expectations you set for yourself.

Find that voice in your head that keeps reminding you of the need for control. Tell that voice, in no uncertain terms, that you are not living to impress it.

Can you imagine living a life where that inner voice is irrelevant? Instead, can you direct that energy towards something that will give you a sense of joy or peace?

3. Allow yourself to be happy in the present moment.

Close your eyes, take three slow breaths, and give yourself permission to feel happy.

If you find yourself struggling, think about why that is. I’ve found that when people think about giving up control and letting life guide them, fear can get in their way.

There will always be stressful situations that need your attention, like taking care of the people in your life. But you can let happiness in by shifting your focus from future-oriented fears to the present.

You deserve to roll with the life you’ve got. You deserve to flow with the unexpected and not “have it all together.”

(Jeffrey Marsh is one of the world’s foremost commentators on nonbinary identity and activism. His short-form videos have garnered over one billion views. Jeffrey’s ”How to Be You″ was the first nonbinary memoir, and he is the first nonbinary author to sign a book deal with any “Big 5″ publisher worldwide. His  latest book, ”Take Your Own Advice,” is out now.)

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