No Preferences | Zen Explained Simply

The Zen principle of “having no preferences” is simple, and it doesn’t require any kind of deep knowledge or that you become a superhuman monk through some kind of extensive meditation training.

All it is, the idea of getting rid of “likes” and “dislikes,” and swapping them for “to-do” and “not-to-do.” That’s the way Zen master Shunryu Suzuki put it.

The best way to explain it is by putting it into an example, so let’s do that.

Putting “To-Do” and “Not-to-Do” Into Practice

Basically, it’s like this.

Let’s say you’re leaving the house to get some breakfast. Instead of thinking, “I’d like some breakfast,” you’re just accepting that “getting breakfast” is “to-do” right now, as if it’s simply the next item on your to-do list.

But then, let’s say disaster strikes. You’re no more than 20 feet from your house when a bird takes a massive poop on you.

Now, “to-do” has changed. The new current thing “to do” is head back home and change your shirt, or possibly take a shower if the collateral poopage was that extensive.

Then, once you’ve done what you need to do, you head out again and get breakfast.

Now, when you first hear about having “no preferences,” it gives you the impression that it involves becoming some emotionless, indecisive husk of a human being.

But that’s not the case, as you can see. It’s not even close.

You’re still doing what you want to do, by going out to get breakfast, and really, nothing has changed in terms of your actions.

What has changed, though, is your perspective. As Shunryu put it,

In this practice there is no confusion. If you establish this kind of life you have no confusion whatsoever.

You see, what you ended up doing was exactly the same as if you’d been complaining about it, and labeling things as “good” or “bad” along the way and proclaiming how things “should” have been or “shouldn’t be.”

None of those things would have made any difference to how things are, so by swapping them all for simply saying “to-do” and “not-to-do,” you’re no longer confused at all.

That’s the value of this practice of having no preferences. It makes you immune to all the annoyances that build up stress during your day.

Not only that, but when the bigger problems you face do come up, it shifts your focus onto actually solving them rather than retreating into the security of complaining and defeatism. As the Zen master Sengcan said,

The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.

As in, following the path of what you must do is easy if you’re not bound up by “likes” and “dislikes,” which only add confusion onto how things will already turn out anyway. As Sengcan said,

Like and dislike is the disease of the mind.

And if you treat them as that, you’ll realize that they’re what complicates things, not the curveballs that get thrown at you.

All that’s left is for you is to be always thinking about crossing at a ford. Those curveballs life throws at you are simply another chance for you to practice strategy, and “likes and dislikes” are the one thing that prevents you from seeing the fords you need to cross at when things get tough.

Just don’t start a war on your own ideas of likes and dislikes and call them “bad.” They’re only “no-to-do,” remember?