Finding peace through engaging with your suffering is the Zen equivalent of the fairy tale princess kissing a frog to get a prince. True peace is easily as magical as true love. If you find yourself suffering, that is your frog. In it you can find peace. XOXOX
A major fear in life is the fear of death. There is really nothing to fear from death. We were essentially dead before we were born. We will be dead again when we die. All the fear happens in this tiny little bit when we are alive. That fear, which feels like the fear of death, is only a fear of life. How fortunate we are to be able to feel life.
In order to get along in society, we live by a list of things that we should and shouldn’t do. We start compiling that list from our first breath and we continually revise it until our last. It is a guiding force of our lives. It informs our thoughts and actions. Although there is significant overlap from list to list, each of us has our own unique list and a unique way of following it.
Some people take great pride in thinking and behaving in strict adherence to the list. They do all the shoulds and avoid all of the shouldn’ts. Others take equally great pride in thumbing their noses at the list and engaging in the shouldn’ts, while ignoring the shoulds.
Creating the perfect list is the key to a happy life. If we knew exactly what we should and shouldn’t do in each situation we would have no problems. Unfortunately, no list can do that for us. As we continually encounter new situations, we hopefully act according to our best guess at what we should and shouldn’t do. If we feel generally happy, we will be satisfied with our list and our ability to follow the list. If we feel generally awful, we will either fault our lists or ourselves for not being able to adhere to the list. If our list says we shouldn’t eat ice cream and we eat ice cream, if we are happy, we will recognize that our list was wrong about ice cream and we will feel happy eating ice cream. If we are unhappy, we will be upset either because ice cream was on the wrong side of the list and the list was faulty, or because we were too weak or otherwise inadequate in our ability to live up to our list. Either way, our enjoyment of the ice cream is tainted.
Before a boat tips over, it lists to one side or the other. In order to to correct a listing boat you bring it back into balance. No listing. Should and shouldn’t have heavy moral implications. If the list you follow causes you undue anguish, you should just come back to center and correct the list. Start with the basics. You should be able to find happiness, you shouldn’t worry too much if you are not feeling happy right now. You should be nice to yourself and to others. If you, or those around you, seem to be suffering for lack of balance, there’s plenty of hope, it’s just listing.
If you’re anxious in your sleep, you may have a dream that you are falling. In dreams you can take nagging anxiety and turn it into fear. We do the same thing when we’re awake. We feel that nagging anxiety and we think of a situation to fear. Those situations are the circumstances of our lives. There are billions of circumstances in our lives. There is always one available for us to focus on and make some fear.
If we are having problems thinking of something to fear, people around us or the media will suggest lots of frightening options. It is nice when we can place our fear on an object in the near future. Then we can feel extra worried about it until it passes and we are relieved of our fear. We get a break. It is nice when we fear something that is within our control. Then we can do something about it. We can study for a test or run from a bear.
Fear always has an object. Anxiety just churns away. Making fear gives anxiety an outlet. Although it can temporarily relieve anxiety, continually making fear reinforces anxiety. When we recognize that anxiety is a part of life, we can see our fears as expressions of our anxiety and objects of our awareness. We can use that awareness to help make peace. We can recognize fear and then confront the underlying anxiety, feel what it feels like, and breathe with it to invite some peace.
If you have a test, study. If you see a bear, run. If you feel fear, be aware of it and make peace. Fears may keep bubbling up out of the depths of anxiety, but as you practice watching the fears emerge, you can see where they come from and make some peace.
Strangely enough, the way to handle humiliation is with humility. A truly humble person cannot be humiliated. They don’t even feel humility. Practicing humility, like any mindfulness practice is easier when you are not suffering. If you are cruising along, feeling good about life, it is easy to appreciate life and not think much about yourself. If life is knocking you down and it feels like one humiliating experience after another, you feel terrible and think about yourself a lot. That terrible feeling of I’m not good enough can ring like a bell, to remind you to practice humility.
A bright side to not feeling good enough is that you are not falling for the deception that you are better than others. Unfortunately, you are falling for the deception that others are better than you. Humility is understanding that you are simply existing and ideas that you are good or bad are extra. Transforming humiliation into humility is humbly heroic. However, when you make that transformation, humility leaves you feeling more humble than heroic.
When you are truly humble you are not concerned with humility or humiliation. If you notice yourself feeling humiliation, let that feeling ring like a bell, reminding you to practice humility. Bow, and honor all that is good in you and the world. Ding.
I went for a walk in the woods with my daughter yesterday. She likes to talk and sing while we walk. I generally like to be quiet. I’m a little boring to her when I don’t talk about nonsense. At one point, although she was enjoying herself, she wished that she had another kid along to share her adventure. At another point, she was up in a deer hunter’s tree stand singing her thoughts. She was singing about sitting in a stand. Just like a bird.
Just like listening to the birds it’s nice to hear Abby forget her boredom for a moment and express her joy of being.
It takes a thief to catch a thief. It is the same with words and worries. Worries are based in words. Thoughts are built on words. Before you had words, you had only experiences. You did not worry what the next experience would bring. You did not worry about what had happened to you. Your preverbal life was lived fully in the present. Then words came along.
Once you developed language, then you had a framework for your thoughts. That framework makes you able to function in life. It also creates a lot of anxiety. When you are able to string thoughts together you can look reflectively into the past and speculatively into the future. Either way you look, you see your Self blink into or out of existence. That causes a lot of worry. Most worries are not about being and not being. They are more about being or not being good enough, capable enough, worthy enough, likable enough, right enough and those worries extend beyond you to those around you. These worries are all made up of stories that you were told and tell yourself. Those stories are all told in words.
The simple thing to do is to stop the words. Stop thinking. Worries will vanish. However, the first thing that happens when you try to stop thinking is that you start to think. You think a word or two. In order to work your way out of worries, you need some words to talk you down. The words that you are good enough, capable enough, worthy enough, likable enough are not enough. You have to be able to experience that for yourself. Words can tell you that you have a higher Self that is beyond all that worry. You can experience that Self by sitting still and minding the present moment. How would you ever know that if words weren’t there to point the way?
To experience that Self for yourself, you have to notice your worries, see the stories of the worries, and watch the words. When the words are making worries, make them stop. No words, no worries. Word.
Life is serious. Life is also ridiculous. What is serious and what is ridiculous is something quite different from one person to the next. Things that are very serious to some people are absolutely ridiculous to others. The more serious something is to one person, the more ridiculous it is to somebody who doesn’t get the seriousness. A good way to figure out what is serious and what is ridiculous is to look at the suffering involved. Suffering is serious.
If you are prone to suffering, you will take things very seriously. When somebody you love is suffering, there is nothing ridiculous about that at all. That is, unless they happen to be suffering because of something ridiculous. If somebody you love is suffering and you find the cause of their suffering to be ridiculous, that is a good time to practice compassion and engage with the seriousness of the situation.
When you are suffering, it may help to look for the ridiculousness of your situation. If you are feeling lonely and unloved while you are surrounded by friends and family trying to console you, there is some ridiculousness to be found within that serious feeling.
It is a serious matter that we suffer so much. It is ridiculous that we suffer so much more than necessary, which is serious. The necessary suffering is the suffering that shows us the way through suffering. That may sound seriously ridiculous, but it is ridiculously serious.
Thinking about Zen is like learning to ride a bike with training wheels. Words and ideas hold you up as you wobble your way along. If you are embarking on a meditation practice, you need those words as encouragement to make yourself just sit there and do nothing. You have to believe that you will get more benefit from doing nothing than you would from doing something. We do that every night when we sleep. We can’t help it. Our bodies force us to do nothing for a while every day. To decide to do nothing but sit with some of the waking hours of your day, you need to believe that there is a point to it. That’s where the words and philosophy come in. Those are your training wheels.
In riding a bike, when you learn to pedal and find that the bike is stable without the training wheels, then the training wheels get in your way, so you take them off. In Zen, although the words and philosophy will get in your way, it is not so easy to remove them. You will continue to live in a world where words and philosophy are the way of life. You have to be able to live with your training wheels forever.
When you find your stability, you don’t have to show everybody what a fantastic cyclist you are by riding without the training wheels. You need to keep riding, always starting from the beginning. To get started, put on your training wheels. Imagine that the universe is not what it appears, then see how it appears. Imagine that it is kind and will somehow support you. Wheeeeeeee.
There are many ways to measure yourself. You can measure yourself in feet, inches, meters, centimeters, pounds, kilograms, stones, degrees Fahrenheit, Celsius, years, months, IQ, EQ, dollars, cents, Euros, shillings, grades, degrees, personality, friends, happiness, suffering, and so on and so on. All these ways of measuring yourself represent ideas about yourself. Each form of measurement though, is as imaginary as your self.
They are all real ideas, just like the idea of your self is real. Measurements break things down and provide new perspectives on how to look at things. A tree is the height of a tree regardless of meters and inches. We can take the tree and cut it up into 2x4s and we have all kinds of measurements, but no more tree. A year of our lives has so many days and nights and events. Those events go on regardless of how we divide the time.
The idea of a separate self is just another idea of measurement. Instead of one entire universe, there is a universe made up of so many parts and we count ourselves as one of those parts, separate from the whole. For some reason, that basic measurement, making two out of one adds to our experience of suffering. It’s unfathomable.