How do we remain open when we witness incredible suffering without being overwhelmed with despair? If we close ourselves off, we deactivate our conscience, hide out in denial and ignorance, reduce our sense of intimacy with all life, and let our heart atrophy. How do we walk the middle path that is neither denial nor despair? It’s possible, although it’s not easy.
One: Allow the Awfulness to Be
First, we have to allow the awful stuff to be. That is, we have to give up the relative comfort of denial. We can’t wait to face what’s going on until we have a complete solution. We have to open our eyes, ears, and minds, and – for the moment – just perceive. This may be scary. It may hurt. But it’s a necessary part of the process of becoming a full human being and doing our part to benefit the world.
We naturally want to protect ourselves from the pain of facing suffering, whether it is our own suffering or the suffering of others for which we bear some responsibility. We keep ourselves busy, entertained, or numb. We create stories of shame or blame to give us an illusion of control over the suffering. We’ll ordinarily do anything but just “allow” it to be true (as if we can make it untrue simply by wishing it). This is why Buddhists meditate – it helps us get to know our minds, and to use our faculty of awareness without dependence on all of our reactions and commentary.
Two: Embrace Not-Knowing
Second, we have to embrace not-knowing. We can think all kinds of things about what’s going on – who’s to blame, what should be done, how horrible the future might be – but then forget that, actually, we don’t really know what’s going to happen. We don’t know what the next moment is going to bring, let alone the next year or decade.
This is not the same as saying as willful ignorance, like, “We are running toward a cliff, but who knows? Maybe once we hit the edge, we’ll be able to fly!” Embracing not-knowing is realistic, not optimistic. The most important aspect of it is, “My thoughts are just my thoughts, not reality itself. I can’t control the world with my mind.“
Three: Cultivate Determination to Save the World
Third, we have to cultivate determination to save the world. You won’t do it singlehandedly, but you don’t have to. We may not know exactly how we’re going to do it, but we know human beings are immensely resourceful when they finally get their acts together. Our determination to save the world can’t be based on how likely we believe we are to succeed. There’s no other option. And in order for me to save the world I need others, so convincing you to get on board is all part of the process. It’s not about moral superiority or inferiority, it’s about advocating for an inspiring cause: Let’s save our planet and the wondrous creatures that inhabit it!
This is another area where meditation can help. Over time, you can develop greater facility in using your mind instead of letting it use you. You can turn it, like a horse being turned with reins, toward a healthy, fruitful path (such as loving determination) and away from a negative, dangerous path that leads to ruin (such as despair). You don’t make a choice like that based on “objective” facts. You don’t become determined to help save the world because you become convinced that the “save the world” side is winning. You just change your mind. It’s not easy, but it is that simple.
Four: Do Whatever We Can within the Context of Our Own Lives
Fourth and finally, we have to help however we can and stop comparing ourselves to others. Activists aren’t just those with the time and inclination to attend protest rallies.
At the same time, we don’t have to keep on with business as usual just because everyone else seems to be. There are no rules limiting your generosity with respect to the world. In fact, revered spiritual teachers throughout human history have sacrificed their lives for the sake of others. A legend about Shakyamuni Buddha tells of how, in a previous life, he jumped off a cliff in order to offer his body to a starving tigress and her cubs. Stories like this may seem extreme, but they remind us of what’s possible, and of the depth of the connection between ourselves and all living beings.
If you’re unwilling to abandon your comfort and pleasure in order to sacrifice yourself for the sake of others (and few of us are!), at least own that fact for what it is and don’t take refuge in justifications. Even as you decide what to do within the context of your own life, remain open to new possibilities and keep witnessing. You don’t have to be perfect to care, and you don’t have to have the solution in order for your empathy and sense of responsibility to matter in the world.
If you sincerely practice the first three steps of this process, a way forward will open for you – a middle way between despair and denial. A way for you to help save the world.
Photo by Freedom House, Flickr Commons
Most of us try to find some kind of balance between too much media consumption and too little, particularly when it involves exposing ourselves to bad news. Too much negative information – about war, injustice, global warming, poverty, you name it – and we get overwhelmed, anxious, depressed or jaded. Too little and we risk losing touch. We may ignore things we actually care deeply about, or fail to see how we are contributing to the suffering.
I try to think of my media consumption as a diet. Media nourishes me and helps me grow as a person, even if much of it also makes me sad. It informs me about what’s going on in the world. It can educate me, broaden my perspectives, and allow me to make better choices. It can arouse my compassion, awaken my conscience, and fuel my determination to support change.
On the other hand, if I expose myself to too much negative information, media can start having a harmful effect. I can start to shut down, go numb, or feel aversion to any story or commentary that seems to be trying to educate me or make me feel guilty. I can cling even more strongly to my opinions and habits because it feels like they are under attack, or because I need to take solace in something familiar or pleasant. I can turn away from my compassion, conscience, and determination because it seems I will be sucked dry of any positivity before anything really changes.
If I look at my media consumption as a diet, I can mindfully monitor the state of my mental and physical health in order to know what to expose myself to, how much, and when. I don’t have to abstain completely because media consumption is pointless or harmful. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. I also don’t have to read, watch, or listen to everything.
I know I need more exposure to news and challenging information when I get complacent. That’s when it feels like the stories about war, injustice, global warming, poverty, etc. are impeding on my space, and seem irrelevant to my life – as if they’re happening in some parallel universe and my compassion can’t quite reach across the space between worlds. Then I need to watch one of those heart-rending documentaries and remember in a visceral way it’s all my world. I am intimately connected to all of it. To forget that means to forget part of myself, to shut down a whole dimension of my experience as a human being.
It also helps to think of my media consumption as a diet because I am well aware a healthy diet isn’t easy to maintain!
Photo by Spencer E Holtaway (creative commons)
I teach 8-10 new people to “do” Zen meditation every month. At times I feel kind of radical, but more and more I just want to tell them to sit still and do nothing at all. After 20 years of Zen practice, 14 years as Zen monk, and 5 years as a Zen teacher, I’m becoming deeply convinced that meditation is not something you do. Basically, just deliberately put yourself in the position of not doing anything, and the transformative and healing power of meditation takes care of itself.
“Meditating” is like resting or gardening. These “activities” may require a fair amount of care, planning, and effort in order to create a certain set of conducive circumstances, but ultimately the body rests or plants grow without “you” doing anything at all.
In the case of meditation, you create conducive circumstances by setting aside a period of time for not doing anything productive, entertaining, or pleasurable. You settle the body into stillness or into a very simple, repetitive physical movement. You gently set your intention to set aside all of your usually thinking and activity for however long you’re going to meditate. “Okay, I’ll think about my grocery list/ problems/ upcoming trip/ projects/ the book I’m reading/ etc. after meditation. There’s no reason for me to think about it all right now.”
As you sit, your mind will continue to try to be productive, entertained, or satisfied even though you aren’t acting on any of your thoughts, but this is generally much less agitating than actually doing things.
In these conducive circumstances, your whole being has a chance to realign itself. Your body inevitably gets included in your awareness more than it usually is. Your perspective increases. You remember what matters most to you. You realize you’re okay right now, despite all the things going on in your life and the world. The ephemeral and somewhat arbitrary nature of thoughts and emotions becomes more apparent. Your nervous and endocrine systems reset (I know from experience, not from scientific experiments, although those are supporting the anecdotal observations of meditators). A more sane aspect of yourself settles into the navigator’s seat – a seat which may have been empty, or occupied by various imps, much of the time since you last meditated. Generally speaking, the longer you go without meditating, the more the imps are in control.
The trick is, none of these results are something special. They are just a normal part of healthy functioning as a human being. It’s not that you sit in meditation and consciously try to experience grand realizations about What Is Most Important in Your Life, or who your authentic self really is, or how to achieve great inner peace (although you might gain a few insights). Meditation is an unconscious or semi-conscious reset that the conscious “you” has very little to do with. Which is a great thing, except…
We want to be responsible for the positive results of meditation. We want our meditation to be good because we’re doing something. We just can’t stand to be doing nothing at all productive, entertaining, or pleasurable, so we make our meditation into something productive, entertaining, or pleasurable. If we like our meditation experience or its results, we feel proud, successful, and satisfied. If we dislike our meditation experience or its results, we beat ourselves up, give up in frustration, or try harder.
We just can’t believe we’re just supposed to sit there. That’s unfathomable. How do you even do that? (See how natural that question sounds?)
I can imagine readers protesting, “What about following the breath, or concentrating on an object, or letting go of thoughts? What about the meditation techniques we’ve been taught, and that seem to help?”
My answer is this: As least as concerns Zen meditation, techniques are ways to counteract the strong habitual tendency of our minds to try to be productive, entertained, or satisfied even when we’ve decided not to act on any of our thoughts. You might say the techniques decrease your “doing” level (because a simple technique like following your breath involves much less mental activity than brainstorming a new project for work). In this sense techniques can make the circumstances more conducive to doing nothing.
But mostly I think we give meditation techniques because people need to feel like they’re doing something. Anything. Heck – make me do something as boring and unproductive as counting my breath, but at least I can imagine it’s good for me and try to do a really good job of it! Anything but nothing.
How do the benefits of meditation happen if you don’t do anything?! Surely you can’t just sit there and let your mind do anything it wants to! Surely you need to make an effort! (Because if you don’t do something, nothing will happen!)
Isn’t it amazing that plants grow all on their own? That our bodies rest and heal, moisture ends up in the sky and comes down as rain, and species evolve, without any direct, conscious effort on our part? We can affect these processes by what we do, but ultimately they are out of our hands and part of the larger functioning of our universe.
Our being – our body-and-mind, which are actually not two – has a way of reorienting itself to reality, if we only let it. Isn’t that great? You don’t have to do anything.
Except, that is, to spend some time not doing.
Zen master Dogen wrote in 1242, in his essay called Zazenshin:
“Nanyue said, ‘If you are identified with the sitting form, you have not reached the heart of the matter.’
“To be identified with the sitting form, spoken of here, is to let go of and to touch the sitting form. The reason is that when one is sitting buddha, it is impossible not to be one with the sitting form. However clear the sitting form is, the heart of the matter cannot be reached, because it is impossible not to be one with the sitting form. To penetrate this is called letting go of body and mind.” (Translation by Kaz Tanahashi & Michael Wenger)
We already have everything we need. When we sit, we are sitting buddha – no matter how admirable or insufficient our meditative concentration. Buddha does not depend on this. By our sitting, by our not doing, we place ourselves in alignment with this truth. Naturally we want to consciously realize it, and this is the passion behind our effort, but the irony is that we consciously realize it when we become completely immersed in nondoing.
A priest and leader of a congregation needs to be thoughtful about when to speak up about “political issues,” but I want to offer three practices for Buddhists in troubled political times.
Why now? At a certain point, things happening in political spheres become moral issues, and our Zen Buddhist practice becomes directly relevant. We need our practice to maintain sanity and perspective, but our practice also calls us to Right Action and the path of the Bodhisattva. And let’s not forget, the central champion of Zen is Truth itself.
Right now, those in power are denying the fact of human-caused climate change and rolling back environmental protections that were already too little, too late to prevent worldwide suffering and chaos. Five million people are facing starvation in Africa, but the U.S. is planning to cut aid in order to place America First. People of color are once again being scapegoated as we target Muslims and undocumented Latino immigrants, as if excluding them from our country will be able to prevent terrorism and fix our deep, systemic economic problems. The U.S. has just given North Korea – one of the most dangerous and volatile countries in the world – an ultimatum, while our Commander in Chief is someone who reacts angrily to parody and determines foreign policy by Tweet in the middle of the night. If the current administration’s budget gets accepted, seniors will go without meals and infants without formula so we can build an incredibly expensive wall on the Mexican border to prevent illegal immigration just when such immigration has fallen to the lowest levels in nearly 50 years. Facts don’t seem to matter, and compassion seems to be out of fashion.
What can we do, as Buddhists? Three things.
First, we keep our Buddhist practice strong: sitting zazen, spending time with Sangha, practicing mindfulness in our everyday life, studying the Dharma, periodically renewing ourselves in the space of a meditation retreat. We have to take care of ourselves and our lives in order to do the next two things to the best of our ability.
Two, we keep ourselves informed. This is the practice of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, who “perceives the cries of the world.” Sure, it can be overwhelming and depressing. Sure, we need to take a break sometimes, consider carefully what news sources we consume, and find the dynamic middle way between bad-news-overload and putting our heads in the sand. But this is our obligation as bodhisattvas and citizens of the world. It’s not always easy to witness! (Click here for a post I wrote about what happened to Avalokiteshvara when he was overwhelmed by the suffering of the world.)
Three, we do something to change our world and come to the aid of suffering beings. Anything! But the more active the doing, the more it brings us into contact with others, the better! Why? Not only because we might benefit someone else, but because it’s the best medicine in the world for denial, overwhelm and despair. As Buddhists, we are not limited to a doctrinal playbook. We observe what relieves suffering, increases wisdom, and strengthens compassion – and then we do it. If exercise relieves your depression, then exercise needs to be part of your practice. If writing poetry increases your sense of appreciation for your life, than make writing poetry part of your practice. If gardening keeps you present in your body, your gardening is Zen practice.
Activism expands your focus beyond your own life, and directly counteracts passivity and a sense of helplessness. Once you find something to do, you can put aside grief and worry in order to devote yourself to your task. Periodically, of course, you need to ask yourself if you can do more, or whether your time and energy would be better spent elsewhere. But only periodically. The rest of the time you can find some solace in knowing you’re doing what you can, and supporting others in the fight for compassion and justice.
A lovely side-effect of activism? Community building! It lets you get to know people outside of your regular circles. I’m new to activism myself, and was delighted to find my local Indivisible Group – a bunch of concerned and defiant neighbors of mine who gather regularly to learn, support one another, and enjoy beverages, snacks, and humor!
Photo credit: By Kathryn Kendall, of a #SomosPortland action in November 2016.
If you have spent any time in a Zen community, or reading Zen books, you will have encountered the term “practice” countless times. Zen ancestors and teachers exhort us to practice diligently. Fellow practitioners talk to one another about their practice: “I have been practicing 20 years,” or “I just started practice,” or “Lately my practice has been focused on an acceptance of change.” We say it is hard to practice without a Sangha, or community. When facing challenges in life, we say, “It’s good practice.”
If you asked 100 Zen practitioners what they mean by “practice,” you probably wouldn’t get 100 different answers, but you would probably get about 25 different answers. With the word “practice,” some people are referring specifically to the things they do that can be clearly identified as “Zen,” like study of Buddhist texts, participation in Sangha, or meditation. Most include these things but also are referring to the day-to-day efforts they make in their own minds and hearts to understand and/or manifest Buddhist teachings.
Knowing my definition will change over time, I’ll nonetheless take a risk and offer a definition of “practice:” inquiry and behaviors undertaken to address and resolve one’s deepest questions, longings and fears, in order to live the best possible human life in a spiritual sense. Below I will explain this definition, phrase by phrase.
Inquiry and behaviors: In general there are two paths of practice, understanding and manifestation. Inquiry leads to understanding, and the adoption and cultivation of certain kinds of behaviors leads to manifestation. Many people have more affinity for one path than the other. Some of us want to understand – not just in an intellectual way, but also in a deep knowing that comes from personal experience – before we fully commit ourselves to action. Others of us are primarily drawn to manifestation or action and want to start living out our values and aspirations as soon as possible; understanding can come later as a side effect or bonus. Of course, most people are interested in both understanding and manifestation, and ultimately our practice must include both. The Buddhist ancestors have taught many times that no matter what behavioral practices you adopt, if you don’t understand the great matter of life and death you will not really have achieved liberation. On the other hand, what good is understanding if you don’t manifest what you have learned?
Undertaken to address and resolve one’s deepest spiritual questions, longings and fears: Our secular societies and other spiritual traditions typically offer us two options with respect to these issues:
- Don’t ask troubling questions, there aren’t any answers, so just try to fulfill your longings and cope with your fears; and
- Here are the answers to your questions, as well as instructions for what to do about your longings and fears.
Zen is a radical tradition in that is proposes:
- There are indeed answers to your deepest spiritual questions, including ones like, “What is the meaning of life?” and “How can there be so much good and evil in the world at the same time?” and there is no limit to the depth of the questions that can be asked and answered except your own courage and perseverance;
- It is possible to address and resolve your deepest longings and fears, including longings like those for meaning, security and connection, and fears like those of death, loss or annihilation, and again there is no limit to the depth of that which can be faced and transformed except your own courage and perseverance;
- The answers and resolutions cannot be taught to you by others or read in books, they must be personally explored and experienced. While Buddhist teachers have taught about the answers and resolutions for well over 2,000 years, you do not need to accept anything they offer without personal verification, and if you do, it will not be of nearly as much good to you as your own personal experience. Answers and resolutions occur, come into being, only when lived.
In short, Zen dares you to address and explore spiritual matters that may make you quiver in your shoes, and is a method, not a system of answers.
In order to live the best possible human life in a spiritual sense: What does this mean to you? According to one Buddhist teaching there are five kinds of “energies” within us, and for most of us one or two energies predominate. Each energy is associated with a different kind of spiritual preoccupation:
- intimacy (with other beings but also with everything we encounter)
- stability (or security, the sense of being real, strong and substantial)
- order (the universe has a structure that is, or should be, reflected in everything)
- efficacy (ability to move, act and interact with universe in a impactful and efficient or graceful way)
- transcendence (a sense of the “more” beyond the details of our everyday lives)
With each of these spiritual longings comes an accompanying set of typical fears and tendencies.
Whether the particular breakdown of human spiritual preoccupations offered above makes sense to you or not, it makes clear the variety of ways people will conceive of “living the best possible human life in a spiritual sense.” One person may think of living a moral life with a maximum of benefit, and a minimum of harm, to others. Another may think of rich, meaningful, intimate, brave relationships with family and friends, and an general open generosity to all beings. Another may think of developing a deep understanding of the universe and human life, and creating things that reflect their understanding of the beauty and order they have discovered. What is common to all of these is a liberation of human potential from the bondage of misunderstanding, longing and fear.
You certainly don’t have to accept my definition of “practice.” In fact, if you don’t, if you argue with it, it will be of just as much – if not more – benefit to you than if you find it true or useful. The important thing is engaging everything wholeheartedly in the spirit of practice – inquiry and behaviors undertaken to address and resolve…