15 Ancient Chinese Proverbs That Effortlessly Reinforce Mindfulness



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You are in an ashram in the mountains of Thailand, sitting in the lotus position at the top of the mountain. The never-ending views of the sunrise prevail as the sky illuminates a gentle pink hue. The smell of incense slowly wraps itself around you like a comforting hug and the peaceful hum of the Tibetan singing bowls soothe you. You’ve reached ultimate peace.

When you think of mindfulness, that’s something you may picture right? Well, mindfulness can be different for everyone. Trying to define it is like asking Einstein “why are you so smart?”. It’s not as simple as that.

Mindfulness nowadays, especially in the West, is related to non-religious meditation. However, we owe these roots to ancient Eastern religions and traditions. The actual word is a translation of ‘Sati’, a word in the Pali language of ancient India. Many original Buddhist texts were written in this language.

It roughly translates to “awareness”.

Secular movements such as that of Jon Kabat-Zin in his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programme came to define it as:

“…the awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.”

This was the best summary I could come across. For me, mindfulness has become more than solely related to seated meditation practice. It’s a way for reflection that can lead to a greater sense of self. Personally, I link it strongly with gratitude. Once I can become grateful for merely existing and appreciating the world around me, I’ve reached a mindful state. 

Proverbs, of which China is said to have more than any other place on earth, have become quintessential to internal reflection for me. They often get a bad rep for being too simplistic but I disagree. Simplicity is the key to understanding and effective application. These proverbs have helped me reevaluate myself when I’m acting out of an egotistical mindset or I’m lashing out in anger, something which I struggle with.

Most of these proverbs are from ancient Chinese tradition or recorded as Zen sayings in Japan. Remember, these are simply tools to harness spiritual awareness. Nothing more.

Chinese proverbs on life lessons


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1. “Without sorrows, no one becomes a saint.”

What does being a saint actually mean? Perhaps it’s someone with a long-lasting impact on people or someone who has built an unshakeable mind. Through the inevitable catastrophes life will throw at us, we must see them in a positive light no matter how difficult. Personal growth comes from those low points. Remember that we will all hit rock bottom in our lives at one point, but it’s the lessons you take from that experience that turn you into the saint.

2. “Climb the mountains to see lowlands.”

We constantly strive to get to the top. The top of the writing industry, the top of the social media world, or anything else. Maybe the top isn’t where you will be happy. Once you get to the top of the mountain of course you’ll feel accomplished. But this proverb is gently reminding us that at the top, you will still see the lows. No matter how much success you achieve you will always be slapped in the face with challenges. Prepare yourself through mental fortitude.

3. “Great doubts, deep wisdom…small doubts, little wisdom”

Even the ancient Chinese Zen masters knew the importance of risk. The concept of risking it for a big reward is an idea echoed throughout our society. Perhaps it needs a little tweaking according to the wisest of all. Through taking those leaps of faith of course you’ll face doubt, but you acquire wisdom like no other. Sitting at a desk all day you’ll have no reason to doubt yourself. You are taking no risk. Subsequently, you will not be rich in wisdom.

4. “You cannot prevent the birds of sadness from passing over your head, but you can prevent their making a nest in your hair.”

This reminds us to not let the negativity linger. If something or someone negative comes at you, pay no attention to them/it. By dwelling and engaging with this negativity you are providing a home for it. It drags you down as you hold onto it. Imagine a chariot pulled by two horses. You are the chariot, one horse represents mental strength and maturity. The other a weak, reactive, and ego-driven mind. Which one will you allow the chariot to be pulled by? 

5. “I was angry that I had no shoes. Then I met a man who had no feet.

Gratitude is synergistic with mindfulness for me. When I appreciate the life around me, appreciate the beauty of the natural world, and appreciate the present moment, I feel a peace like no other. It’s too easy to fall into the consumerist trap of always wanting more and never being satisfied. In this mindset, you’ll be trying to fill a hole with no end. Drag yourself back into a mindful state by keeping a gratitude journal. Reflecting on how lucky you are is important.

Chinese proverbs on the importance of virtues


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6. “With virtue, you can’t be completely poor; without it, you can’t be truly rich.”

Whenever I read this proverb I get reminded of a famous 30-second clip of Bob Marley talking about wealth. He seemed almost disappointed when the interviewer asked him about money. He responded by saying:

“I don’t have that type of richness. My richness is life, forever.”

Pick your virtues, and stick to them. They’ll give you the spiritual wealth as opposed to the financial wealth you chase. I place the four stoic virtues at the center of everything I do: Wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice.

7. “The wise listens to her mind, the foolish to the mob.”

Whatever religion or philosophy you may subscribe to, wisdom is always emphasized. Following an original path will provide you with wisdom. Following that of a crowd, expect to merely be a sheep with no authenticity.

8. “Teachers open the door; you enter by yourself.”

What good is all this mental training and all this philosophical and motivational reading if you don’t put any of it into effect? You are teaching your mind through meditation to be an observer of the present. Carrying this into daily life is what makes it worthwhile. Only you have what it takes to change your life. Even reading this article for example. Sure, it helps to get some wise insight, but it's worthless if it isn't put into effect.

Chinese proverbs on humbling yourself


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9. “If you want your dinner, don’t insult the cook.”

Humility is something that everyone can strive to improve. It never ends. Your dinner is your wildest dreams in the sense of the proverb, the cook is your mind. Don’t pollute the thoughts with a selfish, egotistical drive. It’s an insult to the mind. Treat yourself to only the highest form of thoughts. This is easier said than done of course. It’s a skill we will find hard to perfect, the hardest for me at least.

10. “Beat the drum inside the house to spare the neighbors.”

Keep the ugly emotions to yourself. We want to be respectful to our neighbors. Lashing out at people close to us in pure anger is destructive and pointless. I try to remind myself of this whenever my anger overtakes the serenity of my mind like a raging fire. 

11. “The swiftest horse can’t overtake a word once spoken.”

Be mindful of the words that leave your mouth. Treat your mouth like the gates of heaven. Once the words escape, there is nothing you can do to take them back. Allow only the most positive of words to leave your mouth, the angelic words. We never know how our words can hurt someone, so don’t be inconsiderate to your peers.

12. “ Simple to open a shop; another thing to keep it open.”

Don’t get ahead of yourself just because something is going well at the start. The real test comes months or even years down the line. How you choose to approach the challenges that arise in your businesses or life is down to how well you’ve prepared your mind. Spend time alone with your thoughts to gain a sense of clarity on difficult situations.

Chinese proverbs on ego and greed


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13. “Before telling secrets on the road, look in the bushes.”

A subtle reminder to check yourself before boasting. Perhaps looking internally (the bushes) before blurting out your latest projects or goals will benefit you more down the line. Don’t let the craving for public approval or attention be why you do something. That’s a recipe for disaster as I’ve learned. Keep your ambitions under wraps.

14. “What you don’t see, you don’t desire.”

This goes back to the consumerist trap and materialistic desires. Falling victim to the consumerist mindset and constantly chasing what you don't have is linked to many problems. Here is just seven of a 19 point list:

1. Unhappiness

2. Envy and jealousy

3. Depression

4. Social anxiety

5. Passive-aggressiveness

6. Short attention span

7. Poor impulse control

Gaining satisfaction with what you were given — the mind —  will leave you in a much more fulfilled position. Find pleasure in exploring the crevices of your mental state, not in material objects.

15. “An inch of gold can’t buy an inch of time.”

Even if you have all the money in the world, this guarantees no extra time on earth. Our lives are all limited and we will all sooner or later arrive at death's door. Sometimes chasing the riches may entice you, but is the stress that comes with it really worth it? Focusing on the present moment will leave you with a higher level of contentment than chasing money. As Eckhart Tolle, author of “The Power of Now” said:

“Realize deeply that the present moment is all you have. Make the NOW the primary focus of your life.”

How can you use these proverbs?

Mindfulness isn't something that is solely achieved through meditation. It’s a mental state. These proverbs carry thousands of years of ancient wisdom from some of the oldest Chinese Zen traditions. The insight they provide on life lessons, humility, ego, and greed, are all things that can be reflected upon at any time of the day.

The beauty of the proverbs is the simplicity they contain. They are easy to remember. As you go about your day you can use them to aid self-reflection. Say you are about to dish out a mean insult to a work colleague who is getting on your nerves, or someone in your family. That would be the perfect time to just remind yourself of an ancient proverb you read a few days, or weeks, back. That might be number 11: “The swiftest horse can’t overtake a word once spoken.”

Keep these in a journal to read over whenever you please or refer to them when in need of some inspiration, as we so often use quotes to do. These proverbs have provided me with a grounding mechanism when I find myself acting through malicious or negative intent. 

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I am an entrepreneur from London with a passion for reading and writing about self-improvement, productivity, fitness, history, philosophy, and happiness.


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